Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Platforming and the Third Dimension

            An idea for an article that’s been kicking around in my head for a while has been to talk about one of my favorite sub-genres of games, 3D platformers, and why they seem to be so horribly dead at the moment. I then considered splitting it into two articles, wherein the first one explains the platforming genre (games where you jump, essentially) in general and how it came to be. However, as soon as I started researching for the article I noticed that the internet already had covered that issue in more ways than I could ever reconcile, and with more authority. I know that original ideas are hard to come by and that it’s perfectly fine to retell old information with a new spin. But if I were to write just about the rise of 2D platformers I would be copying far too much of the article from Wikipedia verbatim for my liking.

Bottom line, we’re fusing the two ideas, with me first doing a brief overview of platformers in general before moving on to the variety with an extra dimension. Some readers more savvy to the history of video games may find some familiar information to begin with, but at the very least I can hope to put an entertaining spin on things to keep you interested. For example, Wikipedia can’t make terrible puns or toilet humor jokes. It’s one of mankind’s last bastions of defense against robot superiority.

More like WEEkipedia! …Y’know, like wee. As in pee. Like piss. The fluid. That is dispelled from your body as waste. …*cough*

So at the very dawn of video gaming, you may notice that a lot of games didn’t have people in them. Early games like Spacewar, Pong, Space Invaders and even all the way up to Pac-Man, the object the player controlled was almost never a human. Most commonly it was some manner of vehicle, and the majority of games were handled from a top-down perspective. Of course, this was really all driven by technological limitations. It’s not like all early video game developers were racist against everyone except spaceships.

“Damn humanoid life forms is ruinin’ this country”

The aversion to homo sapiens in early games is completely understandable from a design perspective if you think about it. It’s much easier to slap the player in the void of space or a top down perspective where they can move in any direction, rather than try to simulate effects like gravity. Also, have you seen human beings? Those things are complicated! On a low pixel budget it’s much easier to identify a car or a plane than a person, who have all sorts of inconvenient limbs and details that are hard to do with basic shapes. In fact, what is generally accredited as the first true platformer gave their character a hat purely to prevent them from having to animate hair. Can you guess what game that was?

It was pretty obscure, you’ve probably never heard of it

In 1981, a company called Nintendo (previously known mainly for producing playing cards) released an arcade game by the name of Donkey Kong. It was the first known game to feature jumping over obstacles, with a mustachioed protagonist then named Jumpman rescuing a damsel in distress then named Pauline. The game was quite popular and remains relatively famous to this day, though not as much as what came after.

Plenty of other platform games were released in the next few years, but things got shaky in 1983 when the video game industry experienced a massive crash. A lack of quality control in the games industry had caused outrage at a huge number of poor quality or broken games. The E.T. game was a notorious example, being mostly about falling into holes. It is therefore rather amusing that a huge amount of unsold copies were buried in a landfill in New Mexico. At any rate, the games industry died down for a while until it was largely saved by a newly released console. In 1985 the Famicom (known later as the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES, in America) was released and took the world by storm. It came packed in with another platformer, with the same person (Shigeru Miyamoto) behind it as Donkey Kong.

Man, this article is just filled to the brim with obscure indie games

            Super Mario Bros. was another success, but even compared to the previous success of Donkey Kong it was absolutely amazing. The game sold over 40 million copies in its life span, and remains high on the list of greatest selling games of all time even though it came from an era where gaming was less popular in general. It had nice visuals and music, but the gameplay was what really made it special. In addition to generally tight controls it had a wealth of stages filled to the brim with secrets that made playing the game feel like an adventure more than most arcade games ever could. Of course the feeling of exploration and adventure in games was even better encapsulated by the next series designed by Shigeru Miyamoto, but that’s a tale for another time.

            The point is that Super Mario Bros. was popular. It was really, amazingly, astoundingly popular. And this insane degree of popularity allowed the platforming genre it had created to flourish. There were plenty of notable platformers in the coming years that would start beloved and long lived series. Castlevania, Kirby, Mega Man, Metroid, Sonic the Hedgehog and much, much more all started off wonderful game series that I will probably look at some other day. But I think we’ve got enough of the gist of where the platformer started. So the next question is why it works so well.

In video games you can be anything you want! You can play a hard-boiled cop, a knight fighting dragons, a spaceship firing giant lasers, a…tiny plumber jumping unnaturally high onto turtles?

            Although people in the real world can’t actually jump several times their height with ease, it’s one of the best physical activities to bring to games featuring humanoids. Jumping allows for an incredible amount of mobility. It brings about a quick change in elevation, allowing the player to quickly access areas not merely constricted to a flat plane. It happens instantaneously, with your entire characters body moving in a clearly defined arc. This instant visual feedback makes it very intuitive, with even people unfamiliar with the game able to judge jump arcs with precision after a very small amount of time, and to easily learn from their mistakes. The tactile feedback also just makes it fun to perform.

            So let’s fast forward to the mid-90s, when new consoles promised to append a whole other D to the gaming experience. People often herald the first 3D Mario and Zelda games as the greatest of their prospective series. Whether or not this is true is irrelevant for the moment (no seriously, I see you there put your keyboard down). But what is certain is that these games were popular because they handled the transition from 2D to 3D with a frankly astonishing amount of grace, especially compared to some of the competition.

To be fair, games like Bubsy 3D made it really easy to seem impressive by comparison

            You see, though this may shock some of you, having games in three dimensions rather than two is different. Game designers certainly understood and anticipated this, but some failed to do so enough. 3D games weren’t just different on a visual and technological level, they had to be constructed in entirely different ways. Making a 3D environment took a good deal more time than a 2D one. A lot of things were harder to do, like collision detection and people’s ability to judge jumps. The most noticeably bad of these was probably camera controls, which could no longer simply be a box around the player and instead had to deal with having to rotate and being potentially obstructed by the scenery. It’s a problem 3D games can still struggle with to this very day.

            But again, the first 3D Mario game handled all of this surprisingly well. Its creators clearly realized that the linear gameplay of the past might not be the way to go, and adjusted accordingly. Super Mario 64, released in 1996, instead opted to give the player large, open environments where there were a number of different objectives. Players could explore the level freely and often discover secrets or objectives they weren’t even originally looking for. Even the camera, though not perfect, offered enough player control to keep it from having as many problems of other 3D games of the day. This new type of gameplay with more of a focus on exploration and collecting smaller objectives was a hit. While plenty of games struggled making it into the 3rd dimension, with some franchises not surviving the transition, Mario had done it again.

            Super Mario 64 and the games that learned from it and imitated its explorative style were many of my favorite games growing up as a kid. The feeling of exploration in games is a wonderful thing, and I may have to go into further detail on the topic some other time. I play plenty of 2D platformers and like them quite a lot, but often for entirely different reasons than 3D platformers. The feeling of having a little slice of world to explore, where getting to hard-to-reach places is a sort of puzzle in and of itself, is a feeling 3D platformers have always done better, and there’s nothing quite like that experience.

Seen from above and by today’s standards, a lot of Super Mario 64’s stages are relatively small. But the fact that you can explore them any way you want is a wonderful thing that 2D platformers can never perfectly emulate.

            On the other hand, there’s nothing quite like camera issues in 3D platformers. When the games were purely 2D you just slapped a box around the player and although you could have problems with how far the player could see it was kind of hard to screw up. 3D platformers, on the other hand, have murderous difficulty with finding a good camera. If you can go in any direction and have objects any amount of distance from you it’s pretty easy to get your view blocked. 3D platformers had to develop smarter cameras that automatically adjusted to avoid getting caught on things and instead showing the best, unobstructed view of the character. Of course, there are still problems with what’s off screen and moving objects and when the view needs to rapidly change from one view to another and how far away it needed to be and when the player was inside small spaces and…well it was a problem.

Ignore the fact that it’s an anthropomorphic hedgehog in rocket skates brandishing a gun for a moment. Notice how you can’t see anything in front of you where you actually need to see? This is how not to do cameras in 3D games.

            Cameras weren’t the only problems in creating 3D worlds, either. Everything being made of polygons obviously took longer to make, but it made collision detection harder as well. Early games could basically be simplified to rectangles colliding with other rectangles at its most basic, but the added difficulty of 3D introduced all kinds of problems. Often times in 3D games you’ll encounter odd errors where characters don’t collide with things correctly, or their momentum is screwed up by performing certain actions or colliding on certain points, or their character models twisting and turning in odd ways.

Bethesda and their open world games are rather infamous for (admittedly sometimes hilarious) problems like this. It’s just hard to account for all irregularities like, say, a player launching a horse onto a dragons head as it takes off.

            The point is that 3D games have problems, and are more expensive and often more difficult to make than 2D ones, at the very least from a technological standpoint. These reasons are probably big contributors as to why the genre seems to be dead right now. If you look at the Wikipedia article on known platform games, you’ll see far more 2D platformers than the 3D variety. Though they were popular for a brief period at the dawn of the third dimension, they fell out of favor in less than a decade, and now we barely have any of them left. So what exactly led to the 3D platformer becoming nearly extinct?

            Well, recent years have seen growing popularity in realistic games and shooter games. Given that the genre is wildly popular at the moment, combined with the ridiculous cost of making high profile games leads most publishers to take the safe path in established genres. 3D platformers haven’t been as popular for some time, and in the case of some series it’s plain to see why. Only a select number of franchises tended to do 3D platforming well, and of those successful entries many drove themselves into the ground with repeated sequels generally regarded to stagnate or decrease in quality.

Lots of people liked the first Crash Bandicoot game. Less people the seventh.

            Meanwhile, 2D platforming has seen a huge resurgence in recent years. The advent of downloadable games and independent titles has led to a large amount of 2D platformers, due to them being comparatively cheap and easy to develop. Their increased popularity has led a lot of developers of bigger budget platformers to ditch 3D for a return to 2D, especially in cases where 3D was never quite as successful. 3D platformers are more expensive to make, arguably more difficult to design, have no nostalgic and/or retro appeal, and are just generally less popular. All these factors make it easy to see why platform games lately have tended towards fewer dimensions.

            Of course, for people who genuinely like 3D platformers like me, this is a shame. Even the previously thought dead genre of point-and-click adventure games has had more successful titles in recent years than 3D platformers. These days just about the only good 3D platform game still around is the Mario series. Even in that case, those games have aimed towards becoming more linear lately, so there are effectively zero high profile 3D platformers left alive in the style of the ones I grew up with. Not only that, but the Mario series has had just as many if not more 2D Mario games than 3D ones of late. This year at E3, two new Mario games were displayed. Both of them were 2D.

They even render a lot of things in the new games in 3D, as if to taunt me that the gameplay is strictly two dimensional.

            So do I think 3D platformers are well and truly dead? Not at all. I think that it may be a while before we see a resurgence in the sub-genre, but I still think it’ll come one day. The video game industry has a large amount of both AAA titles and independent games at the moment, but not much in between. Indie games have serviced a lot of obscure genres in recent years, but 3D platformers are more costly to produce than the 2D and retro games we’ve been getting in such abundance. If and when the industry balances out and we have more middle budget studios the 3D platform niche might see more titles coming their way.

            Another factor to consider is admittedly more of an optimistic one on my part, but nonetheless potentially valid. 2D platformers have a huge amount of nostalgic and retro appeal lately, due to the people now creating and reviewing games growing up with them. I think that even if it isn’t in the same capacity we’ll see some of that with 3D platformers in the future. Because as long as there’s a decent sized audience that wants to play these games or designers wanting to make them, they’ll never die out entirely. I can only hope that it doesn’t take too long before we get some new 3D platformers, because there are only so many times I can replay my old Nintendo 64 games.

Okay that’s a lie; I’ll never get tired of replaying Banjo-Kazooie. But you get the idea.


  1. For all your love of 3D platformers, I've never seen you express a desire of designing one. I understand that you may lack resources to get one done, but that's never stopped you from kicking around crazy ideas before. Super Mario 64 will be celebrating it's 16th anniversary in two days and it still has yet to be duplicated in terms of simplicity combined with shear number of varied objectives in such small levels. That to me sounds like a niche you could fill.

    1. My ideas for games tend to drift towards either realism or big dream projects that would never really be possible. 3D platformers are kind of in the middle. There's also the fact that I simply haven't had any great ideas for them pop up. I've had some ideas for games involving exploration, which is somewhat of a similar area, at least in the sense that it's the part of 3D platformers I find the most appealing that is underutilized these days. But no, I have no ideas for 3D platformers specifically. It just hasn't come up.

      As to your statement on Super Mario 64 being the apex, I feel that's up for debate. It certainly is a testament to how the genre has dried up that it hasn't seen much competition. The newer Galaxy games are arguably better, but that's irrelevant because they don't have the varied objective structure I like that you mentioned. The other games of the day by Rare are arguably deeper in number of objectives. Their trifecta of 3D platformers were Banjo-Kazooie, Banjo-Tooie and Donkey Kong 64. These games are both disliked and liked, depending on who you ask, for their huge number of different collectibles. And with the possible exception of Banjo-Kazooie their stages are undoubtedly larger than the ones featured in Super Mario 64. Whether or not they are better games is a separate matter up for debate.

      It's true that there haven't been many games of that structure in recent years, though we haven't been completely devoid of them. The long lived Ratchet and Clank series aren't strictly 3D platformers. However, they are 3D games involving platforming and often feature a fairly open stage structure (although this depends somewhat on the stage and the game). Whether or not we count entries like this that aren't pure platformers is also up to you.

      And finally, might I note that there are plenty of games, even in a relatively small sub-genre like 3D platformers, that I'm not aware of. I only just the other day picked up Spyro the Dragon on PSN, it being a 3D platformer I missed due to not owning a Playstation as a child. Point is, there may be examples I'm missing.