By the mid-’90s, the 16-bit era was coming to an end. The advancement in technology brought us some incredible games that looked, sounded, and played better than their 8-bit counterparts. Games like Super Mario World, Super Castlevania IV, and Mega Man X showed that developers had perfected 2D gameplay and level design.
But as gaming technology was advancing, gamers were looking towards the future for the next big thing: 3D. Some 16-bit games, like Star Fox or Pilotwings, simulated 3D gameplay, while others, like Donkey Kong Country and Mortal Kombat, imitated 3D graphics. Though these games were great, the unveiling of the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation truly gave gamers their first look at the potential of 3D video gaming.
The challenge of 3D game design
Creating 3D games brought an entirely new set of challenges for game designers. With only one plane to work with, it’s much easier to design levels and obstacles for 2D sidescrolling games. The ability to move in infinite directions in 3D makes for significantly more complex level design.
Every part of a 3D level is much more spread out than it would be in a 2D level, causing poorly designed 3D worlds to feel empty. Empty levels were hardly ever a problem in 2D games because everything was designed to be tightly packed and compact. With infinite movement, exploration becomes a key part of 3D level design. In 2D levels, everybody knows that you’re supposed to head to the right, but 3D levels, in their resemblance to the real world, naturally encourage players to head off in different directions and explore. This makes designing linear levels a challenge, which could cause some players to get lost. Some 2D games were more natural conversions to 3D than others. It’s significantly easier to imagine a nonlinear game with a top-down perspective like The Legend of Zelda playing in 3D as opposed to a sidescroller like Mario. For games that didn’t transition as easily, the challenge for game designers was to create levels that incorporated elements of 2D games enough to retain fans while taking advantage of the 3D world to keep things fresh.
Nearly every major game franchise at least attempted to make the transition from 2D to 3D during this time. To show you how the transition was made from a game design perspective we’re going to look at two major platforming games and their first 3D entry: Super Mario 64 and Sonic Adventure.
Mario makes the jump to 3D
Nintendo knew right away that creating a 3D Mario game wasn’t as simple as changing the camera perspective. In the 2D Mario games, the objective was the same in every level: get to the end by running to the right. While this linear design was considered early on in Mario 64’s development, Nintendo quickly realized that moving around in 3D was fun enough on its own. 2D Mario basically had four moves: run, jump, crouch, and swim. The fun of 2D Mario games wasn’t in using those moves, but in avoiding obstacles to reach the end of the level.
In Mario 64, Mario’s moveset has been upgraded dramatically to match the more complex level design. Mario could now wall jump, triple jump, long jump, backflip, side jump, and more. This gave players significantly more options in choosing how to navigate a level, adding a high skill cap to the game without making it too complicated for more casual players. This moveset has proven so fun to use that it served as the base for every 3D Mario game since, including 2017’s Super Mario Odyssey.
The level design factored in this movement. It would be a waste to give Mario an expansive, in-depth moveset and have the goal be simply reaching the end of a level. Instead of having dozens of small levels, Mario 64 has 15 huge worlds, each with multiple objectives to complete.
There are two major reasons for this. First, 3D technology was in its early stages and development was expensive, so Nintendo saved time and money by creating 15 large varied levels as opposed to a huge number of small levels. Second, 3D level design is much more conducive to slower-paced, exploration-based worlds than tightly packed platforming challenges. Simply navigating a 3D world with Mario’s new moveset was fun enough, and having varied objectives allowed players to explore more lifelike worlds than were ever possible in 2D. The massive 3D worlds of Mario 64 blew people’s minds back in 1996, and their open-ended structure combined with Mario’s diverse moveset gave them a replay factor that was unmatched by 2D games in the series.
It’s pretty much unanimously agreed upon that Super Mario 64 is the best 2D to 3D transition in video game history. Nintendo made just the right adjustments to the popular Mario formula to help the game feel unique without overwhelming past fans. For being a first generation 3D game, Super Mario 64 holds up remarkably well today and is a shining example of Nintendo’s thoughtful game design.
Sonic speeds into the third dimension
The story of Sonic Adventure is very different than that of Super Mario 64. For starters, Adventure wasn’t Sega’s first attempt at a 3D Sonic game. Sonic 3D Blast and Sonic R were both early attempts by Sega to make 3D entries in the franchise and unfortunately, both games are awful (despite their wonderful soundtracks).
The Sonic franchise mostly took a backseat during the 64-bit early 3D era as Sega studied its competitors’ attempts at 3D game design. Unlike 2D Mario games, 2D Sonic games had a momentum-based platforming design that allowed skilled players to fly through levels by chaining bounces and jumps. Early Sonic games had much more spectacle than 2D Mario games, as technically impressive segments had Sonic flying through loops and running through pipes. Though these segments took control away from the player, they were impressive enough at the time to make up for it. Because Sonic is a significantly faster-paced platformer than Mario, it was technically unfeasible for Sega to create huge cinematic levels with N64/PSX/Sega Saturn era technology. Sega’s first big attempt at creating a non-spinoff 3D Sonic game came with the Dreamcast, a console with power more comparable to a PS2 than an N64.
While Mario 64 was an attempt by Nintendo to move forward with the Mario series, Sonic Adventure was an attempt by Sega to totally reboot it for the new generation. Sega tried to create a Sonic experience that was only possible on (what were at the time) next-gen consoles, complete with fully-voiced cutscenes, revamped character designs, and a complex story.
This cinematic approach to the game influenced the level design. Sonic Adventure features multiple hub worlds that unite all of the game’s levels. These hubs are massive and filled with secrets and NPC’s, making them seem more like lived-in worlds and less like 3D obstacle courses. These worlds were big enough to actually get lost in, but a helpful hint system mostly alleviates this.
The actual levels of Sonic Adventure resemble 2D Sonic levels in design and structure, as the goal of each Sonic level is to reach the end of the stage. (Note: There are seven playable characters in the game, but for the sake of simplicity we’ll be focusing on Sonic’s gameplay and levels). While Sonic’s moveset didn’t receive the overhaul that Mario got in 64, he received a simple but crucial move: the homing attack. By pressing the jump button in midair, Sonic will home in on enemies, springs, and other interactable objects. This simple addition helped alleviate the depth perception problem that plagued many 3D platformers, though it did arguably take some control away from the player. The only other significant addition to Sonic’s moveset is the ability to spin dash while moving, allowing the player to build up an insane amount of speed.
Sonic’s levels are focused on momentum and moving fast just like the 2D games, but they have a much greater focus on spectacle this time around. Moving far beyond simple loop-de-loops, Sonic Adventure had the blue hedgehog flying through a tornado, outrunning a killer whale, snowboarding down a mountain, and speeding down skyscrapers. These segments are flashy and entertaining, but they almost completely strip control away from the player. Attempting to jump or move around during these sections often breaks their scripting, either slowing Sonic to a screeching halt or sending him flying towards his doom. While it feels great to be moving so fast in a 3D space, the lack of direct control can make the game feel too much like a movie rather than a game. Each level is carefully crafted to be beaten in a certain way, and attempting to complete levels in an unorthodox way causes the level design to break down.
While Sonic Adventure succeeds in translating Sonic’s trademark speed to 3D, its focus on tightly scripted cinematic segments, as opposed to freeform gameplay, hurts the game as its flashy sections get less impressive with age.
What early 3D games are your favorite? Do they still hold up? Let us know!