And so we return to the world of 3-D platformers and their inevitable return to the forefront of gaming. Still don’t believe me? Alrighty. Then dig on this, cats. If one looks at the trends seen in the revival of 2D platformers, then one can see how young designers can take a genre that was once thought dead and inject it with plenty of new ideas that were never thought possible during their hey-day. Look no further than to games like Braid and Fez for examples of this phenomenon at work. Heck, just look at games like Super Meat Boy, which proved that well-worn genres could still be fine-tuned to sublime perfection, causing them to infect the entirety of its player’s free time. I mean, can you imagine how big a vegetable you are going to become if Team Meat ever gets the idea to make a tribute to Banjo-Kazooie? If you apply that same addictive, perfection-driven design to a 3D landscape, just imagine the visceral overload you could provide the player.
And why stop there? Why not take other recent ideas and implement them into a brand new genre? If you thought that Super Mario Galaxy was a mind-warping experience, just wait until you start seeing games that feature the same inter-dimensional gate hopping of a game like Portal, only set in a third-person perspective and starring a bear with a bird in his backpack. One’s mouth begins to drool at the possibilities of a game like Limbo being set in a fully realized three-dimensional landscape. There are definitely plenty of modern game mechanics that could be used to enrich the 3D platformer. That being said, one must also consider what it was about the 3-D platformer that captured people’s imaginations to begin with and if those classic mechanics and tropes can still work in today’s market.
The industry is clearly very different from the way it was at the dawn of the PS2/Gamecube/Xbox era, and anyone attempting to design a 3D platfromer in this day and age is going to have to account for those differences. Despite that, if you were to strip away everything that made a 3D platformer unique from every other game out there in the name of broadening its appeal, you may as well be making a different type of game altogether. If you look at a game like “Ratchet and Clank,” you can see how blurry the line between platformer and action-game can be if you focus too much on weapons and combat.
Don’t get me wrong, a 3D patformer should definitely have combat, but this genre can offer so much more than just pulse-pounding action. The thing that made games such as Mario 64, Donkey Kong 64, and Banjo-Kazooie so engaging was the way they presented you with a huge, sprawling word that was filled with things to collect, characters to interact with, and areas to explore. Things like hub worlds that lead to bigger and more interesting areas can still be used to great effect today if developers admit to themselves that not every game needs to be set on rails. Even item collection, one of the most derided and parodied aspects of the genre, can still work if you provide the player with proper motivation.
If it is designed properly, Item collection doesn’t have to be a chore. Indeed, it is usually the thing that makes the 3D-platformer unique from other genres. The common belief is that gamers are too easily distracted to be bothered with heavy amounts of item-collection, but I think this way of thinking is pretty close-minded. The truly classic 3D platformers made item-collection engaging not only by making items immediately useful via things like weapons (which is still a great idea, just for the record) but through the simple satisfaction of a job well done. The only thing more gratifying than collecting a magic star is collecting a magic star after scaling a giant mountain while dinosaur Vikings shoot flaming arrows at you from helicopters. Gamers don’t always need instant gratification to be engaged in a game. Sometimes, all you need is a reward that is equal to the work people invested in the task.
The 3D platformer is far from dead and deserves another moment in the sun. There are still plenty of interesting ideas that have yet to be implemented into the genre and it would be a shame to see these ideas go unused simply because of sales. 3D platformers are a part of our history as gamers, and it is about time we pay tribute this history by honoring it with innovation and admiration. Nintendo and Mario shouldn’t be allowed to run an entire genre, and thanks to services like Steam, PSN, and Xbox Live, there is no reason why that should be the case. So, to all you young designers out there: look back at the games you grew up with, get to thinking about how you could make them better, and start making it happy. I will be eagerly awaiting the results.