A few years ago I read some game designer (Jonathan Blow maybe?) note that his favorite recent game was Assassin’s Creed (the first one?) because it utilized 3d space so well. That is, the game wasn’t just represented with 3d graphics, it actually took place in 3d space: Navigation, exploration, sometimes combat. It was a cool thing to observe, because until then, I had just thought that 2d was 2d and 3d was 3d.
What then, was the point of 3d, if the gameplay didn’t actually use 3d space? What did we gain when we went from SNES to N64?
I think the answer is a combination of the extra dimension and new hardware.
When programmers have to think about how to represent a game world in code, they have to imagine how numbers can represent details. Until then 3d games, things usually existed in a grid. The pixel art makes this obvious, and the fluid nature of games like Mario, makes you forget that everything is placed on this grid. Yet the controls gave it away. Pressing really fast, I might be able to move a character 1 pixel, but I could never move half a pixel.
This changed when games became 3d. The game worlds were no longer placed on an easily distinguishable grid. The architecture might have been simple in the beginning, it was already more organic than had ever been possible before.
The analog stick of the Nintendo 64 was a great way to more easily navigate these worlds. By tilting the stick in various arcs and degrees, I could circle around targetted monsters in Ocarina of Time, like in the Wolfos battle pictured above. The Z-targetting system allowed smooth movement where I could navigate relatively easily navigate the non-grid-based terrain, while still remain focused on an enemy.
It’s really quite impressive that so many games of that time successfully handled not only going from grid-based 2d games to more free-form worlds, but that they occasionally managed to successfully include fun, vertical gameplay simultaneously, is really something.