The Evolution of the 3D Collect-athon 

(And Where it Stands Today)



The early reviews of Yooka-Laylee have been pouring in (prior to it's April 11th release date), and the results have been rather polarized.

via gamerankings.com


Many reviews have praised the game as a proper "return to form", being a true spiritual-successor to Banjo-Kazooie.  Others have found the game to be far too dated, stating that the game carried issues back from the N64 era.  I have often considered Banjo-Kazooie to be one of my favorite games of all time; it is the game that got me into games in the first place.  So I had to ask myself: Is there really any room for the original 3D Platformer/Collect-athon style in this day and age?  Could a game like Yooka-Laylee offer more than just a nostalgia trip?


Where it Started


Or, at least, where it became popular.  The 1990 MS-DOS game "Alpha Waves" is credited as being the first 3D Platform game to exist.  But it was the newly-imagined Super Mario of the mid 90's that truly defined the genre...

With the release of the Nintendo 64 in Japan back in 1996, the console's 64-bit processing power, paired with the introduction of 360° control via thumbstick, offered a brand new experience for gamers and developers alike.  While developers had the ability to use the N64's processing power to create new and exciting 3D landscapes,  the addition of precision control within these open environments gave player complete freedom of movement, encouraging exploration and non-linear navigation to get from "Point A" to "Point B".  This innovation in control would be demonstrated by the N64's flagship title: Super Mario 64.


Screenshot courtesy of Wikipedia.

This new and exciting take on the Super Mario franchise was met with outstanding reviews, welcoming the birth of the 3D platformer into the industry.  Publications and websites including IGN, Edge Magazine, EGM, Gamespot, and Famitsu all reviewed SM64 with near-perfect scores.
"Not only does the game obliterate every platformer before it in terms of visual finesse, it plays just as well if not infinitely better than previous 2D incarnations of the Mario franchise... More freedom, more space, more options, better graphics, improved and elaborated control schemes -- it's all there. "
- IGN
"With realms so vast and detailed, and yet so graphically clean and simple, one instinctively wants to go exploring: What's just beyond that rise? Who's peeking at me from behind that wall? How can I get to that far ridge, that seemingly inaccessible platform, that island floating unsupported in the air? ...If Mario 64 is even a rough indication of what's to be expected from Nintendo, or from games in general, then we just might have a revolution of sorts in our very hands."
- Gamespot
While the reviewers of this time talked-up the revolutionary open-world format of SM64's level design as well as it's graphical beauty, they by no means skipped over the new mechanics that were being introduced to gaming: freedom of movement and freedom of camera control.  "A revolution of sorts" in the palms of our hands.


The Mechanics of a 3D Platformer


Mario is pretty well known for his jump.  It was his primary action in the original Donkey Kong arcade cabinet, and it is his primary action in Nintendo's first mobile game, Super Mario Run, that released earlier this year.  It is this jump that founded the platformer genre in the 1980's.  It then comes as no surprise that his acrobatic ability became the focal point for his introduction into the 3D plane; pairing the precision of the thumbstick with a variety of button presses gave Mario a pretty extensive variety of moves.







Look Before you Leap

Placing the player on a 3D plane also brings the viewpoint into question.  Until this point, the typical platform game used a fixed camera angle, as the player only had to move on a 2-dimensional plane. With the importance of precision control in platforming games, the player needed to be able to see exactly where each of their jumps would land.  Naturally, having a 3rd Dimension made this difficult, but the developers of the 90s accounted for it in many ways:  Mario 64 not only pioneered the use of a smart, dynamic camera, but also gave the player some control over their view; using the 4 C-Buttons on the controller moved the camera left and right, as well as allowed the player to zoom in or out for a better look at their surroundings.  While far from perfect, the use of the C-Buttons in this manner would precursor the second analog stick that most controllers use today.



Pulled Punches

Though this style of control was unfamiliar to gamers in 1996, it didn't take too long to master the fluidity of Mario's movements.  It is worth noting, however, that combat has taken a back seat; the 'B' button provides a 3-punch/kick combo that can only be used if Mario is standing still, and there are no fire flowers to provide the player with the trademark Fireball attack.  The basic attack required the player to be facing the right direction, and they had to rely purely on timing. The combat moves that sees far more usage are the ones that encourage the player to keep moving - jumps, ground pounds, and dives are far more commonly used by the experienced player rather then stationary punches.

And continuous motion is part of the point.  While it was understandable at the time to stop and take in these beautiful 3D landscapes and vibrant colors, Nintendo wanted the player to explore these landscapes and see what they had to offer.  It is here that collecting becomes an important aspect of the 3D Platformer.


Collect-athon


Super Mario 64 had the player progress by collecting power stars.  These stars were often rewards for various tasks or challenges; such as racing an NPC or fighting a boss.  Stars were also hidden in the stage, and rewarded when the player collected all 100 coins.  The player is not given a lot of direction when pursuing a challenge star, only a somewhat vague title for the assigned task like "SHOOT TO THE ISLAND IN THE SKY" or "BIG BOB-OMB ON THE SUMMIT".  You would have to jump into the world and explore, putting the puzzle pieces together for yourself.


Not long after the release of SM64, the public saw the release of numerous games that adapted their own variations on this design.  Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64 are typically the games that come to mind when the term "collect-athon" is mentioned, as they put item hunting at the center of gameplay.  Typically, these items had a varying amount of rarity attached to them, and each were used to progress the game in one way or another.

Take Banjo-Kazooie as an example:  Jiggys are usually at the top of the list to collect, as they allow you to open up new stages to explore.  These Jiggys can be found on their own or obtained through challenges, but they could also be obtained by finding and collecting the Jinjos that were placed at the far corners of the stage.  Some of those aforementioned challenges might require a transformation from Mumbo, but he would only oblige if you have collected the proper amount of skull tokens.  Even when this is all said and done, in order to further progress through Grunty's castle, a large number music notes would need to be collected.  On paper, this sounds like a lot of unnecessary work.  However, the manner in which these items are placed is what makes the item hunting objective worthwhile.


Notes are often the first item the player would see.  Typically, they are placed in a straight line along a path or route, beckoning the player to continue in a particular direction.  Jinjos are less common.  They can usually be found in isolated parts of the map, like out in the middle of a body of water or at the top of a mountain.  While not quite hidden from view, the Jinjo hunt encourages more exploration than notes, requiring the player to travel and search each part of the map.  The rarest item, the Mumbo Token, is akin to the loose change that falls between the couch cushions.  Banjo has to check every nook and cranny to find these tokens.

For most, there is an addictive quality of collecting each of these tokens.  Every item that you pick up is accompanied by a little fanfare and an increase in score/item count/health, an immediate indicator that you were progressing in one manner or another.  You are being rewarded for exploring an interesting, new, fantastical space.  Bonus points.

The take away?  Collectibles that serve the purpose of progression for the player were used as a means of exploration by the developer.  This revolutionary technological shift opened up a whole new world of creativity for game designers, and they wanted to make sure that the player had the opportunity to see every last bit of it.

There is, of course, the possibility of taking collecting a step too far.  This was the lament of many critics and gamers alike when Donkey Kong 64 was released.  Similar to Power Stars and Jiggys, the most important treasure to the DK Crew was the Golden Banana, which allowed the player to progress and open up more worlds.  But there's a bit more to the game than that...
...there's plenty more to collect: regular bananas, fairies (which you must take pictures of with a camera), banana medals, super-secret Rareware coins, blueprint pieces (found by defeating certain enemies), crowns (to unlock multiplayer games) and boss keys (to unlock new areas on the island). Now, factor in that each of the five characters must find some of these items individually: Devoted gamers will see this as added replay value, while others will see it as a royal pain in the Donkey derriere. - Gamespot

It is important to note, however, that no matter how many collectibles were available in each stage, not everything needed to be collected for the player to progress.  In fact, the percentage of what was needed to progress through a games hub world starts low and gets higher, encouraging the player to go back and look for the things they may have missed as they approach the end game.  

For example, in order to fight "Bowser in the Dark World" and get the key to move up to the second floor of Peach's Castle, Mario would have to collect a minimum of 8 stars, when there are 28 available within the first few stages (~%30).  Compare this to the final fight with Rainbow Bowser, when 70 stars are required of the 118 available (including castle secret stars).  Now, the player needs to have at least %60 of the stars collected before "finishing" the game.


Evolution


1996-2000

The late 90's saw it's fair share of games that followed the 3D Collect-athon formula.  After Super Mario 64 and Banjo Kazooie, we had classics like Donkey Kong 64, Spyro the Dragon, Glover, and Gex: Enter the Gecko.  Each of these games took the 3D platform model and added their own personal touches to it, expanding the variety of the genre more and more.

Oddly enough,  the more complexity a new game added to the genre, the less it felt like a platform game.  Some games made a point to continuously add moves or power ups as the player progressed, offering up new puzzles and challenges in newer levels.  A few hours of Banjo-Kazooie felt more like spending a day at the Fair or at Chuck E Cheese - maps tended to be circular in nature, with a different challenges placed frequently along the path that required the mastery of some skill or move that you learned not long ago.  You could relate this to, say, walking past BB gun shooting ranges or ring toss games as you try to win a stuffed animal for your date.  That's not to say that platforming disappeared completely - the player still had to seek out and navigate to these challenges themselves.  


 Screenshots of Mumbo's Mountain and Treasure Trove Cove.
Courtesy of Banjo's Backpack.

Donkey Kong 64, on the other hand, took the focus even further from platforming into expanding the capabilities of the player, through the introduction of the "DK Crew".  As previously mentioned, the level of collecting in this game was much higher than that of the genre's predecessors, but it also played heavy on the concept of replay-ability;  more often than not, there were just certain puzzles or challenges that you did not have the capability to solve quite yet, and you would need to return some time in the future if you wanted to get that particular Gold Banana.


What we are witnessing during this time period is actually a slow shift away from the platforming aspect of the collect-athon and a turn to the "Adventure" genre, where the focus shifts a little further away from exploration and more on puzzle-solving and character interaction.  Using Math Manent's Nintendo 64 Anthology, we can actually visualize this shift by the manner in which each of these games are listed by their genre:

  • Super Mario 64    - 3D Platformer/Adventure
  • Glover                  - 3D Platformer/Adventure
  • Banjo Kazooie     - Adventure/Platformer
  • Donkey Kong 64 - Adventure/Platformer
In many ways, the light-hearted and colorful mood that would typically accompany a game in this genre reflected this shift.  There was not a lot of depth to their stories, no complex relationships to manage.  The only interactions you really had between characters were sarcastic dialogue or pun-heavy dad jokes.  The focus at this time was still on game play, and its why they are remembered so fondly.


2000-2003

The year 2000 saw the release of the Playstation 2 (followed closely by the XBox and GameCube), and with it, another significant shift in processing power for the game industry.  The system could handle a much higher polygon count, offering more detailed graphics and animations, and it could handle massive, sprawling worlds compared to the consoles of the previous generation.

One of the earliest titles for this system is still widely regarded today: Jak and Daxter.  Naughty Dog introduced a brand new dynamic duo and a brand new colorful world to explore, sticking close to the format of 3D Platform/Adventure games from previous years.  All of Jak's moves were usable from the beginning: double jumps, high jumps, rolling jumps, spin kicking and dash punches, just to name a few.  The only way in which game play could change is if the player absorbed "Eco", which provided Jak with a speed boost or the ability to use fireballs for a short while.

Jak and Daxter utilized a similar collecting model to Banjo-Kazzoie; precursor orbs were very common, and were often used as a means of suggesting to the player what paths they could take.  Scout Flies equated to Jinjos, as they were hidden about each level.  When they were found, the player is rewarded with a power cell.  Power Cells, as you can probably guess, are the Golden Banana/Jiggy/Power Star of the previous generation; you can only progress when you have gathered enough of these.  And as before, only a certain percentage of these needed to be collected to proceed.

Even though these designs feel familiar, Naughty Dog took full advantage of the new technology at hand to "modernize" the 3D platformer.  Jak and Daxter is listed in the Guinness World Records as the first game to create a "seamless 3D world in a console video game", and it's effects on players were very clear.  While the world of Jak and Daxter was still divided between levels and a hub, the fluidity in which the player could traverse between the two made the flow of exploration all the more natural.


During this time, we see the fantastic return of old characters, as well as the introduction of new ones, all of which use the new graphical processing power at hand to extraordinary lengths.  We have already met Jak and Daxter (2001), but not long after we find Mario in his new adventure, Super Mario Sunshine (2002), and we get to meet newcomers Ratchet and Clank (2002) and Sly Cooper (2002).

Each of these followed a simpler collect-athon pattern, balancing the rewards between progression and "powering-up" the character:

  • Ratchet and Clank offered up a variety of weapons and gadgets that can be purchased by collecting bolts, placing more focus on action and shooting in the platformer genre.
  • Sly Cooper introduced stealth into platforming, offering an amusing way to interact with the environment.  Sly could collect notes that were hidden within each course that would offer upgrades once they were all collected, including new moves and abilities that are not necessary to progress, but can improve the way the player navigates the course.
  • Super Mario Sunshine once more had Mario collecting stars (or Sprites, in this case).  However, this time there was a bit more story offered, and Mario is teamed up with FLUDD, an upgrade-able, robotic backpack that shoots water.

 Images courtesy of Wikipedia.

While all of these games offered new takes on platforming, they too sought to utilize the new generation's hardware to it's furthest extent.  The update in graphics and animation gave the characters more life, and the extensive writing and voice acting gave them personalities.  Stories had much more significance, and trended towards being more mature in nature.


2003-Today

In the wake of Grand Theft Auto III's release in 2001, open-world sandbox games were on the rise.  There are some who considered Jak II's release in 2003 to signify the death of the 3D Platfomer Collect-athon, as it turned away from the trends of the last generation toward a future with even bigger worlds, more complex storylines, and the freedom to do just about anything.  There was the occasional Precursor Orb to gather, which would unlock bonus features from the developers, but it certainly wasn't an objective for every player.

As our technological capabilities grow, so does this virtual playing field.  The AAA developers of today are looking to create as grand of an experience as possible, with the likes of The Elder Scrolls and Fallout franchises offering the capability to live a second life within the vast world they've hand-crafted.  No Man's Sky advertised a whole universe to explore, with 18.6 quintillion planets to explore.  These games offered beautiful scenery and a large map for their stories to take place, but no real push to go out and explore, save for the objective marker on your mini-map.

However, it turns out that the collect-athon of the 90's doesn't die quite so easily.

Nintendo has been a company that sticks close to their IPs, is still putting out fantastic Mario games.  Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario Galaxy 2, while a bit more linear in nature than their predecessors, offer a fresh twist to platforming.  And while AAA games have been following their  trends, the growing population of indie developers are bringing a whole new perspective to the table.  Games like Snake Pass look to put a new spin on player control.  FreezeME added a new mechanic of freezing platforms and objects in their place for the player to use in their challenges.  The cult hit Psychonauts brought brilliant, charming writing and original concepts to the table, as Raz navigates the minds of those around him.

Coming later this year, we also have the much anticipated release of A Hat in Timea 3D platformer that looks to stick close to the original model of Super Mario 64, pairing the exploration of a vast, colorful world with a fun and quirky attitude.

And, this week, we had the "Rare-vival" itself: Yooka-Laylee.



This kickstarter project was created by the team originally behind Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64, who aimed to modernize the classic 3D Platforming formula.  Being more BK than DK, the game set aside story for mechanics, creating a whole new set of moves for the player to learn with the goal of finding and collecting Pagies.  However, instead of having 9 or 10 varying levels for the player to explore, they chose to develop 5 massive, expandable worlds that could take hours to complete - their own way of keeping up with the ever-expanding playing field.

Conclusion

Freedom in game design has a whole different definition today than it did in 1996;  simply breaking into the 3rd dimension was more than enough to captivate the audience of the game industry back then.  But the 3D platformer was not just the gimmick of the 1990s, it held a particular spirit of fun that many of us still enjoy after 20 years of gaming.  Here's to hoping that we see more from the talented developers of today!

*Taking the time to research these games has taught me a lot regarding their design.  I plan on writing a follow-up post that will explore these concepts much more deeply.


No comments:

Post a Comment