It's almost a lost genre these days, the 3D exploration game. In the early life of the PSX and N64, the market was lousy with these things: they were the 3D answer to 2D platforming games. Often, these were ruined by a loose camera and horrible controls. But still, there are a few 3D explorers out there that really fulfilled on the promise of 3D gaming in its infancy: whole big worlds to explore, filled with secrets and mystery and fun. The biggest pull for these games was unlocking new mobility. Perhaps, if you got lucky enough, you could even use your powers to exploit bugs and get to places the programmers never originally intended. These were great games for allowing this sort of awesome openness, and it's a real pity that they have all but vanished to the wayside in modern times. Well, then, let this Top 10 list serve as an homage to the great wanderers of their time. Here's to a nearly lost genre that doesn't deserve to die.

Although not technically part of the genre, it is definitely worth noting that all three Metal Gear Solid games have a similar spirit of fun to the old 3D explorers. Bosses have multiple weaknesses and their own little tricks, the world is generally wide open and worth exploring, and there are little secrets hidden everywhere. Plus, as your avatar gains more and more capabilities through the course of the game, more new areas open up to him. For fans of the genre desperate for a similar thrill, these games feel very similar and are a blast to play.

Devil May Cry was a really hot item when it was first released, and is still a great game, even if the visuals are a little dated. The second in the series is very different (and much worse) but the 3rd captures the original's fun and ups the difficulty (and the number of awesome weapons to be obtained). These games both include an absolute must: supreme air mobility. They allow the gamer limited powers of flight, double jumping, wall jumping and kicking off of enemies. There are secrets aplenty to be found by backtracking and solving hidden puzzles. Although these games tend to run on rails a little bit, they still offer some solid exploratory game play combined with more bloody disemboweling action and RPG buildup than you can shake five demonic weapons at.

Although Crash Bandicoot runs on rails and doesn't include any level-connecting homeworlds, the games are chock full of secrets and allow the player to find more and better ways to explore the world. Quirky bosses, hidden gems that open secret areas and moves like the Tornado Death Spin have embedded this series fondly into the memories of 3D exploration gamers everywhere.

Although a fairly standard (if incredibly quirky) button-mashing RPG, Kingdom Hearts rocks its way into the hearts of 3D exploration gamers with a few tricks: high jumping, gliding and supergliding. Combine this with dozens of hidden treasure chests, tons of large worlds to explore and addicting combat and you've got explorer's heaven. The game isn't dedicated to these elements, but it definitely uses them to good effect. The sequel, despite its numerous more methods of movement, gets away from this feeling of exploration in favor of extremely linear game play, but the original kingdom hearts still offers a good exploratory challenge.

Ape Escape was an incredibly awesome game for its time. It was the first game to truly utilize the capabilities of the Dual Shock Analog Controller, allowing your character to do more things than in most games by using every button, knob and dial on the thing. The best part about this game is the gadgets. Every few levels, your lovely assistant informs you that a new gadget is available, and one can only cackle with glee, waiting in excitement to see which new power they have obtained. Clever use of the analog sticks provides a satisfying aesthetic feel; when using the slingshot, one will actually pull back on the analog stick and then release. The game has some issues, especially with the camera, and by today's standards the controls are a little crazy, but when it was released this game could (and did) consume many hours of many a young lad's life. Even today it's worth a dust-off and a play through.

Perhaps one of the best, most recent titles in the genre, Shadow of the Colossus provides the most beautiful and enormous world to date (except for, possibly, that of Twilight Princess.) Shadow of the Colossus makes travel in its enormous, beautiful world a joy, providing you with a horse from the very start. The game is replete with little things like standing in the saddle that, while not strictly necessary, really enhance game play and allow the player to try the near-impossible, hoping to discover things the programmers never intended. This excellent game is worth your time and attention, and should be applauded for giving some well-deserved attention to a quickly dying genre.

One of the classics of the genre, Banjo Kazooie and its sequel, Banjo Tooie, allow the player to learn new moves and gain new powers with which to explore Gruntilda's castle and all of the excellent levels contained therein. The game is classic 3D exploration, including oodles of secret levels and all of the good old standbys: multi-jumps, high jumps, limited flight, a huge segmented world, a half-dozen denominations of various things to collect, and multiple new moves to learn. The game suffers from some control issues and camera troubles, to be sure, but it still manages to be one of the best games released for the N64, and one of the greatest 3D explorers of all time.

For me, this represents the cream of the crop. If I were a more biased reviewer, I might just slam this right on down to number one. Spyro has it all: hundreds of secrets and rewards for sniffing them all out, excellent powers of movement that allows you to go nearly anywhere, fun game play and a massive world to explore. The original Spryo lacks any form of progression as far as new powers go, but stands as the best explorer in the series. Something about the ambling sound track, the quirky sense of humor, the masterfully designed jumping puzzles... something about the very character of the game makes it one of the greatest games of all time. The later installments of the series are definitely good, but none of them capture the magic of the original Spyro. Nonetheless, all three PSX Spyros are excellent games, well worth picking up off the discount rack at your local game emporium.

Quite possibly the first good 3D exploring game, Super Mario 64 sets the standard for the genre. Including hundreds of hidden items and big incentives for finding them as well as an extremely entertaining means for doing so, this game defines what the 3D exploration genre is. Including hidden areas that yield different hats for Mario to wear, one of which even allows him to fly, this game introduces the concept of unlocking different methods of exploring the world through careful exploration, and is filled to the brim with hidden items. Although Banjo Kazooie would later do this collection meme real justice, Super Mario 64 does it first and does it with the most panache. Which gamer of the right age doesn't have memories of spending long nights finding everything in this game? Which gamer wasn't sad to realize that they had finished it all? Super Mario 64 is pretty much the king of the genre, but there's still the matter of a little cross-genre series called...

Starting with Ocarina of Time, going through Majora's Mask, Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, the 3D Zelda games reign supreme in the world of 3D exploration. No game series offers more secrets, more locked doors, more fun keys, more unique bosses and a larger sheer volume of stuff to collect than the Zelda series. Excited fans can spend hundreds of hours tearing these games apart, looking for every piece of heart, every gold skulltulla, every glowing insect, every hidden island, every sword upgrade, every quiver upgrade, every bomb bag upgrade, every hidden item, and every secret area that this series has to offer. Items like the Hookshot and Bunny Hood beg for the player to break the rules and find places that they're not supposed to go, while increasingly enormous worlds beset by fewer and fewer seams as the series progresses allow the player more secrets to find, more opportunities to create their own shortcuts, and more power over their own gaming destiny. This series is the consummation of 3D exploration, and one can only dream of all of the hours that they've lost tearing these games to pieces in search of every secret.

Games progress. New genres appear, old genres die, and some remain immortal. Unfortunately, it seems that the 3D explorer is doomed to die. Let me offer this list as a sort of toast, then, to fond memories of nights spent rooting out every secret in a massive world, using my double jump and glide to get to places I'm not supposed to go, and spending 200 hours completing a monstrously huge game, one whose characters take on their own lives and one whose simplicity is its greatest, most complex strength. May you someday be subject to a mighty revival, 3D explorer. Your fans will be waiting.

List by Rewikitty (08/13/2007)

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