The Angry Gamer 08.14.03: 2D vs. 3D

Growing up during the Atari and NES days, you were stuck with 2D graphics. If you wanted 3D stuff, you hit your local arcades. Sure, there were some 3D-esque titles (and a few more showed up once the Genesis and SNES appeared), but nothing fancy; most still used sprites and maybe some Mode 7 effects. 2D was the name of the game, and the SNES in particular redefined just how gorgeous 2D graphics can really be.

When 3D gaming hit the mainstream with the release of the Playstation, N64, and to a lesser degree, the Saturn, gamers everywhere were awed. Very rarely had they seen polygonal game characters running around in a 3D space, even though they were jaggy, blurry, and often had a shitty frame rate. Gamers didn’t seem to care. Game publishers noticed this, of course, and began one big rush: “Let’s make everything 3D, because we can!”

Ugh. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you SHOULD. Most games that were made 3D just for the sake of being 3D turned out horrible, due to poor 3D implementation, unfaithfulness to the source material, or even the inability to see that certain genres just don’t work well in 3D. Some of these problems continue even to this day. Let’s look at a few examples, shall we?

Poor 3D implementation: This is due to either a) not actually using the 3D space, or b) horrible camera angles. Final Fantasy VII is an example of the former; sure, the characters are modeled in 3D, but you’re not exploring three dimensionally. There was no poor camera angles, because the camera didn’t move. Even the world map wasn’t 3D; it was the same design as previous Final Fantasy titles. Gamers sucked it up, though, and thought it was the best thing since sliced bread, even though the story was somewhat of a knockoff of Final Fantasy VI. I guess big yellow hair and a machine gun toting Mr. T make all the difference.

Poor camera angles are prevalent in many third person action games. All you need to do is be in an enclosed room, and sooner or later, a wall’s going to block your way. The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time had this problem. As annoying as camera angles can be, they get infinitely worse when you’re trying to fight off enemies; it’s hard to fight what you can’t see!

Unfaithfulness to the source material: Of course this is a twitchy subject, certain to be a war of opinions. But hey, that’s what I’m here for, right? We’ll even start off with one of my favorite series…Mega Man. The blue robot’s first foray into 3D was Mega Man Legends. I can remember Mega-fans (myself included!) flipping out when the game was released, saying that Mega Man wouldn’t look right in 3D, the game design would suffer, etc. As screenshots were released, things only got worse. Luckily, once some more game details leaked out, fans discovered that this was not the Mega Man they knew. It wasn’t even Mega Man X; Capcom did the right thing and made this a completely new game, with references to the original to please hardcore fans. Regardless, you can see the controversy the game originally stirred up. Hardcore fans generally don’t like their games screwed with.

Another game that falls into the unfaithful category is Metroid Prime. Plenty of Nintendophiles raved about this game. I played it…and wasn’t impressed. A 3D Metroid game was possible, sure, but did they have to go and make it a first-person shooter? My personal opinions on FPS games have nothing to do with this; I would’ve reacted the same had Metroid Prime into a strategy game. Sure, the wandering about is still there, but did the focus have to be shifted to blasting things in your crosshairs? I know what response I’ll get for this: “It’s not a first-person shooter, it’s a first-person ADVENTURE!” Gimme a break. How do you open doors? You shoot them. Dispatch enemies? Shoot them. Grapple onto a pole/ledge/etc? Shoot it. See the pattern? The adventuring element takes a back seat.

Genres that don’t work well in 3D: I can sum this up in one word: PLATFORMERS. More often than not, they suck when rendered in three dimensions. This is primarily due to the whole camera problem; your camera better be angle perfect, or you’re going to miss those well-timed jumps. Fixing the camera issue by making jumps “easier” removes the whole point of what platformers are all about. Not all is lost, however; there’s a few gems in the 3D platforming world that show that if developers try hard enough, it can be done. Super Mario 64 and Ratchet and Clank come to mind.

You’ve heard me rant plenty. “Jesus, LC, don’t you have ANYthing positive to say about 3D?! It’s not all bad.” True. I think 3D and 2D can easily coexist. One of the more intelligent things that developers have done is create “2.5D” games; 3D rendered characters and/or backgrounds, but 2D gameplay. Klonoa: Door to Phantomile and Klonoa 2: Lunatea’s Veil are perfect examples of this, as is the upcoming Mega Man X7 (which can also be played in “full” 3D mode, but I’ll pass).

So what’s the future of 2D gaming, the standby of grumpy gamers like myself? The Game Boy Advance provided a 2D renaissance of sorts. But sadly, that probably won’t last; Sony’s upcoming PlayStation Portable (PSP) will boast 3D graphics, which means that Nintendo’s GBA successor certainly will. While 2D games will still appear, they’ll be few and far between, just as they are on consoles now. Enjoy them while you can, folks…soon, we’ll be inundated with nothing but polygons and splines.