To me, the most fascinating development regarding the evolution of real-time imagery has been, by far, the transition from 2D to 3D that took place in the late 80s and the early 90s. Like I stated earlier, the popular concept of 2D/3D dichotomy is more often than not an arbitrary and even misleading division, and that by “3D” we usually mean algorithmically simulated depth in contrast to “2D” that refers to non-algorithmic (i.e. manually depicted) deepness. However, for the sake of clarity, I will employ the 2D/3D split for now.
The shift from 2D to 3D was a fundamental transition from one graphics paradigm to another, there’s hardly a question about it. The algorithmic simulation of depth brought so many possibilities opening literally a new dimension into the real-time imagery that there’s was no going back. Once I saw sprite-scaling games such as Outrun and Chase HQ, and later on polygon-based games like Virtua Racing that offered a total freedom of camera movement, up and running at 50-60 frames per second, I knew the pure 2D paradigm was irreversibly gone – and rightfully so. The idea of graphical entities traversing along the z-axis effortlessly, without any stuttering or jumpiness whatsoever was and is something to marvel at even today and should not be taken for granted. I surely don’t.
Even though the new paradigm usually is superior in every way, sometimes, however, the old one persists to live on, which can lead to interesting results. This occurred to me when I fired up Raiden Fighters Jet, an arcade top-down shooter released as late as in 1998, which adheres completely to the 2D paradigm, meaning no sprite-scaling, let alone polygons. It’s worth noting that at the same time 3D acceleration had already broken through into the mainstream gaming, so 2D shooters were already considered as relics back then.
More than anything, a game like RFJ is a fascinating example of an obsolete 2D paradigm taken to its logical extreme. When operating solely on 2D bitmap planes located in fixed depth, there’s only so much what one can do in terms of technology, so the developer was now able to aim its resources primarily to the actual content of the game, instead of the tech.
And it shows. Sure, RFJ is far from mind-blowing even by the 1998 standards, but either way, it’s ridiculously filled with projectiles, massive explosions, and other visual hodge-podge, that put some of the more advanced 3D games of that period to shame in terms of mere spectacle. Obviously, the developer, Seibu-Kaihatsu, had a long history of making top-down shooters, so they knew how to push the hardware (and consequently the 2D paradigm) to its very limits.
The most fascinating aspect and the ultimate point of all this is, however, the fact that when operating on the 3D paradigm instead of 2D, there’s really no technological (or “paradigmatic”) limit on what a developer can pull off. In other words, there will never be a 3D game that could be considered equally paradigm-pushing as a game like RFJ is.
Indeed, there’s no next “new, revolutionary world” to look forward to in the realm of real-time graphics, like there was in the late 80s and early 90s when 3D was rolling onto the screens. No, it’s all about mere refinement from now on, but I’ll take it.