The Evolution of 3D platforming in videogames

I‘ve thought about 3D platforming a lot in videogames because it’s one the few videogame subgenres that I‘ve played a lot of as they were evolving in pretty much real time. I’ve spent a lot of time playing Western and Japanese developed 3D platformer games, and it‘s interesting to note how differently they’ve approached the genre with the games they've designed.

The Mario 3D platformers and the first entry in the Ape Escape series, for example sure loved powerups and gadgets! Without those power ups and gadgets those games don't provide you with very much to do except jump (or double jump or triple jump as the case may be) to platforms that are usually mysteriously floating.

The Western developed 3D platformers worked similarly, at first. Games like Spyro the Dragon had you moving around largely barren empty spaces, with floating platforms. It's interesting to note though that Spryo's moveset was bit more varied than the Japanese developed 3D platformer mascots because the character was designed so that it performing certain actions besides jumping make sense. It makes sense for a dragon to be able to glide, or hover as Spyro could, but it doesn't make sense for a fat guy with a hat to fly as he could in Mario 64... without a powerup that temporary enables him to do so. I think that's part of the reason why these games slowly transformed from Spyro to stuff like Sly Cooper and Jak & Daxter. The first Sly Cooper had you sneaking around in very linear Crash Bandicoot like levels, but again it makes a little bit more sense to sneak around as a raccoon. The "powerup" was basically that raccoons are animals known to move around at night quietly. In Jak & Daxter they took away the level transitions and gave you a more open world in comparison to explore.

As the Sly and Jak sequels were released new features that expanded the games beyond simple jumping in 3D were added. Sly added more slealth mechanics when you played as Sly at least (because unfortunately one "innovation" the sequels added were more playable characters :/) such as the ability to pickpocket enemies and stun enemies. Jak added a whole bunch of stuff: vehicles, a hoverboard, cops, guns, and even desert buggies in the 3rd game. The platforming in Jak 2 and Jak 3 took a backseat to all of the other things you needed to do to move forward very often. Which, thinking about it a little bit it's not surprising that these games developers next games were Infamous and Uncharted respectively. There's platforming in those games too, but they are a complete afterthought in comparison to how they were designed in their first attempts at developing games in the genre. 3D platforming slowly morphed to Parkour, and it was Western developers that took it there through iterating on the basics of Mario 64, and then eventually sidelining them as time progressed.

There's a ton of games that are part of this slow metamorphosis that I sadly haven't played yet like the early 2000's Prince of Persia games, the Assassin's Creed series, Mirror's Edge, Dying Light, etc, but I was curious to know if there are any Japanese developed 3D platformers that I haven't played or heard of that either use Parkour as a mechanic as in the above examples I mentioned earlier, or if there are interesting Japanese developed 3D platformers that I have missed that are interesting to you.

I think Jumping Flash! 1 and 2 are worth looking at, both for the first PlayStation, but also available on PSN for the Vita and the PS3. I think they predated Mario64 by just a bit, and as a result they‘re kinda like a wild glimpse into an abandoned branch of 3D platformers from before the genre got codified. Expect them to feel a little frustrating and I’ve known at least a few people who get motion sickness from playing them, but I think they're great.

I have particularly found the Crash Bandicoot series to be interesting, because it's off in its own world - very much 3D interpretation of 2D mechanics, just scrolling into the screen instead of to the side. Interesting also to see that a new one is coming out this year!

As for Japanese games, there's a bunch of odd stuff out there to consider:

EARLY:

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    floating runner. This game is kind of a mess but it's interesting to look at since it really feels like it evolved out of the early PC scene. fixed camera, high difficulty, big demands on the player, not so many tools in your arsenal.

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    Sonic Jam. The 3D in here isn't quite a prototype for Sonic Adventure, but almost is? It's Sega's first half-attempt at a 3D platformer, taking the 2D elements of Sonic, like the bounce pads and whatnot, and bringing them into 3D. Other saturn games like Ninpen Manmaru took a similar-ish approach.

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    the sonic adventure games are interesting for their use of the homing attack and Sonic's ability to hop small gaps and grab ledges and stuff, which obviously evolved over time. Sonic has some parkour-style stuff going on as it evolves so might be good to look at?

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    PS2 era in general has a lot to look at in terms of where japan evolved the platforming genre. Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex is one, with very interesting motion (two kinds of jump), though it's easy to get stuck in there, in my opinion.

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    Ico and SOTC sort of show that the mechanics of the platforming were becoming less important to some devs than the motion or the look of it.

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    nightshade and chain diver are interesting to look at when it comes to air combos, as is bujingai with its wall running and the like.


  • LATER:

  • - games like Bayonetta and Nier are maybe the closest analog, but they tend to focus on staying in the air more than working to get up platforms.


  • Overall I think maybe a good framing for this stuff is "youth-oriented" vs "adult-oriented" platforming. In the west, youth-oriented platforming is pretty firmly in the Ratchet or Spyro camp - lots of horizontal space, floaty jumps, projectile attacks, and cute graphics.

    Adult-oriented western platformers, like assassin's creed, mirror's edge, uncharted, etc, do tend toward parkour, and that seems to be the trend - and contrary to being oriented toward adults, some of these won't even let you jump in the wrong direction half the time because they're so focused on making sure your hands and feet are in the right places.

    In Japan on the other hand, you've got youth-oriented platformers like Mario and Sonic - both of these feel a bit more skill-based and points-oriented than their western counterparts. More specific challenges and gimmicks and less of a wide "go anywhere" mentality.

    In terms of adult-oriented platformers, it feels like you'd have to stretch to even say there were any. Bayonetta and other platinum games have sort of taken that space on but they're more about combat than jumping really, and so wind up being more about stringing combos together in the air (look at nightshade and chain diver for prececessors there). There's Ninja Gaiden, kind of... but unless I'm missing something this area seems sort of empty unless you group some adjacent genres in there.

    Interesting to think about! I'll do more pondering.

    I‘ve played the early 3D Sonic games, Sonic Adventure 1&2, Sonic Heroes and Shadow the Hedgehog around the time of their release, and for some reason I completely forgot about them when writing the OP. I think part of the reason why those games slipped my mind is because they weren’t necessarily used as a blueprint for many games that released after except for it's own sequels.

    It's interesting that Japanese developers and Western developers both ended up ultimately sidelining pure 3D platforming in their games. No one makes them anymore, with Nintendo being the exception with Super Mario Odyssey of course, and then stuff I don't even personally count like Yooka-Laylee, and A Hat in Time. Based on what I've heard about those games they are basically modern remakes of the Rare developed N64 platformers, with a more modern look.

    Thanks for all of the titles dropped in the thread so far everyone, some of them I haven't heard of, and I'm curious to learn more about.

    I've been wanting to get further into some of the less popular post-sega games from Artoon, like Blinx, Billy Hatcher, etc. I have a feeling they might give a glimpse into what a ratchet and clank from japan might have been like.

    I really wonder whether there are no "for adults" platformers out of Japan now. I guess The Last Guardian is one? But it retains the floppy controls of Ueda's other stuff. And Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom maybe?? Hmm. That's not much.

    Speaking of Sega , the Jet Set Radio games I think fit pretty firmly in that mid-period but still hold up really well today. They balance the parkour style of platforming you mentioned with a sense of freedom in the space that those other games don‘t allow, and these big playgrounds afford you so much time to get better at manipulating yourself around them. There’s no need for powerups because you get better at seeing the lines you can take to reach areas, sometimes not stopping or touching the ground for extended lengths of time. In that way they combine the best parts of the adult-oriented go-anywhere action with the youth-oriented skillsets.

    God, imagine a new JSR game on the Switch.........

    I loved Jet Set Radio. It‘s an amazing videogame, and manages to hold up incredibly well. I hesitate to call it a 3D platformer though. I say that because of what little I know about sports like skateboarding, and roller blading performing tricks like the ones performed in Jet Set Radio are actually very common. Sure, the style of the world is turned up to 11 compared to real life (even America’s cops don‘t hunt teens spraying graffiti with helicopters and their entire police force), but it’s still ultimately a really cool sports game with a lot of simple jumping in 3D on platforms, and rails.

    I was thinking about the "adult" and "youth" oriented platforming that exodus brought up earlier, and it's pretty true. In fact, I would go even farther and say that's kinda how games developed in West versus Japan are different in general. I don't say this as any sort of hater; I love the videogame output of the Westerners and the Japanese a great deal, and they've created the best videogames we have as consumers without question. But, a lot of the Japanese videogames mentioned even in this thread are pretty much just Anime (really cartoonish, silly, or stuff like Gundam which can still be really serious), and Westerners can make a lot of stuff, but they can't make Anime like the Japanese can.

    I got a little bit off topic. What I would really like is to outline the 3D platformers as they have evolved, and write down what features each of them added in an easy to digest form that shows the links from one to another. Something like this perhaps:

    Super Mario 64 -> Banjo Kazooie -> Banjo Tooie -> Donkey Kong 64

    Where the connection that we are illustrating in the above example is that the Rare developed N64 platformers took the camera systems, and collectibles introduced in Super Mario 64, and expanded them until you get the collection fest that is DK64.

    I'll come back to this thread as I think of more examples of a predefined evolutionary path for the genre. I'd like to be able to map out the games that I've played at least.

    I‘d like to add that Blinx, and Billy Hatcher are games that I was interested in as a youth, but some reason never purchased or played! I’m sure that they can be somehow appropriately mapped in the mid-period of 3D platformer development similar to how Jak, Ratchet, and Sly can be marked.

    Would love to see you map this out for yourself - even just for one particular person seeing how they interacted with these evolutions would be neat!

    I would throw Sunset Overdrive into the mix as the high end of parkour meets 3D platforming. Separate from Dying Light and Mirror‘s Edge as it is first person. Also completely open world. And owing a ton to Jet Set Radio. The platforming in the game really only hangs together because of how much it relies on Jet Set Radio Future in particular’s grinding mechanics.

    Brandon mentioned Blinx and sadly, for all the style that game has, its play spaces feel much flatter than anything on N64. Though I would say Billy Hatcher is maybe the last Eastern non-Nintendo game to play in that manner that I actually enjoyed. Super Lucky's Tale also exists, but sure isn't much fun.

    @diamonddigger870#2551 one concept that you kind of touched on that i‘ve paid a lot of attention to is the use of slowing/stalling in the air following Banjo-Kazooie as well. in Mario 64, you only really have one kick as a way to stop yourself from falling, but in BK (and subsequent Rare platformers), there’s a lot of focus on the ability to jump and then float or slow your fall to fine-tune exactly where you land.

    following this, you can see Super Mario Sunshine have FLUDD's hover nozzle as a way to mimic this. it's been a while since i've played them, but i believe the Ratchet and Clank games also allow you to slowfall using Clank? in Mario Galaxy, you have an aerial spin that lets you stall, and Mario Odyssey expands a LOT on the abilities you have in the air. it's interesting because you can see a lot of character action games have similar gameplay because of their use of air-dodges and such, as @exodus mentioned before.

    as to your question to if any japanese games have "parkour style platforming," Sekiro is by no means a Platformer, but i did find a lot of its movement to be similar to some of the parkour-esque games you mentioned and there are definitely some platforming segments. lots of running, jumping from walls, long jumps across buildings/chasms (albeit, you do have a grappling hook lol).

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    @diamonddigger870#2395 The Mario 3D platformers and the first entry in the Ape Escape series, for example sure loved powerups and gadgets!

    For Mario 64, I would argue it was the exact opposite. Super Mario was all about power-ups until then, but Super Mario 64 pretty much erased power-ups by removing key mechanics such as the Red Mushroom (Mario is always big/super) and making the three power ups (flying cap, invisible cap and metal cap) sparse and limited in time.

    Instead, Mario became much more mobile : he could do wall kicks, butt stomps, long jumps, salto, crawling, grab on ledges etc.
    (Some of these moves were introduced in Game Boy’s Donkey Kong but I am pretty sure these moves were already being worked on for Mario on what would become Mario 64.)

    It was also the first Mario game with a huge emphasis on animations and character expression. So it was much more about redefining what is possible with Mario as a physical performer than about introducing new powers.

    Fair point about Mario 64. I completely forgot that Mario 64 introduced all of those complicated moves to Mario‘s moveset and not Super Mario Sunshine. That’s probably because I used those moves way more often in Sunshine then 64.

    Another game that I completely forgot about that was released in the mid-period is Gunvalkyrie. What an amazing game that was! It's not a strictly a 3D platforming game, but there is 3D platforming with a jetpack with some of the most satisfying controls for controlling a jetpack I' ve even seen in a game.

    Dark Void which released nearly a decade after Gunvalkryie is probably also worth considering too. I haven't played that much of Dark Void, but adding a jetpack to parkour platforming at least sounds like a cool idea on paper.

    Depending on how far you want to reach (and I think for some this is too much) you could maybe call death stranding… Platforming… Adjacent?

    In the sense that it‘s about mastering movement mechanics to navigate an environment filled with obstacles. I’m regretting writing this but I'll leave it in just in case.

    Outside of the Japanese space, the bionic commando reboot in 3D on the 360 and PS3 was very similar in structure to an action platformer, with linear levels combining swinging and fighting baddies. I think one of the reasons it was much maligned at the time was that it ditched the open world sandboxy format that was cementing itself in favor of more old-school feeling level design.

    A game I am incredibly excited for after playing the demo, Exo One, combines gliding mechanics and the dive-and-slide of tiny wings (also reminiscent of tribes skiing), to move a metallic sphere across various alien terrains.

    I played Rocket: Robot on Wheels for the first time recently, partly because I have my N64 controller hooked up and partly to celebrate Sucker Punch. While the game has its problems, mainly the camera (not the worst on the system but definitely makes me appreciate Super Mario 64 in a new light with how much they nailed it out the gate), it blew my gosh darn gourd!

    The physics are something to behold for its time. I can't think of anything like it within a couple years of its release (I heard Trespasser tried fun physics stuff?) The way you move boxes around, how platforms on water behave or even how your character's wheel hits the ground is really advanced for the N64. The double jump feels great. The overall movement is hard to get used to but fits the character and gives the game its own unique flavor. Then you have the art direction and music -- and it really sinks in how unfairly good Sucker Punch are at what they do. Insomniac and Naughty Dog took years to get an identity, while Sucker Punch had it all in place from the start. I think they were already established developers from Microsoft or something though, which explains a lot.

    In any case, I highly recommend if you haven't played it before. It's some of the most fun I had with a game so far this year and a nice reminder of what talent lies at Sucker Punch (hoping Tsushima has some platforming elements within; Second Son was so much fun to control and focusing on combat/stealth seems to lean away from that but we'll see).

    On a side note, I recommend Nitro Rad's YouTube channel. I came across it after looking up Rocket reviews on YT and he's one of the only reviews on there. It's a good review but as a platformer fan, I'm thrilled with how deep he goes. He's reviewed almost every PS2/GC/Xbox 3D platformer that I completely forgot: Kind of love I can open my browser and watch someone talk about Vexx for 20 minutes in 2020.

    He also gives solid recommendations for other deep cuts like Rocket. I never would have thought Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy would be good but he really praised it and it indeed does look awesome: Picked it up on Steam last week and excited to play soon!

    @lonely_panda#3045 I just noticed this reply to the thread! Thank you for the detailed information about Rocket on Wheels. That‘s a game that I’ve always wanted to try out at least for a couple of minutes to gauge the company‘s evolution with the games they have made. I’m glad to hear there is someone doing detailed reviews on YouTube, and I‘m curious to see the list of games the channel touches on. Do you know if there is someone that has created written reviews of platformers from that era? I’ve always preferred written reviews to video ones, and I'd like to be able to read some analysis of these type of games (and all types of videogames really).