Are 2D Games Still Popular?

With the arrival of new console platforms with better graphics capability and incredible performance, has there left any place for 2D games? Before answering this question, let’s take a look at the history and the evolution of gaming industry.

Are 2D Games Still Popular

The Evolution of 2D Games

The history of 2D games begins in the 1970s with the first arcades and home console emergence. They presented a bunch of very simple games. You’ve probably seen one of them — Table Tennis for Magnavox Odyssey and Pong for Atari consoles — both with the same gameplay. The screen was divided into two parts, and players moved their platforms trying to hit the ball and get the best score. The net looked like a straight line, and the ball was just a dot. In fact, all the games of the early era required a lot of imagination to fully understand.

The next revolutionary game after tennis was Space Invaders, which started in 1978 as an arcade game. First seen in Japan, Space Invaders is considered the most influential game in video game history. The player must kill each enemy on the screen, having only one shoot at a time. A game speeds up as the player progresses, making it harder and harder to win. Arcades popularized gaming itself, as it was the most accessible way to play from the late 70s to the early 80s. All we needed was a company that could bring the quality of arcade games to home consoles.

In 1985, Nintendo released their iconic console – Nintendo Entertainment System – with the most popular games of all time like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid. For the next decade, 2D games were running the world. In the early 90s, the fourth console generation was released — Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis were the kings of the 2D gaming world.

The End of the 2D Games’ Era?

Around the late 90s and early 2000s, 2D was perceived as a stepping stone to 3D and was almost extinct. All of the most treasured video game franchises transitioned over to 3D. 3D dominated on home consoles, replacing 2D to handhelds. Yes, 2D games didn’t disappear completely. But as they were moved to the handhelds, they felt less important. Handheld versions of popular franchises were always treated as spin-offs, while console games tended to be direct sequels to one another. Thus, 2D handheld titles couldn’t compete with the big console games.

But soon, 2D games made a massive comeback. Their revival began with the start of Xbox Live Arcade on the original Xbox in 2001. It was hosting games like arcade classics and some simple games. Xbox Live Arcade became a breeding ground for bite-sized games and created a place for 2D retro-styled games on a home console. Now, 2D titles could co-exist with high-budget 3D ones.

a screenshot of a game UI, game store, game inventory in different styles, icons

How 2D Games Have Shaped the Gaming Landscape

At the beginning of video game history, 2D games set the standards. They were pioneers who defined most of the video game genres and mechanics we know now.

Space Invaders in 1978 played an important role in turning video games into a global industry. It made dozens of manufacturers notice and enter the video game market. Pong, Table Tennis, and Atari Football were one of the first sports games. Tetris popularized the puzzle games genre, especially on handhelds. Super Mario Bros. 1985 popularized the side-scrolling platform games. It’s undisputedly one of the best 2D games of all time. The Legend of Zelda 1986 introduced the action-adventure genre. It was the beginning of the most critically acclaimed game series ever. SimCity 1989 pioneered the simulator genre and the open-ended types of games.

That’s not even half of the examples. Who knows what would have happened to the history of game design if all these games didn’t see the light

2D Games vs 3D Games: The Pros and Cons of Each

First, 2D was perceived as an evolutionary step to 3D, used due to the technical limitation of the time. But soon, it became more apparent that 2D and 3D are both different beasts and deserve their own treatment. There is always a big audience for the original 2D games. Non-gamers understand 2-dimensional games much better than 3D. In a 2D game environment, you don’t have to deal with the camera, which can be a great struggle for casual gamers.

2D games are easier to perform on any type of device, while 3D requires special hardware to render a three-dimensional space in real-time. 3D open-world games let players explore and do almost whatever they want. But, in fact, some players get stuck with it, having a hard time deciding what they actually need to do. This rarely happens in 2D gaming, since it will be a much more obvious problem.

3D projects are usually more complex and high-budget. Most AAA titles are made in 3D, and within their scope, they can tell more complex and longer stories. On the contrary, some developers put too many side quests trying to fill the plot lack and artificially extend the game. 2D games have a wider appeal and are easier to develop. With an extra dimension at play, 3D game developers need to consider camera systems, textures, models, lighting, and filling every inch of the gaming world.

However, even 3D games can be connected with 2D game development. It is possible due to the popular combined approach that incorporates both 2D and 3D technologies in some way. Mixing 3D games with 2D sprites creates a new fresh feeling and allows for free movement in a three-dimensional space, while still maintaining the simplicity and aesthetics of 2D graphics.

2D Game Types

The Rise of Mobile Gaming

Back in 1995, 3D games were the future. 2D should have disappeared as technology evolved enough. But 2D games never went away. Moreover, they are gaining more and more popularity.

These days, mobile games are convenient and common for all of us. Everyone knows them, and everyone plays them, from kids to grannies. Jatin Mittal, user acquisition team lead of TapNation studio says: “There are a few reasons studios are focusing on mobile. It’s quick to make, the potential audience is larger due to accessibility, and there’s less cost involved in making the prototype”. According to statistics, large studios have seen the most growth in mobile-only games since 2021 at 44%. Such amazing results are possible due to the extensive possibilities of the Unity engine, the most popular engine for 2D mobile game development.

Unity is especially popular for casual and hyper-casual 2D game development. This engine helps developers take everything from the game design history and make 2D video games easy and accessible for all demographics. So, this is the answer to why use Unity for 2D games. With its power, developers make games easy and quick to download, competitive, and fun. They add just a few rules with simpler game mechanics. The psychology of casual games also makes them addictive because it’s supposed to be easy and relaxing and provide a sense of accomplishment. 

Kellee Santiago, the director of Niantic studio production, says: “I think mobile games continue to be on the rise. We’re seeing a consistent increase in engagement and retention across the board. I see this continuing into 2023 and beyond especially as we see periods of uncertainty in other areas of the market”. We totally agree with her words and want to share some popular 2D games for mobiles with you:

  • Candy Crush Saga is one of the most played tile-matching games, where players solve puzzles.
  • Among Us is one of the online multiplayer games, which exploded in the middle of the 2020 COVID-19 quarantine period. It’s a social-deduction game where players are trying to find an impostor among the crew.
  • Jetpack Joyride is a classic 2D endless runner. It’s a side-scroller with increasingly difficult encounters and enemies to defeat.
  • Even Nintendo, which doesn’t release their exclusives anywhere except their platforms, noticed mobile games thriving and launched Super Mario Run. It’s a side-on platform game for iOS and Android created to popularize the franchise.

How Many Types of 2D Games Are There?

2 dimensional games may differ by the art style, genre, perspective view, and platform. A video game genre is a game category that shares similar gameplay characteristics. Video game genres are almost the same for both 2D and 3D games. It’s different types of platform games, RPGs, action games, fighting games, sim games, shooting games, puzzles, etc.

But the key difference between 2D games is the perspective choice. Here are the most common 2D game types based on their perspective:

  • Side-on view. It’s one of the most popular types of 2D games. The side-on view is the classic choice for platformers, with characters moving mostly left to right, up and down.
  • Top-down view. The game looks as though the camera is overhead. The game field is either seen from a bird’s-eye view or has a slightly tilted camera.
  • Isometric perspective. The game field is shown from a certain camera angle. It’s perfect to make an illusion of 3D space, showing three sides of the object.
  • Single screen. Each level is set in a new room that fills all the screen space. When the level is completed, you move on to the next room.
a cartoon town with a lot of buildings and a lot of trees, isometric city building sprites

2.5D Technology

2.5D technology gave a new breath to the industry. In a nutshell, 2.5D means a game is technically 2D, but appears to be 3D in some regards. It’s not something entirely new. Even several decades ago were games such as Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Duke Nukem. All of them offered a 3D environment for the player to explore, yet with 2D game sprites instead of 3D models. Even though the 3D technology developed enough, you still may have a game that takes place in a 3D environment with 2D sprites instead of 3D models.

The other way of implementing this technology appears in games played from an isometric perspective. Thus, the game will use 2D objects that will present as 3D. The isometric viewpoint gives the illusion of three dimensions, when, in fact, there’s only two. To make it happen, game assets can either be drawn from an isometric perspective from scratch, or they can be real 3D models rendered and baked as 2D sprites.

Or you might have a side-scrolling 2D platformer that uses 3D game models for the characters and the background. This will look 3D, but it’s actually an illusion of the depth of field. In reality, the action takes place on a single plane.

That’s not the only way platformers use 2.5D. It’s also used to create an in-depth parallax effect. There are two types of parallax. One is an endless scrolling parallax that repeats itself using a simple tileable texture. The other one uses 2.5D and looks more like a layered painting. To implement it, developers create a 2D scene and set up a perspective camera. Each layer of the scene is placed in a 3D environment on a slightly different distance from the camera. It not only creates a depth of field, but gives developers more control of where they can place background objects.

Indie Games Market Development

An indie game is not a genre, class, or even type of game. An indie game means a game made by an independent team or even by a single developer. It’s a game without big financial support but with the freedom and courage to put the game idea ahead of profit (the same mobile games are much more profitable).

Typically, indie studios are made up of just a few people. Most often, their number does not exceed 10 experts. To be successful, indie studios have to look for innovative ideas and new ways to make games.

Some of the biggest successes in the 2D video game market come from indie game developers. Due to the lower level of complexity, game developers invest less time and money to create 2D games. Devs can focus more on experimenting with different storylines and art styles, and following updates are easier to do. For a more efficient production process, indie developers outsource 2D character concept art and other production processes.

Frequently Asked Question

FAQ 2D Gaming and History of 2D Games

What was the first ever 2D game?

The first 2D video game is thought to be “Tennis For Two”. It was invented in October 1958 by physicist William Higinbotham. At that time he worked at Brookhaven National Laboratory. In October, William held the annual visitors’ days. Being responsible for the laboratory’s exhibition, he wanted to liven up the place. Most of the exhibits were rather dull, so William created a game to entertain the visitors. He took one of the laboratory instruments – the oscilloscope. This small analog computer could display various curves, including the path of a bouncing ball. William quickly figured out how to design the simple tennis game, allowing players to adjust the angle of the ball, and push a button to hit the ball toward the other player. When the ball went off the court or into the net, players hit a reset button to start the next round. Generally, the gameplay was similar to a famous 1970s Pong.

Of course, Tennis For Two had many technical limitations. A screen displayed only the side view of a tennis court, the ball was just a bouncing dot, and there was no score counter. However, visitors loved it. It quickly became the most popular exhibit, with people standing in long lines to get a chance to play. Back in 1958, William Higinbotham had no idea he invented something revolutionary. When, in fact, his tennis game initiated the emergence of a whole new game industry.

Are all games technically 2D?

A 3D game consists of 3D characters and assets spread across the game world. A 3D model is a system of triangles given certain coordinates in a three-dimensional space. However, each and every 3D game still appears as 2D to us, since we are projecting it onto a flat monitor. VR is probably a better way to project a 3D game. But still, VR is just two images from a slightly different angle, projected separately to each eye. Then our brain converts these two images from both eyes and understands the depth of space.

Are 2D games still popular?

2D games have come a long way, and now they are more popular than ever since they first appeared. They are a bit more straightforward and shorter than 3D games, so they will always find their audience. 2D games proved that some genres never die. They can be reborn, implementing new technologies and graphics. But they’re still good old 2D games we love.