By Shaun Quaintance – I love me a good ol’ 3D platformer. Platformers remain my favourite genre of games with the 3D variety at the tippy top of the list. The first 3D platformer I ever played was a copy of Crash Bandicoot when I was at the grand young age of 4 going on 5 (needless to say, I wasn’t very good at games back then what with being a child and all that). From that point on I was hooked on video games, skip forward a year or so to the age of 6 and I was finally able to call myself a proud owner of a games console. The console was the PlayStation and my very first game for it was Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back (technically MediEvil was also my very first game since my parents were kind enough to get me two games for the PlayStation, what they had forgotten though was that I was, and still am, a complete and utter wuss and therefore ended up having to play through the game themselves as I watched whilst hiding behind the sofa cushions…I wish I was joking right now).
If the original Crash Bandicoot was what got me into gaming then Crash Bandicoot 2 was what put me on the permanent path of wanting to be involved in the games industry in any way possible for the rest of my life (none of this firefighter and astronaut crap for me, it was social awkwardness and obesity or nothing!). Skip forward a fair few more years to today and I’ve pretty much nailed the lack of social skills and poor health but still haven’t got the whole ‘be successful in the games industry’ part down just yet. Anyways, getting back on track the whole point is that 3D platformers are built into me, I live for them, without them I would cease to exist. Luckily for me I was born and raised in a time filled with wonderful 3D platformers, from the linear level designed, twitch focused platformers like Crash Bandicoot to the open world, puzzle and collectable orientated platformers like Banjo-Kazooie, there was a 3D platformer for everyone.
Unfortunately, this onslaught of goodness didn’t last forever and the 3D platformer soon went the way of the Dodo in a much less brutal and not quite as extinct manner. HOWEVER! I don’t know if you’ve heard but the word on the street is that they’re making a little comeback this year with several AAA and indie studios having a fair crack at the genre. Naturally, as you can imagine, this has me feeling giddy and tingly at the thought of a return to the glory days. In all the excitement I’ve spent many an hour browsing the internet looking for fellow gamers to celebrate with and while there has been plenty of buzz I’ve found that there hasn’t been much in the form of discussion. Most articles I’ve read simply state that there are indeed some 3D platformers coming this year and then proceed to simply list a few examples of them, none of them really go into the areas of why and how. I thought that I would take a stab at the how and why approach, after all, if you want something done right then pay a lot of money for it…and if you don’t have a lot of money then at least attempt to do it yourself.
In this article rather than just ramble on about the comeback of 3D platformers without giving much context (I decided to get that out the way early as you may be able to tell) I’m going to try and delve a bit deeper into the subject, try and find out why it is making a comeback and what can be done to prevent the genre from suffering the same painful demise that I witnessed during my childhood. To do this it’s probably best to start from the start and look at why 3D platformers were so popular in the first place and what caused them to initially die out.
A brief history of 3D platformers
Before 3D platformers there were 2D platformers and like their extra-dimensional brethren they were quite the popular genre for home consoles. Games like Super Mario Bros, Duck Tales, Sonic, Earthworm Jim, Donkey Kong Country, Mega Man and an absolute boatload of others enjoyed the taste of success. In the mid 90’s the first generation of home consoles to fully utilise 3D graphics were released and with that the race was on to create the future of gaming.
Many genres managed to successfully make the jump to 3D with one of the most successful being the platformer. The transition to 3D allowed for the birth of a variety of different level designs and mechanics which not only suited the platformer genre but also appealed to different gamers thus giving the genre plenty of potential to grow and cementing it as a leading genre in the games industry for years to come. So, as I hold back the tears whilst asking this question…how did it fade away? Well, like most things there isn’t a single straight answer but instead a bunch of smaller answers that all contribute together. Let’s have a look at a few of those contributions.
Being one of the leading genres in the industry means that those looking to make a quick cheeky buck will naturally gravitate towards it, after all, you want to rip off the largest market possible right? The result was an over-saturated genre which, despite also containing some of the best games of the generation(s), unfortunately featured a ton of terrible movie tie-ins, clones and plain rushed games (looking at you Bubsy 3D you bastard). It was enough to put anyone off of their daily dose of gaming. So what do you do when your favourite genre begins to take a beating like that? Well if you’re me it certainly isn’t go outside and make those things called friends, no way in hell. Instead, you simply move onto another genre and that’s exactly what a large group of people did.
Moving swiftly onto point number 2. That large group of people I just mentioned that moved away from 3D platformers to other genres? Yeah, that included developers too. Once again there can several arguments made as to why many developers jumped off the 3D platformer bandwagon but I’m going to just give the reason that I believe made the biggest impact.
Video games are an ever evolving beast with new hardware, software and design processes constantly changing the landscape of gaming. Sometimes these changes can help improve a genre and its variety whereas other times it doesn’t quite fit and instead a new genre is required. This is something that the 3D platformer began to suffer from. It began to feel like they had reached their full potential design wise with not much more room for innovation unlike some other genres such as the FPS which was beginning to gain traction. This meant that if you were to create a 3D platformer you would more than likely create yet another clone of one of the already established series. Even the developers who created said established series began to branch out and experiment with new ideas, Naughty Dog’s Jak and Daxter and Insomniac’s Ratchet and Clank are far more action-adventure orientated than their previous platformers and their next IP’s after that pretty much ditched the genre altogether.
One final reason that I’ve seen some people make that, while I disagree in some respect, I can see merit in is that platformers felt too childish and failed to mature or grow up with the audience that loved it most. As I said I do disagree with this to an extent, I personally love the cartoony and wacky characters of platformers still to this day, however that isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and good 3D platformers that offered something else were few and far between.
So with that the 3D platformer bowed out from the spotlight and has laid relatively dormant until the recent stirrings. We’ve gone through the how in regards to its demise so let’s now go through the why in regards to its resurgence.
The comeback of kings
It’s worth noting that while 3D platformers went quiet and transitioned to other genres the 2D platformer remained fairly consistent with releases over the years. This is one of the reasons that I believe has a hand in this comeback, another reason…is indie studios.
Indie studios have been one of the main producers of great 2D platforming content for a while now with games such as ‘Splosion Man, Super Meat Boy, Braid and Ori & the Blind Forest offering fresh ideas and variety in platformers, something that I mentioned earlier that lent a hand to the popularity of the 3D platformer. Several AAA studios have helped keep the platformer ticking over too such as the undying popularity of Mario and the fairly recent return to form for Rayman, however, it’s with the indie studios where platforming innovation has been most prevalent.
So why are indie-developed 2D platformers partly responsible for this 3D comeback? Well, there’s been a shift over the past few years of several indie developers beginning to branch out into 3D platformers in an almost identical fashion to what happened when the original 3D platformers made their arrival. Of course, it’s all well and good to simply decide to make a 3D platformer but you still need gamers who are willing to buy and play it.
Indie games have been known to keep the genres of old alive and kicking, either through keeping the retro look of sprite games, branching out with new mechanics and design ideas or both. Indie gamers have enjoyed this direction for many years however there now seems to be an ever-increasing want for the transition to be made once again from 2D to 3D. At times it almost feels like reliving the original transition from 2D to 3D like back in the good ol’ days.
One of the best examples of an indie team making said jump is Gears for Breakfast with their upcoming 3D platformer A Hat in Time. A Hat in Time takes inspiration from older games in the genre such as Super Mario 64 and Banjo Kazooie. The game’s Kickstarter launched with an initial target of $30,000 but surpassed that with flying colours, finishing on a grand total of $296,360. This, as well as other successful indie 3D platformers, meant one thing…there was once again a market for the genre.
We’ve had a few AAA studios since then start to get back into the 3D platformer scene. Knack (god bless it) was a launch title for the PlayStation 4 and while personally feeling that it did a rather good job there were some things that weren’t quite right which I’ll get back to later. Despite the efforts of these indie and AAA studios it still didn’t feel like a true return to form, there was still something missing, something that could help push 3D platformers into the minds of new and casual gamers as well as the hardcore ones who have been craving them all this time. That something was star power and that star power is what we’ll be getting this year.
Mario, Crash Bandicoot and Banjo Kazooie were some of the biggest hitters back in the day and it’s with their presence over the next 12 months (with Banjo-Kazooie being represented by Yooka Laylee) that the great comeback of the 3D platformer may be finally complete. Of course we also had the awesome Ratchet and Clank release last year to go with the movie however it remains to be seen if that was a one-off or if there are more adventures for the Lombax in store.
So now that we’re all caught up to the present day and my fingers are now just stumps from typing so much, there is only one thing left to do…look towards the future. It’s all well and good making your way to the top but staying there is the hard part. What can 3D platformers do to stay in the spotlight this time around?
The 3D platformers of tomorrow
I stated earlier that one of the possible reasons for 3D platformers falling back was that they had simply reached their potential at the time, most new designs and mechanics were better suited to either a genre that only borrowed a few platformer mechanics, games such as Assassin’s Creed and Uncharted for example, or a new genre entirely.
It’s important that developers innovate on the old 3D platformer formulas to keep the genre fresh and relevant. It’s all well and good for those of us who lived and breathed 3D platformers during their heydey to take a trip down nostalgia lane with a few of this year’s releases but rose tinted glasses will only get you so far. It’s vital that we don’t lean on these designs for too long but instead try and build upon them to create new experiences and provide gamers with a wide choice of uniquely designed games.
This brings me to my second point, variety. I have said that many people began to view 3D platformers as ‘too childish’ and that, while I slightly disagree, I can see why. This brings me back to the Knack point I promised to make earlier. Knack attempted to create a game that could appeal to the more mature of us as well as the little tikes, however, there was something that just didn’t quite feel right at times. What Knack did to try and make itself more appealing to an older audience was to create a more challenging experience but, while it was indeed challenging, it done this by creating a core system that felt less like a platformer and more like a beat ’em up.
The point I’m trying to make is that when people say platformers are too childish I’ve found that they are very rarely referring to the mechanics, sure there is still plenty that can be done to the mechanics of a platformer to try and appeal to a different audience (one area I can see the most potential for improvement in is enemies, enemies are supposed to be hazards with intelligence yet a vast majority of platformer enemies still simply move along a set path, that isn’t what I would call intelligence, a swinging axe does the exact same thing so why isn’t that considered an enemy but a Goomba is?), however one of the main unexplored areas is the aesthetics, world, story and characters of a platformer.
Games have matured ever so much since the days of the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 and as the games industry expands an ever increasing number of gamers play games with the story as their primary motivation rather than the mechanics and gameplay itself. This is something that other genres of games have tapped into already with all sorts of story genres being featured in a single game genre from horror to fantasy to sci-fi…so why not 3D platformers? How about a Lovecraftian inspired story? Or a 3D platformer set in a dystopian future? Or hell, why not a full blown horror? That way you can keep the core mechanics firmly within the 3D platformer genre with a few tweaks to suit the theme (for example some form of insanity mechanic for a Lovecraftian game) whilst also appealing to a different audience and providing variety to the genre through the aesthetics and story of the game.
Aaaand that’s just about all my brain can muster for now. You never know after all this we may have just this one year of 3D platformers followed by another uncountable amount of years ahead where they do the ol’ disappearing act on us again. However, I truly believe that there is a new amount of potential for innovation within the genre and if developers can find a way to tap that potential to provide new mechanics, new designs and new stories whilst keeping the game grounded as a 3D platformer then we’ll have the variety needed for 3D platformers to make their stay. But whatever happens for the next 12 months at least I can sit back, relax and say with a humungous grin on my face that 3D platformers are back baby!
Keep on gaming.