The 3D Platformer: How 1996 Witnessed the Birth of a Genre

Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy

In 1996, the 3D platformer was born.

That’s not technically true, of course, as the first 3D platformer was almost certainly a French game called Alpha Waves that came out in 1990. But Alpha Waves failed to kickstart the 3D platformer genre, and very few people would be comfortable citing its influence on the genre. I’d even argue that it’s been largely forgotten by mainstream gaming culture. It simply came out too early and for the Atari ST, a system that few people owned.

Jumping Flash! is another 3D platformer that pre-dates that 1996 mark as well. It launched for the original PlayStation in November of 1995. It too failed to make a significant mark on the genre, though it had the luxury of launching for the PlayStation so it’s better known than Alpha Waves.

But in 1996, a trilogy of games came out that would solidify the 3D platformer and by and large create its expectations. Super Mario 64 in June, Crash Bandicoot in September, and Bubsy 3D in October.

Bubsy 3D

Now, the main reason I would argue the importance of these games is that all three of them were being developed in a vacuum. They released closely enough together that none of them was able to influence any of the others. (Bubsy 3D‘s Michael Berlyn did get to see Super Mario 64 before Bubsy 3D launched, but Bubsy 3D was too far along in development for Berlyn to take any inspiration from Miyamoto’s masterpiece.) All three of these games had the gargantuan task of figuring out what a platformer should even look like in three dimensions, and each took a vastly different approach.

Super Mario 64 was the obvious winner, and it launched with many of the things we would come to recognize as staples of the genre. While it beat the other two to store shelves, we must consider that it was years ahead of its time and is in no way representative of what was happening in video games at the time. This is why so many people in 1996 were willing to call it the best video game of all time.

Crash Bandicoot - Into the Vortex

Crash Bandicoot took the 2D platformer and flipped its linear path from side-to-side to forward-and-backward, creating a depth-of-field viewpoint instead of a flat one. It did tend to mix things up with several more traditional side-scrolling levels (polygonal 2D platformers would later become known as 2.5D games).

And Bubsy 3D focused more on the platforms themselves, and it plays like a lot of time went into solving the problem of what the camera is supposed to do (a problem that, interestingly enough, Super Mario 64 came much closer to solving by treating the camera as a playable character in the game).

Super Mario 64

When you look back at some of the things that were coming out just a year earlier, Bubsy 3D is probably a better representation of where console technology was at in 1996 than the other two games, which had the kind of resources that few games had back then. (Keep in mind that 1995 was still a year dominated by the Super NES and the Sega Genesis.)

Time was not kind to Bubsy 3D, which has become known as one of the worst video games ever made (especially as Atari’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial fades from our memories). But back in 1996, people didn’t see it that way. It launched to some fairly mediocre reviews, while a few outlets had a lot of good things to say about it. Even today, I would argue that it should be viewed more as a cautionary tale than as a true failure.

Bubsy 3D - Ultra Game Players

The 3D platformer would continue to experience popularity throughout the 1990s, and even have influence on other genres. Early first-person shooters (like Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, for example) would often include platforming sequences. But the genre was plagued with design problems that were difficult to solve, like how floating platforms just don’t translate well to 3D, or how Sonic the Hedgehog’s defining feature is his speed, which tends to feel much better in 2D than in 3D.

But the 3D platformer never truly went away. Mario continued to hone it and experiment with its formula, creating beloved hits like the incredible Super Mario Galaxy and the greatly anticipated Super Mario Odyssey. And there’s been something of a revival lately, with the release of games such as Yooka-Laylee and the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy.

Super Mario Odyssey

But as we enjoy these modern platformers, I think it’s important to look back to 1996 to see just how far gaming has come as a medium. It’s pretty incredible.

About The Author

The 3D Platformer: How 1996 Witnessed the Birth of a Genre
Nintendo Power Predicted a “Pokémon Trade War” in 1998
Super Mario 64 Was Ultra Game Player Magazine’s 1996 Game of the Year
How Gamers Took Screenshots in the 90s