Ah the late nineties. What an era that was for gaming. FMV cutscenes, bad voice acting, having unplug the phone to go online, and the novelty of playing multiplayer with three mates crammed into your bedroom rather than shouting at them down a microphone. It was a simpler time, when developers were beginning to figure out the template for all the big, mega budget, cinematic video game experiences that now dominate the industry,
And a key catalyst in this development was a genre that shone brightly for half a decade, before riding off into the sunset while whizz bang shooters and open world experiences took its place. The 3D platformer.
Nothing, save for perhaps the emergence of the first person shooter, best typifies the shift from two dimensions into three then the leap made by the platforming genre. Due to the limitations of the 8 bit and then 16 bit generations, games where you moved from primarily from left to right, occasionally right to left, and maybe up and down as an additional treat, were all over the place. These ranged from the platformers of the likes of Mario and Sonic, to sidescrolling shooters like Metroid and Megaman. Even fighting games like Street Fighter were locked within two dimensions, like a particularly violent picture book.
Then, in the space of one year, there was a literal dimensional shift that changed gaming forever, and the 3D Platformer was born.
Super Mario 64 is perhaps the most famous example of this. When Nintendo brought everyone’s favorite Italian plumber into the third dimension, few people anticipated how he would also establish gaming conventions that remain to this day. A hub world for you to fully explore at your leisure. A fully movable camera that wasn’t locked in place. The chance to pick and choose which objective you completed next instead of getting stuck until the next set goal was reached. Sounds like second nature to us all now right? In 1996 it blew minds and left jaws gaping.
Mario wasn’t alone. Crash Bandicoot made his grand entrance in the same year. His approach was a little less revolutionary, allowing freer movement as you followed peril-strewn trails through the jungle. Despite this, Crash experimented further with camera angles, and excelled in eye-catching and thrilling set pieces which would go on to feature in so many other games.
These trailblazers set the tone. Following in their wake came names that gamers of a certain age will remember with eyes filled with dewy tears of nostalgia. Banjo-Kazooie, Spyro the Dragon, Klonoa. Sonic and Donkey Kong joined the 3D party soon enough too. Even icons like Megaman dabbled a little with titles like the excellent cult classic Megaman Legends. Developers suddenly had a freedom they’d never experienced before, and were able to add extra layers of personality to their creations. Rareware were the experts at this, as the delightfully crude Conker’s Bad Fur Day proved. Action games like Tomb Raider eagerly incorporated platforming sections to add variety to the gameplay (a tactic which developers still like to fall back on today, for better or for worse).
And then, suddenly, it was all over.
It wasn’t as simple a case of 3D platformers falling out of fashion, rather the genre hit a bit of a brick wall creatively while gaming tastes shifted, not to mention with the additional power brought by new machines such as the PS2 allowed for significantly more complex worlds. A lot of the stalwarts from this era, like Crash and Spyro and even the once mighty Sonic, all struggled to adapt and come up with new ideas, so their respective series stagnated. Only Mario seemed to come out of it unscathed.
Curiously it was some of the features pioneered by 3D platformers that lead to their downfall. Gamers fell in love with the massive open overworld with various nooks and crannies in need of exploring. As a result the tight intricate platforming gave way for vast landscapes and all out action. Colourful cartoon mascots gave way for dashing adventurers and bald space marines with a penchant for violent murder. Likewise the ability to branch out and take on different objectives transferred to increasingly epic, story driven games, where you were able to forge your own path. As gamers’ tastes shifted, the traditional platformer became just that; traditional, and subsequently antiquated.
Though it’s not like the genre was rejected completely by consumers. The continued commercial success of Mario and Sonic (to an extent) proved otherwise. But as the budgets rose, the priorities of developers and publishers changed. Why would they invest huge amounts of capital in a big budget platformer that might sell a few hundred thousand copies, or invest millions in a Call of Duty game that would branch into the the tens of million?
It seems the biggest reason for the apparent death of the 3D platformer as a genre was nothing more than a shift in priorities. Gamers got their fix from other genres, and developers found more lucrative opportunities elsewhere. All that was left for those gamers who still enjoyed a bit of pinpoint, three dimensional jumping to by the new Mario game released every three years or so and reminisce of the good old days. Not like they could rely on Sega to make a good Sonic game anymore, or Rare to make anything other than a Kinect party game.
But good news! It seems certain developers are beginning to get nostalgic as well. Once again the Indie scene is coming to the rescue, and much like they re-invigorated 2D platformers, they’re now turning their attention to the third dimension. The poster child for this renaissance is Yooka-Laylee, a game developed by ex-Rareware staff from the N64 era, which is basically a Banjo-Kazooie game in everything but name and characters, right down to the googly eyes and innuendo laden jokes. A Hat in Time is another promising looking project to get your passion for platforms pumping again.
And, mums the word on this one, rumors are gaining strength that Crash Bandicoot may be about to make his grand return. After the reception Sony got last E3 for reviving Shenmue, you’d bet solid cash they’ll be looking to repeat the trick, and reviving a character who was effectively their mascot for a while would be a solid move.
Gamers are a nostalgic bunch. Fondly reminiscing about days of yore with a vintage bottle of Dr Pepper in their hands while complaining that games these days aren’t a patch on those in the past. They don’t take much to whip into a frenzy when a previously classic series is revived. Perhaps that is why the 3D platformer is due a revival. All those kids from the nineties are now earning their own money and have their own disposable income. And they want to relive their childhood by jumping on the heads of cartoon baddies. And why ever shouldn’t they?