In this edition of Playback, we hit rewind and travel back to 1995. It was a time of transition for the industry. Sega and Sony had new 32-bit consoles on the market, comfortably capable of 3D graphics, but designers were still exploring ways to take their ideas into the third dimension. In the 16-bit generation, platformers like Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario World, and Donkey Kong Country drove sales of their respective systems, and many developers were expecting them to continue to do the same for next generation. For our third edition of Playback, join us for a look back at some of 1995's attempts to bring platforming into the 3D world.
Few games could be more the product of their times than Bug! In the mid-90s, following the success of Sonic, out-of-touch execs throughout the industry scrambled to concoct their own mascot with a nasal voice and a near endless stock of borderline amusing witticisms and movie quotes. These invariably resulted in some sort of anthropomorphic bastard child of Alf as voiced by Steve Urkel. Like his peers Bubsy and Gex, Bug's abuse of "attitude" is downright cringe-worthy in hindsight, but behind the shiny red shoes lurked an interesting take on the platform genre. Before Mario 64 (for better or for worse) created the archetype for 3D platformers to follow, developers had yet to settle on just what it meant to be a platformer in three dimensions. Bug! took the direct approach and simply extended its traditional 2D hop-and-bop action into new planes. Taking advantage of its hero's insectival abilities, Bug could up walls and on ceilings, as well as into and out of the background, allowing for some sprawling, labyrinthine level design, unlike anything platform enthusiasts had played before, while still preserving the basic feel of a classic 2D platformer. Although dated, Bug!'s unique spin on the genre remains genuinely enjoyable, and its old-school sensibilities stand the test of time.
When Sony launched the PlayStation, it had not a mascot in sight. Sony did, however, produce its own unique take on the platform genre. Jumping Flash endeavored to blend platform gameplay with a first person perspective, and the result more resembled the earliest of 3D platformers (Infogrames's Alpha Waves) than anything else. The game's protagonist, a robotic rabbit cleverly dubbed "Robbit," hardly qualified as a marketing-savvy character with whom the kiddies could connect, but the high-flying antics of the lagomorphic ‘bot were hard to resist. Although the action relied as heavily on hopping from platform to platform as any game out there, it bore little resemblance to the 2D games that were all the rage in years previous. Perhaps this is why the series didn't survive in the west, or perhaps its sense of Japanese quirk had yet to catch fire on this side of the pond. All the same, Jumping Flash is worth dusting off even today.
Fade to Black
When Delphine software set out to create a 3D sequel to their smash hit platform-adventure Flashback, they ended up tossing out the running and jumping altogether. But despite the seemingly radical shift, Delphine was still able to preserve more of the feel of Flashback that Mario 64 ever did of its progenitor. Fade to Black used a ray-casting engine like the ones used in early first-person shooters in conjunction with polygonal characters to create a 3D world, but it was the step-based controls (think: Prince of Persia) that helped players to feel at home. Unfortunately, the new dimensions of freedom made for a woefully expansive move set, at least by the standards of the day, and some were overwhelmed at the amount of keyboard real-estate that the controls monopolized. Still, once over the learning curve, diligent players found the same balance of stealth, action, and adventuring that made Flashback so enjoyable. Sadly, Fade to Black failed to connect with its audience, and the series was retired. Its spirit would live on, however, in later efforts like Eidos' Tomb Raider blockbusters.