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3D graphics on the Game Boy Advance: How well could it be done?

Game designHardware

Representing a 3D world with 2D computer graphics was long an Achilles’ heel to developers until the 32-bit generation of consoles, leading to many interesting solutions in the mean time. Fixed axonometric viewpoints were commonplace but led to obstructed scenes and lack of height perception between platforms. Parallax scrolling often added eye-candy in side scrolling games but Namco’s Pole Position was one of the first to use it in a racing game, placing scaling sprite scenery on the road sides to give a third person view. More capable hardware such as the Super Nintendo used Mode 7 technology where sprites could be placed on a texture-mapped rotating plane, as used in Super Mario Kart and F-Zero. Wolfenstein 3D and subsequently Doom used a faux 3D technique to create an illusory first person world by programming vertical extensions onto a horizontal plane. Scaling sprites are then used to represent enemies and obstacles, a technique used in early true-3D games and subsequently 3D GBA games to slash CPU load. However ID Software’s faux 3D engine’s limitations became apparent from the inability to jump and also look vertically.

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The GBA was similar to the SNES technologically, so for certain genres representing 3D was a bit tricky. However, unlike the SNES (at least without any added chips), it is capable of rendering texture-mapped, polygonal 3D graphics. It was a 32-bit console after all; and produced far better looking 3D graphics than the supposedly 64-bit Atari Jaguar or the Sega 32X, both intended to introduce 3D gaming on home consoles. But the GBA’s 3D capabilities were still rudimentary and prone to slowdown, short-draw distances and blurry visuals. Consequently developers chose not to use 3D as games often ended up worse than a polished 2D title, but were often a necessity racing and first-person games. Thunderbolt laboratories decided to investigate which 3D games were actually any good, and which games tried too hard only to end up laughably bad.

Duke Nukem Advance

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Duke Nukem Advance borrowed a few tips off its PC cousin, Duke Nukem 3D, to create convincing graphics with Turos’s Southpaw engine. Like DN3D’s Build engine, it’s not a true polygonal 3D engine, still rendering sprites and only being partly able to rotate your view vertically. A few compromises were made from the level design of DN3D, with stripped down environments confined to mostly indoor action and less varied levels that don’t respond to gunfire as well. Nonetheless it’s still a thrilling old-skool style FPS, running around solving puzzles and finding key cards, with 19 missions to boot. Multi-player is even included, and with very little slowdown and no fogging from an efficient graphics engine this is one of the consoles best FPS’s. You can, at least here, bet on the Duke.

Crazy Taxi: Catch a Ride

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It takes talent to port a Dreamcast game down 1.5 generations of hardware; it’s also plain stupid. Crazy Taxi made use of the Graphic State engine to attempt to squeeze a fully polygonal, texture mapped level into a GBA cartridge. It’s an interesting attempt technologically, fogging isn’t too bad, but the game looks incredibly blocky with unnecessary texture details that look a mess, ropey car physics and an insufficient frame-rate for the game’s high speed. The crazy mechanics of the taxi have been severely dumbed down, whilst there are less pedestrians and cars on the road. Porting a game to work on inferior hardware is not a good idea over creating a new game optimised for it. Whether there was a way for Crazy Taxi to work on the GBA was quite another thing, but either way, the fun factor has been lost in translation.

SSX 3 and Tony Hawk’s Downhill Jam

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Both games used the same engine, and both shared the same premise of downhill progression. SSX 3 uses a fully texture mapped 3D course and integrates many jumps and obstacles, but made inevitable compromises such as the lack of shortcuts and teleporting AI. It’s an average attempt; the game is rather slow and tricks feel laboured to execute. Tony Hawk’s Downhill Jam scrapped its GBA predecessors isometric view and uses SSX 3’s engine, but ditches most of the texture work giving an artistic feel and valuable frames-per-second. It’s more of a racing game as opposed to a trick scoring game, and despite the change of direction graphically it was somewhat worse off than its isometric 3D predecessors on the same platform. Both are above average games, but short draw distances are noticeable and the games are spongy to control. Downhill Jam’s graphical simplicity at least speeds things up to an acceptable level.

Driv3r

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Standing as the worst gaming disappointments of 2004 on consoles, Driv3r was still seeing releases a year and a half later in October 2005. It was an odd decision, given the fact the DS had been out for a few months and the elapsed time since its console release. Nonetheless Driv3r was an impressive technological marvel, featuring a navigable 3D city by car and foot. Its GBA predecessor similarly featured 3D cities, but missions are confined into cars and the buildings were all the same height. However review scores didn’t fare much better on the GBA in comparison to the console game, largely down to glitches, annoying bouncing car physics and poor missions, especially on foot. Graphically, its frame rate holds up pretty well and is clear enough, although its draw distance is limited. If you want to play Driver on your GBA then you’re better off playing the much better acclaimed Driver 2 Advance. It may not look as sophisticated as environments can get repetitive but sometimes keeping it simple leads to a smoother game.

Asterisk & Obelisk XXL

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This stands as the only platformer that dared make its foray into 3D on the format, and for a very good reason. Platformers generally tend to work well in 2D anyway, so there isn’t a need to represent 3D like other genres. Nor was it the mid ’90s when everyone wanted to see how 3D could transform their favourite genres. Once again this game is plagued by faults, often not directly related to its 3D graphics. Combat is more button-bashing than strategic, and the ability to changeover characters is diluted by the fact they share the same health bar, making levels unnecessarily difficult and frustrating from frequent restarts. This forces you to accumulate as much health as possible, instead of using tokens to buy combos. The graphics however do make jumps difficult, plus surprise deaths from falls or hitting the edge of a level make a game more frustrating and ruin what could’ve been a good example of a 3D GBA platform game.

James Bond 007: Nightfire

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Unlike the aforementioned Duke Nukem Advance or Doom, Nightfire used a true 3D engine. Naturally this allowed far more flexibility and variations in environments. More polygonal objects could be added, slopes could be used and there were a few light effects implemented. Nightfire is a very competent shooter, with good controls plenty of missions, weapons and gunfights. The game faithfully recreates many of the missions on the console version, with plenty of details down to paintings and tables, but the visuals look rather oatmeal. The soundtrack has been recreated rather well, as have a few one-liners and weapon sounds, but gameplay flaws knock this back a bit. There’s little to indicate your being shot at, apart from a reduction in health, plus the controls are spongy and inconsistent when one second you move slowly, the next he speeds up. This may not be the GBA’s best shooter overall, but it’s the most sophisticated and a decent attempt at that.

FIFA 07

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Sports games weren’t particularly prominent on the GBA. After all, who wants to fork out £30 on a football game with stripped down game-play, visuals and options when an extra fiver can buy the console version? Nonetheless, EA showed loyalty to the format, releasing NHL and Tiger Woods golf early on and FIFA and Madden until 2007. Unfortunately they hadn’t learnt a lot in the process. Sports games didn’t need full 3D views, just a fixed isometric viewpoint to show the pitch and part of the stadium. This at least could have left some room to address more important aspects such as player AI and options. There’s over 500 teams available, plus a challenge mode and the ability to progress between divisions, but manager options are very limited. Gameplay is marred by blocky graphics and gullible AI, and a lack of buttons limits the available moves. Interestingly, FIFA 2005 scored highly on the GBA. A failure to improve it in the light of sports games on DS, PSP and the Xbox 360 led to the game engine ageing badly.

Stuntman

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Released almost a year after its PlayStation 2 counter-part, the game was reworked for the GBA as you had to perform various stunts as if you’re performing for a film. It’s a cool idea for a game, addictive but hampered by long loading times, especially when restarts are often necessary and unnecessarily unforgiving. Velez & Dubail built on the engine used in V-Rally 3 (a very good GBA rally game, I must add) to authentically recreate the essence of the PS2 game. The courses have mostly changed, but the lack of load times and simpler but better physics makes the game better than its PS2 original as a result. The only real compromise is the inability to recreate a movie sequence, where scenes were integrated with fake film sequences on the PS2 version. Here there are a few replays with limited camera angles. Nonetheless a two-player mode, plenty of missions plus the Arena slalom, it stands as one of the handheld’s best 3D driving games.

kill.switch

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A third-person shooter where taking cover and shooting by stealth is required, kill.switch suited a 3D engine as speed was not an issue in the game. Whereas enemies are the standard sprites, the lead player is rendered in polygons allowing better interaction with walls and crates and dodging enemy fire. kill.switch features large missions, some inside and some out, and even has a “zombie-mode”, where enemies respawn quickly when a level is finished; no actual zombies though. However, aiming is sluggish, the controls are limited, and enemies are hard to tell where they’re coming from. Although it’s linear progression, tactics are important as you can’t just storm through a level. A game that takes advantage of the handheld’s limitations to emulate the console experience, it’s not the GBA’s best but it’s a decent show nonetheless.

And lest not forget! Faceball 2000 (a.k.a. Midi Maze 3)

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If a GBA game in 3D was technically impressive, then spare a thought for Faceball 2000 on the original Game Boy. The player walks around a 3D environment shooting balls at smiley faces; with the walls, floors and ceilings all being texture-less of course. Nonetheless a 3D level with scaling sprites is a massive achievement for the original Game Boy and has a link-mode supported to add further spice to its technical credentials. However the game itself isn’t particularly great, getting rather repetitive quickly and unsurprisingly suffers from a low frame rate. Could the original Game Boy have been the first 3D handheld? This was a greater effort than many 2D games out on the GBA anyway!

Conclusion

Well, it could be done, so we can safely say the Nokia N-Gage wasn’t the first 3D capable handheld in the shops. How well the GBA could render 3D was another matter altogether. The brave souls that did try at best averaged a 6 or 7 score for their games; rarely hitting an 8, demonstrating the graphics came at a heavy cost. In fairness though, certain game’s drawbacks were from other design flaws rather than the graphics, but the best GBA games were 2D. The best 3D game I can name is Duke Nukem Advance and Doom II, but that’s by wisely using a compromise. The faux 3D raycasting engines may hamper what can be put in a level, but allow them to run smoothly with full draw distances. Stuntman and V-Rally 3 are the best examples of true-polygonal 3D games, whilst Killswitch and Nightfire are decent run-ups but aren’t games we’ll be remembering the GBA from.

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As interesting as a 3D GBA game was from a technical standpoint, the games that used 3D generally did so from necessity. At least the GBA allowed 3D rendering when needed. The nature of driving games and FPS titles means a first-person view is necessary, but platform games and RPG’s suited the 2D well enough. Some of the games I listed here are exceptions to the rule, Driv3r could easily have been done in 2D, as Grand Theft Auto did originally (although the GBA version is awful). Certain games had previously opted for 2D in previous outings, Asterix, Tony Hawk’s and FIFA started out with a fixed quasi-3D view. The pressure was on in the 90’s as everyone was tired of 2D games and wanted to see the next level. With that demand gone in the 2000’s there was very little incentive to use 3D for the sake of it when it’s never going to look as good as a console game. Even many Nitendo DS, iPhone and Xbox Live Arcade games have opted for artistic 2D graphics, as 3D would not suit the nature of the game. It’s good to take risks and push the hardware, but it doesn’t mean everyone should. Good games and good graphics don’t come from trying too hard, but by being polished all-round.

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The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in July 2009.

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