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There is a vast amount of literature out there about the shift from 2D to 3D in videogames in the 90s, how it turned previous conventions of game design on their head and opened up a whole new dimension. The change in art and design brought about by the change in technology is astounding, and one of the reasons I think videogames can be such an interesting and engaging artistic medium. Rather than being limited by technology, we can look back and see the great innovations in design that a moderate, steady pace in technological development brought, allowing us to not just understand the final product of each work, or even the process that went into it, but the development of an entire industry and its effect on the games we play and experience.

Now, I’ll admit my biases and ignorance before I get too far into this. My first console was a Nintendo 64, one which I still have sitting next to me right now. I didn’t own anything “older” than the N64 until must later, when I got an FC Twin (which was actually manufactured a decade later, but is essentially a NES plus an SNES). I did get the chance to play the Super Mario Bros. games and Yoshi’s Island as a kid, but my time with them isn’t even comparable to the time I spent with Paper Mario, Mario 64 and Mario Party. I didn’t even touch the Zelda series until I found Wind Waker, several years after its release. So take what I say about some older games with a grain of salt.

That being said, I am going to focus on what the games series that I know best. Specifically, The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario and Pokémon. I’m not going to restrict myself from referencing other games, as these three certainly can’t capture the entirety of the games industry dynamics, but I’m simply not qualified to go into any sort of detail on Donkey Kong because I’ve never finished one of his games. And for anyone concerned about this being heavily Nintendo biased (admittedly, I haven’t mentioned anything not Nintendo made or Nintendo exclusive yet), keep in mind that we’re talking about game design and development spanning from 1983 to 2014, and Halo and Infamous just haven’t been around long enough and haven’t evolved enough to contribute to that. I plan to give brief attention to Sonic and his games, but these days most gamers can hardly distinguish Sega’s mascot from the plumber he was once at war with. And I certainly won’t avoid mention of Microsoft and Sony when their work illustrates the point I’m trying to make. But for the most part, they just didn’t play a big role in the long-run history of videogames. Maybe Microsoft and Sony will get to leave their mark in the switch from 3D to virtual reality.

The introduction of 3D lead to this sense, for both developers and fans, that everything had changed and everything had to change. Every previously existing IP that had honed its own craft so well in 2D, suddenly “needed” to move to 3D. At least, that was the feeling, but historically it seems as though that was wrong. Let’s look at some of the games that came out.

Mario 64 is generally regarded as the first 3D game, but I’m not entirely sure about that. When I refer to a game as “3D”, I’m not talking about some graphics change, replacing sprites with models, or even the addition of a Z-axis in the programing. Those are all superficial changes. The real substance of a 3D game, just like with any other type of game, is in the way it plays- the way the player experiences and engages with it. Look at the Little Big Planet series, it uses 3D character models, and (as far as I can tell) is programmed with a Z-axis. But if I have to say what type of game I think Little Big Planet is, I’d call it a two-dimensional, puzzle based, side scrolling platformer, with a heavy emphasis on co-operative play and community.

Given this, I believe the actual first 3D game (without going to exhaustive research of niche and tech demo pieces) was Star Fox on the SNES. This was the first game that played like a 3D game. The player could control his or her Arwing within a 2D plane, but it would also move through a simulated third dimension. The player even has the ability to affect the pace of this movement by using the thrusters, not quite taking the game off rails, but making those rails more malleable. The 3D wasn’t just some effect tacked onto the game, it is essential to the game, as it is through this third-dimension that objects, power-ups, threats, and the whole game world around the Arwing approach the player.

There is an interaction between player and third-dimension, as the player sees some stimulus –a power-up or obstacle or an enemy attack– incoming, and attempts to responds appropriately in the game. This was the very first Star Fox game, and looking at where it came from, it’s no wonder that when the series moved to the N64 with Star Fox 64, it did so flawlessly. It was able to take everything about the first game, and simply expand upon it as a sequel. I can’t think of any other game series that was able to make this transition from the SNES to the N64 this smoothly.

I know that by opening of the definition of 3D like this, I’m creating space for a lot of debate about what the first 3D game really is, and I’m probably at least mostly wrong in claiming that it’s Star Fox. I’m only trying to demonstrate that the relationship between 2D and 3D gaming isn’t a simple binary one. As I continue, it’ll get simpler, before it gets more complex. But it’s also not all grey area.

While Star Fox glided gracefully though the treacherous new territory of the N64, Jumpman took a big leap of faith. Prior to the N64, every single main series Mario game (not including the debatable Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island) was distinctly 2D. Falling behind bricks to access secret areas in SMB.3 added another plane, but this is still only a second 2D plane, and the interaction with it is akin to going through a doorway to enter a new part of a level. And the background scrolling by at a different differentiated pace in the World games, is again only a second 2D plane, and only a bit of graphical polish, not something that player actually interacts with at all.

So when Nintendo decided to move this series into full 3D as an N64 launch title, it was actually a pretty radical decision. I can’t even begin to imagine all the difficulties of moving the elements that made up a traditional Mario game at the point into 3D, just for a design point of view. And apparently neither could Nintendo, or at least, they couldn’t execute it. Instead, what we got with Super Mario 64 was something completely different. Gone were the flagpoles, the mushrooms and fire flowers, the over-world as being a mere level-selection point, the linear levels and overall progression, the mechanic of defeating bowser by dashing under him or hoping over, and the simple physics of two-dimensional pixel based platforming. Instead we got open worlds and story progression and gameplay, complex physics, new running and jumping methods, power stars, and bowser spinning and tossing boss fights. This had virtually nothing in common with Mario games; this was not a Mario game.

I’m certainly not saying Mario 64 is bad, or worse than its predecessors. On the contrary, I prefer it significantly more than the NES and SNES games. But given what “Mario game” meant back then, SM64 was simply different; it wore the skin of the red plumber, and the bobombs, Princes Peach, Bowser, goombas and Yoshi, but the gameplay, the player-game interaction, was fundamentally uprooted. It’s like Hyrule Warriors, only if Dynasty Warriors didn’t exist previously. At the time we didn’t really have a good term for it, but these days we all know this distinction; the distinction of 3D Mario games, and 2D Mario games.

Though Nintendo’s mascot was able to make this change monumental change, it did so with a lot of help; no one at Nintendo was going to let SM64 fail. But many other games didn’t have this support, and it lead to different outcomes. Firstly, there was Zelda, which has always been more story driven. Because story doesn’t need to rely on the graphics or gameplay (not to say that it shouldn’t be integrated with these), more than just the skin of Zelda was able to move into 3D, with The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time. We still have a distinction between 2D and 3D Zelda games, but we also have the Zelda timeline, linking Zelda games of both types via the overarching narrative. However, in terms of gameplay, the games still changed significantly. Many items returned, but the way the player interacted with them, and the world, was drastically different. In fact, it has been argued that this attachment to the 2D games led to many flaws in the N64 Zelda titles, which are still present in the newest games.

Finally, there are the games that just couldn’t make the transition. Series like Megaman and Sonic, both of which excelled in their 2D format, seemed to feel the need to change too. For Megaman, the results were immediately disastrous, and for Sonic they’re still a sour topic. And need I mention Bubsy 3D? (Though, Bubsy was never very notable, even in 2D.) It’s with games like this that I wonder “why?” Why tackle the switch from 2D to 3D? While I actually prefer Sonic Adventure 2 and expect I’d enjoy Colors and Generations, over the older games, With Megaman it seems like there is a pretty clear consensus, 2D worked better. But everyone seemed to think 3D was the future, and if you didn’t try to adjust, you’d be left in the past.

This trend of only making 3D games continued for a while, at least on the home consoles. But on the handheld there was something else, there was diversity. Because of the technological limitations of handhelds like the Gameboy series and later the Nintendo DS, 3D development remained a struggle, and developers rarely even had a choice. Making a 3D game was possible, but would require must more time and effort, yet couldn’t be as large a project as 2D games. And I am deeply thankful for this.

I’ve said before that I’m a big fan of Pokémon, and because Pokémon has continued to be on handhelds, they didn’t experience the big push for 3D like on home consoles; instead they were able to continue to gradually refine their art within the bounds of technology they were comfortable with. There were of course a few 3D Pokémon games on home consoles, like Pokémon Stadium, Coliseum and XD Gale of Darkness, but these were only spin-offs. Stadium and Stadium 2 were the first of these, on the N64, and they were met with great praise. Neither of these are really 3D games, just the same battles as in 2D Pokémon games, but with 3D graphics. And with the GameCube Pokémon games, it’s really hard to make a call. There are certainly properly 3D aspects, but the core gameplay, the battles, function identically to the battles in Ruby and Sapphire, albeit with the addition of Shadow Pokémon.

But the way Pokémon has developed since then makes me think an actual 3D game at this point could work. Again, when I say 3D, I’m not referring to graphics; I still consider X, Y, Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire 2D games, as the gameplay has not been affected by the recent shift. But I think it could be, and would be excited to see how that might be done.

Anyway, when it came time to make a Mario game for the DS, Nintendo went back to basics with New Super Mario Bros., a 2D Mario game, with the design of a direct sequel to the classics, but significantly advanced technology. Admitted, the team who made the game probably gained some new experience with 2D games since the older games, and the general advancement in game design understanding likely went into NSMB, but for the most part, the series was untouched for over a decade.

This was later followed up by New Super Mario Bros. Wii, which existed alongside Super Mario Galaxy. For the first time, and 2D and a 3D Mario game were on the same console. Not only that, but as of earlier this year, NSMB.Wii has outsold Galaxy by more than twice as many units.

This started to develop into what I find interesting in Super Mario Galaxy 2, where the now longstanding 3D over-world to 3D Mario games was replaced by a NSMB. style 2D over-world. While this was the worst decision ever made by anyone ever (I want my Galaxy over-world back!), it indicated a merging of 2D and 3D. In this case it was only superficial, but that wouldn’t last long.

In fact, around this time, Sonic had managed to gain some momentum again, with games like Colors and Generations, which both had distinctly 2D and 3D sections. The shift from one to the other often occurs even in the middle of a level, yet the transition is very smooth and easy to adapt to. These were still distinctly different parts though, just sew together in a single game.

Meanwhile, the Zelda series has continued to see new 3D releases alongside 2D ones, ever since the 3D games started. Because of this, it has refined both types of Zelda games very well. Most recently, this has led to A Link Between Worlds, a 2D Zelda game… I think. It is certainly in the style of a 2D Zelda, but with several different levels Link’s feet can be at. There are stairs and ladders which the player can use to elevate Link, or have him descend. And the player interacts with all these layers separately, make it similar to the multiple two-dimensional planes in SMB.3. But then there are instances where Link uses one plane, or height level, to affect or achieve something on another level.

Trying to imagine a “3D” Wii U port of Link Between Worlds, I find the only difference is the camera angle, and the control scheme. Maybe some item interfaces, but the core gameplay is unchanged. And I’m not actually suggesting a Wii U port would be a good idea; camera angle, especially in “2D” Zelda games, can be very important. But the fact that I can distinguish something like camera about “2D” Zelda games that is different from “3D” Zelda games still indicates that these two are different. But I’m not sure the difference has anything to do with the number of dimensions at this point.

Finally, let me mention one game that I cannot classify. Super Mario Galaxy 2 started a shift in the Mario formula with its over-world, but the gameplay remained distinctly 3D Mario. Super Mario 3D Land took this much further, probably further than Link Between Worlds, but didn’t stop. Now we have Super Mario 3D World, and I cannot tell what type of game this is. It clearly uses 3D for gameplay, but the type of gameplay is more like the 2D Mario games. The flagpoles and Mushrooms return with their original function, but adapted for 3D.

Like the newer Sonic games, it had both 2D platforming and 3D platforming, but instead of these being distinct and separate, they’re simultaneous. And I don’t think this can be called a “3D game with 2D gameplay elements”; what is it that makes it a 3D game? The fact that is has 3D gameplay elements. So if it also and simultaneously has 2D gameplay element, shouldn’t that make it a 2D game?

The two types are merged so well, I think both shine through. I don’t think SM3DW can be classified as one or the other, at least not at the exclusion of the other. It is both, or it is something new. Whatever it is, I hope to see more of it, because it’s part of why videogames are so interesting to me.

There’s a lot more to this, and I want to talk about it more, but this alone took most of an afternoon. So I want to know what you think, and what parts of this you are more interested in. What makes a 2D game, other than simply the lack of it being a 3D game? What are some specific elements of 2D and 3D games? Are certain genre’s, like point-and-click games, unable to be 3D? Please, leave your feedback, leave your thoughts, leave your questions. I want to talk about this stuff with other interested people, hear what you think, and offer more of my thoughts like this if people are interested in them.