Video games have a long and storied history full of technological advancements. What started as experiments with moving pixels around one screen slowly grew to encompass sidescrollers, first and third-person adventures, and even isometric journeys. The number of colors and pixels displayed increased as consoles progressed, and eventually, 3D models became possible. Throughout all of this progress, great games using a variety of different gameplay styles continued to release and please players everywhere. After a certain point, it became possible to realize whatever a given game concept was planned to be in the format that worked best for it.
However, there was a period where 2D and 3D games were not viewed evenly. Around the N64 and PS1 era, it became fashionable for formerly 2D games to be reinterpreted in 3D, and 2D games were mostly relegated to handhelds. Even today, the majority of 2D games, in terms of both visuals and gameplay, are found in indie circles. That doesn’t mean that style of game can or should be dismissed, however. 2D games have continued to prove themselves as valid, and they will never truly leave.
The History of 2D and 3D Games
Initially, games were 2D out of necessity. Early game consoles simply could not produce 3D visuals, and the principles and techniques of game design were still being worked out. 3D gameplay was gradually worked out, but 2D sprites remained dominant on weaker hardware. The advent of the N64 and PS1 were freeing, and developers quickly started developing truly 3D games for all available systems. The PS1 still played host to a few memorable 2D titles like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, but big-name 3D titles spearheaded by Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time became dominant.
Even today, that dominance never left. While 2D games offer distinct styles and gameplay opportunities, 3D was just seen by players and developers as the direction video games should go. Presentation has always been vital to selling games, and it became even more so as major companies pushed what was possible in environmental detail and fidelity. Open world environments ballooned in ways that could not be replicated in 2D. This left 2D games relegated to handhelds where 3D visuals were rare. And even then, the DS and PSP allowed for 3D games to release on handhelds as well. 2D became synonymous with retro gaming for a time, and for a few years, it was hard to find a 2D game brought up in gaming accolade discussions.
The Return of 2D Games
Games eventually grew out of that, however. While most large projects are still 3D games, indie and AA games are gaining more notoriety, and Nintendo has been supporting some of its series with 2.5D and 2D-callback games. Many of these games have received a lot of acclaim and demonstrated that 2D can never go totally out of style. Even as late as 2021, gamers were caught off guard by the release of Metroid Dread, a sidescrolling Metroid title that managed to recapture what made past titles so legendary. It’s a breath of fresh air to see a 2D game, even a 2.5D one, feature prominently at the Game Awards due to its sheer success.
The future of 2D gaming looks bright, and more hits are already lining the horizon. The 2D Soulslike, roguelike, and metroidvania genres have taken off with games like Dead Cells and Ender Lillies, and Hollow Knight: Silksong is primed to be another hit. Freedom Planet and Cuphead demonstrate that the action-platformer side of 2D is still alive. Another 2D Metroid is all but guaranteed to show up in a few years, and Nintendo is committed to releasing the occasional 2D throwback title for its major franchises. It’s also become popular to remaster 2D games.
With the Nintendo Switch Online library and PlayStation’s rumored equivalent for older Sony consoles, it is now remarkably easy to browse the highlights of 2D gaming and see how they hold up. 2D video games are still often made due to limitations, genre conventions, or artistic choices, but they still hold enough merit to remain alongside their more prevalent 3D counterparts.
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About The Author
Liam Ferguson (288 Articles Published)
Liam is a Features writer for Game Rant. He has been a passionate game enthusiast since a young age, and graduated from Brock University with a BA in Interactive Arts and Sciences. He has a preference for melee-focused action games, and loves to analyze mechanics. He combines that with his interest in writing, and uses his broad industry knowledge to talk about a wide variety of games.