May 9, 2007 - Every few years, advancements in technology revolutionize how we view and interact with the modern world. TV was colorized, mobile phones became commonplace, and iPods have all but made CD players obsolete. But for gamers, one of the most earth-shattering changes occurred just over a decade ago when established game series were thrust into the third dimension. Some transitioned smoothly, while others were seemingly dragged kicking and screaming.
With recent games such as Crush and Super Paper Mario blurring the line between 2-D and 3-D (or, in some cases, making the divide even more evident), it got our mental gears grinding regarding the transition developers and gamers alike have had to grapple with as these games crossed between dimensions. Elements we've taken for granted in the paper-flat plains of 2-D often pose unique and unforeseen problems when ported to 3-D.
Join us as we explore four franchises that made this transition and breakdown what worked, what didn't, and what compromises had to be struck when transferring the games to the third dimension.
A Brief History:
Up until the mid 90s, console games were very much a product of their time. Because of technological limitations, few games were able to venture outside the bounds of a two-dimensional box. Sure, we had a taste of what was to come with games that mimicked fully polygonal worlds, such as Doom, F-Zero, and Myst, but these were accomplished through smoke and mirrors, and only offered the illusion of a fully realized, three dimensional world.
However, some early console games did offer a genuine, if rudimentary, first look at 3-D. Nintendo's Star Fox and Sega's Virtua Racing both utilized polygons to create authentic 3-D environments. While the games may have looked blockier than a Honda Element, these were the first droplets of rain that preceded the monsoon of 3D releases. Interestingly, while Star Fox's presentation was entirely 3D, the gameplay itself offered little beyond your standard space shooter -- the player was still forced down a linear path with very limited movement in four directions, demonstrating that the mere use of polygons isn't always enough to offer a new experience.
Conversely, Sega's Virtua Racing (released the following year) took a much more liberal approach. While you were of course confined to a racetrack, there were no actual restrictions as to where you could go within the course. Want to race backwards? No problem. Wish to take a closer look at the road sign? Sure thing. In short, you could go where you wanted, when you wanted, providing an early glimpse of how 3-D might change the face of gaming.
The Pioneer (Super Mario 64):
Super Mario 64, while technically not the first 3-D platforming game, is widely regarded as the first to do it well. However, transferring a game to 3-D isn't quite as easy as strapping a 3-D graphics chip to Mario's back and a cooling fan to his ass and calling it a day. Instead, the developers had to make some fundamental changes to the core gameplay in order to facilitate the third-dimension, while respecting the values that define a Mario game.
When you think of a Mario game, what springs to mind? Jumping is probably one of the first things you thought of, as it's a defining characteristic of the Mario franchise. However, merely providing the ability to make Mario jump isn't enough -- the player must have reason to use it. Bottomless pits and enemies provided this incentive in previous Mario games, but how would their inclusion be affected by the transition to the third dimension?
In the original Super Mario Brothers, the challenge arose not from seeing the enemies or pits, but avoiding them. The 2-D perspective was quite apt at providing ample warning of upcoming dangers, however, this is a luxury not always afforded in 3-D. Because of the camera's viewpoint (generally) being positioned behind the character, low-lying dangers, such as bottomless pits, are not nearly as visible as they would be in a two-dimensional environment.
Super Mario Bros. (2-D)
So how did the designers get around this? Simple - they drew attention to the very pits and obstacles you should avoid. One such method was to position a signpost alerting you of any nearby danger. This served two purposes: not only would it inform the player of what dangers lay ahead, but it also conditioned the player to be especially cautious whenever a signpost was in view, as it often signified an upcoming hazard.
Another example of drawing attention to risky territory occurs in the level Hazy Maze Cave: while running through one of the misty corridors, a spider would unexpectedly leap out of a hole to attack. While his sudden appearance may be startling (particularly to those with arachnophobia), it instantly drew your attention to the hole he emerged from, making its presence known. These seemingly innocuous events subtlety draw your attention to dangers that could otherwise be easily missed, which could have resulted in a deadly mistake.
Super Mario 64 (3-D)
Okay, so we've established how the developers incorporated bottomless pits in a 3-D world, but what about the enemies, such as Goombas? In previous Mario games, foes were dispatched of by landing a jump on their heads, but the move to 3-D provided a new problem: landing a jump accurately was tough! Since Mario was no longer confined to a mere four directions, landing an aerial attack on a foe became a lot more difficult with 360 degrees of freedom, not to mention the lack of true depth perception, which further complicated matters. To counter this, Nintendo bestowed Mario with some basic bar-fight attacks, such as punches and kicks, that can be used in lieu of leaping on top of their heads. This provided the player with the option of either retaining Mario's classic jump-centric gameplay, or utilizing his more accessible, but conventional, hand-to-hand combat. However, mere punches and kicks can't counter every problem the lack of depth perception provides.
Another issue 3-D games faced was a matter of perspective. In most 2-D games, the camera was absolute -- locked in place. This worked well for most platformers, as it offered a generous view of the world in all four directions - there was never any question as to what lie ahead, behind, above, or below. However, with the move to 3-D, the camera could no longer remain stationary - it had to become a dynamic part of this living, breathing world.
The first problem was where to put the camera? Although effective, the default 'behind Mario' camera didn't always offer the best angle, and it's clear the designers recognized this. Take the sequence from Whomp's Fortress, for example, where Mario must traverse a deadly catwalk, containing perilous pits and moving platforms that threaten to push Mario off the walkway and into the abyss. Were this to be viewed from the standard perspective (behind Mario), the player might leap over a platform, only to fall through a hole immediately after that wasn't visible because of some object blocking it from view. To compensate for this, the camera seamlessly swings to more of a side-view, reminiscent of the 2-D Mario games, which not only reveals the upcoming dangers, but also provides a better perspective to gauge when and where to jump.
However, even with all these aids, the camera couldn't always anticipate the angle that would best serve the player, and thus the developers allowed the camera to be manipulated by the user at almost any time. Granted, the camera was by no means perfect, particularly when compared to more modern games, but it was ground-breaking for the time, and paved the way for future 3-D games.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
72 to 15: No, that's not some crazy equation, that's the number of levels that were in Super Mario World, compared to the fifteen in Super Mario 64. Designing a fully interactive 3-D world that spans several acres requires significantly more development time than producing a flat, side-scrolling level. But how does one create a game of significant length if the number of levels is but a fraction of what they once were? Recycling.
Okay, we've established that these worlds take time to produce, so the first thing that had to be discarded was the simplistic goal of running from the start (point A) to the finish (point B), as had been the case for every previous Mario. Otherwise players would brisk through these worlds within minutes, effectively reducing Mario 64 to a 30-minute game at most - a length that can't quite justify the $50 price tag. Instead, each world was bestowed with seven different objectives, essentially making each world the length of seven. Furthermore, these objectives could be completed in any order, thus liberating the game of the typical linear gameplay platformers were renowned for.
While Super Mario 64 offered a brilliant leap forward for the franchise, other games weren't quite as fortunate.