Point of Contention: Why 2D Games Are King

In the past few weeks, I’ve been revisiting quite a few old games with greater interest than usual. From complete playthroughs of Metal Slug X, Aladdin on SNES, and Halo: Combat Evolved, to some dabbling in EarthBound, for whatever reason I felt it necessary to revisit some classics that I missed out on long ago. It’s been a fun adventure into the past, and it really helps to put current gaming into perspective when you see the facets of yesterday’s gaming and how they evolved.

One game in particular brought on a realization about the transition from 2D to 3D, specifically how most of the early forays into the third dimension failed to capture the same control ingenuity that had been honed in 2D for so long. Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards is a game beloved by many. Allow me to (attempt) to put it into a negative, yet realistic perspective.

No, I did not play the Nintendo 64 offering of Kirby when I was a kid. The N64 was the console to introduce me to gaming, but I wasn’t old enough to realize that game stores were a thing and I mostly played what I got: a whole lot of Toy Story 2, Mario Kart 64, and Super Mario 64. So I was excited when a friend pulled out a cartridge of Kirby 64 and offered to let me give it a swing. I’ve always been a big of the series and wanted to see how well it first made the transition into 3D.

With exception of Kirby Air Ride (which is NOT a Kirby game), there have only been two true 3D Kirby games to date. Crystal Shards was first, and Return to Dreamland came second on Wii a few years ago. They thrived in 16 bit on both the SNES and the GBA, and Kirby games have always offered a certain smoothness to their controls that give a high level of immersion. It’s a sensation that makes you feel connected to the games with near biological perfection, a feat too often missed by developers.

It becomes a part of you… like a third hand.

Kirby 64 misses that mark. No, I am not going to argue that it’s a bad game. It’s plenty fun, and deliciously unique for a Kirby game. But does it feel nice to play? Does Kirby flow through the levels with a high level of agility? No. It’s slow, like walking through molasses. Suddenly I had to relearn everything I had ever known with Kirby, and I wasn’t pleased.

NOT shown: control fluidity

I began to remember the frustrating experiences I’d had with that whole generation. 3D games are a tenacious bunch, constantly upgrading and evolving with time. Their majority represents a newer, more consumeristic mentality of flash and pizazz that gets outdated fast. There’s a reason Star Fox was one of the ugliest games ever on the SNES, even though it was a system filled with what I consider stunning artistic prowess. Someday I’ll look back at Uncharted and think gross, how did I ever think THIS looked good. I’ll ALWAYS find Muramasa: The Demon Blade beautiful. And that was on the Wii.

Dat art.

Now I’m not trying to be old fashioned for the sake of being a hipster and I certainly do believe that great things can be achieved with 3D. In many ways, Kirby’s Return to Dreamland is everything Kirby’s 64 wasn’t for me. It was bright, beautiful, varied, and most importantly smooth. The industry knows how to make 3D games now, and how to make them work (for the most part, at least). But that doesn’t change the fact that games that relied on fast paced action in the N64 and Playstation era do not function well today when compared to what has been accomplished. And yet, many, many SNES games do.

What I think I’m trying to say is that 2D games are great because they don’t require the same constant evolution that 3D games do. Sure, the jump from NES to SNES or Master System to Genesis was important and entirely necessary. And yes, many great indie 2D games today wouldn’t have been possible even then. But 2D games are the equivalent to black and white film. They don’t age like 3D games or effect-heavy color films. Try watching a color film from the sixties. Try even watching a color film from the nineties. That’s an area of the medium that constantly gets reworked and updated. Black and white films made today look and feel just like they did when they were in prominence, and it’s because they’re just timeless, plain and simple. Ocarina of Time, as jaw dropping and wonderful as it is, wouldn’t have needed a remake on a modern console, even though perfectly available on the Wii’s virtual console in its original form, if it could truly say that for itself. Same goes for Halo, or even my personally beloved Shadow of the Colossus.

Wonderful in every way, and STILL had to be HD-afied.

Again. I like 3D games. Pokemon Gold is the only 2D member of my all time top five games and I love new technology that can show off the latest 3D games have to offer. It’s just important to remember that as Cracked.com once loudly proclaimed, graphics do not equal innovation. Jumping the gun and underestimating the difficulty of emulating the same flow and precision 2D games enjoy to a 3D game is the reason why the N64 and PlayStation era can be one of the least fun to revisit, and certainly why less mechanical JRPG’s exploded at the time.

And we’re no more for the worse.

We’re lucky to live in the third, and almost fourth, predominately 3D console generation (apologies to PC gamers for the lack of recognition in this post… you’re cool too), because developers have had adequate time to raise the standard of control in 3D games to a significantly higher place than before. And that constant evolution and growth is actually quite exciting to be a part of. Many, many good games of late have realized the important of using the graphical flexibility of current technology as a means for atmosphere and depth, instead of just sparkles and cheap appeal. Not all games need to be the circus. The circus is fun, don’t get me wrong, but think about how old it would get if that was the only way to have fun. Forever.

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  1. Never was enough of a graphics nut to notice the difference between 2D and 3D and which felt better. I 'm more of a controls guy anyway.

    I still like Crystal Shards. As for Uncharted, it's too realistic for me to care about it. The only reasons it got game of the year awards back when it was popular were because there wasn't anything for it to compete with then.

    • That is true, 2009 was a bit of an off year. Graphics are the majority of what Uncharted has going for it. I like the games, but their linearity and focus on set pieces over story prevent them from meaning much to me.

      I think this is an issue that mostly annoys overly visual people, such as myself. I'm an animator by day and these things really grab my attention.

      • Ah, that explains a lot. It's your job, which is why you pay a lot of attention to visual detail. It's cool.

  2. I believe the ageing problem is a matter of style rather than 2D vs. 3D.

    In order to create a game that ages gracefully, it is necessary to create an art style that respects the limitations of the hardware and does not try to exceed those limits. As a game designer, if you're dealing with a project where you can say "imagine how much better this would look with a more powerful GPU", then you have chosen a visual style that is beyond the capability of the hardware you're working with. This problem is not necessarily unique to 3D games, nor is it one that cannot be overcome in 3D games either.

    Consider the original Mortal Kombat: A 2D game that aimed for a photo-realistic style, which impressed people with it's digitised graphics. However, it now looks incredibly dated due to this style. Compare the original Street Fighter 2, which has aged much more gracefully due to it's cartoon-style visuals that respect the limitations of the hardware.

    The same goes for 3D games. Consider Journey: The style has clearly been designed to respect the limits of the hardware to the point where it's difficult to argue that more GPU power would significantly improve it. Whilst Uncharted or GTA IV will look dated fifteen years from now, Journey will still look beautiful because the improvements in hardware that allow for better photo-realism would not be able to make Journey look significantly better than it already does.

    This choice isn't just limited to indie developers or small games either. Look at Super Mario Galaxy and consider how much room there is to improve the visuals with the power of the Wii U. Aside from raising the resolution, is there really much that could be done to make this game look any better?

    Note that I'm not arguing that attempting to exceed the limitations of the hardware is necessarily a bad thing. If everyone always worked within the limitations of the hardware, then we wouldn't have any photo-realistic styled games at all.

    • You make an incredibly valid point and one that I agree with entirely. 2D games are not free from being ugly or boring and 3D games are not unable to be beautiful and mechanically sound. Like I said, Kirby's Return to Dreamland represents that a good kirby game can be made in 3D without losing any control fidelity.

      I also like that you brought up Super Mario Galaxy, which way back when I used as a tight-lipped defense for why better graphics on the Wii wasn't completely necessary (although admittedly that was back in my more… vitriolic nintendo fanboy days).

      I think I was more trying to explore how rocky the transition was back then and how much we take solid 3D game design for granted today, as well as how significant 2D games are to a well-rounded video game literacy. Journey will indeed always be beautiful. Perhaps I should have also made a point about how stylization is always a better choice than photo-realism, but the post is what it is.

      • With regards to the rocky transition to 3D, I think it comes down to the novelty factor. When the first PlayStation launched, 3D became possible, so everyone only wanted to play 3D games, and most developers saw the idea of 2D games as practically suicide (perhaps rightly so). People didn't care much that the 3D was crude, just because it was novel and could be done. The Wii caused the same thing to an extent when third party developers capitalised on the novelty of motion controls, yet some of the highest rated Wii games to come out at the end of it's lifecycle were best played using the Classic Controller (Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story, etc.)

        The thing is, as time moves on, novelty factors wear thin and people become more accepting of what came before, so the cycle continues.

        The 3D craze wasn't really a problem in itself, but the hardware of the first generation 32-bit systems wasn't ready to produce anything close to ideal standards for anystyle of 3D graphics. The PlayStation was the SNES of 3D gaming, if you will – sufficient to perform it's purpose, but always limited. As much nostalgia as I have for the original PlayStation, I cannot think of a single game that passes the litmus test of my original post; every 3D game on the system has ample room for improvement due to limitations of the PlayStation hardware.

        I'm not sure that I agree with you that stylisation is always a better choice though. It really depends on the game. For example, I love the Uncharted series the way it is, and I'm not sure I could give a compelling argument as to why changing it's style would improve the immediate experience on offer, aside from allowing it to age more gracefully. In that case, it's a compromise as far as I'm concerned.

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