The Magic of Early 90s 3D

Over twenty years ago, video games began taking their first painful steps into 3D spaces. This was a time when Atari’s memory was fading fast and the Nintendo Entertainment System was becoming the kingpin of the gaming landscape. Console gaming would spend the next several years perfecting the art of 2D gaming goodness. Words such as “Project Reality” (the Nintendo 64) would be tossed around in magazines every so often, but the simple truth was that home-based polygon video games were years away, and most of the early stuff would be crude at best thanks to limited technology. If you wanted to see the latest and greatest mind blowing 3D gaming technology, you went to arcades. Familiar names like Atari Namco and Sega were in a silent arms race to develop the best, most powerful, most badass, and most boringly titled (“System 21” and “Model 2”… really guys?) custom video game hardware known to man.


3D games were a novelty in arcades for quite some time prior. While quarter munching 2D brawlers like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and X-Men or competitive V.S. fighters like Street Fighter II and Fatal Fury were the cheap, reliable workhorses of the floor, every serious arcade operator had at least one super expensive monster 3D machine sitting in a dark corner drawing glares from mystified onlookers more accustomed to the crusty and familiar blocky image of a late gen NES title. Most of the early 3D game designs were crude and blocky, but nobody cared in the late 80s. Moving around in a 3D space with solid 3D objects floating all around you like a Weird Al music video was enough to impress back then. The hardware often ran hot and unreliably, and the cabinets were often mammoth, but they guzzled quarters like nobody’s business. These were the trailblazers that tore down the walls and eventually brought 3D home. In this far removed time, outside of more mainstream brand names like Star Fox, nobody remembers these crude, flat-shaded pioneers. Let’s take a look at some of the early 3D games that time forgot about…


I, Robot



Atari has the distinction of being an early pioneer of 3D arcade hardware such as flat vector graphics in the late 70s with titles like Asteroids and Tempest, followed by real 3D gameplay with titles like Battlezone and Star Wars in the early 80s. Following that (and right before the great crash of 1984), Atari took the next natural step and created I, Robot in 1983 – the first commercial polygon based video game. Playing as the newly self-aware “Unhappy Interface Robot #1984”, you go through 126 levels turning red squares to blue in an effort to destroy Big Brother’s shields and eye.  The trick is that you can’t jump while the eye is open or you get blown away, as the attract sequence so cleverly tells you.



I, Robot was a complete flop, possibly for the same reasons Tron had bombed in theaters a year earlier. Nobody quite knew what to make of it because it was so far ahead of its time, not to mention that I, Robot was crazy expensive to manufacture. Precious few of the estimated 800 units produced exist today, most having been trashed or gutted for other arcade purposes. A popular urban legend is that after the game tanked, Atari shipped 500 of the unsold units to Japan with instructions to dump the cargo into the ocean at the halfway point. The few survivors exist in the hands of private collectors and are worth a fortune. It has also never received a home release.


Hard Drivin’


From the age where flight simulators reigned king on PCs, Hard Drivin’ (also known as Race Drivin’) from Atari (1988) sought to be the first full polygon driving simulator. Born from the pioneering virtual car physics research and modeling work of Doug Milliken, Hard Drivin’ was a true driving simulator and pushed the bounderies of what late 1980s 3D tech would allow.  Atari developed a custom (and extremely complex) multi-board 3D polygon chip-set for this specific game and then milked the arcade board for other projects to recoup development costs. Hard Drivin’ was a clunky and slow with a choppy frame rate and unreliable hardware, but in a world where 2D scaled sprite racers like Pole Position, TX-1, Outrun, and Final Lap were considered advanced, Hard Drivin’ was revolutionary. Realistic car physics (for the time) and full controls, including a real shifter, made for a truly in depth late 80s driving experience.  You even had to start the engine!  Counting British, German, American, and Japanese versions, there were over 15 versions of the game produced, each with varying track designs and in various cabinet sizes. One featured a stunt track, while another reproduced a stock car style experience. There was even a BMX model where you had to pedal the bike and a fan blew air in your face to help with the illusion of movement.



By 1991, Atari initially intended to offer an enhanced version dubbed Hard Drivin’ Panorama which was to feature five different TV screens (each with its own hardware stack) surrounding the TV screen. The impracticality of the setup, high cost, coupled with the fact that Sega was about to outclass them in every way with the Model 1, led to this project being canned. Nonetheless, one cannot understate the importance of Hard Drivin‘ to the progression of 3D racing games in general.  This was the Gran Turismo of the late 80s.


S.T.U.N. Runner


Here’s another classic that most 90s kids might have seen, but can’t remember specifically since it showed up in a lot of movie theaters. Stun Runner was yet another Atari classic running on an enhanced version of the Hard Drivin’ hardware in 1989. As the pioneer of the futuristic tunnel racing sub-genre, your goal was to race through high speed tunnels blasting armored cars in your path while driving over a set amount of colored stars littered across the walls of the tunnel under the time limit. Clearing stages on the tunnel highway led to your craft being upgraded and the unlocking of smart bombs that would destroy everything down the tunnel in your general field of view. Drive fast enough and you could roll the craft a full circle on the inside of the loop. Atari used the 3D effects solely on the tunnel, and your craft. Everything else on the screen was scaled sprites. The effect was seamless. In 1989, Stun Runner’s speed was mind blowing and a hell of a way to close out what had been a rather simple era for racing games.



There were multiple home ports of Stun Runner to home computers like the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64, but these ports were embarrassingly horrible. Oddly enough, it was a 2D handheld, the Atari Lynx, that delivered the best port for 15 years. The Lynx port faked it with scaling tricks to replicate the original’s impressive 3D tunnels alongside the already scaled bitmap vehicles. The effect was so convincing that the untrained eye couldn’t tell the difference. This port to a failed handheld would be the best Stun Runner would receive until being faithfully emulated on the Midway Arcade Treasures 3 collection for GameCube, PS2, and Xbox in 2005.





StarBlade is one of those rare games that you might have gotten to see or play at some point, but you can’t remember the name because the theme was so generic. It was a Namco System 21 game released in 1991 and CRAZY expensive. Only the most dedicated and established mega-arcades had one. Featuring a dark full body cockpit, rumbling seat, flashing cockpit lights, 4-channel surround sound (a BIG deal for early 90s arcades…or early 90s anything for that matter), and glorious early 90s flat shaded 3D graphics, StarBlade was a beast to behold. While the screen was actually only about 25 inches in size, it was mounted deep within the cabinet and reflected its inverted image on a gigantic convex mirror mounted behind plexiglass. This gave the game an almost simulator like aura. The image almost wrapped around you. In a darkly lit room, the machine vibrated and shook so loudly you might just believe for a second that it was going to take off. The audio was almost maddeningly intense on high volumes with computerized voices, a Tron-esque musical score, and countless explosions. The low shield alert siren in particular was truly intimidating. StarBlade left a tingly feeling in you when you first grabbed hold of the X-Wing styled flight yoke.


While StarBlade ripped off a lot of material from Star Wars, it is even easier to see that Star Fox ripped off a lot of material from StarBlade. Some of those ship designs are clear ringers for the Space Armada stage, and that launch sequence is damn near identical. StarBlade (a game nobody remembers) would eventually be ported to the 3D0 (a console nobody bought) and was then promptly forgotten.




Even now there is a magical simplicity in these old, flat-shaded video games.  This was a brief time in video game history where a flat shaded polygon, devoid of texture and general detail, could wow a player only for the simple magic of being able to move in a 3D gameplay space.  Game consoles have become such an ingrained part of the living room landscape that we often take for granted the intricate detail and infinite possibilities that modern video game hardware provides.


After Atari dropped out of the arms race, Namco and Sega began to set the stage for the bombastic 3D arcade revolution of the early 90s that would eventually light the consumer fire for polygon games at home.  Next time we’ll dabble in the 90s amusement feud between Sega and Namco, as well as some of the most obscure racing games from gaming history.