The slow, sad death of 3D games: a tribute

Perhaps it’s finally time to raise a glass to stereoscopic 3D. Once a proud part of E3 press conferences and the core selling point of entire consoles, it seems to be quietly being shelved. It’s “not a focus” for Sony with PS4, which, if rumours are to be believed, seems likely to be graced with an Oculus Rift-style headset. And following a steady deemphasising of 3D in its 3DS marketing spiel, Nintendo’s gone and removed it completely for its new budget version, 2DS.

So no one really cares about stereoscopic 3D, but I like to think that’s mostly because it’s misunderstood. Because – and this might sound crazy – I actually really like 3DS’ 3D.

Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars felt like I was directing model soldiers in an intricate diorama. I loved it in Fire Emblem: Awakening and Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan. Most recently it’s looked great in Steamworld Dig. It’s really nice in Super Mario 3D Land, too, but there’s a pattern to those other games I listed. They’re all 2D, and most of them are really static.

Ghost Recon and Fire Emblem are just gridded maps, and Etrian Odyssey IV’s 3D dungeons and enemy battles aren’t even rendered with any depth. Instead it’s used to lend the rest of its visual design a subtle opulence, and even make it more legible. Layering a menu over another gives it prominence that guides your attention, placing HUD elements on a single plane unifies and makes them distinct from the game itself, and having Fire Emblem’s units stand proud of the map makes it easier to strategise.

Fire Emblem: Awakening.

Outside of these static games, Steamworld Dig, a 2D platformer, uses 3D to simply place backgrounds in the, well, background, helping to keep your character and the action in focus, and reminding us that even the most delightful parallax effect is actually just trying to emulate what stereoscopic 3D does naturally.

All these games show how the best 3DS stereoscopic visuals offer a window into the game; the sense of there being a world behind that little screen. And yet that’s the opposite of what the Nintendo’s E3 2010 trailer I linked above was trying to convey, using the cheesy trick of showing stuff coming out of the screen. The best 3D doesn’t continually try to reach out and poke you in the eye because, aside from being a stereoscopic cliche, it’s really tiring to spend extended time with.

The only non-2D game in which I’ve enjoyed stereoscopic 3D is Super Mario 3D Land, and I think it’s down to its distant camera. Because it’s safely out of the thick of action you don’t get that awkward effect when something’s part-in and part-out of frame, and you’re not continually struggling to figure out what to focus on, which is an issue in most of the fast-moving, up-close games I’ve played, like Kid Icarus: Uprising. Accordingly, you get left with the benefit of feeling more confident in Mario’s jumps because you can perceive depth, something I’ve genuinely missed in other such platformers ever since.

Super Mario 3D Land.

The enduring problem is that no 3DS game has proved that stereoscopic 3D can bring about great new mechanics. Super Mario 3D Land’s few perspective trick levels were dispensable gimmicks: given that the effect can be switched off and can’t be seen by some players, they rather had to be. And with the advent of 2DS, stereoscopic 3D will naturally be shoved even further down the list of importance.

Is that a shame? I suspect I’m in the minority that I feel just a little sad. My children always turn the 3D slider down when they play on the 3DS, and they don’t like 3D at the cinema. My wife suspects it’ll destroy my eyes. 3D is just an annoying frippery, and the slight aesthetic and functional improvements it affords to a certain kind of game is utterly beneath them.

In many ways, though, the three years in which stereoscopic 3D has arrived, faltered and quietly been sidelined have been fascinating. The idea of whole companies attempting to pin their fortunes to something so ephemeral seems incredible. I hope we’re a little wiser now, but there’s still a part of me that’s glad they did. So here’s to you, 3D.

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