How the Z-Axis Changed the Game

Gaming has evolved much in since its inception. We’ve seen our controllers gain more buttons, our consoles and computers got more processors, and the games themselves get jammed packed with content. Of all of them, one of the biggest and most dramatic changes we’ve seen in gaming is in how games look. Hardware has evolved with the times, and video games have reached heights that developers on their Commodore 64s or Ataris only dreamed of. However, in these evolutions, we’ve almost lost something that was once commonplace…

…and that is the two dimensional look and feel.

Today, a vast majority of video games are in 3D. Two dimensional games are reserved mainly for indie and niche audiences, while three dimensional games rule the realm. Many games that even feature sprite art aren’t truly 2D, featuring sprites on a 3D plane, such as many games from Nippon Ichi and Compile Heart.

So, what happened to the style of old? Why did developers move on from the two dimensional plane, and from the sprites and colorful worlds that came with it? The answers might be more simple than you think…

Developers want to be innovative with what they’re given. To stand out in the gaming crowd, they need to bring some different to the table, and what better way to do so that to push the hardware to its absolute limits? Back in the 8-bit days, that was done by creating beautiful and colorful worlds with what little they had. However, when F-Zero came out in 1990 in Japan, it brought something almost unheard of: Mode 7 and its illusion of 3D. There were a few games in the past that tried a similar technique, such as Space Harrier 3D, but the idea was mainly reserved for powerful arcade machines, and even then it was rarely seen.

With the introduction of Mode 7, many developers tinkered with the idea of 3D in their games, resulting in at least twenty-four games released implementing the feature in some way to be released for the system. Sega, on the other hand, released the Sega CD, which helped the Genesis achieve similar effects. While the Sega CD did not do well, and only a very small percentage of Super Nintendo games used Mode 7, the idea of 3D gaming began to plant in developers’ minds.

Then came generation five. When the Nintendo 64 was first announced, and details started to flow in, gamers and developers alike were amazed by the 64’s ability to create true 3D worlds. With the Nintendo 64 and the original PlayStation, everyone got to see brand new horizons for video games. Developers could now create bigger, more open worlds, and gamers clamored for just that, especially after seeing the impressive feats from games like Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time, Final Fantasy VII, and many others.

With games in general moving into three dimensions, 2D games almost abruptly lost their appeal to gamers. There were still some games that invoked a feel of a two dimensional feel but with 3D graphics and models–also known as 2.5D–but developers’ visions and gamers’ demands alike shifted towards new technology and new ways to use this new dimension.

It’s been this same song and dance since, with developers creating bigger, more realistic gaming worlds and gamers clamoring for more ever since. While whether that’s a good thing is another subject entirely, a 2D art style simply doesn’t have much of a place in mainstream gaming anymore.

However, that doesn’t mean it’s completely gone. 2D games are still out there, hidden in niche places. Ark System still puts out 2D sprite based fighters that look great, and Vanillaware sticks to the 2D realm with their beautifully and painstakingly crafted graphics. In addition, the growing indie market makes the genres and styles of old their playground, bringing us both nostalgia and innovation in one lovingly made package.

To most, 2D gaming is a thing of the past. However, if you look for them, you can still find the colorful, beautiful worlds without that Z-axis. Sometimes they’re recreated for the modern experience, and sometimes they’re created with the retro aesthetic in mind… but while the 2D style is no longer mainstream, it’s far from dead.

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