The fall and rebirth of 3D platformers

The fall and rebirth of 3D platformers

When the first 3D-capable consoles, such as PlayStation and Nintendo 64, began to hit the market in the mid-90s, there was a real rush to convert the most disparate genres into the third dimension. The results were fluctuating, often bad, but turning back was not possible: the market was hungry for games that could enhance new technologies and was abandoning everything that had come before, upsetting canons and destroying traditions and development studies. Platform games suffered a similar fate.

Platforms had been one of the most popular genres among the 8 and 16-bit gaming masses of the time and had given fans more and more refined titles on a bit of all the best-selling systems. The master of platforms was certainly Nintendo with its Super Mario Bros. series, but also with the Kirbys and Donkey Kongs, of which the exceptional Donkey Kong Country for Super Nintendo had just come out. The competition, however, had not been there to watch and the shelves, only real at the time, were full of valuable competitors such as Sonic the Hedgehog by Sega, Castle of Illusion, also by Sega, but also the lesser known James Pond, Mr. Nutz , Zool, Earthworm Jim, Bubsy and Super Frog, just to name a few. The amount of platformers on the market was enormous, so much so that the oversupply made them fear, without reason, for the survival of the genre itself. Gamers simply loved platformers and publishers produced them in industrial quantities to satisfy them. It was 3D that changed everything, initially reaping the fruits of the golden age of the genre, to lead it in rapid steps towards its fall and marginalization. Only the last few years have seen a small resurgence of 3D platformers. Let's try to understand why.

Painful transition

Alpha Waves is the first pure 3D platformer The transition to the new dimension was not painless. Converting the dynamics of the platformers from 2D to 3D was a difficult task and initially many exploited the new hardware to propose titles with 2D mechanics, but with 3D graphics (the so-called 2.5D), a technique that still allowed the introduction of new ideas to scenographic level. Examples of the genre are Clockwork Knight for Sega Saturn of 1994, or the better known Pandemonium and Klonoa. Some development studies, despite the new possibilities offered by technology, decided not to immediately abandon pure 2D, as did for example Rayman (1995) by Michel Ancel, which nevertheless obtained a resounding success.

In general, the situation was more complex than one might think and the transition to 3D was not immediate and clear, but the result of a long series of elaborations and compromises, as well as overcoming the fear of facing the Announcements.

Not everyone immediately made the leap to 3D What is mistakenly credited as the first pure 3D platformer in history was Super Mario 64 for Nintendo 64, directed by master Shigeru Miyamoto. For many it was almost inevitable that he was the author of Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros., two titles essential to the definition of the genre, to set the stage for the third dimension. In reality there are several forerunners that deserve to be mentioned and that somehow preceded it, such as Sega's Congo Bongo, which dates back to 1983 and which offered an isometric view that simulated 3D; Konami's Antarctic Adventure also from the same year, which involved overcoming obstacles in a 3D-like view, Square's The 3-D Battles of WorldRunner, one of the first games by Hironobu Sakaguchi, the father of Final Fantasy, made by looking at Space Harrier by Sega, which involved overcoming obstacles in a 3D-like world, but above all the French game Alpha Waves by Christophe de Dinechin from 1990, which was a real 3D platformer, albeit with very bare graphics. Nobody remembers it because it didn't have a great impact and because there isn't a hardware manufacturer to sell it to each generation, but the palm of the first of its kind in purity rightfully belongs to it.

Super Mario 64 and followers

Super Mario 64 That said, there is no doubt that it was Super Mario 64 that pointed the way to the genre, much more than the almost contemporary Crash Bandicoot of Naughty Dog (which in any case arrived in North America before Mario). Miyamoto understood that it was not possible to take 2D mechanics and pour them into the third dimension with a light heart: there was a need for a complete change of perspective. First of all, he gave up on the linearity of the levels: in 3D it made no sense to force the player to follow fixed tracks, so he opted for open and explorable levels in multiple directions, which could be played several times to discover all the secrets. In addition, he increased the moves available to Mario, giving him more freedom of action than when he was a character made of pixels.

One of the biggest problems that Nintendo had to face was the management of the camera, a real plague of the genre. Managing it in a 2D world was easy, as there were no changes in perspective. At most you could wonder about the size of the frame, but otherwise it had never been a big problem. In 3D everything changed and many developers had enormous problems handling the novelty, ending up annoying the players, who often found it difficult to understand the position of the platforms and their effective distance from the main character, in worlds that were often bare, therefore without reference points. , and framed in a deceptive way. The introduction of Mario's shadow, however simple, was one of the many ideas Miyamoto found to overcome this problem.

However the success of Super Mario 64 and the more linear Crash Bandicoot convinced many other studies and publisher to try the path of 3D platforming, launching the genre on a commercial level.

Crash Bandicoot was developed at the same time as Super Mario 64 Those were the years that saw the birth of beloved series and characters such as Spyro the Dragon by Insomniac Games, Banjo-Kazooie by Rare, Conker's Bad Fur Day also by Rare , as well as countless others ended up in oblivion such as the Gex lizard, or the crocodile Croc (the latter was born as Yoshi's 3D platformer, but was rejected by Nintendo). It was also in those years that the genre began to hybridize with action and adventure, giving life to titles such as MDK or Soul Reaver, just to name a couple. Platforms were everywhere, even in very distant genres such as FPS, where the "skip" button was purposely introduced to exploit them. Many 2D series were converted to 3D as was the case with Sonic and Rayman, for example. What Could Go Wrong?


The Xbox's Failed Mascot The 3D platforming genre remained on the crest of the wave until the early 2000s, propelled by some success stories like those by Mario, Sonic or Rayman. The truth is that, apart from some big names, the takings were in hiding and the heyday of 2D platforming was just a distant memory. Some titles were well received, like Naughty Dog's Jak and Daxter, Sucker Punch's Sly Cooper or Japan Studio's Ape Escape, but others like Artoon's Blinx: The Time Sweeper, with which Microsoft aimed to create an Xbox mascot, or Psychonauts of Double Fine, they had very bad results.

Many other titles like Kao the Kangaroo and Voodoo Vince did pretty well, but with the increase in development costs in the following years, that "pretty good" was no longer deemed sufficient.

Psychonauts was acclaimed by critics, but sales were scarce In fact, the 3D platform genre died out by itself, remaining represented only by major series titles such as Super Mario, or Ratchet & Clank, which his became more and more action. In 1998, platformers had 15% of the video game market. By 2002, just four years later, that percentage had dropped to 2%.

This does not mean that 3D platformers died, only that they became a marginal genre, apart from some exceptions such as Super Mario Galaxy for the Nintendo Wii, dating back to 2007. They also had to suffer the shame of a return of flame of 2D platformers, with the emergence of titles such as LittleBigPlanet by Media Molecule and the hybrid Sonic Unleashed, as well as New Super Mario Bros. for Nintendo DS, which met with resounding success and convinced Nintendo to alternate new 2D and 3D platformers too. on the lounge platforms.

The independent scene also contributed to the rebirth of 2D platformers, with titles such as Braid, Limbo, Super Meat Boy and many others and the growth of the mobile sector (the genre is perfectly suited to touch screens) . The nostalgia market also played its part, with many rediscovering the joys of 2D, rediscovering many classic series, after years of 3D intoxication. In short, 3D platformers have had a really bad time for a long time and it seemed like nobody wanted to hear about them anymore.

The rebirth of 3D platformers

Yooka-Laylee was one of the first new generation 3D platformers The first signs of the genre's real rebirth came in 2017, with the launch of Yooka-Laylee and A Hat in Time, both born from successful Kickstarter campaigns. Their good results showed that there was commercial life there where many saw only disinterest on the part of the public. Other titles that have driven 3D platformers to a spectacular comeback were Super Lucky's Tale, which garnered some attention as an Xbox One exclusive (in years when Microsoft's platform of exclusives had very few) and Snake Pass. , not quite a pure 3D platformer, but still very close to the genre from various points of view.

More important, however, were some big commercial hits such as the Crash Bandicoot: N. Sane Trilogy collection, which included the first three chapters of the remastered series, such as the Spyro Reignited Trilogy, an operation similar to the Crash collection Bandicoot, and like SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom - Rehydrated, a title that revitalized SpongeBob's presence in the world of video games, after years of silence. In fact it is these titles that have proved that it was not completely madness to go back to 3D platforming.

The last few years have therefore seen a return of the genre, with many new high-level releases such as Crash Bandicoot 4 , capable of selling millions of copies (but still not satisfying Activision, its publisher), Super Mario Odyssey and Sackboy: A Big Adventure, one of the PS5 launch games. The last few months have then seen the arrival of three very important titles: the cooperative It Takes Two, which has sold millions of copies; Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart by Insomniac Games, even used by Sony as a PS5 showcase title, and the very recent Psychonauts 2 by Double Fine, born from a fundraising campaign on Fig, but expanded thanks to the support given by Microsoft after the developer acquisition.

Note that all three are serious nominees for the Game of the Year award and stand out on the critically acclaimed lists of titles. Could this be the year of platformers? Will there be another year like this for the genre? Or is it just a coincidence? To find out we will see what will be announced in the next few years.

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