the artistry and psychology of gaming

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Isometrics: An Introduction

Isometrics: An Introduction

November 2011 is Isometric Month for Oases of Beauty.  This month will be dedicated to game worlds that feature an isometric (sometimes referred to as three-quarter overhead) perspective.  While it can sometimes be a frustrating train wreck of gameplay until you acclimate to the control scheme, it can be very visually pleasing, particularly if the patterns are geometric in design.  It should come as no real surprise that the isometric perspective is a strictly aesthetic tool, though a highly effective one.  I find it fascinating how viewing things at a 45-degree angle can make them so much more appealing, but where did it come from?

The worst puzzle in the game, other than Penumbra.

I’m sorry, you want me to WHAT!?

This perspective was an interesting way to tackle technological limitations.  The Second Generation was all about making something deeper than Pong, the Third Generation was about establishing genres and experimenting with hybrids, and the Fourth Generation (and arguably all others henceforth) was about graphics.  Now, it might sound strange coming from an author of a weekly feature about aesthetics in games, but graphical capability is a very hollow basis for a gaming system.  Because of this, the novelty of the intrinsic marvels of 16-bit technology quickly wore off, so developers (largely goaded by players) kept trying to push the limit.  Wolfenstein 3D had already brought games into the third dimension on PCs, but consoles weren’t able to replicate something of that caliber, though some did try (with varying results, most on the lower end of the success scale).  So, how do you make something look 3D without being able to make it 3D?

Hey! That worm thing ate my aggie!

Oldschool isometrics

Turn the camera.  This little trick created the optical illusion of a third dimension, and technically, the games did have an X-, Y-, and Z-axis.  While the concept of isometrics in video games dates as far back as old games like Q-Bert and Marble Madness, it wasn’t until the Fourth Generation that it became truly prevalent.  While the isometric games aren’t that great in number, there were a few big name titles that used the style, though the vast majority were Action-Adventure titles.  The Super Nintendo has what is likely the best-known isometric masterpiece: Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars.  The Genesis/Megadrive had famous titles like Landstalker, cult classics like Light Crusader and Haunting, all the way down to outright obscure gems such as Skeleton Krew.  Just for the record, Skeleton Krew is the first game I’ve ever played that approaches the isometric perspective intelligently.  What does it do differently?  In addition to being able to easily change the direction of your attack, it’s also not intensive in terms of jumping.  Walking diagonally is tough; jumping diagonally is like threading a needle in midair while jumping 18 school busses in an M.C. Escher painting (the most famous of which, I might add, also uses a somewhat isometric perspective).

By the Fifth Generation, consoles were able to create 3D graphics and environments, even though most of them looked like Elementary School origami projects, and this perspective was no longer necessary.  By the Sixth Generation, 3D was looking fantastic and the concept was virtually defunct.  Now, in the Seventh Generation, we’re entering a retro revival, which has seen the return of the 2D Platformer and Arcade Action subgenres, so perhaps when the children of the ‘90s become twenty-somethings waxing nostalgic for the halcyon days of their youth, we just might see a return of isometrics.  For now, though, we’re going to take a look at what made them special.

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