The games industry has provided hundreds of iconic rivalries over the years, and in the late 90s, one of the biggest was 2D vs. 3D games.
What are 2D games?
2D games are flat, sprite-based experiences that only allow you to move up, down, left, and/or right across the screen.
Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, developed by Nintendo
What are 3D games?
3D games let you move in three-dimensional planes, allowing you to turn 360 degrees and head in any direction you like.
Whether you spent hours making your own fun in the corridors of Peach’s Castle, or whether you enjoy cruising the streets of Los Santos with friends, we've all experienced the true thrill of 3D games: the freedom to explore (at least until you run into an iconic trope of 3D gaming, the dreaded invisible wall).
For developers, 3D games are far more complex than 2D games. With an extra dimension at play, they need to consider camera systems, textures, models, lighting, and filling every inch of a fully-explorable world.
The history of 2D and 3D games
Grab a cuppa, folks, because the battle for supremacy between 2D and 3D games goes back a long old way.
2D games: Less is more
For such an exciting medium, the origins of 2D gaming are fairly dull, starting in 1958 with American physicist William Higinbotham’s Tennis For Two - the first video game ever made.
The ball didn’t really start rolling until the 1970s when text-based games became popular with PC users, including the epically-titled Hunt the Wumpus.
The 1970s also saw the debut of home consoles like the Magnavox Odyssey and the Atari 2600. Unfortunately, their games required a lot of imagination to fully understand, as you can see from the below image of Pitfall!.
We’re still not sure whether he’s swinging towards a bar of gold, some butter, or a puddle of wee. Or what that evil octopus is up to down there.
Pitfall!, developed by Activision for the Atari 2600
If you were looking for compelling 2D gaming experiences, you’d have better luck at your local arcade. In the late 70s and early 80s, arcade machines were pumping out classics like Pac-Man, Asteroids, and Dragon’s Lair.
2D games like these were generation-defining, and all we needed was a company with the creativity and financial clout to bring the increasing quality of arcade games to home consoles.
(You probably know where we’re going here.)
In 1985, Nintendo released the iconic Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), introducing the world to stone-cold classics like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and Mickey Mousecapade. Who could forget Micky Mousecapade?!
The NES and its main rival, the Sega Master System, were able to run more graphically advanced 2D games than Atari and co. That leap in visual quality made games far easier to understand and far more accessible.
The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), released in 1985
For the next decade, 2D gaming ruled the roost. Developers continued to push the envelope, branching into story-driven epics like Final Fantasy, and onto handheld consoles like the Game Boy and Sega’s chonky-but-charming Game Gear.
As the fourth generation of gaming kicked off with the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) and Sega Genesis, 2D games were the undisputed king.
But a revolution was brewing, and lead by a cocky young upstart with nothing to lose, many predicted it would spell the end of 2D gaming forever.
3D games: The death of all things flat?
In 1994, Sony debuted the PlayStation in Japan. Although both Nintendo and Sega had dabbled in pseudo-3D visuals in the fourth generation, most notably with Nintendo’s Star Fox, it wasn’t until the arrival of the PlayStation that 3D games truly went mainstream.
3D games had actually been a long time coming, though: games like Maze War and Spasim were toying with 3D as far back as 1974, which allowed you to - and you might want to be sitting down for this - turn and shoot in all four directions.
In 1980, Atari’s arcade tank shooter Battlezone became the first 3D game to receive a commercial release. A year later, 3D Monster Maze became the first 3D game accessible on home computers. If you know a child of the 70s with a fear of dinosaurs, this game is probably why.
3D Monster Maze, developed by Malcolm Evans
By the time the PlayStation rolled around in 1994, it was obvious which way the wind was blowing. 3D games were on the rise, led by titles like Doom and JumpingFlash!, before Nintendo debuted perhaps the most important 3D game of all time: Super Mario 64.
With the release of the N64 in 1996, Nintendo slowly started to bump 2D games onto handheld systems. Even Super Mario games became exclusively 3D home console experiences, replaced on the Game Boy by the Wario Land series.
3D graphics were becoming easier for home consoles to render, and as more and more franchises abandoned their 2D roots for a piece of the 3D pie, many experts at the time were predicting the death of 2D games.
While the Sega Saturn and PS1 continued to feature their fair share of 2D games, by the time the sixth generation of consoles arrived, the message from the games industry was clear: 2D was primitive and only fit for technologically inferior handheld consoles.
3D had claimed the throne, and it stayed that way long into the seventh generation.
2D game revival: What’s old is new
In 2005, Microsoft announced the Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA) program, a digital service that allowed players to download classic arcade and console games to their Xbox 360s, as well as brand new indie games.
A lot of gamers at the time were starting to feel disenfranchised by mainstream video games, and the indie titles available on Xbox Live Arcade were cheap, accessible, and above all, different.
They were also predominantly 2D.
Braid, developed by Number None and Hothead Games
3D games are great and all, but they can be a real pain in the backside to develop. 2D games are simpler and easier by design, which makes them cheaper and easier to make for indie developers.
The indie boom demonstrated two important things:
- Whatever gamers were looking for, they weren’t finding it in predominantly 3D Triple A games.
- That 2D games weren’t dead. Not only did people still love 2D, but you could create exciting, meaningful, emotional, challenging, or visually dazzling games in 2D, and they’d sell.
In 2006, after a decade of exclusively 3D Super Mario games, Nintendo revived 2D Mario with New Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo DS, selling over 30 million copies to become the best-selling DS game of all time, and one of the best-selling video games of all time to boot.
The myth that 2D games were dead had been comprehensively dispelled.
New Super Mario Bros., developed by Nintendo EAD
Can 2D and 3D co-exist?
At the height of the 2D vs. 3D feud, developers were experimenting with ways of merging the best of both into one neat package.
What is pre-rendered 3D?
The late 90s saw the arrival of a brand new art style, known as pre-rendered 3D.
The ease with which home consoles could render 3D graphics soon out-stripped the added complications of creating pre-rendered 3D games, leaving the art style feeling fairly obsolete.
Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus, developed by Oddworld Inhabitants
What is a 2.5D game?
2.5D was another 90s attempt at blending the best of 2D and 3D games, but unlike pre-rendered 3D, this idea had a much longer half-life.
In a 2.5D game, you can only move up, down, left, and/or right like in 2D games, but your character moves around 3D environments, thanks either to some camera trickery or by crossing into the background or foreground.
2.5D was a popular design technique in the late 90s, featuring in games like Klonoa: Door to Phantomile, Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards, or the bizarrely titled Disney’s Action Game: Featuring Hercules.
Couldn’t have just called it Disney’s Hercules, could ya?
Klonoa: Door to Phantomile, developed by Namco
Where are we now?
The rivalry between 2D and 3D games has simmered since the indie boom, and today, you’ll find 2D indie releases like Undertale and Celeste on the same e-stores as titanic 3D franchises like Halo and God of War.
What are the best 2D games ever made?
It’s impossible to list them all, but some of the most successful 2D games ever released include:
- Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
- Hollow Knight
- Sonic the Hedgehog
- Super Mario Bros.
Popular 2D game genres
Given the simplicity and accessibility of 2D games, they lend themselves well the simpler and more accessible game genres, too, including:
- Platformers like Super Mario Bros. and Celeste
- Puzzle games like Tetris and Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training (or Brain Age to our American friends)
- Fighting games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat
What are the best 3D games ever made?
As with 2D games, this list could go on forever if you wanted it to, but some of the most successful 3D games include:
- God of War
- Grand Theft Auto V
- Metal Gear Solid
- Resident Evil 4
- Super Mario 64
- The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
- The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
- World of Warcraft
Popular 3D game genres
The most popular 3D game genres take advantage of their freedom of movement, including:
- First-person shooters like Call of Duty and Halo
- Racing games such as Need for Speed and Gran Turismo
- Sports games like the annual NBA and FIFA releases (sorry, we mean EA Sports FC releases)
Despite the initially fractious relationship between 2D and 3D gaming, it’s fair to say that the feud is largely over these days.
You’ll still find a few playground arguments over which is truly superior if you go looking for them, but the truth is that they both have their merits for developers and players alike.
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