2D to 3D: How to survive the jump0 Comments
Departing from the standard can be a huge risk for a video game franchise. But as technology improves, games have to adapt to stay relevant. One of the biggest changes a series can make is switching from a two-dimensional play style to a three-dimensional one. Back when console graphics first allowed games to go from 2D to 3D, a lot of franchises found themselves with a whole new ‘D’ to play with. Get your mind out of the gutter.
Some of these long-standing series made the transition and blew fans away with an innovative take on their returning favorites. Some found that the transition wasn’t suitable for their series. And some tanked so hard they never quite recovered. Here we take a look at some of the successes and failures of the 2D to 3D switch and prescribe some ways to survive and thrive on the extra plane.
Diversify - Mario series
Back in 1981, Mario had nowhere to go but up. And left and right. But only on an x- or y-axis. Fifteen years later, he mustered up the courage to step into z coordinates with the help of the Nintendo 64. As the next iteration of Nintendo’s flagship series, Super Mario 64 had a lot to prove. And seeing as the game, which was one of the console’s first, still manages to be regarded as one of the best that the system had to offer -- and furthermore, one of the best video games of all time -- it lived up to the high standards of the franchise.
So that should have been it, right? Judging by the game’s success, all Mario games should have been 3D from that point on. But that’s far from the case. The thing is, Nintendo knew that Mario was a best-seller in all dimensions of play. So they continued to make Mario games in 3D, like Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy, while they returned to the plumber’s roots with “2.5D” games, like New Super Mario Bros. Nintendo even included hard-to-define-dimensional games like Paper Mario. To this day, the Mario series is the best-selling video game franchise ever. It seems this diversified approach allows the Nintendo mascot to appeal to a wide variety new gamers while staying true to his roots.
Gotta go fast - Sonic series
It’s hard to believe we survived the Nintendo-Sega Wars of the ’80s and ’90s. The figureheads for this epic struggle for gaming supremacy were Mario and Sonic, the respective company mascots of the video game giants. But there’s a reason the blue blur appears on Nintendo consoles and in Mario-led games these days. In many ways, the success of Super Mario 64 drove initial sales of the N64, but when Sega’s Dreamcast emerged, Sonic’s first fully 3D game, Sonic Adventure, didn’t capture enough interest to save the system. Riding on the back of the poorly-performing Sega Dreamcast, the failure drove Sega to the brink of extinction, forcing the company to restructure its entire ideology. What happened? Why didn’t Sonic’s switch to 3D work?
Well there are a number of factors that caused Sonic and the Dreamcast to fall by the wayside. While Sonic Adventures was critically praised, there were some drawbacks to a game series based on going fast being ported to 3D. The faster you move through a level, the bigger it has to be in order for it to last more than a few seconds. So the options are to make huge worlds that can barely fit within the range of a system’s hardware, or slow down the action with cut scenes, story, and slower-moving characters. Slowing Sonic down was the one thing that shouldn’t be done, but it had to be done to make the switch. Without speed, there wasn’t much to differentiate Sonic from Mario, and definitely not enough to justify the purchase of a whole new system. Newer Sonic games have been cluttered with too many characters, too much plot, and too many gimmicks, like turning the hedgehog into a “werehog.” While the series still sells fairly well, it has never been able to compete with Mario like it did in the old days.
Pull back - Donkey Kong series
The Donkey Kong franchise preceded Mario’s first self-titled entry by a few years and gave “Jumpman” his start. DK went through some major changes early on, going from villain to protagonist when Rare took over and created the Donkey Kong Country series. It was leaps and bounds above other 2D platformers with graphics that hadn’t been seen until that point, and certainly not on the SNES. But Rare changed things up when they made Donkey Kong 64. They ditched the side-scrolling platformer for a three-dimensional one, similar to Super Mario 64 and one of Rare’s other titles, Banjo-Kazooie.
The result was, by all means, a good game. It was praised by critics. But despite requiring the new expansion pack for the Nintendo 64, there wasn’t enough to set it apart from other platformers on the console. Also, the developers took what everyone loved about the system’s new 3D games, namely having big worlds with lots of collectibles and tasks, and pushed it way too far. The game was overloaded with stuff to do and things to obtain, which resulted in much backtracking and frustration. If these issues could have been redeemed with a sequel, we don’t know. Rare left the franchise after that, and Nintendo didn’t give the tie-wearing gorilla another of his own adventure platformers until 2010, when they returned to a 2.5D side-scroller play style. Rather than risk another foray into DK’s 3D world, they opted to return to the Country that breathed new life into the series in the first place. Even though Donkey Kong’s 3D version wasn’t a failure, Nintendo has put him in a jail cell with fewer dimensions for the time being, and it’s working out fine for now.
Stay focused - Mega Man series
Mega Man was Capcom’s unofficial mascot for more than a decade, and desperate fans still show a good deal of loyalty to the blaster-armed android. Most fans have a favorite version of him, and they have a lot of versions to chose from. And it is perhaps therein that lies the biggest flaw in the franchise. There are so many Mega Man series, each one with multiple games, each one with its own style of graphics and controls. New fans have trouble finding a point of entry, and old fans are forced to wait in hopes that their favorite version will have a sequel released. For example, ten years passed before Mega Man 9 returned fans to the world of the classic Mega Man. Vocal Mega Man enthusiasts had been demanding it for a long time. But new fans didn’t care about a new 2D platformer that looked like it could have been made ten years ago, and many old fans had dropped off in interest in the silent decade.
Mega Man’s switch to 3D, in this case, went alright. The Mega Man Legends series was mostly for the Sony Playstation, with a few ports to other systems arriving later. It was well-received, despite some awkward controls and camera angles. But it’s been almost 15 years and there have been no sequels. Capcom has switched to different Mega Man series, but never came back to this story. The lack of focus has led to a steady decline in sales of Mega Man games, and the franchise is nothing of what it once was, or could have been with a bit more focus. At least they could have given some closure to fans with a few games that wrapped up some of the stories.
This piece could go on and on about what methods make for a successful switch from 2D to 3D. Some series, for instance, changed everything, like Metroid, which became a first-person shooter and puzzle solver instead of a 2D shooter platformer. Or The Legend of Zelda, which invented the 2D, top-down viewpoint adventure, then changed to a third-person 3D world in Ocarina of Time, then occasionally changed back for mobile Zelda titles. There are a lot of factors that make the jump possible. But the moral of the story is that extra ‘D’ doesn’t always make things better. I told you earlier to get your mind out of the gutter.