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The Halcyon Days of 3D Platforming: Super Mario 64/Donkey Kong 64

The Halcyon Days of 3D Platforming: Super Mario 64/Donkey Kong 64

It speaks volumes at just how fast video games have evolved that people in their twenties speak about the good old days of video gaming. They recall the eras of 16 and 64 bits like they belong in the era of black and white silent movies, fondly recalling the genres played extensively in their youth but which have since fallen out of fashion.

3D platformers are such a case. In the nineties they were everywhere, as developers got to grips with building 3D playgrounds for us to frolic and gallivant through. Gamers for the first time were exposed to the concept of exploring an open world. Of being able to take on multiple tasks at your own pace. They very much set the scene for the Grand Theft Auto’s and Skyrims that were to come after. But as we have moved towards vast, sprawling landscapes that can take gamers hours to traverse, the more intricately designed platformer has seen a fall from grace.

In the late nineties the N64 was one of, if not the top console for the 3D platforming. You’d be hard pressed to find better examples of this than Super Mario 64 and Donkey Kong 64. Very recently Nintendo re-released both of these games following the announcement that N64 games will be joining their Wii U Virtual Console line-up. So do these games still stand the test of time, or are they now mere monuments to a bygone era of video gaming?

Super Mario 64 is, of course, considered to be a Genesis moment for video gaming. It took the industry’s most famous face and plonked him into a fully fleshed out 3D world for the first time. The result was a game from which so many modern design conventions are derived. The collecting of items to progress further, the controllable camera, the potential to pick and choose your destination or which objective you fulfil next. It was a real revolution at the time.

The worlds we first thought were vast and sprawling in 1996 may seem tiddly by today’s standards. Likewise the novelty of seeing Mario in 3D has worn off, given that he’s now about the only platforming icon who is still regularly having adventures beyond the two dimensional plain. But there’s something especially joyous about this incarnation of the moustached hero. He is especially responsive in this game. He plays like a kind of marionette, twisting and dancing through the grounds of Peach’s castle with excited whoops and hollers galore. Very few gaming avatars feel so responsive to your touch, even in this day and age.

This game, despite being in 3D, remains testament to Nintendo’s uncanny ability to produce intricate, tightly designed games. There is not a feature out of place among the fifteen levels to be plundered. Yet what really excited gamers when Mario 64 was released was the potential to explore vast lands and levels. This excitement is what Rareware tapped into when they produced Donkey Kong 64.

Here they took Mario’s one time rival and his simian buddies, providing five playable characters, levels five times the size as those found in Mario 64 and a metric tonne of collectible items. Golden Bananas, regular bananas, banana fairies, coins, crystal coconuts, battle crowns, blueprints. The list goes on and on, and there’s so much space in these levels that things don’t get to crowded.

Unfortunately with this game this desire to cram in as much as possible becomes its undoing. Picking up as many item as possible, before changing to one character to unlock a new area, before using a different character to complete an unrelated minigame, it all got very convoluted. When it did try its hand at traditional platforming, it was let down by a dodgy camera and slightly unresponsive controls. Still it had heaps of charm and humour, and much more satisfying combat than Mario 64.

So why exactly did these types of game fall out of popularity? Well you can argue that they never really have done. As we’ve already mentioned Mario still has regular 3D instalments, and they sell quite well. But apart from him and Sonic the Hedgehog, who else is really producing games for this once golden genre?

The other confusing factor is the renaissance of the 2D platformer. Nostalgia fuelled gamers and developers have come up with some additions to this genre that are not only beautiful to look at and fun to play, but are fiendishly difficult and hugely imaginative. The indie scene in particular has been producing some amazing games with intense platforming action. Why has the same not happened to the three dimensional equivalents?

Ironically, this is in part because of how our gaming tastes have changed as a result of how these kind of games first teased us with the prospect of exploring vast, open worlds. Because of the limitations of the time, games could only provide a selection of worlds linked by a single overworld. Even titles such as Zelda were limited in scope by having a world compromised of several interlinked zones. It wouldn’t be until future generations when we would see everything take place within one large land.

While it was 3D platformers that gave us a taste for this, it is difficult to combine the tight, precise design needed for platformers in a sprawling open world. With gamers very much moving towards exploration of vast worlds and improved combat, emphasis on platforming fell by the wayside. Additionally tastes shifted towards more mature games, instead of those featuring colourful cartoon mascots.

There is another factor at play, and that is the spirally cost of big budget gaming releases. 3D platformers are expensive to produce, and as a result investing heavily with the current gaming climate on a genre with untested popularity is a huge risk. Even Microsoft, with once hugely popular characters such as Banjo-Kazooie and Conker at their disposal, have shown reluctance. The only company confident enough to push 3D platformers and get money out of them is Nintendo.

That being said, thanks to the joys of crowd funding, some indie developers are going to have a good old crack at rekindling the 3D platformer for the new generation. A Hat In Time is the poster game for this renaissance, fusing platforming elements with the graphical style of The Wind Waker. Now in its Beta stage, it looks very much like it will be scratching the platforming itch enthusiasts crave. Not too far behind is Playtonic Games, a developer formed by ex-members of the old Rareware team. Their upcoming Project Ukulele is being billed as the spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie.

The truth of the matter is, just how the indie scene has re-invigorated the 2D platforming scene, we will have to rely on the independent developers to bring life to this once great genre. The signs are promising. Until then we shall just have to rely on the old classics, such as those recently rereleased by Nintendo, to give us our fix.

 

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