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Like most gamers in their mid-20s, I grew up on a healthy diet of games like Super Mario Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog, and Donkey Kong Country. Those were the big-name classics that are first on everyone's mind when it comes to nostalgia, but the 8- and 16-bit era also played host to solid games like Earthworm Jim, Vectorman, Contra, and plenty more. I would even spend copious amounts of time with platformers that probably weren't that great in retrospect, such as Boogerman and licensed games like Wayne's World or Ren and Stimpy. While I'll always have fond memories of the era, I started thinking recently that 2D gaming might be better now than it's ever been.
When almost everything switched over to 3D in the mid-90s, very few developers were interested in making 2D games. Titles like Super Mario 64 and Crash Bandicoot were flying off the shelves, and gamers were excited to play games in a way that wasn't possible in previous console generations. In 2010, 3D gaming is the norm and we all love it. However, the advent of XBLA/PSN and a new willingness to revisit 2D gaming has resulted in some amazing experiences in the last few years. Downloadable games like Braid, Limbo, and P.B. Winterbottom present the 2D plane in a way we've never seen before, both in terms of gameplay and aesthetic. We played plenty of side-scrollers back in the day that had us avoiding obstacles and defeating enemies, but none with the brain-bending puzzles of Braid or the haunting atmosphere of Limbo.
I spent countless quarters on beat-em-ups like TMNT II: The Arcade Game, The Simpsons, and X-Men Arcade as a kid, and I get the same satisfaction after playing some multiplayer rounds of Castle Crashers or Scott Pilgrim: The Game as an adult. I was always fascinated by the open-ended exploration of Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, so I was thrilled to have that same feeling with a current-gen game thanks to Shadow Complex. The NES Mega Man games were a perfect blend of platforming and action, and Mega Man 9 and 10 offer up an experience that stands up to those early classics.
Even the fighting genre is returning to its 2D roots in a major way. While I love 3D fighters like Tekken and Soul Calibur, my favorite memories in the genre certainly belong to the first three Mortal Kombat games and Street Fighter II. After Street Fighter IV impressed just about everyone, it seems we have a great roster of 2D-based fighters set to release in the near future. Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and Street Fighter X Tekken should be a blast, and the new Mortal Kombat looks absolutely stunning.
LittleBigPlanet launched with a great side-scrolling story mode in 2008, but it's the community that impressed more than anything. Millions of levels were put together by gamers, and almost all of them were 2D platformers (some were as good or even better than the built-in stages made by Media Molecule). With the launch of LittleBigPlanet 2 in a few weeks, we'll most definitely be seeing a new explosion of amazing gamer-made 2D stages.
Nintendo dominated 2D gaming for a long time, and it's great to see them returning to their roots as well. The New Super Mario Bros. games on Wii and DS were huge successes, Kirby's Epic Yarn was charming and offered some great co-op fun, and Donkey Kong Country Returns is probably one of the five best 2D platformers I've ever played. Playing through DKC Returns with my sisters and collecting all of the KONG letters was an experience that stands toe-to-toe with any I've had with Super Mario World, Super Mario Bros. 3, or Sonic the Hedgehog 2.
Overall, I'm thrilled that we're living in a time that gives us the best of both worlds. When I want amazing new experiences that feature the best technology the industry has to offer, I can go to Uncharted, Mass Effect, and Red Dead Redemption. However, if I want to revisit the gameplay that introduced me to the industry as a child, I don't have to dust off old consoles to play games I've already beaten numerous times. It's not just a nostalgia act, either...many of these newer 2D titles surpass the experiences we grew up playing. With the industry putting out stellar offerings in both AAA blockbusters and $10 downloadable games, this era of gaming is proving to be the most diverse and rewarding yet. It might be too early to decide whether or not the current 2D landscape is better than ever, but things are definitely headed in the right direction.
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