Video games have been around for a while now. Advancements in gaming happen all the time which makes us think of the medium as young and modern, but the fact of the matter is Pong turns 50 years old in 2022. From monochrome to full colour, from 16-bit to polygon models, from on the TV to in a virtual reality headset, this hobby of ours has changed a lot. The leap from 2D to 3D is arguably one of the biggest growth spurts games have gone through, but where do those that stepped into the next dimension rank on a tier list? First, some ground rules.
This tier list will only consider the first 3D entry in a series, using full 3D polygon models that’s gameplay is distinct from its 2D iteration. This means we’re not judging the entire series, just the first 3D game released. Games that use 2D images in a 3D way (e.g. Super Mario Kart) or games that use 2D sprites of pre-rendered 3D models (e.g. Mario Kart 64) are out. Also, games that largely play the same between 2D to 3D entries won’t be counted, which drops several fighting games from our tier list. So it’s time to jump in, keep an eye out for games you may not have known had 2D origins.
- Bubsy 3D (1996)
- C: The Contra Adventure (1998)
- Earthworm Jim 3D (1999)
- Prince of Persia 3D (1999)
- Golden Axe: Beast Rider (2008)
Welcome to the bad batch, and we ain’t talking Star Wars. A collection of games where even their developers might have advised not getting it at full price. A common theme in this tier are bad in-game cameras combined with tank-like controls…that is before you get to the list of their individual issues, such as Prince of Persia 3D turning the prototype parkour of its 2D side-scrolling predecessor into a graphically drab action game with a prince that manoeuvres like a loaded shopping cart. Dark, dreary visuals were also in C: The Contra Adventure which used traditional side-scrolling Contra gameplay for the first and final levels only, and all other levels played like a helter-skelter experiment in auto-aim 3rd person shooting.
Earthworm Jim 3D and Bubsy 3D featured mediocre-at-best platforming. The latter had the level design of a college student’s test area and frequent vocal outbursts from Bubsy that sounded like Donald Duck auditioning for Saturday Night Live. Golden Axe: Beast Rider (having come much later) had a decent in-game camera, but underwhelmed having reduced the series’ three known playable characters down to a clunky fighting not-quite-amazon who wears little more than a bikini top.
I wouldn’t be shocked if the respective developers had to fend off a surge in calls from players asking them to reimburse their blockbuster rental fee.
- Castlevania 64 (1999)
- Final Fight Revenge (1999)
- Worms 3D (2003)
A scrape above the bottom of the barrel are games that glimpse a worthwhile idea but are bogged down by clunky controls and combat. Castlevania 64 captured the series’ gothic tone in the visuals and somewhat limited music, but frustrating camerawork and platforming often causing players to fall from heights let it down.
Before their appearances in Street Fighter, Capcom used Rolento, Poison & Hugo in Final Fight Revenge, an arcade fighter re-imagining the side-scrolling beat ‘em up characters with their own signature special moves. As refreshing an idea as it was, the actual fighting struggled to actually facilitate pulling off combos meaning (like a weekend alone with Poison) players found it less fun than expected.
Thankfully the last game in this tier list to have “3D” in the title, Worms 3D felt like the best attempt Team 17 could make with a series that only truly works in 2D. While the charm and personality come through in the voices and animations, the extra dimension made maps mind-bafflingly largely. Throw in the changing wind direction and you’ve got too many variables to reliably land a cluster bomb, reducing a typical match to golf with bazookas.
- Tetrisphere (1997)
- Sonic Adventure (1998)
- Pac-Man World (1999)
Feeling experimental? This tier disregarded the conventions of the 2D games, pushing their series’ in 3D directions that delighted some but had a small list of things that didn’t fully click into place. No game epitomises this more than Tetrisphere, a bold stretch for Tetris using descending shapes to break apart a sphere wrapped in blocks like a virtual jawbreaker made of lego bricks. The experience was addictive and notably innovative, though it did demand a mental readjustment which made it difficult to get a handle on.
Pac-Man World also carved a new path, evoking the series motifs (pellets, fruit, sound effects, etc.) for a 3D platformer that makes Pac-Man (from those classic arcade cabinets) butt-stomp and throw energy blasts at skeleton pirates. Despite the plot following the Super Mario kidnapping route with the opening cutscenes taking the award for ‘cheesiest thing ever shown in a video game’, the overall presentation, implementation of special maze sections, and including the original Pac-Man were praise-worthy.
For everything Sonic Adventure got right, there was something fans didn’t like. Classic speedy gameplay? Tick. Sonic will often crash and bounce off the walls running down a slightly curved road? Cross. Frequent spectacular mid-level set pieces? Tick. Truly horrific cutscene animations featuring eyelids and ears possessed by the restless spirits of the damned? Cross. Multiple playable characters like Tails, Knuckles, and Amy? Tick. Big the cat? Cross, cross, cross. For better or worse, when someone in the late 90s wrote “3D Sonic game?” on a whiteboard, Sonic Adventure (the Sega Dreamcast’s best-selling game) was probably the best answer they could have hoped for.
- Wave Race 64 (1996)
- Metal Gear Solid (1998)
- Donkey Kong 64 (1999)
- Metroid Prime (2002)
- Ninja Gaiden (2004)
Now we’re entering high-class gaming territory. Metal Gear Solid combined film cinematography with interactivity and player agency to great effect, from the mind of Hideo Kojima: the most prolific Hollywood director to have never made a blockbuster movie. Its various elements – letterboxing in cutscenes, gameplay with multiple camera angles, a bonkers-but-adult espionage story – turned the game into a grand artistic achievement. Metroid Prime maintained the series’ lonely atmosphere, alien world stylings, and the Metroidvania-style accessing previous blockades with future abilities. It shook things up by using a first-person perspective, foregoing traditional FPS dual analog controls (admittedly not to everyone’s taste). But great level design and rewarding exploration made it distinct from other sci-fi shooters like Doom & Halo, awarding it a special place in player’s hearts.
FromSoftware games have courted the “should difficult games be more accessible” debate over recent years but Ninja Gaiden on the original Xbox was attracting those same conversations, having brought back the brutal difficulty in beautifully gory, well-presented, technically impressive, and high-action 3D. Wave Race 64 was a jet ski racing game with solid graphics, charmingly fun crash animations, and a physics system that may have been so good the ‘Jet Ski Racing’ genre ended there because no one thought they could top it. It’s a pity the only thing lower than the character’s polygon count is the number of sides on a Möbius strip.
Upon release of Donkey Kong 64 critics highlighted similarities to Rare’s other collect-a-thon 3D platformer, Banjo Kazooie, calling it predictable like how modern Ubisoft open world games are considered formulaic. However, when judged in isolation you have a game featuring 8 big worlds, 5 unique playable characters, multiple gameplay modes, the original Donkey Kong, and the immortal DK rap – that’s a whole lot of good quality gaming.
- Super Mario 64 (1996)
- Final Fantasy 7 (1997)
- The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)
- Grand Theft Auto III (2001)
- Fallout 3 (2008)
Welcome to the top of the flagpole. The titles in this tier are not only stellar translations from 2D to 3D, they aren’t simply a list of great games, these are among the greatest video games ever created. We’ll open with a fun observation: every alternate Nintendo console has had a Mario & Zelda game hailed as one of the greatest games ever made. The NES had Super Mario Bros & The Legend of Zelda. The N64 had Super Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time. The Wii had Super Mario Galaxy & Twilight Princess. And the Switch has Super Mario Odyssey and Breath of the Wild. It’s an incredible track record of one-two punches – the pattern of which gets broken when you remember Super Mario World & A Link to the Past on SNES, but that’s only better right?
Super Mario 64 contained a masterful level design, crafted to fully flex Mario’s joyful jumping. Progression was cleverly efficient. 15 worlds with multiple end-goals (stars) allow players to familiarise themselves with level layouts, lets them choose how they advance through the overall game and keeps a fair difficulty curve. Ocarina of Time contained a vast connected land full of various races & environments, secret nooks, and great characters. The gameplay balance was pitch-perfect between world-building, puzzle-solving, exploration, and combat, facilitated in part by the dungeons, side quests, and that good ol’ Z-targeting lock-on system which (similar to Sonic’s homing attack) solved a lot of issues for battling in a 3D space.
The execution of the plot of Final Fantasy 7 deserves high praise. High-quality cutscenes for the time, unique occasions like the motorbike gameplay, and memorable characters with truly impactful moments that skewed gamers right through the heart make it one of gaming’s most epic stories ever told (and pretty clear why Square Enix abandoned Nintendo to make it happen).
Even at the inception of the sandbox games, open-world games (their more grounded counterpart) were being heralded with GTA 3 and Fallout 3 – both feeling like they’d finally become the games they always wanted to be. GTA 3 realised the power fantasy more than ever with realistic adult depictions of sex & violence. But, while the main & side missions offer a lot of entertainment, the most fun (in any GTA game) is in the downtime where the chaos of attacking bystanders, hijacking cars and driving around to songs on the radio reigns. Fallout 3 achieved huge ambitions: a karma system, decent story, freedom of choice in tackling objectives, and the VATS shooting allowing players to blast away individual body parts for a variety of effects. Both games feature worlds that are thematically consistent, detailed, and genuinely fun to explore – any other similarities between a fictional New York City and a post-apocalyptic wasteland are up to you.
So do you agree with the rankings in the tier list, or are there any 3D games with 2D origins that you think have been missed? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.
(Video featured created by Comire.)