Editorial: Death and Ressurection of the 3D platformer

There was a time not long ago when games like Banjo-Kazooie, Crash the Bandicoot, and Spyro the Dragon ruled the shelves, pulling in millions of dollars and spawning sequel after sequel. They were the pinnacle of 3D platforming games, with plenty of doodads to collect, enemies to smush, and adventures to embark upon. Big name 3D platformers were marquee titles, moving systems on names alone. Games like Donkey Kong 3D and Super Mario 3D were packaged with systems to help them sell better, and it worked.

But as time went on, the 3D platformer started to wane in popularity. Gamers had grown bored with the genre, and companies no longer saw the games as relevant. Eventually, the 3D platformers time in the spotlight had ended.

But why? Was it an overcrowded market? Disinterested gamers? The search for something new and different? Yes to all three.

When Super Mario 64 launched with the N64, it heralded a new age in gaming. No longer was gameplay constrained to a 2D field; gamers now had full range of movement, with giant, interesting worlds to explore. Super Mario 64 was a game changer, and the rest of the industry was eager to follow in it’s footsteps.

Soon, every company was pumping out 3D platformers, meeting with various degrees of success. For every Banjo-Kazooie, there was a Croc. For every Spyro the Dragon, a Glover. The market was being flooded with 3D platformer games. But gamers weren’t sick of it yet. 3D platformers managed to sell like hot cakes. Even mediocre platformers such as Gex the Gecko managed to ride the coattails of the success of the genre and get a couple sequels.

But gamers eventually got wise. After all, they reasoned, there are only so many different ways to collect trinkets and beat bad guys. There were also genuine gripes with the genre, such as universally bad camera control and repetition. If the 3D platforming genre wanted to survive, it would have to evolve.

And evolve it did. As the era of the N64 and Playstation ended, Sony and Nintendo saw a perfect opportunity to release 3D platformers that were different. Nintendo touted Super Mario Sunshine as a Gamecube killer app, with it’s beautiful graphics and tight gameplay. It built upon the gameplay in Super Mario 64 and added the FLUDD, a water cannon that allowed for hovering and cleaning, completely changing the flow of the game. Meanwhile, Sony would eventually release Ratchet & Clank and Jak  & Daxter, both 3D platformers that sought to stand out from the crowd. Ratchet and Clank emphasized gunplay, with the platforming taking a backseat to the action. Jak & Daxter was a little more earnest in it’s platforming gameplay, but it managed to build on the formula in new and inventive ways.

These games paved the way for a new generation of 3D platformers, with acclaimed games such as Psychonauts and Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg using the genre to deliver fun gameplay that felt totally fresh. But the resurgence was short lived. While there were a handful of great 3D platformers released during this era, they eventually faded into obscurity, leaving fans to reminisce about the games of yesteryear.

But gaming is cyclical. A semi-recent resurgence in 2D platformers has found the genre catapulted back into the limelight. Games such as New Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong Country Return have revived the genre, with more 2D platformers being released every day. Indie games such as Braid and Super Meat Boy have also helped to kickstart the genre, using retro presentation to deliver modern gameplay.

Video game analysts are predicting that 3D platformers could soon return to the spotlight. Big name games such Super Mario 3D World are managing to sell millions of titles, and indie title such as A Hat In Time are using the genre to deliver fresh, original gameplay.

It could also be argued that the 3D platforming genre has evolved, moving past the emphasis on collecting trinkets and jumping on platforms. Games such as Uncharted and Mirror’s Edge are considered platforming games, with the same collection and exploration mechanics as the games of yesteryear, but with gunplay. The levels are bigger, the polygon count is higher, but at their core, they’re similar to the platforming games we grew up with.

But for those looking for more traditional 3D platforming games, they may soon return. We could very well be on the precipice of a new golden age of 3D platforming.

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