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FROM 2D TO 3D

Early days of gaming.Many people wonder why it has taken so long to get to where we are now in terms of graphics capabilities. I mean, why can't you just 'draw' a 3D image? The reason, at least in the early days was both a lack of computing power and that much research was necessary in the 3D programming field also. When computers first started being used as gaming devices, something that is nearly as old as the electronic computer itself, the only thing that could be managed was simple mono or sometimes two-colour graphics. The reasons for this were, not just limited processing power, but also a severe deficiency in the graphics department. These machines often had only 1kb of memory, so dedicated video memory didn't even come into the equation. Typical games from this era were all time greats like Space Invaders, Centipede and Manic Miner.

 As things moved on over the next few years, 4 and 16 colour machines became available to the home user. Processors of several Megahertz arrived and memory shot up to 16kb, 48kb, 64kb and even 128kb at times. This gave rise to games in which you could have many objects (or sprites) on the screen at once, as well as allowing for slightly more appealing graphics. Machines like the Sinclair Spectrum and Commodore 64 are the most famous from this time, but, the Amstrad 464 and 6128 were also noteworthy, if a little underused. At this point we begin to see simple attempts at 3D, Elite being a prime example, using wire-frame graphics to generate a kind of 3D universe. Tempest by Atari is another example.

Nintendo Entertainment System running Mario Bros.
Then Nintendo and Sega released the NES and Master System game consoles respectively. Games like Hang-on, Outrun, Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog appeared looking far better than previous computer games. These games consoles became very popular as they were much cheaper than a conventional computer. If we move on another year or so we see the release of the first truly great multimedia machine. Coming from Commodore, the Amiga took the world by storm. It not only had 256 colour capability, but, an 8 Megahertz processor, a 4 operator sound synth and 1MB of RAM! The Atari ST was also a good machine, but, was technically inferior. Also, around this time, the Sega Megadrive was released as the worlds first 16-bit games console. All of these computers used the revolutionary 68000 processor. Unforgettable games like Xenon 2, R-type, Sonic the hedgehog, Chase HQ and Outrun are typical examples. In Outrun and Chase HQ we see the beginnings of attempts to make colour 3D-like enviroments, where the player is hurtling into the screen rather than along it. However, this is a far cry from true 3D. This pseudo 3D enviroment was generated using parallax scrolling backgrounds and more detailed 2D sprites. You were limited to an extremely small degree of movement along the track or road. As we saw earlier, wireframe graphics could be used to create proper 3D and some games did (Star Wars), but, sprites had a more colourful and attractive look than wireframe and more computing power was needed even yet to incorporate proper filled, flat-shaded polygons, let alone add texture mapping and other detail.

3D attempted using sprites, fills and parallax scrolling backgrounds - Chase HQ 2.
Obviously there was room for improvement. New ways of making 3D enviroments needed to be found. Enter the Super Nintendo with it's Mode 7 chip. This was a special effects processor designed to 'twist' sprites and images into a more 3D look. The effect was quite good, although it looks archaic now. Games like F-zero used this effect to give the illusion of proper 3D. F-zero was particularly convincing at the time. As technology developed though, it became apparent that using polygons to make 'true' 3D enviroments was not only more feasible, but, the only way forward from 2D sprites. Some of the first good uses of polygon technology in games were in the likes of StarFox on the SNES and Virtua racing on the Megadrive and in the arcades. This was only possible using chips built into the game cartridges themselves (the Super FX chip in StarFox and the DSP chip in Virtua racing). The popularity of these games made it clear that this was what gamers wanted.

Sonic 3D is an example from the Sega Genesis of a isometric 3D game.While all this had been going on, the PC had developed from a text only 8088 business machine to the multimedia 386. The 386 was the first PC that was really powerful enough to generate a significant number of polygons. 3D as we now know it was beginning to take shape.

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