Video games are inextricably linked to technological progression. Designers have always been and will always be limited in some way by the boundaries of the hardware and interface they are creating the game for. Understandably, the idea of making games that utilize 3D space was an enticing idea when it was becoming more feasible in the 1990s. 3D gaming truly began to take off in the era of the N64 and PS1, where it was considered the hot new thing. By comparison, 2D games were often looked down on as feeling antiquated and. Perspectives are a bit more balanced now, with most people accepting that there will always be room for both 2D and 3D games, as they offer fundamentally different experiences. But during this new advent, many publishers were eager to bring their successful franchise into this new dimension. Some franchises fared better than others, and some took a very, very long time to make the leap into 3D, if they ever even did at all. This article will focus on taking a very abridged look at some of those transitions from 2D to 3D, and what changed in the process.
The new frontier of designing 3D games was the Wild West. Everyone was trying to make something functional and fun with the tools they had, and some worked better than others. When bringing “classic” franchise Bubsy into the 3rd dimension (in this case, the word “classic” just means “old”), the designers used what was more or less a brutalist approach for a system to move and jump in a 3D world. The camera was locked squarely behind Bubsy and would swing downward sickeningly in an attempt to let you see where you are going to land. Super Mario 64, on the other hand, used a more intuitive system of untethering Mario’s movements from the viewpoint, allowing him to move in any direction while the camera could move independent of him. The concept of a free-moving 3D camera was so new that Nintendo decided to anthropomorphize the concept by making the camera an actual character (a Lakitu with a camera on a fishing pole) that was present in the level following Mario around. This would become the norm after some other games had some additional growing pains with tanks controls of one type or another.
Some designers made concessions since 3D assets were exponentially more complicated to design and animate than most 2D ones. While many 2D games contained many levels with unique environments, some very influential early 3D games decided to make it a priority to get as much bang for their buck out of their levels. 2D Mario games and others of its ilk had previously been obstacle courses in which the primary goal is to just get to the end of the level. Collectables and power ups were largely optional bonuses. But Super Mario 64 instituted a fundamental design change that pretty much codified the biggest games of the generation. Instead of dozens and dozens of short levels, the game had only 15 courses that were more open-ended and designed to be traversed multiple times. Instead of being one simple course with one goal at the end, the purpose of the game was to collect the stars that were scattered in different areas of the map. Re-entering the course to tackle another star would usually send you to a completely different corner of the level. It all still involved some amount of jumping and navigating obstacles, but the design and incentives were fundamentally different. This style of game would come to be known as a Collectathon. Many of the successful franchises that entered the 3D gaming space followed and expanded on this design formula, with some executing it better than others. Numerous older franchises eventually made their way into 3D using some variation of this design philosophy, including Earthworm Jim, Rayman, and Donkey Kong. Donkey Kong 64 built off of the formula Rare had previously implemented in the Banjo Kazooie games, and stretched it to its limits with numerous collectables, some of which could only be picked up by specific characters. Collectathons went strong for many years before fizzling out a bit during the Xbox 360/PS3 era. Though they have had something of a renaissance lately, with some high-profile releases like Super Mario Odyssey, Yooka-Laylee, and A Hat in Time building off of the established base. Numerous smaller indie projects also seek to re-collect that magic.
Some other franchises also saw fit to shift genres when entering 3D. Ninja Gaiden went from being combat platformers to full-on Hack n’ Slash games focused squarely on combat. Castlevania also followed this trend with the Lords of Shadow games, largely abandoning the exploration and upgrade-based world gating that the 2D entries still use in favor of a combat focus.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is still often labeled as one of the best games of all time. Much of its praise is due to the fact that it took the adventurous spirit of the previous games in the series and adapted it into a 3D format that was more immersive and dramatic than ever. Sure, there was less freedom in the order you could tackle the game compared to older entries; but the game still felt like a Zelda adventure at its core. OoT is probably the perfect encapsulation of why people were so excited for 3D games. The promise of familiar characters and worlds being brought one step closer to reality was very enticing. One of the smartest features the game introduced to help players manage tracking enemies in 3D was Z-Targeting, which locked the camera on a specific point and let Link sidestep around it, letting the player make accurate attacks and dodges. Lock-on targeting systems are still ubiquitous in many games featuring 3rd-person melee combat.
After Super Metroid became a bona fide classic on the SNES, the Metroid franchise skipped the N64 completely outside of a few guest appearances in other games. Despite initial skepticism towards its first-person perspective when it was revealed, 2002’s Metroid Prime was lauded as a faithful and smart evolution of the franchise's core ideals and design. Many future games would take inspiration from how it brought the exploration, upgrades, and progression systems into 3D in ways that made sense. It wasn’t an exact 1:1 translation of Metroid’s mechanics, but it almost perfectly encapsulated its spirit. Recent releases like Returnal and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order owe a lot to what Metroid Prime pioneered.
While Mario pioneered the evolution from course-clearing to collectathon, he has also had a few successful forays into 3D course-clear design. The Super Mario Galaxy games were something of a middle ground between the two designs; but Super Mario 3D Land and its sequel, Super Mario 3D World, were true translations of the classic “get to the flagpole” Mario level design. These are basically true Mario platformers, but this time in a linear 3D world that allows for omni-directional movement and requires little, if any, camera control from the player.
Kirby is by far one of the latest bloomers when it comes to making the jump to true 3D. The pink puffball had only dipped his toes into 3D with some spinoffs like Kirby Air Ride or Kirby’s Blowout Blast. But he fully took the plunge with Kirby and the Forgotten Land in 2022. The game is essentially the classic Kirby formula, but in a very accessible 3D world.