How the 2D Platformer Surpassed the 3D Platformer

3D shook the video game market. When Super Mario 64 dropped and gamers could finally control the famed plumber in a fully 3D environment, things simply were not the same. The standard had been set and the future had been seen; 3D was in, and 2D? That was just old news. The success of Super Mario 64 led to a golden age of 3D platformers, pioneered by second-party developer Rareware, who left the SNES with sparkles in their eyes. The Banjo-Kazooie series, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, and the nuanced Donkey Kong 64 expanded upon Nintendo’s vision of breaking free of physical, axis-based confinements. Doors were opened and gamers felt freer than ever before. It was a moment that didn’t appear to be ending, but soon, the 3D platformer fell into obscurity. By the time the 360, PS3 and Wii appeared, it was niche and neglected. So where did it go, and even more curious, why are there more 2D platformers these days? Why is the genre that the 3D platformer was destined to surpass now more common and appealing than ever?

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During the sixth generation, there were quite a few releases occurring across all three consoles. Xbox got the remake of Conker’s Bad Fur Day and the multi-platform release Psychonauts, Playstation 2 had their triple threat of Ratchet and Clank, Sly Cooper and Jak and Daxter, and Nintendo? Well, you know what they had. The platformer was getting plenty of resurgence thanks to expanding graphic design and a surprisingly encouraging notion of mixing in aspects of other genres. Even the less prolific series like Ape Escape and the sleeper hits like I-Ninja were getting a lot of attention and praise for their steady dispersal into other genres. Seeing a brand new mascot in a platformer was extremely common during that time, and the widespread, family-friendly appeal of the genre made it surprisingly lucrative for publishers.

The seventh generation was a sharp turn from the cornucopia of 3D platformers. Perhaps it was the embrace of the first-person shooter, but the 3D platformer never took off on 360, PS3 or even Wii. It was a very niche genre at that point. But the advent of digital downloads brought a shocking resurgence of a genre once thought to be obsolete: the 2D platformer. While games like Viewtiful Joe found critical acclaim, the 2D platformer was in a state of neglect during the sixth generation, but it found itself stronger than ever thanks to inexpensive development costs and a very simple way to get out into the marketplace without challenging the stalwart AAA titles in stores. While a platformer might not be able to compete with an FPS juggernaut like Halo on store shelves, the steadily generating indie scene could use the online functionalities to provide these smaller titles on demand. The internet connections weren’t good enough to offer full retail games, but smaller games could be downloaded within minutes. The 2D platformer especially became a massive success on services like Xbox Live Arcade and Playstation Network, with titles like Braid, Shadow Complex and even series revitalizations like Mega Man 9 reaching extremely high levels of popularity and sales. PC portal Steam’s indie scene only amplified the appeal, with independent game developers flocking to release their pet projects to a public anxious to check out what the smaller studios had to show.

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This resurgence of classic side-scrolling platformers was growing during this time, but you could also cite the genre’s comeback to the release of the DS hit New Super Mario Bros. Nintendo’s return to the side-scrolling roots of the original NES games was startling, but it proved not only commercially successful, but eye-opening to the fact that this genre could be modernized. The “2.5D” perspective offered constant personality and style, taking advantage of the DS’s increased power and allowing the developers to experiment with power-ups, level design and aesthetics. It earned widespread appeal across the board and in a way became a new series for Nintendo to continue over the next few years. Nintendo continued this retro renewal with the release of Donkey Kong Country Returns and Kirby’s Epic Yarn, two 2D platformers that were praised for their creative art designs and unique challenges. Meanwhile, Sony released Little Big Planet on PS3, taking a different route of innovation by encouraging user-created content. The genre eventually reached a creative high with the multi-platform Rayman Origins, which touted gorgeous art design and plenty of momentum-driven difficulty.

It was incredible to see this genre get new life on digital services and through classic series’ revivals, but as a fan of retro gaming myself, I couldn’t help but sigh at the complete drought of 3D platformers. No longer was it about full-fledged exploration across a huge world; it was about fluidity and motion along a racetrack with very few reasons to move off the beaten path. Where’d the smooth jumping and leaping of Super Mario 64 go? Where’s the multi-faceted puzzle solving of Banjo-Kazooie go? The 3D platformer never got its chance to shine in the seventh generation and when it did, it did in a completely different way.

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Now, I know what you’re thinking. “What about games like Super Mario Galaxy or Super Mario 3D World? Aren’t those successful 3D platformers for a modern age?” Well, yes, but as I said, in a different way. Technically, yes, they are 3D platformers; you can move around in a 3D space and aren’t bound to a single axis. But when you think of how the games are designed, things move in a different form. By design, Super Mario 3D World is actually a pretty linear game. From the levels to the way the camera scrolls and focuses, the game encourages you to go in one direction. Hell, the level ends when you reach the flagpole at the end of the stage; there’s normally one general direction you can go to reach completion. It’s the fundamental idea of a 2D platformer disguised as a 3D platformer. Even Super Mario Galaxy and Galaxy 2 are guilty of this idea, since exploring each world is a straightforward affair with very little reason or even ability to go off the beaten path. There are exceptions, but there are only a select number of ways to earn a star. You can’t jump off a planetoid and fly to the opposite side anytime you want; you’re bound to the direction the designers want you to.

Now, don’t get me wrong: these are amazing games, some of the best I’ve played, but it’s very difficult to compare these games to the more exploration-based 3D platformers like Ratchet and Clank, Banjo-Kazooie, or the tried-and-true watershed of 3D platformers, Super Mario 64. The modern examples of platformers are always pushing you forward down a set path or along a set axis. It’s always based around momentum. Think of the first level in Super Mario 64, Bob-omb Battlefield. Think of how you were not limited to climbing the mountain at first. You could run to the other side. You could cycle around the Chain Chomp for a while. In Banjo-Kazooie, every level was massive and open-ended. With so many challenges available at once, the game never pushed you one way. Rareware reached an epitome of freedom in motion. It was always, always about exploration.

And that’s the fundamental idea of the 3D platformer: you’re free to explore. When you first played Super Mario 64 and you were getting used to Lakitu holding the camera and moving around Mario, it was transcendent. You didn’t go into the castle immediately; you wanted to run, slide, jump, climb trees, vault off the top, swim, spin, crouch, crawl and somersault around the courtyard. You wanted to tread this new ground and blaze a trail instead of rushing toward the finish line. That’s why Super Mario 64 was such an eye-opener and that’s why it’s so monumental an achievement in gaming. Nintendo re-wrote the rules of the platformer. It wasn’t about completing a stage anymore. It was about branching off, examining every possible angle and letting that exploration fuel your goal.

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So is this a lost cause? Is the original 3D platformer forever forced to remain in obscurity while 2D platformer ideas sneak into the public eye? Perhaps not. With better internet connections and bigger games available for download, we’re no longer restricted to just 2D games in the online stores. Also, Kickstarter has become a hub for retro ideas made current. Gears for Breakfast’s A Hat in Time is an example of a game that embraces this philosophy of N64-era Rareware and takes it to heart. The genre is certainly not as ignored as it was in 2008. Gaming interest is constantly fluctuating and retro ideas are frequently becoming modern ideas. The reboot of the 2D platformer was something no one thought would happen again, but lo and behold, it did and in a big way. Could the 3D platformer come back in the same fashion? Here’s hoping; it might just be a simple long-jump away.