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 resources 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.
Do not confuse with They Changed It, Now It Sucks!, which is about the reception of such games.
- 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, mainly due to how much the multiplayer modes changed. 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. That said, the 64 games have since been Vindicated by History due to the overall high quality of their single player adventures, especially Bomberman 64: The Second Attack! which is often regarded as one of the best Bomberman games.
- 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, these changes proved to be an issue with old and new fans.
- 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.
- Gobliiins went 3D for the fourth game. However, the game was not as well-received as the older titles; one of the reasons is that its bare 3D graphics made it clash with the series' visual identity (not to mention character designer Pierre Gilhodes's art evolved a lot since then and so the characters looked less Ugly Cute and more grotesque).
- King's Quest 8, while ambitious in its design, disappointed many fans for this trope and especially focusing most of the gameplay to action-RPG. It 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 (albeit still mostly positive) 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. Star Control Origins would later break the ceiling.
- 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 the "Grim" Engine Tank Controls, named after the one used in Grim Fandango; an interface which is considered ill-fitted for the genre. That aside, the relatively crude 3D models were an aesthetic step down from The Curse of Monkey Island's cartoonish 2D sprites, which fit the comedic tone of the series much better.
- 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 and 11, 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:
- The series 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 reversed most of the roster and moveset deficits caused by the switch to hand-drawn, HD sprites, the graphics were 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 when 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), though SNK themselves would rectify this issue by releasing an update that greatly improved the graphics, much to the fanbase's approval.
- 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.
- Not counting the extremely divisive Guilty Gear 2: Overture (which completely changed genres along with being a 3D title), there was some worry about Guilty Gear Xrd's shift to 3D graphics and whether the high-res anime sprite aesthetics of the series would take a hit as a result. Fortunately, Arc System Works went out of their way to perfectly replicate the feel of the 2D games, right down to animating 3D models in a stop-motion style instead of through tweens, allowing the game to match the style of the previous games on top of being able to pull off more cinematic moments during special attacks and intro/victory scenes that wouldn't have been possible in a purely 2D game.
- 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 by trying to take itself more seriously.
- The System Shock games. 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.◊ It must must noted though that System Shock 2 only hit the ceiling in terms of visuals, in terms of gameplay it is regarded as a classic just like its predecessor.
- 3D Sonic the Hedgehog games are typically accused of suffering from being too unpolished (Sonic Heroes, Sonic Lost World, and especially Sonic 2006 and Sonic Boom).
- While Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2 are criticized for Unexpected Gameplay Change, the core Sonic gameplay was considered by fans the best aspect of said games and a good conversion of the classic 2D Sonic gameplay to 3D, despite some growing pains such as collision detection. Though the non-Sonic sections have gotten more liked over the years.
- During the Saturn era, an attempt was made to bring Sonic into 3D with Sonic Xtreme, though the game was scrapped due to several factors. Had it been released, the game would have hit the ceiling square on, as it's awkward fisheye perspective and level design would have been an even more radical departure than what the Adventure series would introduce.
- In 2008, Sonic Unleashed introduced a new take on 3D with boost gameplay, which would become the new standard. In 2010 and 2011 respectively, SEGA released what most consider to be successful 3D Sonic games in Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations, both of which kept the well-received daytime stages from Unleashed (though both games featured large amounts of 2D stages).
- Earthworm Jim fell victim to this trope heavily, as it abandoned almost all of the gameplay elements (not to mention many of the series' characters) in its jump to 3D. It also didn't help that the series creator, Doug Tennapel, was completely excluded from its development.
- Bubsy utterly splattered against the Polygon Ceiling with the release of Bubsy 3D, in which the entire game looked completely unfinished and had a very restrictive control scheme. This was especially awkward considering the platforming success of Super Mario 64, which was released several months before.
- While Prince of Persia 3D was not as well received as its predecessors, hitting the ceiling pretty hard, the Sands of Time reboot busted through with flying colors, and was widely regarded as a classic, using exaggerated Le Parkour elements for its platforming as well as one of the consequences of the trilogy's time travel elements being the Rewind function giving the player a certain number of do-overs if they botch a platforming segment and fall to their death.
- Inverted with the crossover games Spyro Orange: The Cortex Conspiracy and Crash Bandicoot Purple: Ripto's Rampage, whose source series were originally 3D platformers but were made 2D, resulting in a widely-disliked pair of games (more so for Spyro Orange, as Crash already had two side-scrolling forays on the Game Boy Advance while the three other Spyro games released on the system were isometric, making a side-scrolling Spyro game even more polarizing for people who had played those games). (A Sprite Ceiling, if you might?)
- The Mega Man franchise has made two runs at the Polygon Ceiling so far.
- The Mega Man Legends series was divisive, looking clunky and featuring gameplay that was Mega Man In Name Only, though it did become a Cult Classic among certain fans. It was later heavily Vindicated by History when Keiji Inafune expressed his love for the duology and fans realized that having a Zelda-style exploration/adventure game instead of the usual side-scrolling shooter wasn't anywhere near as bad as they initially thought. note
- A straighter example is Mega Man X7, it looked gorgeous and played closer to previous Mega Man games, but sorta screwed up the gameplay; levels switched between true 3D and a more familiar 2.5D, and both had their own set of odd perspective and balance issues. Capcom (mostly) dropped the 3D segments for X8, leaving X7 an Oddball in the Series.
- Bionic Commando ran into this with the 2009 reboot. The following game, Rearmed 2 (itself an original sequel to a slightly earlier HD 2.5D remake of the original NES game), returned to 2D gameplay.
- The Nintendo 64 Castlevania games are pretty much excellent poster boys of this trope. Though the franchise later broke the ceiling on PlayStation 2 and later again with the controversial but still solid Lords of Shadow sub-series.
- Even Donkey Kong suffered from this with Donkey Kong 64. While the game is not considered actually bad, it is still considered much inferior to the Donkey Kong Country Trilogy of 2D platformers and a disappointment for many. DK64 followed the same steps of Super Mario 64, which averted the trope really well, and Banjo-Kazooie, a new franchise that started well on 3D, but DK64 actually took the problems of these games and made them worse. Banjo had many items to collect, but DK64 cranked the item collecting Up to Eleven. DK64 had 5 characters, but everything in the game must be done with one specific Kong, even collecting items that are in front of you but only collectable by one Kong. To make matters worse, you couldn't switch between Kongs on the field - you had to run all the way back to a specific kind of barrel to do any character switches. DK64 having level design that both labyrinthine and sprawling makes the segmentation even worse.
- OddWorld: Munch's Oddysee is an unusual example. It was globally well received at release and is still beloved today, but nonetheless serves as a great example of the problems that the transition from 2D to 3D can pose. The fast-paced precise platforming that characterized the first two games was abandoned in favour of slow-paced, fiddly puzzle-solving, and the move to 3D exacerbated the problems with the friendly AI. Furthermore, the gorgeous pre-rendered backgrounds made way for empty Cut-and-Paste Environments.
- Lemmings 3D, it was a good game but also extremely awkward to play and the less than impressive graphics really mess with depth perception at times. 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Rollercoaster Tycoon 3 swapped the mixture of isometric 2D graphics and Digitized Sprites for a full 3D engine... A very complex and rather poorly optimised engine that required very powerful graphics hardware for its time. Given that the franchise had up until then been praised for its ability to run surprisingly well on anything more powerful than a graphing calculator, and was generally marketed towards the casual end of the gaming market (ie, people who didn't have very powerful graphics hardware), the initial critical and sales reception was less than enthusiastic. In more recent years however, once the kit needed to run it at a playable framerate became more widely available, it became Vindicated by History.
- 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.
- While the 3D Worms games definitely have their fans, general consensus is that they were inferior to the originals. Worms 3D had a lot of maps where it was too easy to fall into the water, a lackluster map generator, and a large amount of glitches. Worms Forts received praise for its inventive gameplay, but was similarly glitchy and had a notoriously hard campaign. Team 17 ultimately agreed with the fans and responded in kind by returning to 2D after Worms 4 Mayhem, though ironically that game was when they finally broke the ceiling and it was very well-received, it even received an Updated Re Release years later.
- 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.