Polygon Ceiling

Simply put: when a 2D original's transition to a 3D turns out to be difficult, usually because a Video Game 3D Leap often requires more skill and talent than some developers have.

There are two aspects of dimensionality when it comes to games. A game can be rendered in 2D or 3D, and the gameplay can be 2D or 3D. All 4 combinations have been seen. Switching from one of these combinations to another, especially going from 2D/2D to 3D/3D is fraught with peril. Particularly in the early days of 3D rendering, art styles that were painstakingly developed in 2D could be lost in the transition to 3D rendering due to lack of hardware capable of bringing it to life in 3D. And of course, there are some art styles that simply don't work in 3 dimensions at all.

Gameplay offers some very perplexing challenges too. A direct adaptation of 2D gameplay into 3D gamespaces can cause things like the dreaded Camera Screw. 3D gameplay, by necessity of both viewpoint and larger gamespace, needs to take things a bit slower than their 2D cousins.

Then, there's the version where developers forgot about trying to port the 2D gameplay into a 3D world, and just use 3D gameplay that is not entirely unlike what the 2D gameplay had. Freedom overload can ensue, where developers become so enamored with building a gigantic world that they forget to actually put interesting things into it. Puzzles that would have been simpler in a 2D game can become exceedingly complicated because of the changed viewpoint.

Oddly enough, for RPGs and adventure games, 3D rendering once was much more limiting than 2D. Consider a set of shelves with miscellaneous bottles on it. In 2D, this is part of the background; it costs comparatively little. In 3D, each bottle must have polygons, which means the quality of that bookshelf goes way down. You only get so many polygons per frame, so they should be spent on actual characters. Some games tried to cheat by using 3D backgrounds but computationally cheap sprites for the actual objects; this seldom resulted in a pleasant experience to the eye. Others did the opposite, with 3D model characters but 2D images for backgrounds.

Add to this the lack of tilemapping: a common 2D technique for reusing images. Through tilemapping, it was possible for designers to create large terrain, with stuff in it, fairly easily. The time to develop one area would be pretty much the same as any other. You couldn't do that with 3D in the early days; every room had to be hand-built from scratch. You could reuse textures, maybe certain decorations (chairs, tables, etc), but that's about it: the basic blocking of each area had to be done from scratch.

What you get is that some games that had large 2D worlds seemed to get compressed in their 3D outings. This isn't as much a problem nowadays, but in the early days of 3D rendering, it was pretty widespread.

Be aware though, sometimes good 3D video-game adaptations are accused of this, mainly because the fans don't like to see their original product change. Notice that very similar games with no 2D predecessors were often well received.

On the other hand, when this trope was common, not being in 3D could also invoke It's the Same, Now It Sucks among fans, so some game producers didn't have a real choice but to try.

Do not confuse with They Changed It, Now It Sucks, which is about the reception of such games.


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    Action Game 
  • Blaster Master made its only journey into the third dimension with the PlayStation game Blaster Master: Blasting Again. While some of the spirit of the 2D games was preserved in the transition, the presentation took a serious hit, and the hero and his vehicle became harder to control. The next installment, the prequel/spinoff game Blaster Master Overdrive, went back to 2D graphics.
  • Bomberman hit the Polygon Ceiling a bit harshly with the 64 series. They later tried again when the Gamecube rolled around and broke through the ceiling just fine with Bomberman Generation and Bomberman Jetters, having made the smart move of giving only the single-player mode 3D gameplay while keeping the multiplayer the same as with the 2D games. It's a pity, though... They could have paved the way for a lot of remarks about why he's called Bomberman.

     Adventure Game  
  • Adventure Games, generally speaking, have not dealt with the transition to the 3D era well (Telltale Games' games being an exception), as they usually require a lot more attention to detail than your average FPS, platformer or what have you. Rarely will players need to explore too much or pay attention to everything in a run-and-gun shooter, whereas an adventure can easily require one to, for instance, look behind furniture, under objects, or to search everywhere for that one missing piece of the puzzle. The difference in developing time and resources was rather significant — though it's gotten less so nowadays, due to procedural generation making creation easier and a much higher detail requirement in most other game types equalizing things.
  • After an extremely successful run with Gabriel Knight, the series went through two separate clashes with this trope. The first sequel had Full Motion Video gameplay in a 2D environment, while Gabriel Knight 3 went into 3D. While both sequels had strong storylines, they were very difficult to play.
    • Jane Jensen later said that they did not foresee the amount of details (and work) a full 3D game required. For her future projects she would prefer a 2D game on pre-rendered 3D backgrounds; it would look good enough while being much cheaper.
  • King's Quest 8, while ambitious in its design; was both the Franchise Killer and a Genre-Killer for adventure games for quite some time.
  • The Legend of Kyrandia 1 and 2 were widely praised, while the third game had a mixed reception. Transition from painted to rendered backgrounds and objects was not the main peeve, but it definitely affected the game atmosphere. The primitivism of models also did not help.
  • Dialogs in Star Control 2 used bright-colored low-resolutionnote  still pictures with a bit of animation. That seemed adequate. Star Control 3 upgraded that to dim higher-resolutionnote  videos with compression artifacts. The animatronic puppets were intended to look like a more realistic 3D, but instead Spathi looked like a flayed carcass, Pkunk looked like a sock puppet and humanoids went to Uncanny Valley.
  • Escape from Monkey Island could have easily avoided this trope by merely changing the graphic style and nothing else. But since they decided to port the game to the PlayStation 2, they changed the control scheme from point and click to one similar to Resident Evil or Final Fantasy VII, which was ill-fitted for the genre.

    Fighting Game 
  • There are two key aspects to the Polygon Ceiling here. First, 3D gameplay is usually slower than its 2D counterpart, making the games less dynamic (something required for a fighting game). Second, the projectiles, which are a key element of 2D fighters, hardly ever work effectively in 3D, which is why 3D-based fighters like Virtua Fighter, Tekken, Soulcalibur, Dead or Alive, and Def Jam are almost purely physical and contact-based.
  • One can say, though not without debate, that Street Fighter originally had stumbled into 3D gameplay with its non-canon, Arika-developed Street Fighter EX line (especially and most specifically EX3), which had a very mixed reaction. However, as every EX installment retained the 2D gameplay mechanics even with the use of 3D graphics (only certain moves made use of 3D camera angles), it has been questioned if the pushback against EX can be attributed more to Capcom "abandoning" sprite-based gameplay and having a third-party developer handle the work than tangible faults. Capcom later "fixed" things with the (also) 2.5D and well-received Street Fighter IV, which revived the fighting game genre in the process. Because of the successful 2.5D approach of SFIV, Capcom later pulled the same 2.5D move when it was time to bring the Vs. series from the Sprite/Polygon Mix of Marvel vs. Capcom 2 and Capcom vs. SNK 2 to the full 3D of Tatsunoko vs. Capcom and Marvel vs. Capcom 3. The success of IV also led to EX gaining a more favorable reputation in the ensuing years, largely because the passage of time allowed critics to realize that many of the elements that had earned IV praise were already present in EX.
  • Mortal Kombat is particularly guilty of this, with the gameplay and Fatality systems being rebuilt with almost every new game:
    • Mortal Kombat 4 was a weird case. Even when it was fully 3D, the gameplay was not greatly altered from the previous games (with only one limited way to move on the z-axis), making it very faithful to the original 2D games.
    • The following games, Deadly Alliance, Deception and Armageddon, varied in quality but were said to be somewhat decent.
    • For Special Forces, it probably doesn't help that the creative team behind it (including series co-creator John Tobias) quit Midway midway through development, thereafter the remaining brood rushed it to development.
    • With the release of Mortal Kombat 9 and continuing this with X, they've gone back to the series' roots with 2.5D gameplay a la Street Fighter IV.
  • One Must Fall Battlegrounds attempted to do jump to 3D but failed due to many functionality problems. It was one of the most promising games ever made, but the bugs, lack of pilot/robot progress, inability to go through the arenas fast and awkward controls made for a big disappointment.
  • The King of Fighters got around this with a "2.5D" subseries a la SFIV (in fact, predating it), the Maximum Impact line. For those who still aren't comfortable with the idea, it is explicitly an Alternate Continuity; the main games still use sprites. In a strange inversion, KOF XII, which is sprite-based, proceeded to bomb. One of the main reasons is how they scaled back on everything — half of the roster had been cut, and the main gameplay mode was nothing more than a glorified time trial.
    • Came back with a vengeance with KOF XIII which rectified the previous game's shortcomings, added some new modes, and wrapped up the Story Arc that began with KOF 2003.
    • Then they again tried the 2.5D approach for KOF XIV with mixed reactions, more so because of aesthetics than gameplay; while XIV fully reversed the roster and moveset deficits caused by the switch to hand-drawn, HD sprites, the graphics are widely seen as underwhelming for a PlayStation 4 title (comparisons to the aforementioned Maximum Impact series from the PS2 era were common reactions to the reveal trailer), especially pit against rival fighting game series in the same generation (Guilty Gear Xrd, Street Fighter V, Tekken 7) and even the previous one (Virtua Fighter 5, Soulcalibur IV and V, Dead or Alive 4 and 5).
  • This article by Seth Killian, who would later become Capcom's adviser for all things Street Fighter, pretty much explains why 2D has remained viable in the face of 3D.
  • In regards to Darkstalkers, this is the given reason why most of the characters haven't shown up in games with 3D models. The original games had sprites with cartoonish and exaggerated animations, and while this hasn't stopped some characters like Morrigan (who appeared in games such as Tatsunoko vs. Capcom and Marvel vs. Capcom 3 without any problems), it makes others such as Lord Raptor and Jedah difficult to translate into 3D. The animators at Capcom appear to have found some sort of solution as of Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite, where Jedah was included as a combatant alongside series mainstay Morrigan for the first time in full-fledged 3D, Bloody Murder and all.

    First-Person Shooter 
  • Blood hit the ceiling hard with the with release of Blood II: The Chosen, which traded the first game's sprite-based 3D Build Engine for the full-3D LithTech engine. The game was rushed out to compete with the likes of Half-Life and Unreal, resulting in an Obvious Beta. On top of that, many felt the second game lacked the feel that made the first game fun.
  • The System Shock games hit this ceiling in regards to the visuals. The original used a 2D "pseudo-3D" engine that was so advanced for 1994 that a major reason the game bombed was because most people couldn't run it at a playable framerate. The sequel went the opposite way (due to both rushed development and an attempt to make it playable for everybody) and used the dated Dark Engine, resulting in the game looking notoriously ugly, with its blocky polygons and blurry textures occasionally managing to get beat out by the original's crisp, detailed 2D environment despite coming out five years later. Compare SS1 to SS2.
    • Note that this only applies to the visuals. Gameplay-wise, they're both regarded as classics.

    Platform Game 

    Puzzle Game 
  • Lemmings 3D. Lemmings Revolution kept the 3D graphics, but reverted to 2D gameplay.
  • Parodied in one minigame in Looney Tunes Duck Amuck, where Daffy Duck wants to be in a really advanced game "with graphics up the wazoo", and becomes a very blocky collection of polygons.

    Real-Time Strategy 
  • Poor Stronghold. Once Firefly had to start making 3D RTS games, it started to show very obvious problems that had gone worse with each sequel.

    Role-Playing Game 
  • Dawn of Mana already deviated from formula by turning a successful 2D action-RPG into an 3D action-platformer with minimal RPG Elements. It went on to have one of the worst camera systems for a PS2 platformer, and mission-objective arrows that pointed directly at solid walls. It also stripped you of all your upgrades at the end of a level, making what few RPG Elements it had entirely pointless.
  • The first eight Might and Magic games used sprites for NPCs, monsters, trees, etc (in a 3D world in 6 thru 8) and were quite good. M&M9 was fully rendered. It was also full of bugs, had ridiculous looking characters with flat faces, trees with a few "blades" of leaves, and a UI with a fraction of the functions of its predecessors.

    Shoot 'Em Up 
  • The nearly-forgotten Solar Assault Gradius. It's a perfectly fine game, but it's arcade-only and hard to play using emulators. All subsequent entries in the Gradius series went back to 2-D.

    Sports Game 
  • Backyard Sports in 3D has downright blocky models.
  • After a licensing dispute, Acclaim grabbed the NBA Jam name from Midway Games and made NBA Jam Extreme. Extreme suffered from long load times, blocky character models, and painful overuse of the word "extreme." It added two changes to the formula established by the original Jam: First of all, players no longer caught fire, but became "Smokin'", which could be achieved either by scoring three straight baskets without the opponent scoring or blocking three straight baskets. If the player did both, he became "Unstoppable." The second change was the addition of an "Extreme" button, which was even stronger than Turbo, but drained the Turbo meter twice as fast. Neither did much to change the gameplay. Now, Extreme is barely remembered, if at all.

    Turn-Based Strategy  
  • While the 3D Worms games definitely have their fans, general consensus is that they were inferior to the originals, and Team 17 responded in kind by returning to 2D only after Worms Mayhem.

  • Dwarf Fortress is an inverted, or rather reversed example. Its creator initially attempted to combine his vision for immensely detailed Procedural Generation and deep simulation with 3D graphics, and the result was Slaves To Armok: God of Blood... Which ended up becoming Vapour Warenote  because making a game look good as well as play good is really hard when you have No Budget and a noted aversion to hiring extra coders. Eventually he gave up the 3D aspect as more trouble than it was worth and switched to the faux-ASCII we know and love.

Alternative Title(s): Hard 3 D, Polygon Difficulties