Simply put: when a 2D video game series' attempt at a 3D installment 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 are much 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 has Full Motion Video gameplay in a 2D environment, while Gabriel Knight 3 went into 3D. While both sequels have 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 clash with the series' visual identity (not to mention character designer Pierre Gilhodes's art had evolved a lot since then, and so the characters look less Ugly Cute and more grotesque).
- King's Quest 8 is a delayed example. While ambitious in its design and a success both critically and financially, after the fall of adventure games many fans became disappointed in the game for this trope and especially focusing mostly on action-RPG gameplay. The backlash towards it was so great many fans still consider it the Franchise Killer and a Genre-Killer for adventure games, though it really isnt either one.
- The Legend of Kyrandia 1 and 2 are widely praised, while the third game has a mixed (albeit still mostly positive) reception. The transition from hand-painted to prerendered backgrounds and objects isn't the main peeve, but it definitely affects the game's atmosphere. The primitive character models don't help either.
- Dialogs in Star Control 2 use brightly colored, low-resolutionnote still pictures with a bit of animation—nothing flashy, but still adequate. Star Control 3 upgrades that to dim higher-resolutionnote videos with compression artifacts. The animatronic puppets were intended to look like a more realistic 3D, but instead Spathi look like a flayed carcass, Pkunk look like a sock puppet and humanoids fall into to Uncanny Valley. Star Control Origins would later break the ceiling, taking cues from Star Control 2s more colorful and cartoony style.
- 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, named after the one used in Grim Fandango, which uses Tank Controls and has an interface considered ill-fitting for the genre. That aside, the relatively crude 3D models are 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, 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 stumbled into 3D gameplay with its non-canon, Arika-developed Street Fighter EX line (especially and most specifically EX3), which garnered very mixed reactions. However, as every EX installment retains the 2D gameplay mechanics even with the use of 3D graphics (only certain moves make use of 3D camera angles), it has been suggested that the pushback against EX can be attributed more to Capcom "abandoning" sprite-based gameplay and having a third-party developer handle the work than any sort of tangible fault. 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 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 is a weird case. Even though it's fully 3D, the gameplay is 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, vary in quality but are 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, forcing the remaining brood to rush it through development.
- With the release of Mortal Kombat 9 and continuing 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 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 quickly, 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 everything — half of the roster is cut, and the main gameplay mode is nothing more than a glorified time trial.
- The series later 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 tried the 2.5D approach once again for KOF XIV and got mixed reactions, more duet to 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 compared to 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). However, 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 have sprites with cartoonish and exaggerated animations, and while this hasn't stopped some characters like Morrigan (who appears 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 is 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 changes 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 trades 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 1 and Unreal, resulting in an Obvious Beta. On top of that, many feel the second game lacks the tongue-in-cheek tongue that makes the first game fun by trying to take itself more seriously.
- The System Shock games. The original uses a 2D "pseudo-3D" engine that was so advanced for 1994 that a major reason the game bombed at the time was because most people couldn't run it at a playable framerate. The sequel goes the opposite way (due to both rushed development and an attempt to make it playable for everybody) and uses 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, Sonic Forces, and especially Sonic 2006 and Sonic Boom).
- While Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2 are criticized for Unexpected Gameplay Change, the core "Sonic" gameplay is considered by fans to be 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. However, the non-Sonic sections have grown 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 its 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 keep the well-received daytime stages from Unleashed (though both games feature 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 doesn'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—the entire game looks completely unfinished and has 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 isn't as well received as its predecessors, hitting the ceiling pretty hard, the Sands of Time reboot busted through with flying colors, and is 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 are isometric, making a side-scrolling Spyro game even more polarizing for people who've played those games).
- The Mega Man franchise has made two runs at the Polygon Ceiling so far.
- The Mega Man Legends series was initially 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 looks gorgeous and plays closer to previous Mega Man games, but they sorta screwed up the gameplay; levels switch between true 3D and a more familiar 2.5D, and both have their own set of odd perspectives 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), returns to 2D gameplay.
- Even Donkey Kong suffered from this with Donkey Kong 64. The game is widely considered much inferior to the Donkey Kong Country trilogy of 2D platformers and a disappointment. DK64 follows in the footsteps of Super Mario 64, which averts the trope really well, and Banjo-Kazooie, a well-received new franchise that started in 3D, but DK64 actually takes the problems of these games and makes them worse. Banjo has many items to collect, but DK64 cranks the item collecting Up to Eleven. DK64 has 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 can't switch between Kongs on the field - you have to run all the way back to a specific kind of barrel to do any character switches, leading to an insane amount of backtracking. The labyrinthine, sprawling level design makes the segmentation even more of a pain. After the game's release, 3D platformers started moving away from the collect-a-thon formula.
- 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 is abandoned in favour of slow-paced, fiddly puzzle-solving, and the move to 3D exacerbates the problems with the friendly AI. Furthermore, the gorgeous pre-rendered backgrounds are replaced with empty Cut-and-Paste Environments.
- The original Tomba! utilizes a unique form of 2.5D which juxtaposes 2D sprites onto simplistic 3D environments that, while having a form of depth, mostly plays out in straight 2D. The game was and still is a cult classic among the original Playstation library. Its sequel, Tomba! 2: The Evil Swine Return mostly sticks to the 2D platforming but renders everything in full 3D and adds voice acting to boot. While the game is perfectly functional and became a Cult Classic in its own right, general consensus is that it lacks much of the unique charm that made the original so endearing, and the voice acting is horrible, though many would argue that isnt necessarily a flaw. The sequel didn't sell nearly as well as the original, and its failure took developer WhooPeeCamp with it.
- Frogger avoided this at first with its early console games published by Hasbro Interactive, Frogger and Frogger 2: Swampy's Revenge. Both games are well-received (though the former gets flak for being ridiculously Nintendo Hard) and the jump to 3D was handled well, since they take the tile-hopping of the arcade original and add more mechanics and levels on top of it. It's the later Konami-published Frogger: The Great Quest, a 3D platformer reboot, that really suffers from the polygon ceiling, being a short, buggy mess that has very little in common with previous games. Every Frogger game since then has stuck with grid-based gameplay.
- Lemmings 3D is a good game, but also extremely awkward to play and the less than impressive graphics can really mess with depth perception at times. Lemmings Revolution keeps the 3D graphics, but reverts 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.
- Trine 3: The Artifacts of Power attempted to take the Video Game 3D Leap for the Trine universe, with mixed results. It was criticised for making compromises to its gameplay to cover the cost for its ambition, and for being very short. It became an Old Shame for the developers, and Trine 4: The Nightmare Prince returned to the 2D style of the first two Trine games and was released to high acclaim. Nevertheless, Trine 3 is widely seen as the weakest entry in the Trine series.
- Dawn of Mana already deviates from formula by turning a successful 2D action-RPG into an 3D action-platformer with minimal RPG Elements. It goes on to have one of the worst camera systems seen in a PS2 platformer, and mission-objective arrows that point directly at solid walls. It also strips you of all your upgrades at the end of a level, making what few RPG Elements it has entirely pointless.
- The first eight Might and Magic games use sprites for NPCs, monsters, trees, etc (in a 3D world in 6 thru 8) and are quite good. M&M9 is fully rendered. It's also full of bugs, has 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 swaps 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 (i.e. people who don't have very powerful graphics hardware), the initial critical and sales reception was less than enthusiastic. In later 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 suffers from long load times, blocky character models, and painful overuse of the word "extreme." It adds two changes to the formula established by the original Jam: First of all, players no longer catch fire, but become "Smokin'", which can be achieved either by scoring three straight baskets without the opponent scoring or blocking three straight baskets. If the player does both, he becomes "Unstoppable." The second change is the addition of an "Extreme" button, which is even stronger than Turbo, but drains the Turbo meter twice as fast. Neither does 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're inferior to the originals. Worms 3D has a lot of maps where it's too easy to fall into the water, a lackluster map generator, and a large amount of glitches. Worms Forts is praised for its inventive gameplay, but is similarly glitchy and has 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 is when they finally broke the ceiling and is very well-regarded, even receiving 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.