Tuesday, July 7, 2009

No Love for 2D

'Older' hardcore gamers know this old chestnut: '2D gets no love'.

Recently I got ahold of some of my old video game systems and planned to bring to light some good (often overlooked) games on this 'blog. But, as is often the case, I feel a burning need to define the context of my reviews and essays. One of these days I'll have all this 'background for the uninitiated' shit out of the way and can just put links into new posts. The posts will get shorter as we go along and everyone will probably be happier.

For the purposes of this post, '2D' will most often refer to games with play oriented along a 'flat' XY field, and lacking the Z 'depth' axis. So horizontal or vertical shooters, most platformers, most older fighting games, older RPG and strategy games, and many puzzle games would all fit this model. Some games that PLAY in 3D will still count as '2D' for this monologue, if most of the creative elements (graphics, controls, etc) are crafted in the same manner as a typical 2D game. See Space Harrier for an easy example of this convention. Likewise, some games with polygonal objects play in a 2D field. While I'm going to decry the 'lost art' of crafting 2D sprites, many polygonal games (or games combining sprites and polygons) are actually still really good examples of 2D gameplay, like Radiant Silvergun or even the very recent Super Smash Brother Brawl.

Space Harrier

Radiant Silvergun

It's pretty much a matter of record for American video game history that two-dimensional gameplay (and the various creative aspects associated) died with the popularising of the first Sony Playstation. That death wasn't quick, and in fact isn't complete even now... so maybe 'death' isn't the right word... 'terminal decline' might be better, but I'm going to use 'death' because its quicker to type, simpler, and suits my sense of hyperbole for this post. For all intents and purposes, the only place 2D games flourish now, in this country, is on the portables, ie the Sony PSP (itself headed for the chopping block) and the various Nintendo DS flavors of the month. In Japan this hasn't been so much the case, as their gamers tend to tolerate more genres, and embrace a wider variety of play experiences. This has the added effect of keeping consoles (or handhelds) alive as viable products much longer than the same machines are sold in the USA. One conclusion to be drawn from this trend is that if you are willing to make certain efforts and import Japanese games you can get a lot more out of your machine. If you are anything like a serious video gamer most of this is stuff you already know. But if you are a YOUNG gamer than the decline/demise of 2D might be something you aren't concerned with or even aware of, but you should be, dammit.

The death of 2D corresponds to the end of the video arcade. Again I'm largely referring to the situation as it exists in the US. In another country your mileage may vary. With the arrival of the Playstation (or PSX or PS1 whichever you prefer) 'pushing polygons' became the order of the day. Previous consoles had run the occasional polygonal game, but these were pretty simple affairs by today's standards, with simple shapes often no more than a graphical gimmick, and usually married to 2D gameplay (like Vectorman for the Genesis or Silpheed for the Sega CD). Every polygonal game devised, whether 2D or 3D was another step by designers towards more realistic (or at least more cinematic) physics and game worlds. As the years and games rolled by, the polygons became less of a gimmick and more integral to the play itself, leading up to the watershed moment (by my recollection at any rate) Virtua Fighter.

Virtua Fighter

Virtua Fighter was an arcade game first. As was often the case prior to the PS1, home video games were often ports of arcade games. There had been a number of outstanding 3D games before Virtua Fighter, especially if you counted all the vector-technology games like Tempest or Tac Scan. But Virtua Fighter had a big rollout, was in a ton of arcades and really made an impact on gamers. 2D fighting games like Street Fighter and Samurai Shodown were in their heyday and developers were struggling to tap gamers' huge appetite for fighters while still having a game that stood out from the crowd... well, stood out enough for gamers to take a break from Ken and Ryu. Virtua Fighter was at once familiar (two opponents slugging it out, archetype characters, life bars, timed rounds, etc), but at the same time wildly different with its weird looking art style, but 'realistic' physics. Here was a game where, yeah the people didn't look all that great, but they sure moved cool... and the camera swooped all around them, giving views of the action that looked much more like a martial arts film then a staid anime-still look of the 2D fighters.

Here's something I find pretty ironic: The Sega Saturn, direct competitor to the PS1, was a 2D powerhouse. It was designed to bring the arcade experience home in a way truer than had ever been possible before. With that machine, you actually had hardware that could match many of the circuit boards housed in arcade cabinets. And at that time MOST arcade games were still two-dimensional in both art and gameplay. Sega ported Virtua Fighter to the Saturn, a no-brainer considering VF's success in the arcades, and the designers and the console did a passable job with it. However, polygonal games were NOT easy to manage on the Saturn. For the Playstation which released VERY soon after, programming polygonal games was a cinch.

See where this is going? Sega created perhaps the best argument for 3D gaming, and yet launched a console less up to the task than their competitor. I've seen many articles about the whole Saturn versus Playstation thing, how one was 2D and the other 3D... but I don't think I've ever seen notice of this irony. Most people talk about Sega's awful marketing of its consoles, particularly in the US. The Master System, Saturn, and Dreamcast all 'failures' by comparison with their competitors in each generation. But in the case of the Saturn I'd put as much blame on the success of Sega's 3D arcade games, particularly VF... GOOD marketing in a sense, as I would to the fact that Sega mishandled how the console itself was marketed or how the machine was underpowered for the new style of games.

At any rate, upon the release of the Playstation, Sony took an unusal step; they actively discouraged the development of 2D games. This was really kind of a weird move. In an effort to keep costs down the PS1 hardware was designed to push polygons and sprite-based designs were not a priority. The PS1 could do it, but it had limitations the way the Saturn did with polygons. But to actually say 'no' to 2D games seems strange. I mean if a developer had a good 2D game design or wanted to do an arcade port and they could make it work well enough on the PS1 why would you not encourage that? Be all things to all people? Cast as wide a net as possible? The PS1's success was largely apparent from the day it launched. So while it is possible that this move was designed separate the Playstation from the Saturn, define their strengths and discourage people from designing for both platforms, the Saturn never really presented a serious threat to Sony. Even when the Saturn was on its way out, Sony never encouraged 'old-skool' gaming on what was to become one of the bestselling pieces of home technology ever made. And so that begs a question. Did Sony see the writing on the wall and just cross over to polygonal games before everyone else? Or are they actually culpable for the decline, like a reporter who gets involved and becomes the news? They acted like 2D games were on the way out and had no significant place in the future of home consoles, but was this precognitive or part of a plan?

Now a downward spiral was set. The bestselling console was not encouraging the style of gaming prevalent in the arcades, and was providing a great play experience at home. Why go out and feed quarters into arcade cabinets? Actually, there is a competitive reason to go out to arcades, even to this day, but the majority of the video gaming public didn't/doesn't find that compelling enough. Arcades specialised in pick-up-and-play gaming. You didn't have to read big instruction books or map out levels or anything like that. Arcade games could be deep or complex, but you didn't have to be an acolyte to get something out of them. Home consoles offered some of that, but also had huge story experiences in their so-called RPGs, and deeper/different gameplay in their strategy games and simulations. Basically the stuff you need a saved game for.

So in America, the aftermath of the PS1 era is newer generations of consoles (at the time of this writing, the Wii, PS3, and Xbox 360) with their most popular games being first-person shooters and polygonal action games. Man, I've lost count of the number of 'gritty, destructible scenery, you versus the totalitarian regime/aliens/robots' type of FPS. Arcades are pretty much gone.

Why should any of this matter? It is just the logical progression or evolution of the video gaming scene, right? Who cares about those old-timey games? Well, old-timers do. The kind with lots of disposable income now that they are working, responsible adults. They come from a time when the play was the thing. In some sense a purer time. Yeah, graphics and music were important. It is hard to deny the coolness factor of many of the oldskool games, even today, when faced with the incredible graphics of a Metal Slug or the bitchin' soundtrack of a Thunderforce game. But the simplicity of the pick-up-and-play mechanics meant that your 'skillz' were put to the test in a direct, primal way. And you might be able to exploit safe spots or poor enemy AI, but you weren't going to just 'think' your way through the tough spots. These types of games required practice, repetition, and patience. Nowadays, games are designed to either be played through once or have to have tons of unlockables to encourage replay. I'm not knocking unlockables. I think they are great in a home video game of any sort. But old-timey (mostly arcade or arcade-style) games were not something you were going to just move through, seeing each part once. See other entries (rants) in this 'blog for my opinions on entitlement and whiney gamers. They're related. I don't really have a problem with epic, one-shot through adventure games either. Shadow of the Colossus was a gaming orgasm as far as I'm concerned. But this stuff (especially the aforementioned FPS genre) has just come to DOMINATE. And almost all of it is polygonal, three-dimensional, and in its way cold and sterile. In the early days of polygon-pushing games 'cold and sterile' could easily be seen in the graphics. The impressive part was the motion and the camerawork, not the 'art' of it. But as the details have gotten finer, the skins on the polygons have gotten more sophisticated, and the number of polygons pushed every second has climbed, the graphics have gotten better... but still have a lack of... something.

There is the analagous decline happening in theatrical animation. How many cel animation films have you seen released in the last year. How many CG animated movies? There's your story right there. No cel animation (one coming up soon, Frog Princess), a bazillion CG cartoons. And y'know? There isn't LESS art to making a CG movie, or a polygon-based game (nowadays anyway). You still have to have artists designing the characters, sculptors creating models for rendering, painters (working in a digital medium), writers, musicians... all of it. But there is just an 'artistry' missing from most CG work. CG animation IS artistic, but most of the time it still FEELS manufactured, though we are past the point where 'realism' is much the issue. For the same reason that cel animation going away is a shame, so too the 2D video game.

2D video games required artists to draw the objects in the game. Either by hand in an draw/paint program or as an actual pen and paint work that was then converted to a digital image. Some 2D games look like polygonal games at first glance because their sprites were pre-rendered from models and appear to turn and move to smoothly show sides and backs the same way polygonal models do (see Mars Matrix or Soukyugurentai).


This could just be the cry of an old fart, lamenting better days gone by, but there is whole cult of these old fart connecting and lamenting together, mostly facilitated by online communications. And they are adding brisk fresh farts to their ranks all the time. With access to PC-based emulators and 'classic collections' on home consoles, newer players are discovering there really is something compelling and timeless under the primitive skins of many of these older games. Have a look at some of the classic gaming sites like Shmups.com or Hardcore Gaming 101. These are vigourous communities that not only spend a lot of time being nostalgic about the old days, but are clamoring for new experiences in the same vein... and trumpeting the hell out of any new software that delivers it.

Now I have to go back a little on my earlier drama. There are actually a few 2D games, even high profile ones, being made and marketed. Sprite art seems to truly be dead or dying, but gameplay like the old days can still be found, sometimes right under our noses. Typically these are recent interations of venerable franchises like Street Fighter. The recent Street Fighter IV for the PS3 and Xbox 360 has the very latest in detailed polygonal character models (and are a great argument for polygons as art) but is STILL a 2D fighter. There is no moving 'into' the screen playfield. The camera can move in 3D for dramatic effect, but that's it. There's also the aforementioned Super Smash Brothers Brawl, again a flashy polygon fest object-wise, but never playing along the Z axis. The one-player game included 'Subspace Emissary' is even a 2D platformer very much in the style of Hal Laboratory's Kirby games.

Street Fighter IV

Then there is Cave.

Back in the halcyon days of arcade gaming there were the big boys like Capcom or Namco that developed (and still do develop) all sorts of games in all sorts of genres. And then there were the littler guys that tended to specialize, like SNK with fighting games and Toaplan with STGs (shmups). At heart STGs are basically just move your ship (or person) and blast all enemies, picking up powerups and maybe avoiding some obstacles. There isn't and hasn't been all that much development from that core premise. And really, the genre doesn't need it. It is designed to be pure twitch gaming and that's it. Mostly what distinguishes STGs from each other, and indeed a good one from a bad one, is in the details. Graphics play a huge part, the appeal of the see-what-comes-next factor. But scoring mechanics, the control of your ship, the 'fairness' all play a part too. Even difficulty.

Toaplan mostly developed STGs, and were known for their weird, dark art style, and the occasional innovative play or scoring mechanic. When they disbanded, the staff went on to work at the companies Takumi and Raizing/Eighting, both companies also known for the cool shooters they made. Eventually the Raizing part went away and so did their shooting games (Eighting still exists). Ex-Raizing developers and some others eventually formed Cave.

Love their games or hate them (and shooter fans are typically really polarized on this topic), Cave are instrumental in keeping STGs (a cornerstone of 2D gaming) alive AND continuing to champion intricate 2D (sprite-based) artwork. They are also masters of putting a lot of innovation into the scoring and play mechanics of this very limiting genre. Unfortunately Cave products are almost exclusive to Japan. Thanks to the internet Westerners know about them and are able to play them, but in terms of their (arguable) brilliance having any discernible impact on the gaming market HERE, that's unlikely. Ya gotta import. Look for Mushihimesama, Espgaluda, or Dodonpachi Daioujou on the PS2, DeathSmiles on the Xbox 360 (a version of Dodonpachi Daioujou is on the Xbox 360 as well but is not well thought of).


Mostly I've held off on including handhelds in this discussion mostly from my own personal distaste for them, but I'll admit to getting some 2D love from the Nintendo DS. There are actually tons of 2D games on there, but oldskool play that I've particularly enjoyed are Bangaioh Spirits, Gunstar Super Heroes, and Nanostray 2. There's even a Cave game, Ketsui, if you are willing to import, but I'm almost afraid to try a game as manic as that on the DS's small screen. Nintendo is actually a major league anchor for old timey gaming. There dowload service for both Wiiware and the Virtual Console are bastions of 2d art and gaming though much of it is rereleases of older games. This service makes available a lot of games even old timers may never have seen or were unable to afford.

Things move ever forward. But I think we are losing something here. With all the concern about realistic graphics, licensed music tracks, and the number of weapons available, we are filling our heads up with a lot of stuff that, though fun and interesting, has little to do with the core idea of PLAYING. There was a time when you could see the fun the developers and artists had coming up with the game (I recently really saw this in the old SNK run 'n' gun Shock Troopers). When gamers didn't mind playing through the same levels over and over again, because there was enough to the levels and the play, that you WANTED to get better.

Even if there's never a literal resurgence of 2D games on home consoles it is well worth the time of any serious gamer to scrounge up some play time on some of the great old games. I'm not suggesting going back as far as DigDug and Burgertime. Many games, particularly the REALLY old ones haven't aged that well. As much as I'm a 2d STG fan I'm not avid to play Zanac. As this post was inspired by my rediscovering stuff on my old consoles, in upcoming posts I'm going to give opinions and impressions on games that you won't find in your local Gamestop today, but that you could probably still scrounge up on ebay.

(images filched largely from Hardcore Gaming 101)

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