Of course, this anticipation also came with a lot of teething pains and soul searching. How would one even design a game in true 3D space? It's telling that in arcades, where the beefier hardware held greater potential for 3D games, they focused primarily on 'vehicle' games, be it the vector-based space-shooter Star Wars way back in 1983, to SEGA's Virtua Racing.
SEGA had a long history of "super scaler" titles, using a fast flurry of hardware-scaled sprites to simulate forward 3D motion, across shooters like Space Harrier or After Burner, to their long history of driving and racing games. To go 3D was to simply cut out the middleman, to take away the shadow puppetry and just put actual-ass dragons in front of your face. I think I lost the analogy I was going for.
Jumping Flash is perhaps the first breakout 3D platformer on home consoles, hitting PlayStation in April 1995, and a very experimental one at that. Using the 3D presentation to its fullest, the game is not played with a visible avatar of your character on-screen, but instead all of the action is viewed through Robbit's eyes -- not just a 3D platformer, but an even-rarer first-person 3D platformer!
This was absolutely a head-turner, and arguably a key part of the PlayStation's identity in its formative years. First-person presentation was in! Between this, Ridge Racer, and dungeon-crawlers such as King's Field or Crime Crackers, embracing the 3D immersion head-on was the new hotness, viewing everything through digital eyes.
Three months after that on PlayStation, a new mascot hit the scene; developed by a bunch of screw-ups with only obtuse adventure games and a dodgy fighter in their repertoire, a sudden infusion of budget allowed them to set their sights on tackling 3D. Crash Bandicoot is relatively back-to-basics compared to its competition; its mechanics are simple, sticking to the Sonic the Hedgehog or Donkey Kong Country school of thought where jumping and bashing into things are your primary means of interaction.
Rather than wide-open spaces, it focuses on 3D through its iconic visual of running 'into' levels -- levels are linear with a presentation not unlike classic 2D platformers, where everything that's on-screen is all you have to contend with at the present time. It plays with this in iconic setpieces like the boar-riding or boulder chases, forcing you to react quickly to rapidly-incoming hazards, or even run towards the camera, giving a cinematic presentation as you react to dangers moments before you bang into them.
Although rarely counted alongside the cutesy animal contemporaries, Lara Croft is very much a mascot of her own making, and also a distinctly modern take on the platforming. Owing more to the likes of Prince of Persia than our plumber paisano, Tomb Raider made an identity for itself on how seemingly 'adult' it was -- although still built on boxy polygonal grids, its moody environments and sense of mystery and exploration created an atmosphere so unlike what could be accomplished in 2D.
That, paired with its somewhat generous representation of a polygonal pinup model, helped usher in the PlayStation's attitude of "games aren't just for kids!", with Lara's busty figure adorning everything from magazine covers to energy drinks. But I digress!
And then... there's Bubsy 3D. Oh, poor Bubsy. Released November 1996 and forced to compete against the other heavy hitters that Christmas season, it didn't make a good show for itself. Bubsy already boasted huge, expansive levels with almost outrageous levels of verticality and tiers to explore, so to take that to the third dimension seemed a no-brainer. Just do that but with an extra axis, right?
Unfortunately, the speed and immediacy of that game is chucked out in favour of sluggish tank controls; a necessity given the extremely precise and precarious platforming it demands, but no less of a killjoy. Where Lara's controls were smooth and graceful, Bubsy's were juttery and unpleasant, moving with as much grace as a cat stuck in a letterbox. While it retains a few individual aspects from the classic games, the package leaves a lot to be desired.
Sacrifices have to be made in converting classic 2D characters into 3D space, but it's hard to say whether the changes were worth it. Mario 64 ushered in a new genre unto itself with competitors iterating on its foundations. Bubsy 3D's just kind of abstract dreck.
Had it been released a year prior it could have been remembered as an early formative point in the genre, but to be released after history had already been made probably cut it off at the knees.
If you want me to be extremely anal, I could discuss the also-rans. Cheesy and Bug! barely count as 3D platformers; the latter a maze game with perspective, and the former using it solely as a clumsy level select. Willy Wombat's a gem, though, and I won't tolerate anyone calling it a bad game, however right they may be.
Shadows of the Empire is a fascinating kick-off to the blossoming "kitchen sink" genre, mixing 3D platforming with third and first-person shooting, ground-bound and fully 3D vehicular stages, as well as limited bouts of total aerial freedom... making it hard to discuss without addressing those genre evolutions as well!
Advertised as a "free-wheeling, free-roaming adventure," Croc is charming little romp with a very different scope from its competition. A little zippier than Lara Croft, but not as vast as Mario's worlds. A different branch of "cartoony" than Crash Bandicoot, one with a gentler, more subdued personality. The genre was still finding its footing, and every entry thus far had its own way of speaking the language.
Croc controls very simply. One button is to jump, and pressed again in mid-air to stomp, used to bust crates and flatten the occasional ground-bound baddie. The other is to tail-whip, his primary means of attack. I could lie and claim it's a two-button game, but every single input on the PlayStation controller is taken advantage of, used to sensitively manipulate Croc's position or direction, as well as muck about with the camera -- a new foible developers had to make concessions for in this 3D age.
The action is presented in self-contained chambers; either walled in by insurmountable terrain, set inside of caves or dungeons, or simply floating landmasses above a pastel abyss.
In the early game, chambers are so small you can scope out the entire area as you enter through the doorway, allowing you to see what challenges lie ahead. At a time when the massive scope of 3D worlds was what excited people, there's something to be said for peering into such charming little toyboxes as well.
Levels are composed of several rooms connected by doors and passages, and the end goal is the Beany Gong; striking it with Croc's tail whip will summon Beany the Bird to whisk you away and complete the stage.
Although levels begin fairly linear, it doesn't take long before they grow in complexity, with branching paths that sometimes intersect, often housing goodies and collectibles. Passages that lead to dead ends are a frequent sight -- wells, caves, pools of water, anywhere that might take you to an optional chamber housing items that you'll want if you're seeking 100% completion.
The true goal of each level is to rescue the six Gobbos hidden throughout it; you don't want to leave your pals behind, do you?! Some are simply sitting in plain view, waiting for Croc to collect them so they can be whisked to safety in a shower of sparkles. Some are found at the end of tricky platforming challenges, locked inside cages that require a key to be opened, or even awarded for completing a mini-game.
Said mini-games usually involve some box-related shenanigans; presenting you with three boxes and playing the shell game, shuffling them and ask you find the one hiding the Gobbo. Guess wrong, and that Gobbo's gone; you'll have to retry the stage to get it right! Other challenges are more physical, like a floating box that actively retreats from Croc's advance, demanding you catch it before it disappears, taking the Gobbo with it.
Each of the four islands covers a different biome; grasslands, icy tundra, cavernous desert, and Baron Dante's castle; all with a noticeable uptick in difficulty. Just when you'd gotten acquainted with Croc's abilities, the second world throws a spanner in the works by forcing him to contend with slippery floors and moving platforms.
The desert is rife with perilous jumps and key-hunting, required to open locked doors or gain access to essential switches... and once you enter Baron Dante's domain, all bets are off. Every level, if not nearly every chamber, throws some all-new enemy, challenge or puzzle at you, often seen once and then never again!
The SEGA Saturn version is best known for its graphical oddities; the game normally modifies the size of objects or the terrain to make cave systems appear larger than they are... but foregoes this formality on the Saturn, making them a little more snug by comparison.
Its biggest claim to fame was perhaps a hardware glitch where untextured models wouldn't render, meaning Croc's head was prone to just... not appearing.
I'm of the (possibly foolish) belief that Croc is a good game, one that approaches the 3D platforming genre from its own unique perspective, and one that goes unappreciated in many circles. It offers insight into the building blocks developers were using to bridge the gap between 2D and 3D, and the accommodations required to usher in this whole new venture.
Its cute, easygoing setting is a refreshing change from the increasingly raucous stuff that was becoming the norm. Every barb slung against the game at the time ended up becoming a trait that set it apart from the crowd, for better or for worse, all elements I want to sing the praises of in some form or another.
That's a lotta words to say it's a bit funky from what you might expect! It's a perfectly reasonable method of control, though. To change a directional orientation on the fly relative to where the camera is facing is probably a lot of code, and in itself requires you give the player control over the camera as well.
Nintendo anticipated this, naming and dedicating four entire buttons to camera manipulation, except when devs said "nuts to that" and used them for toggling weapons or whatever.
It takes some getting used to. Croc has a wide turning circle when he runs, and turning on the spot can be slow; his 180-degree quick turn comes in handy for such an occasion.
Lining yourself up just right for a tricky jump can be hard when, rather than simply moving straight into position as Crash or Mario would, Croc needs steered and reversed like a car. This is likely where the sidestep functions come in, to better line him up on platforms and reduce the need for three-point turns, but its usefulness is iffy at best. Cute animation, though.
What's unique is that Croc has full 3D movement while jumping -- pressing left or right will move him in that direction while airborne. To steer in mid-air would be too tricky, so this is a welcome change. Jumping is perhaps where Croc is at his most manoeuvrable, and jumping on the spot is sometimes the quickest way to position yourself on a platform, rather than manually turning and moving him.
The sidestep buttons change function in mid-air to rotating Croc, seemingly for lack of anything better to do. This has very little use, but does come in handy in later stages where Croc must run across a collapsing bridge:
To steer after you've hit the ground is tricky, but to hit the ground running in a new direction saves valuable time. It's extremely situational, otherwise a footnote more than anything, but if you've got the buttons to spare, you might as well use them...!
Your directional input is based on where the camera is facing, and given your minuscule control over it and its penchant for pointing strange directions even just going through a door, it's hard to get a handle on the squirrelly character.
It also completely disables the "Croc-cam" function for some reason, meaning if you want to scope out your surroundings, the only way to do it is to turn Croc around. Now that rotating in place is no longer an option, that's easier said than done...!
Legend of the Gobbos is very much a game built on the formula of 2D games, more than it is reinventing the wheel for the new 3D medium. For their expanded scope in the third dimension, levels are still largely linear -- get from point A to B, with the gong serving as a very clear end point.
There's still exploration with lots of items to collect, but when levels are split into a variety of rooms, it's easier to mentally segment them. Later stages add a marginal amount of complexity with the addition of keys and switches, yet areas are so compact that you can usually keep things straight in your head.
What's interesting is the other new material; the manual features new illustrations of Croc to demonstrate his moveset; a rare sight when all promotional material was strictly of 3D renders.
Even the Japan-exclusive strategy guide, the "Pau-Pau Sightseeing Book", features new illustrations by Twinbell (ツインベル) for all of the enemies and bosses, rendering them in adorable Muppet-esque 2D.
Argonaut are said to have made new 3D renders for Japanese publication (according to Croc fansite Hero of the Gobbos), and the manual illustrations are very much the work of level designer and artist Simon Keating.
His concept art perfectly exemplifies the kooky, wobbly art style they were going for, and before the release of those documents, this was perhaps the only insight we had into Croc's design before he turned 3D!
The level design also ties into this tone of learning how to walk again. The game begins with each room feeling like a self-contained challenge -- let's navigate narrow spaces by walking across this log! Now let's try some platforms, and then some climbing -- before throwing the veritable kitchen sink at you as the worlds progress.
It's aware these are simple challenges, both because this is a children's game, but also because something as simple as jumping between platforms is a totally different kettle of fish when you only had two dimensions to worry about before.
The environments are simple partly because it's memory efficient, populating a small pool of pre-made terrain with traps and obstacles, but it has the unintended side effect of making it feel cozy, y'know?
You can speedrun the game if you so want to, but there's not the same level of nuance and dynamism in Croc's controls to make it compelling. Compare that to learning the ins and outs of Mario's moveset in SM64, or keeping Crash's momentum at its peak in his games.
That said, watching speedruns is alluring in how they barely engage with the levels at all. Croc is at his fastest when jumping, and a frame-perfect exploit will allow him to float through the air, maintaining his vertical position for up to two seconds as he glides forward. This allows him to sail over pits, under monkey bars, and practically ignore every major platforming challenge for half the game.
So much of Legend of the Gobbos' iconography can be linked to Yoshi's Island. Croc's ground pound is nigh-identical to that game's, mid-air stalling and everything, and the various collectibles, even unlocking the additional bonus screen after collecting all coloured gems, seems very in line with its design ethos as well.
The island map screens, the humble monsters transformed into larger bosses, even Croc's design itself... so much of the game looks like a spiritual successor to the Yoshster's latest outing! We'll assume features like eating enemies, throwing eggs, and transforming into vehicles were just asking a bit much for a 3D platformer still finding its feet.
Where so many games chose to focus on carnage, the violence in Croc is abstracted -- enemies simply puff away in a shower of sparkles, and all of the bosses are simply innocent creatures corrupted by Baron Dante's machinations. Once Croc has defeated them, they return to normal and simply go on their way, neither party actually upset at one another.
Croc's innocent, inquisitive nature shines through when he looks curiously at the newly-reformed beasts. The game wears its heart on its sleeve, a pleasant change from the new norm; even standing apart from Super Mario 64, where fighting silly bosses hits different when they all spout defeatist monologues seconds before they explode into collectibles.
While the grasslands and ice world maintain some semblance of coherency, so much of the desert realm and Dante's castle are but blocks and towers floating above a never-ending abyss.
The skyboxes serve as the only semblance of context for the terrain, be they one of many structures on the moonlit plains, or merely within the confines of Dante's expansive fortress. These faraway textures are beautiful in their own right, and prone to imagery that stirs the imagination.
One of the ice stages features a moody blue night-time sky, the horizon depicting sights to come like cacti and castle spires, as well as oddities like mountainous mushrooms, Stonehenge, low-flying planets, a washing line connected to what looks like a giant crooked hand...
It's the kind of visual gags that fit right at home in a daft British comic strip, though perhaps out of sorts without the usual brand of irreverent humour to make them feel at home. It's a charming demonstration of the game making a lot from a little, if also strangely disorientiating in its own right.
All this, and the music plays a big part in it too. The soundtrack by Karin Griffin, Martin Gwynn Jones and Justin Scharvona is a delight: a light synth orchestra vibe with enough bounce and lift to give the vibe of a child's first adventure, with enough breaks for pep and jazz to spice things up. And yet... there's a strange air of melancholy to many of the tracks.
The soundtrack has a recurring motif that lends it a shared identity, something to tie it all together... yet also a sense of wistful longing. The ice world in particular has an underlying flute melody that, paired with the endless void surrounding you, invites a strange sense of ennui.
Part of it is a strange, almost misplaced sense of nostalgia (a lot of the soundtrack reminds me of Sonic Robo Blast 2's early builds for some reason?), but it's the closest the game comes to striking a mood and eliciting an emotion, albeit an unexpected one.
For some franchises, captivating as they may be, there's only so much you can say about them. I love Croc, but my love only extends to the original; every other instalment loses something vital.
You could argue the same for Rayman, which seems to change drastically between every game, from its art style to its tone to its game design. As someone who found the original so endearing, what is there to hold onto when the series is in conflict with its identity?
Despite its cutesy, happy-go-lucky visuals, the game winds up having a strange sense of loneliness to it. With no tangible world to connect with or meaningful interactions with other characters, it almost feels isolating both for Croc and the player, if not outright alienating. "Teetering on the edge of being connected to reality," as aptly described by Cuteosphere on Tumblr.
It's a feeling some have begun to hold towards these old games, having seen the years of advancement in player engagement or world-building. What was intended as a cheery old romp somehow ends up triggering a "wide palette of emotions", to lift another quote from Kyle Labriola's haunting take on Super Mario 64.
If it's not dissociation and zoning out, it's subdued shades of despair. What are we fighting for? What world are we trying to save here? Is it really worth navigating past these giant floating cogs?
Many of the design choices Croc pursued were ultimately left by the wayside; the compact room-based levels, the tank controls... and it's all the more interesting because of it. A true relic of the discovery period of 3D games, something that carved a fascinating niche for itself, one that no other game was ever able to truly emulate, not even its own sequel.
It's a true combination of factors, from its gameplay to its presentation to its aesthetic, that to miss one part just doesn't land the same way. To even hunt down other platformers with tank controls doesn't scratch the same itch! Believe me, after realising the love I hold for this game, I've thought I could extend the same courtesy to that accursed bobcat. Maybe one of these days.
Modern reflections on gaming yesteryear definitely has a Nintendo slant, but it's important to consider when games aren't talked because they're seen as evolutionary dead ends.
Banjo-Kazooie is lauded because it was a robust game on a platform that was aching for more Mario, and maintained its legacy through its memorable personality and continued franchise. It's an important component of how collect-a-thon platformers have evolved and were perceived; Rare built their reputation off its quality and goodwill.
Croc's window of relevance was limited, and all of Argonaut's follow-ups stumbled on how to iterate upon itself, so of course its relevance to the grander discussion of 3D platformers is diminished. Even nostalgic reflections on the game are hindered on account of its comparatively muted personality. Y'gotta stick the landing!
Even by the time it was released, Croc felt a bit of a relic, but there's a charm to it perhaps because of that. By the following year, 3D platforming had somewhat homogenised, adapting to a set of unspoken standards... and yet here was our little crocodile boy still horsing around with tank controls and the like.
As much as people grumble about those facets, where would the game be without them? They're as much a part of its identity as Sonic's speed or Bubsy's persistent airborne momentum. It plays by its own, possibly archaic rules, but it's a simple, perfectly functional little game.
Just like baby Croc learns the way of the world from his Gobbo adoptees, Croc the video game is a platformer taking its first formative steps into 3D, taking lessons directly from its 2D forbearers.
It might stumble over itself, it might do it a little bit backwards -- heck, it might be late bloomer and only do it after its peers have already taken strides -- but the important part is it's going places, and the journey's all part of the fun. You've got to walk before you can run!
And if we're continuing this hackneyed infant analogy, sometimes looking at old baby snaps is fun too. How far we've come, eh? That little guy's you, so full of hope and promise...!
Pulse Commander: For being a listening ear and lending their own thoughtful insight on Croc.
Cuteosphere: Whose great Tumblr post got me thinking about how freakin' melancholy the game is.
EsbyLion: Whose reply to that post then got me mulling over Croc's standing among its peers.
Forte Wily: Shout-outs to fansites made nearly two decades ago. Somebody appreciated it!
Born slippy: the making of Star Fox: An article by Damien McFerran with insight into Argonaut's work.