A New Dimension: The History of 3D Platforming

(Written as of 2014)

Ever since the beginning of the fifth generation of gaming, the 3D platforming genre has been an integral part of the industry and has spawned a library of commercially successful and critically acclaimed video games, and even amidst the re-popularisation the previously dominant 2D and 2.5D platform genres that the industry was synonymous with before the transition of video games from 2D to 3D. But it wasn’t exactly an easy road to go down. For many games companies and developers, there were some particularly awkward complications that came with this transition; dissatisfactory games released from the start and of course, a worry that interest in the industry could decline as a result. This article is a look back into the history of 3D platforming; how it all started, which games fell short critically and which games helped to innovate and ultimately bring the genre to an unprecedented level of popularity.

It all began to escalate at the end of the fourth generation of console gaming, or the 16-bit era, as it’s also known. Towards the end, there were quite a few critically acclaimed 2D platform games released, emulating the level of quality that came with many games of its king released prior. There was Sonic & Knuckles released for the Sega Mega Drive (or Genesis as it was known in America) as well Super NES games such as Donkey Kong Country, Super Metroid & Super Mario Bros 2: Yoshi’s Island. But despite the release of these excellent games, the fact of the matter was that the fifth generation of console gaming, or the 32-bit era, was just around the corner, causing players to gradually shift away from traditional 2D platform games, and showing more interest in the prospects of 3D gaming. The three consoles released at this time were the Nintendo 64, the Sony PlayStation and the Sega Saturn.

However, staying true to an already loyal fan base and not forgetting their routes, many 2D platform games were released on the next batch of consoles for gamers who may have been so lukewarm to the idea of switching from 2D to 3D so quickly. A hugely successful 2D platforming game throughout the 32-bit era was the original Rayman. There was also renewed interest in Mega Man, with games such as Mega Man 8 and Mega Man X4, and the Castlevania series was also taken in a very different direction with the release another critically acclaimed 2D side-scroller for the PlayStation; Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. There was also the release of the Oddworld series to keep the genre alive, in addition to a game called Heart of Darkness released somewhat early in the 32-bit era.

But looking to branch off into a different and possibly more exciting direction entirely, Nintendo released the fewest number of 2D platform games for their newest console, the Nintendo 64, than any other console on the market. The only two they had released being Yoshi’s Story and Mischief Makers, which weren’t very well received by critics at the time anyway. High development costs and complications, which came with adapting the platforming genre into the third dimension compelled some developers to compromise by pairing visuals aspects of 3D gaming with the more familiar 2D gaming formula, inventing an entirely new sub genre in the process, known as 2.5D gaming. The first game released in this new category was Clockwork Knight for the Sega Saturn in 1994. The game was developed in a manner similar to Donkey Kong Country, featuring 3D-rendered levels and boss characters, but retaining 2D gameplay. The sequel to Clockwork Knight featured new camera panning techniques and 3D effects switching between the foreground and background of the game. The formula survives to this day. Games such as Pandemonium, Klonoa 1 & 2 and the Viewtiful Joe series have all helped to popularise this genre.

Some of the earliest attempts to bring video games fully into the third dimension actually used 2D graphics and an isometric perspective. This was practiced in as early as the 80s, with the first of its kind being Congo Bongo released in 1983. It was around the same time that an early example of a 3D platform game was released by Konami; Antarctic Adventure, released originally for the MSX, and subsequently ported to several other systems in 1984. The sequel, Penguin Adventure, was released two years later, and featured many different gaming elements, such as action game elements, massive variety in level design, RPG elements and even multiple endings, having been developed by Hideo Kojima, now of Metal Gear Solid fame. There was also 3-D WorldRunner developed by Final Fantasy creator, Hirnobu Sakaguchi and Nasir Gibelli; a 3D third-person platforming game a forward scrolling effect similar to the arcade game Space Harrier. After that, an Estonian development company, Bluemoon, released a game called Kosmonaut in 1990; the game being a forwards scrolling driving/adventure game.

In the same year, gamers got their first taste of what a true 3D platforming game is, with the release of a French game called Alpha Waves for the Atari ST, Amiga and PC; developed by Christophe de Dineshin and published by Infogrames Entertainment. It was the first game to use full-screen 3D visuals, true 3D movement and a moveable camera. The environments were uniquely designed, and gameplay was simple, involving jumping from platform to platform, in lieu of the genre’s tradition. It was later released in North America under the name Continuum. Despite all the obvious innovations that came with this game, it’s actually not regarded as influential as people may think; probably due to marketing, as it was simply billed as a platforming game, and nothing else.

Other later games would implement elements of Alpha waves later on, such as Geograph Seal, Jumping Flash and Bug. Much like Clockwork Knight, Bug used pre-rendered character sprites, but offered a more conservative approach to true 3D platforming. The game was a moderate commercial success, and spawned the sequel Bug Too.

The first attempt at bringing an already popular game franchise to the third dimension came in the form of a sequel to Delphine Software’s Flashback, entitled Fade to Black. The problem was that whilst the game garnished moderate critical success and featured many of the already popular aspects of Flashback, Fade to Black ultimately did not meet the criteria required to classify the game as a 3D platform game, and was instead marketed as an action-adventure game, having been made using a somewhat inflexible engine similar to Wolfenstein 3D. However, Fade to Black would set the stage for the re-imagining of other big-name franchises, such as Metroid and Duke Nukem.

At this time, pressure was mounting on Sega, Sony and Nintendo to release a mascot platforming game before the holiday period of 1996. Especially Sony. The problem with the PlayStation being that the original controller was not exactly tailored to match the requirements of playing a 3D platforming game, with games such as Bubsy 3D and even the original Tomb Raider, in my opinion, suffering as a result. Later would come games such as Blasto and Croc: Legend of the Gobbos having similar issues with controls. However, they did manage to get a 2.5D out in the form of the original Crash Bandicoot within their time crunch and it was released to massive critical success, even beating the Nintendo 64 to market in North America.

Sega, however, faired considerably worse than their competitors, with the cancellation of the much anticipated Sega Saturn game, Sonic Xtreme; the fabled 3D Sonic game that never was. To this day, I and many other gamers, think it’s a shame that Sonic Xtreme was cancelled, because it does look like an excellent game for the time; people even having drawn comparisons to Super Mario Galaxy. But because of conflicts with Sega of Japan and a rushed schedule, the game never saw the light of day. As for Nintendo, their take on the new 3D platforming genre would something quite spectacular to say the least.

Back in 1994, Nintendo employee Shigeru Miyamoto had the idea of releasing a 3D Mario game whilst working on the original Star Fox. The original title was apparently intended to be Super Mario FX. The game was at its conceptual stage during the 16-bit era. The first idea was to use the Super FX chip (hence the name), and release it for the SNES. But due to the console’s technical limitations, Miyamoto decided to instead develop the game for their newer system, the Nintendo 64, and thus it was renamed Super Mario 64.

Before it was released back in mid 1996, there had been no established idea by any other games company to start making the transition from 2D to 3D, which inevitably gave Nintendo a significant competitive edge. Super Mario 64 was unlike any game anyone had ever seen. It took platforming elements found in previous attempts at 3D platforming games such as moving cameras and exploration, and added several other ideas, including that of offering more freedom within the game, a wide variety in level design, and perhaps most significantly, the use of an analogue stick in the game’s control scheme, which had become an industry standard of console gaming ever since. Unlike games, which abided by the early control scheme of the PlayStation, a lot more free and fluent movement was possible with 3D Nintendo 64 games, and the importance of which was for all to see. Not only that, but a few of the boss fights also presented elements of traditional platforming too.

Rather than giving gamers the objective of reaching point A to point B, an emblematic element of 2D platforming, Super Mario 64 presented a new kind of objective; item collecting. Something, which has been emulated in game after game since. In every aspect, rather than a significantly intricate storyline, Super Mario 64’s impact on the industry and the standards the game set is nothing short of legendary.

Into the 21st century, Nintendo’s competitors tried mercilessly to imitate the same level of success they had with Super Mario 64. Many games released in the new genre were released all to great success, but due possibly to a diversified market, 3D platforming was never able to match the success of 2D platforming, with many gamers preferring to play great RPGs of the time such as the 3D Final Fantasy series, or games in the action-adventure genre, such as Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Despite this, however, many of the industry’s best selling games included the likes of Tomb Raider, Crash Bandicoot, and Spyro the Dragon; Nintendo also had their share of success with the likes of Donkey Kong 64 and Banjo Kazooie.

However, by the time the sixth generation of consoles came about, platforming games in general entered a state of decline. They were no longer seen as the games that most gamers wanted to play. Sony’s PlayStation 2, Nintendo’s GameCube, Sega’s Dreamcast and Microsoft’s Xbox, marking the newest major competitor at that time to enter the home console market, were all about action-adventure, first-person shooters and sandbox games. Whilst the limelight was taken by the likes of Grand Theft Auto III and Metal Gear Solid 2, and when the foundations were being laid for the tiresome powerhouse that is the Call of Duty series, a significantly smaller amount of platforming games were released; but most games in the genre that were released proved to be of great quality; games such as Jak & Daxter, Ratchet & Clank and Psychonauts. But although platforming games still seemed to be regarded as an important genre, they were at the height of their popularity during the previous generation of gaming, and were never truly able to retain much of it, with platforming games holding 15% of shares in the gaming market back in 1998, and dropping to a mere 2% in 2002.

Recent years have not seen a significant rise in the popularity of 3D platformers, but rather a rise in popularity of 2.5D platformers; the genre established back in the earliest days of the fifth generation of gaming. Franchises such as the New Super Mario Bros franchise and Little Big Planet have taken the industry by storm; New Super Mario Bros on the DS in particular being the fourth best-selling non-bundled game of all time as of 2014. Other games in the genre continue to be released, such as the Trine series and even the Sonic the Hedgehog series has even adopted this artistic direction, and ran with about as fast as their blue hedgehog mascot. Recently, there has been a small influx of 3D platformers, including Knack, Contrast and Super Mario 3D World, but at the moment, it seems the dominating genres are still both first-person shooters and action-adventure games. I think that if 3D platforming is to make some kind of comeback, more has to be done with the genre overall than what has been done with it recently. More elements need to be added into the gameplay as well as more objectives for players to do to make them last longer, so that they might be able to compete with that dominant genres in the industry. Maybe one day there might be a bigger name 3D platform game, but the eighth generation of gaming is still relatively young, and who knows what games are on the horizon?

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