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From Space to Shining Space: Nintendo’s 2D Versus 3D Platforming
Nintendo’s gaming history spans a rich collection of genres, yet it always owes its original success to one genre in particular: platforming. In light of such critical acclaim attributed to Super Mario 3D World, Nintendo’s platforming talent has never been better in a time now crowded with such strong peers like Rayman Legends and Tearaway. All the while, the medium’s been clearly divided over whether to abandon its two dimensional roots or more fully embrace its fresher three-dimensional counterpart. With the company’s eyes set on keeping our favorite Italian plumber jumping around the block for a long time to come, there’s a question to be made: Is platforming’s future in two dimensions or three?
The year of 2013 was undoubtedly a year of many things. From the year of the 3DS to the year of next-gen systems, platformers arguably saw their best line-up of releases in a longtime. Rayman Legends continued Rayman’s side-scrolling rebirth in Origins with the craziest platforming insanity players have seen in a while. Guacamelee realized everything that the classic Metroid/Vania genre had held so dear. Skylanders and Disney Infinity’s 3D mania both garnered the wallets and nostalgia of kids and parents alike with its games’ old licenses in a technically new IP. If there’s anything noticeable in this list, it’s that platformers have been slowly evolving to include more diversity than ever, yet maintaining a sizable discrepancy in their number. While Skylanders and Disney Infinity topped the top ten charts for months, Rayman, Guacamelee, Puppeteer, and Nintendo’s own New Super Mario Bros. DLC of New Super Luigi U represented a stagnated branch of platforming nearly as old as gaming itself. One could say that all the above’s releases prove that platformers of all sizes are succeeding in their own ways, yet there still feels like there’s something missing. Two dimensional platformers are seemingly taking a backseat to their younger siblings.
Among other things, 2D platformers have always been rooted in not only their nostalgia, but their simple joys. All of those listed above display a beautiful and idiosyncratic presentation, a rich, subtle score throughout their many hours of play, all of which speak to their winning sense of humor. They feel personal and tailored to the glory days that they seek to rekindle. If critics’ usual high praise for such is any indication, older gamers have much love for them still. However, it’s undeniable that their younger peers are freely taking advantage of these games’ successors more often than not. Truth be told, the Raymans and Guacamelees are flat titles in the style as old as Donkey Kong. In spite of its name, New Super Mario Bros. itself is now nothing new and perhaps never was, cleverly being something old in a new package, now diluting its excitement through the repetition of its gameplay restrictions. There’s coming a day when the younger generations are growing up on Super Mario Galaxies and Disney Infinities of the world and not the Super Mario Worlds of times past.
In the 21st century, it’s obviously a choice rather than an inability to be anything different than flat in a clever framing device that’s more than a little self-conscious. Each level of Rayman Legends is set in wacky dioramas akin to paintings and to merely start a level, you literally leap into a flat canvas. Guacamelee, meanwhile, likens itself to a cubist masterpiece in the vein of its Spanish/Picasso inspirations. In the same manner as contemporary fiction needing a framework to employ traditional narrative techniques to reference its own doings, these games almost openly communicate our childlike delight knowingly and willfully to great success.
Between Nintendo’s recent interpretations of 2D Donkey Kong and Mario titles to such indie platforming breakthroughs like Braid, Limbo, Fez, and Thomas Was Alone, along with the hundreds of their jumping brethren for mobile devices, we game in an amazingly diverse era for 2D platform games. We are, however, a very long way from the golden era of 3D platformers commenced by Super Mario 64 in 1997 and followed by classics like Banjo-Kazooie, Psychonauts, Sonic Adventure, Ratchet & Clank, Jak & Daxter, Spryo, and Crash Bandicoot. Apart from the success stories of Nintendo’s Super Mario Galaxies and 3D World entries, it’s hard to think of a 3D platformer in the past five years that matches the polish, quality, and ambition of their predecessors as opposed to simple commercial success.
It can be easily be said that 3D platforming has, even at its best, never approaches the precise controls of their 2D counterparts. When the center piece of your game is simply the jump, it’s easer to hone it within a 2D plane with varied, yet more direct barriers. In addition, 2D games are cheaper and easier to make. That’s vital when you’re a three-person indie studio. In other ways, a 2D platformer is no less imaginative, but far stricter within its given rules of design similar to a painter working on a scrolling canvas. Creating a 3D world involves a more exhaustive list of physics and often unpredictable level of architecture over painting. It’s much less painstaking painting a picture than building a house. Both are beautiful, yet one’s less time consuming.
This example exemplifies the nature of the industry: Fewer big-budget companies risk supporting flops. Instead they back more mid-price projects, downloadable content, and indie games. Though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Two dimensional platformers may be the hallmark of well-understood and accompanying genres in gaming and their simple, addictive styles and established rules allow plenty of gamers to play them.
Yet I wonder what’s been missed rather than lost when considering the very much untapped potential of 3D platforming worlds. Nintendo continues to lead the forefront in terms of the platformer genre and its contributions to it are of the most expected polish and splendor. Nintendo has relied quite successfully on its New Super Mario Bros. entries to supply its systems, from the DS and Wii era to the 3DS and Wii U, with bountiful goomba-stomping pleasures. There’s a strong sense that their magic has been diluted with each subsequent release, and whereas the Super Mario Galaxies pushed the medium forward to unprecedented levels, New Super Mario Bros. was casting its forlorn eyes at the past. It can be said that it was certainly fun while it lasted, but the party goers are needed to move on.
Who can forget playing Eelly Mouth’s dentist in Super Mario Sunshine? Or flying into space for the first time in Super Mario Galaxy? I doubt a 2D platformer could ever capture the sense of possibility and scope of either as much as I wouldn’t like to admit. In many ways, though, Nintendo seems to be stalling for an entry capturing the best of its old 3D roots as is the rest of the gaming market. Super Mario 3D World for Wii U wonderfully blended the old and new roots of its counterparts’ shared histories, symbolizing the transitional period of its parent console in the company’s history books between the glorious past and hopefully glorious future. While I would doubt the game’s viability in sustaining a continuing franchise akin to New Super Mario Bros.’s quickly unsustainable formula, it demonstrates a needed trend. Platforming’s future is and will be tied to 3D. Who wouldn’t love the idea of a 3D, open-world Mario game that Isle Delphino came so close to realizing? I would. And I would wonder if many would agree.