How the 2D Platformer Survived the 3D Revolution

The timeless appeal of the 2D platformer has nothing to do with mere nostalgia.

There are times when it feels like everyone of a certain age harbors some nostalgia for the 2D platformer.

At least that’s the explanation many people default to when trying to explain how a 2D platformer named Braid helped spark an indie revolution in 2008, why a man named Simon Stafsnes Andersen spent almost a decade creating a Super Nintendo throwback game called Owlboy, or why one of Microsoft’s biggest exclusives of 2018 is a game called Cuphead that looks like it was drawn in the ‘30s and plays like it was made in the ‘80s.

While those who attribute a prolonged infatuation with old concepts to nostalgia are typically in the right, recent events suggest that the game industry’s unwavering love of the 2D platformer has little do with fond memories.

No, the 2D platformer is more relevant than ever because it outlived the 3D revolution.

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When you hear the term “3D revolution” in relation to the platforming genre, your mind likely defaults to memories of Super Mario 64. While Super Mario 64 wasn’t the first 3D platformer – that honor goes to 1995’s Jumping Flash – it was the entry that essentially envisioned the genre as we know it today.

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What a vision it was. Shigeru Miyamoto’s desire to make a 3D Mario game reportedly began around the time that Star Fox was released. His eventual decision not to do so was reportedly based on his belief that the N64’s additional buttons were needed to make a 3D platformer work.

Programmer Giles Goddard recalls how obsessed Miyamoto was with perfecting Super Mario 64’s controls. According to Goddard, “[Miyamoto’s] main job is to sit down with the programmers and play with controls and camera and shape the way that the way the game feels.” Miyamoto’s obsession led to him making controversial design decisions like allowing players who are “close enough” to making a jump to hit their mark. Purists on the staff booed him for that one, but he knew Mario 64 had to feel fun to play above all else.

He was absolutely right. As Eurogamer noted in their Super Mario 64 retrospective, “Super Mario 64 is such an important 3D game because it was the first that was a joy to control.” The entire game was a playground designed to make you feel like a superhero. How could you ever go back to 2D platforming after you’ve experienced the thrill of double jumping to some great height before sliding down a perfectly placed chute?

The industry’s inability to immediately answer that question triggered a 3D platformer gold rush. While it’s not entirely accurate to say that 2D platformers disappeared completely during this time, they were largely relegated to devices that couldn’t properly process fully-3D environments. Console titles like Tomba 2 and the Crash Bandicoot series replicated the basic design of a 2D platformer, but still incorporated pseudo-3D visuals and mechanics.

In a way, this gold rush was a golden age for the 3D platformer genre. After all, this was the era that gave us games like Banjo-Kazooie, Spyro the Dragon, and Conker’s Bad Fur Day. Each of those games – and more like them – challenged our ideas regarding what video game technology was capable of.

At least that’s how fans of this genre and this era usually choose to remember that time period.

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The truth of the matter is that for every great 3D platformer we got during this era, there were five more that were either awful or forgettable. Still, many early 3D platformers found success simply because they were fully-3D games. One of these titles, 1997’s Croc: Legend of the Gobbos, actually began as developer Argonaut Games attempt to create a 3D platformer for Nintendo starring Yoshi. However Nintendo rejected the idea, and Argonaut was forced to start from scratch by creating new characters, new worlds, and – most importantly – a new engine.

“When we started the project there was no real reference for what a platform game would play like, so we took influences from classic platformers and laid them out in 3D space,” said former Argonaut Games designer Nic Cusworth to Eurogamer. “The editor we built was even based on a tile system, the same way you would build a 2D game, but in 3D. This approach had its limitation but meant we could build a lot of content incredibly quickly.”

While Argonaut Games weren’t necessarily trying to churn out a cheap game that would capitalize on the 3D platformer movement, there were many studios who relied on similar engines when producing their own horrid 3D titles. This is how games like Bubsy 3D, Glover, and Chameleon Twist oversaturated the 3D market while it was still young. It’s also why Croc was seen as one of the first of a new breed 3D platformers in 1997 and was called a “generic 3D platform game” by GameSpot when they reviewed its 1998 PC port.

Meanwhile, even great 3D platformers such as the Rare titles were starting to suffer from the belief that all 3D platformers had to feature more content than the ones that came before. This is what led to the evolution of the “Collect-a-Thon” subgenre, which culminated in the controversial Donkey Kong 64, a game sometimes credited with killing the 3D platformer.

It didn’t, but the 3D platformer had strayed far from Miyamoto’s vision of a genre that retained the feel of a 2D game but afforded players the ability to explore environments that couldn’t be created by a 2D engine. Miyamoto was so obsessed with Mario 64’s controls because he recognized the importance of a player finding the joy in simply bouncing around a level. That is the heart of the platformer genre and there are not enough collectibles in the world that can replace that feeling.

For that matter, there were few genres during the 3D platformer’s prime that replaced what the 2D platformer offered. In lieu of such experiences, console gamers turned to titles like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater in order to enjoy a title that relied on the mastery of simple – yet enjoyable – mechanics above the flash of cinematic storytelling and lavish 3D worlds. That isn’t to say that one type of title was inherently superior to the other, but rather that there was a notable shortage of major releases at that time that offered what made 2D platformers great.

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That is the key to understanding how the industry inadvertently paved the way for the 2D platformers return. When the 3D revolution hit, it interrupted a special time for the 2D platformer. Titles like Donkey Kong Country 2, Super Castlevania IV, and Sonic the Hedgehog 3 had perfected the platformer mechanics established by 8-bit pioneers and had begun to experiment with ways to expand the genre’s capabilities. The good work the developers of those games had done was brought to a stop, not because a strictly better alternative came along, but because the market shifted.

Keiji Inafune, one of the principal designers of the Mega Man franchise, remembers what it was like to stare at the gap the market shift created. In an interview with Nintendo Power, he observed that 2D Mega Man games don’t “fit into the grandiose and expansive world that the consumer gaming industry has become.” Similarly, he lamented that the modern release of such a game would likely be quickly criticized for things like being “simplistic, outdated, or too expensive.”

Even so, Inafune pushed Capcom to let him develop such a game, and Capcom eventually yielded. The result was 2008’s Mega Man 9, a throwback Mega Man title which Mega Man producer Hironobu Takeshita referred to as “Mega Man 3,” as it represented the team’s desire to surpass the historical greatness of Mega Man 2.

Whether they achieved that goal is up for debate, but Mega Man 9 was a market success. Capcom stated it exceeded their sales expectations and inspired them to greenlight the similarly retro Mega Man 10. Between Mega Man 9 and the growing success of retro game services like the Virtual Console, it became clear around that time that there was a hunger for 2D platformers that wasn’t being adequately satiated by the efforts of AAA developers.

Suddenly, “outdated” became “retro.” While many major developers have recognized this change and have taken advantage of it – Ubisoft with Rayman Legends, Nintendo with Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, and Sega with Sonic Mania, to name a few – it was indie studios who truly capitalized first. From Super Meat Boy and Braid to Shovel Knight and Owlboy, indie developers have turned the once stalled evolution of the 2D platformer into one of the pillars of the indie gaming community.

Yet, it’s a short-sighted folly to suggest that the resurgence of the 2D platformer can be traced back to “Remember when?” purchase whims. The developers of these games weren’t trying to capitalize on the harbored love of something that once was. They were trying to make up for lost time by evolving the 2D platformer in ways that it would have evolved organically had those that helped create it had the opportunity to continue developing this style of game.

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In the process, these developers found that the 2D platformer speaks even to those who didn’t experience the genre during its “prime” because it offers a timeless form of gameplay where those who possess the right skills and reflexes are afforded the opportunity to experience some new and incredible world produced by a team of artists and designers.

Jonathan Blow discovered this when he designed the revolutionary Braid. What began as an obscure project involving billiards became a “Mario-style” 2D platformer when Blow realized that the mechanics of such a game were simple – and established – enough to ensure that they could double as the ultimate canvas for a designer’s grander ideas.

The appeal and mechanics of the 2D platformer are rooted deep in the design of gaming. It was foolish to push the genre aside just as it was for developers of 3D platformers to push aside the influences of 2D gaming in favor of the pursuit of expansion without direction.

For all the reasons that the industry should have never abandoned the 2D platformer, developers and fans shouldn’t be so quick to dance on the grave of the 3D platformer. While it’s true that throwback games like 2017’s Yooka-Laylee failed to find an audience beyond those nostalgic for the days of the N64 platformer, that is only because it was a game designed to recreate a style that was far from perfect.

In contrast, games like Ratchet and Clank, Sly Cooper, and Psychonauts have shown that the 3D platformer is capable of translating the timeless joy of its 2D counterparts into the third dimension while providing a kind of experience that could not be achieved through any other format. Even now, Nintendo prepares to release Super Mario Odyssey, a game that may very well evolve the 3D platformer in ways that it should have evolved years ago.

For now, there is something undeniably satisfying about watching developers find new ways to turn 2D landscapes, sprites, and chiptunes into some of the best gaming experiences of any generation.

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