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.