With all the advancements in Virtual Reality in recent years, I thought it would be nice to look back at the earliest 3d image video games, before 3DS and before Virtual Boy.
In the late '70s, Atari began working on a holographic tabletop game system called Cosmos. It was expected to be released in 1981 but never made it past the prototype stage due to negative pre-release opinions. Being a dedicated console, it was made for built-in games, and not for programmable cartridges like the Atari VCS. More info here - https://www.handheldmuseum.com/Atari/Cosmos.htm
Sega released the arcade game SubRoc 3D in 1982, dubbing it the “world’s first truly 3-D video game”. As a kid, I would play it at Chuck E. Cheese’s and it was a spectacle. You would stick your face up to the periscope and stare into a world with actual depth and spaceships flying towards you. It was one of the earliest games to use hardware sprite scaling and would have been impressive even without the stereoscopic 3d.
SubRoc was ported to ColecoVision minus the 3d and hardware scaling effects.
3D image games hit the North American home market in 1984 with the 3D Imager, a visor peripheral for the GCE Vectrex system. Unfortunately, it was released on the verge of the Vectrex itself being discontinued and is extremely rare and expensive now. It works by spinning a colour wheel in front of your eyes; because of the moving parts, it has a bit of hum and vibration when playing.
Only three games were officially released for it (although homebrew games came many years later):
3D Mine Storm is based on the original built-in Vectrex game. It’s a clone of Atari’s Asteroids but much smoother than any other home Asteroids-style shooters of the time, and holds up extremely well.
3D Narrow Escape is a rail shooter . Being a fan of vector arcade shooters at the time like Atari’s Star Wars, I’m sure I would have loved this back in 1984 if I got to play it. Web Wars on Vectrex is another game in the same genre that’s more replayable but it doesn’t have a 3d image version.
3D Crazy Coaster
Not a lot of gameplay substance but certainly a neat showpiece for the technology being a first-person high speed rollercoaster sim.
First-party 3D glasses games arrived for both the Nintendo Famicom and Sega Mark III/Master System in 1987 with the Famicom 3D System and SegaScope 3D. I’m not sure which one technically came out first. Nintendo’s was only released in Japan, and it’s listed on websites as having debuted in October. Sega’s was released in several countries around the world. Sega Retro lists the Japan release as November but the UK launch as October. Either way, both companies developed and released their 3d peripherals around the same time. Nintendo’s version was also licensed to Sharp for release in Japan.
Both of my Nintendo and Sega 3d glasses are broken now but I did spend time comparing the two pieces of hardware and all the software available for them several years ago.
How do they compare? From what I recall, Nintendo’s are darker to see through which is a slight disadvantage but the unit is also adjustable in size which makes it more comfortable for various head sizes. Sega’s is on the small side and likely was made with mostly children in mind. My head’s not even that big but even back in the day when I had SegaScope as a teenager, I found it a bit tight. You can use either pair on the rival’s system, though.
As for the games themselves, they vary a lot by gameplay and quality of special effects. And some lean on style over substance. I don’t know if it’s because of the Master System’s larger colour palette, or because of the effort put into the 3d, but I find Sega’s 3d glasses games to be notably more visually impressive on average regardless of what glasses you use.
I vividly remember seeing this commercial on TV -
2d screens aren’t going to do 3d games justice but here are the stereoscopic 3d games available on those systems:
Attack Animal Gakuen (Pony Canyon/Newtopia, Famicom)
This is a rip off of Space Harrier with a schoolgirl as the main character. While not as good as its source material, it’s still a playable rail shooter. It also beat Space Harrier 3D to the Japanese market by several months.
Blade Eagle 3D (Sega, Master System)
The 3d effect is the main draw here. It’s a fairly standard horizontal shooter aside from being able to switch position from higher to lower. It might be worth checking out if you have the 3d glasses but it’s below the quality of most Sega games.
Cosmic Epsilon (Asmik/Magical, Famicom)
Another Space Harrier-inspired game. The Mode 7-like ground movement was probably the smoothest of any its genre on consoles at the time but that comes at the expense of less objects happening on the screen and a lack of detail. It looks nice in 2d mode but isn’t enhanced as much I would have hoped by 3d. Worth checking out even without the glasses.
Falsion (Konami, Famicom Disk System)
Not quite up to the standard you would expect from development superpower Konami but between the bosses and multiple environment types, it’s more varied than the typical rail shooter of its time.
Famicom Grand Prix II: 3D Hot Rally (Nintendo/HAL, Famicom Disk System)
I have to wonder how serious Nintendo was about the 3D System when this was the only game they made for it, and it wasn’t even a launch title. It’s a solid racing game considering the hardware even though the 3d effect isn’t quite as impressive as some other racers. It also has Mario as the driver.
Fuuun Shourin Ken: Ankoku no Maou (Jaleco/Tose, Famicom Disk System)
The game is mediocre and I don’t remember the 3d effect being anything special but it can claim being the first fighting game with 3d imaging, as far as I know.
Highway Star (Square, Famicom)
Released in the West as Rad Racer with crappy red/blue cardboard glasses, this OutRun-like racer had proper 3d with the Famicom 3D System. The effect is awesome, probably the only Famicom one I would rank as high as the top 8-bit Sega 3d games in that regard. And it has the smoothest software scaling of all the 3d racers that gen so it holds up better than most home games of its genre.
JJ: Tobidase Daisakusen Part II (Square, Famicom)
The sequel to what Westerners know as 3D World Runner. Think Space Harrier but on the ground with jumping.
Line of Fire (Sega/Sanritsu, Master System)
This was the last 3d image game released on that generation of consoles. In 1991, Sega didn’t even advertise it had SegaScope support, probably because the new model of the SMS lacked the card slot necessary to run the glasses. It’s not a great shooter but I would recommend it more than Blade Eagle despite the blander palette.
Maze Hunter 3D (Sega, Master System)
I remember a crowd gathered to play this at Compucentre in the late '80s. I still think the gameplay is just okay because the movement is so slow but the atmosphere is incredible. The effect of the character jumping towards the viewer is well done, and it has that signature colourful '80s Sega sci-fi look and sound.
Missile Defense 3D (Sega, Master System)
I consider this to be the best playing 3D image game of that era. Visually it’s top notch but it also excels as an arcade-style light gun game, like a modern (at the time) take on Atari’s Missile Command. It was programmed and designed by the now more famous Mark Cerny while he was at Sega of Japan. Because this plays so well, it would have been nice if they included a 2d mode for people without the glasses like other games do but that wasn’t available until hacked roms.
OutRun 3D (Sega, Master System)
This suffers from being choppier than Highway Star but it makes up in other ways such as classic OutRun music, vibrant colour, and some trippy tunnel effects. Today’s it’s one of the more expensive games on the SMS.
Poseidon Wars 3D (Sega, Master System)
This was the closest thing to a home port of SubRoc 3D but it’s not as intense or high tech, an okay playing shooter that’s elevated by pleasant looking 3d waves and some chill tunes from Sega music icon Tokuhiko Uwabo (Bo).
Space Harrier 3D (Sega, Master System)
The frame rate is much worse than regular Space Harrier due to the limitations of the glasses but this was still one of the most visually impactful home games of the '80s with huge detailed bosses and pillars of fire raining down. It impressed many people I showed it to back then, even non-gamers.
Zaxxon 3D (Sega, Master System)
A spin off of the early '80s isometric arcade shooters. The tunnel effect looks amazing and it plays well in those sections. The downsides to this game are the outer space levels are a bit dull and the music can be grating, even in FM mode. And I wish it had those dragon bosses from Super Zaxxon.
Since 3d glasses never hit mainstream success in the '80s, it’s not surprising they were abandoned for the 16-bit console era. There were some holographic 3d arcade games in that generation, though.
Time Traveler was an attempt for Rick Dyer of Dragon’s Lair fame to recapture that laserdisc glory. Developed by Virtual Image Productions and distributed by Sega, it was a typical early '90s cheesy FMV game with limited player input. But, I remember being quite impressed with the hologram effect, and hoped more games would use it in the future.
Time Traveler was followed up in 1992 by Holosseum , a sprite-based fighting game developed internally at Sega, as far as I know. I recall seeing a screenshot in a magazine but never came across it when roaming arcades back then.
Your thoughts on old 3d image video games?