What Happened To 3D Platformers?

Back when every game was 2D, before the industry moved on to polygons, platformers were the most popular and prevalent genre. A majority of the biggest games of the ’80s and early ’90s were sidescrolling platformers, led by Mario, Sonic, Mega Man, Donkey Kong, and countless others. In the mid ’90s when 3D was becoming the inevitable future of the medium, platformers were among the first and most abundant to make the jump. Some of the biggest games in the early years of polygons were platformers, and it initially seemed that even though the paradigm had shifted platformers would remain king. However, as 3D gaming progressed the popularity and ubiquity of platformers began to steadily decline.

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It was only natural that the biggest genre of 2D gaming received a lot of attention during the transition to 3D, and while like every genre some changes had to made in order to make it work in three dimensions, there were many great 3D platformers even at the outset of genre. Crash Bandicoot succeeded by emulating the design of 2D platformers in a 3D setting, but most others followed the Super Mario 64 example of large open worlds with a focus on collecting things. As generation five continued the Nintendo 64 enjoyed many great 3D platformers with things Banjo Kazooie and its sequel, Donkey Kong 64, and Conker’s Bad Fur Day, but even with these classics it was clear platformers were nowhere near as prevalent as they once were. On the Playstation they were even less common, with the Crash Bandicoot and Spyro series’ as the only major 3D platformers on the system.

Of course, both the Nintendo 64 and Playstation also featured some 2D platformers, which likely outnumbered 3D platformers on the Playstation. Going forward 3D platformers would be even less common, with most noteworthy examples being limited to a handful a major franchises. Mario would of course continue to be a mainstay of the genre, but with one 3D platformer on the Gamecube, two on the Wii, and one on the Wii U, it’s not as though Mario alone can be counted on to keep the genre alive. During generation six Insomniac, Sucker Punch, and Naughty Dog did their best the keep the genre going strong with the Ratchet and Clank, Sly Cooper, and Jak and Daxter franchises, but even these developers have now largely moved on from 3D platformers.

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Sucker Punch made three Sly games on the PS2, but on the PS3 and PS4 they moved away from platformers to focus on the Infamous series. Naughty Dog also left 3D platformers behind as generation seven began, focusing their efforts on Uncharted and The Last of Us. Don’t get me wrong, I love what Sucker Punch and Naughty Dog are doing these days, but it’s still disheartening to see two of the few supporters of a great but dying genre move on to other things. The only major developer of PS2 3D platformers that didn’t abandon it as generation seven began was Insomniac, though they only lasted slightly longer than the others.

Insomniac continued the Ratchet series on the PS3 with the outstanding Future trilogy, but after that they seemed unsure where to go. They spent a lot of effort on the hit-and-miss Resistance series, and after A Crack in Time they had no idea what to do with the Ratchet series. They continuously tried to experiment taking the series into other genres with the co-op focused All 4 One and the MOBA-like Full Frontal Assault. Even when they returned the series to its 3D platforming roots with Into The Nexus last year it was a bite sized version of the full Ratchet experience. With their future beyond the upcoming Sunset Overdrive unclear, it seems one of the few remaining supporters of 3D platformers may have moved on as well.

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Another former developer of 3D platformers that has abandoned the genre is Rare. Rare probably made more 3D platformers on the Nintendo 64 than anyone else, but since then they haven’t done much in the genre. Even when they brought back Banjo on the Xbox 360, they opted to make something completely different. Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts is a good game for what it is, but what it is isn’t a platformer and isn’t a true Banjo game. If the former heavy hitters of the genre are no longer supporting it, what hope is there for the future of 3D platformers?

The odd thing about the whole disappearance of 3D platformers is that the few that remain are mostly phenomenal. There has never been a bad 3D Mario game, with even the worst being a worthwhile game and the majority being absolutely masterful. Not counting the weird attempts at other genres, the Ratchet and Clank series has been consistently great, with A Crack in Time being one of my favorite 3D platformers ever. Sonic is another of the few remaining 3D platformers, and while the series has certainly had its rough patches, Sonic Generations was excellent and Sonic Lost World was under-appreciated. Beyond these three series there isn’t a whole lot of representation for the genre in the modern landscape.

The majority of platformers these days are of the 2D variety. Many franchises, like Rayman and Donkey Kong, have migrated exclusively to 2D. Others, like Castlevania and Metroid, have become something else entirely in 3D while the 2D offerings remain platformers. Others still, like Kirby and Yoshi’s Island, never made the jump to 3D and have continued with 2D installments. Even the shining example of the genre, the Mario series, has been overshadowed in recent years by its 2D counterpart, the New Super Mario Bros. series.

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Like with many genres that have been largely abandoned by the publisher driven AAA side of the industry, our only hope may lie with the indies. However, unlike the point and click and horror and games that the indie scene has seemed happy to embrace, most indie platformers are 2D. Even The Last Tinker, one of the few indie 3D platformers and also a solid game, is more action adventure than platformer with its directed parkour and focus on puzzles and combat. As someone that loves the genre, getting one Mario game per generation and having to hope for good Sonic games or random indie gems isn’t enough, and I truly hope the genre sees a resurgence soon.

  • Axe99

    Why no mention of the excellent Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time, or the Alice games? Platformers definitely aren’t what they used to, but there are still a few good ones getting released every now and again. Reason they’re not huge is they don’t sell that well (Marios aside), which is a right shame.

  • Blake Good

    Those stupid gay FPS games single handedly killed the awesome platformer genre and this is why today’s gaming industry sucks!

    • Lodmot

      Dude, you have read my mind!

      • Blake Good

        I know right. Shooters are more annoying than those stupid jumpscare horror films like Paranormal Activity and Annabelle (a blatant ripoff of Chucky)

        • Lodmot

          I think only Nintendo could really save the industry, since they’re the only hardware platform that still exists from the 90’s and they still make their own games. There’s a lot of charm and creativity about Nintendo that appeals to me more than Sony and Microsoft. The only thing I hate about Nintendo is their business practices, but their actual console’s and software are amazing. X3

  • Johmez

    I’m real glad someone finally said it. I think part of the problem is making adult games. As if no one will take a AAA game company seriously if their game was too kid friendly and cartoon looking and it’s sad to suckerpunch drop sly cooper for sanzaru to make, don’t get me wrong I do like thieves in time but there still was a lot wrong with it. Same can be said for jak and daxter, it sad noughtydog dropped them but it’s pobably for the best, I recall them saying jak would have been a reboot instead of jak 4 so most likely fans would not like what they would have done. As for ratchet, there’s so much in the series and I’m glad it made it this far but I think he’s at his end mark too, and that’s ok we don’t want to see the games we love being dragged out but some one has to bring somthing to the table. I think what 3D platforming games need right now is somthing new, a new set of heroes on a new adventure that can live up to the “rated E-T” ranking somthing adults and teens will love playimg as much as kids would somthing charming and serious and not that lago carp.

    • VIBAN

      It seems that only Nintendo a triple A game company can only make these type of games.

  • Rob

    I’m currently working on a 3D platformer called Clive, maybe you guys would be interested? http://www.clivegame.co.uk

    • jesseleecook

      hey rob, your game looks amazing! i actually think i heard about your
      game clive around the unity forums someplace before since i am currently
      attempting to create a 3d platformer as well 🙂 keep up the good work,
      your game looks really really good so far 🙂 heres the link to my indie
      db game, Bing-Go! nothing but a few screenshots atm as i just started the project this week. 🙂
      http://www.indiedb.com/games/bing-go

      • Rob

        Glad you like it! Yours looks like it’s off to a good start too! Looks like it really is up to us Indie’s to keep the genre alive!

        • jesseleecook

          thanks! 🙂 and yes sadly it seems that is true, i really miss old classics such as banjo kazooie, super mario 64, and conkers bad fur day so much, that is the look and feel that mine will be going for 🙂

    • Richard Walton

      From your first couple of youtube videos, it looks like you took inspiration from bugs bunny lost in time and spyro gateway to glimmer. Either way, it looks very good.

      • Rob

        Pretty much every 3D platformer you can think of inspires me in some way, and those two are certainly in the list! Thanks, I’m glad you like it!

    • Dariusz G. Jagielski

      My condolences for the Kickstarter.

  • It’s a bit old now, but it seems like we’ve finally got a 3D platformer revival underway. Yooka-Laylee, Lobodestroyo and A Hat in Time are all Banjo-Kazooie style collectathon platformers trying to follow up in that style, and there are apparently quite a few others out there as well.