One of the biggest playground debates of the 90’s was Sonic versus Mario. The old plumber had finally met his match. Even though Sonic games were buggy as all hell, they were fresh, fast-paced, and on the cutting edge of graphics and sound. It didn’t help that Mario looked like somebody’s fuddy-duddy old uncle, while Sonic’s outfit, attitude and spiky hair channeled Michael Jackson or Bart Simpson.
Granted, this argument usually boiled down to whether the kid owned a Sega or a SNES. But nonetheless, for the first time Mario was losing his monopoly on quality platforming. The times kept a changin’, and soon enough the march of technology forced a clear winner to emerge.
The technology I speak of is the advent of 3D platforming. Sure, both had isometric games – Sonic 3D Blast and Super Mario RPG – but those are only pseudo-3D. I’m talking about the real deal. Fully 3D platformer action, with sprawling stages and a rotating camera.
I doubt I need to spell out who won. Mario’s debut, Mario 64 was a smash success, and is still widely considered one of the best 3D platformers ever made, if not the best. Sonic’s rebuttal, Sonic Adventure, was a dud, and marked the beginning of the end for quality Sonic games. So what went wrong?
Well for one thing Sonic was late to the fight, his title being released 2 years after Mario 64. And it certainly wasn’t good that Sonic Adventure was full of glitches. But timing shouldn’t matter that much, and bugginess had never stopped Sonic before. No, there was a more fundamental difference.
Most of the levels in Sonic Adventure, despite being in 3D, did not allow players to move around freely. Players were guided, sometimes even forced, to speed along in one direction. They would pass by all sorts of 3D wonderment as they went, but could not interact with any of it. The game was still treating things as if they were 2D! This new dimension was all but useless in the actual playing of Sonic adventure.
Mario 64, on the other hand, did not guide the player’s course. Excepting a few stages (like the pre-Bowser ones), areas were geared towards exploration. Players could move about in any direction, along any of the 3 dimensions that the new graphics allowed.
Moreover, instead of moving forward to progress or achieve things, as makes sense in a 2D platformer, Mario 64 made it so you have to move up. Not only does this make stages more compact, it also stresses non-linearity. It doesn’t matter how you climb the tower/mountain/clock/snowman, only that you get up there. And now, instead of falling always causing death and a restart, falling can just set you back on the vertical scale – the new dimension of progress.
There are other reasons for their respective failure and success, but at the heart of it is understanding what being in 3D meant, what it could add. Mario 64’s developers realized that 3D was perfect for exploration and non-linear levels, and worked on that. Sonic Adventure‘s developers just made the same sort of 2D sonic game they always had, and then rendered it in 3D.
In the evolutionary history of gaming the transfer from 2D to 3D was a global crisis – a meteor impact or an ice age. This storm was well-weathered by the plumbers, but nearly drove hedgehogs to extinction.
Where do your allegiances lie?