In The Salmon of Doubt, Douglas Adams outlined rules describing people’s reactions to technology. You’ve probably read them. In short, he suggested what’s in the world when you arrive is normal, and what’s invented when you’re relatively young is new and exciting. However, whatever rocks up when you’re past it is against the natural order of things. That last one is how I felt about 3D platform games.
I know: old man yells at cloud. I’m aware this response was down to technology moving on without me, decades ago; but there was a tangible feeling during the mid-1990s that every game suddenly had to be in 3D, by law. It was like everyone’s design brains stopped working. Gone was any debate regarding the suitability of presentation formats. The notion of whether a game would be better in 3D was superfluous. Gamers were hungry for 3D, we were told – and they had snazzy new hardware to prove it. Therefore, all games would now be in 3D! The end.
This felt prescriptive and wrong, eroding what I loved about the genre. Much of the appeal of platform games was down to their clockwork nature – an emphasis on placement, precision, and timing. Perhaps too much emphasis at times, as evidenced by my younger self’s screams of anguish when Monty Mole yet again abruptly exploded across the screen after lightly brushing a patrolling foe. Or that deep resignation on realising Miner Willy would never get a good night’s sleep. But there was a feeling of total control – and that these titles felt right in having a healthy disinterest in the third dimension.
As gaming hardware and creator capabilities evolved, games in this space became increasingly expansive and clever. Jet Set Willy and Impossible Mission gave way to the masterpiece in design that was Super Mario Bros. I gawped at the astonishing technical prowess of Turrican II, casually throwing screen-sized enemies about on an ageing 8-bit Commodore 64. I was exhilarated by the sheer speed of Sonic.
Then some idiot ruined everything, because platform games had to be in 3D. Suddenly, I had to grapple with depth and cameras. Everything felt woolly, like directing a jelly. Nothing clicked, whether I was playing a bear, a bandicoot, a newly 3D speeding hedgehog, or a moustachioed man somehow still claiming he’s a plumber. (There has got to be some dodgy tax stuff going on with that.)
Having happily regressed into ‘old man’ mode, I was delighted when 2D platform games made a triumphant return on handhelds. All was right with the world again! But today, 3D platformers – having been out of vogue for a while – are on the rise, making a comeback of their own. Yet having thought about this for a while, that doesn’t fill me with horror this time around.
Why? Largely because there’s a feeling in gaming today that everything is now acceptable. Any shift towards 3D is not being demanded in response to technical evolution, and is instead driven by a combination of nostalgia and suitability regarding the games in question. Design brains aren’t turned off this time, and people will carry on creating 2D platformers for old farts like me as well. Joy!
We’re in a place where the best of this generation’s 3D and 2D platform games can happily coexist – and folks like me can stop worrying that industry overlords will decree all future iterations of Manic Miner must only be in 3D. Still, it could have all been worse: a maniac recently made a Sonic POV gameplay video on Twitter and it’s genuinely terrifying. At least 1990s platform gaming only went 3D rather than full POV.