Growing up whenever it was time to buy a new game it was cause for celebration. That’s a feeling any gamer can relate to unless you grew up rich, in which case I hate you. When you are young any new game is awesome but as you get older you develop taste and become more discerning. I can tell you right from the beginning that I was not enamored with 3-D World Runner. It was certainly different from anything I had seen before (I did not play Space Harrier until a year or two later) but its aesthetic and gameplay left something to be desired. I can appreciate it for the technical achievement it was in 1987 but can’t recommend it.
3-D World Runner might seem like an anomaly in Square’s publishing history but in actuality it was par for the course. Before Final Fantasy they tried their hand at various genres such as racing with Rad Racer, whatever hell the King’s Knight is, and even dating sims with Nakayama Miho no Tokimeki High School. This kind of diversity in output would return with the PlayStation. Not all of their games were good but at least they tried. World Runner has some interesting ideas but the execution falls flat.
The 3-D in the title isn’t referring to the scrolling playing field but the optional 3d mode. Like Rad Racer the game came with a pair of Red and Blue glasses to properly see the 3d effect. It wasn’t very convincing back then and is even cheesier now. That aside however the presentation is pretty stellar for a 1987 title. The scrolling is insanely fast and smooth and even better than the Famicom port of Space Harrier, which undoubtedly inspired this. Unfortunately 3-D World Runner does not have the art direction of Sega’s classic and comes across as a generic pastel colored fantasy land. The music is uniformly bad which comes as a surprise as Nobuo Uematsu generally turns in industry defining work. Here however the soundtrack is limited to a few grating tunes that are repeated for the length of the game.
At its core this is essentially a rail shooter that takes place on the ground. The comparison can’t be avoided but it really does resemble Space Harrier. Jack never stops moving but you can slow him down somewhat. Because of the constant forward momentum you can only move a little to the left or right. You begin with no weapons and in fact there are very few power-ups. Missiles allow you to fire projectiles while there is a shield to protect you from one hit. The rare heart gives an extra life while the even rarer atomic bomb grants invincibility. It sounds limiting but it puts the focus squarely on the platforming.
Though short on weapons Jack is gifted with tremendous agility, able to leap the entire length of the screen. You still maintain full control while airborne which is important. You’ll be called on to dodge objects and even hop on springs mid leap. This leaping prowess is put to the test throughout the game as you race to beat the clock. Each level is broken up into segments with a strict time limit and numerous obstacles strewn in your path. A time limit may seem strange as you are always moving forward but there are plenty of reasons to slow down or speed up. The game is pretty creative with obstacles and requires some skill to navigate the chaos and beat the clock.
If there is one area the game should be commended it is its variety. New mechanic are introduced in each stage to keep things fresh. Froggy springs are added in world 3 followed by pillar jumping in world 5 and 6. There are also new enemies at every turn. This is also where 3-D World Runner stumbles.
The first two levels are a good introduction but the difficulty spikes significantly to the game’s detriment. Those new mechanics I mentioned are introduced without warning and no ramp up. Froggy springs are pretty cool but are difficult to navigate. You’ll have to change direction in midair and even control the size and speed of your jumps to land properly. Pillar jumping is introduced with no warning in world 6 and is a mandatory skill to master to progress. All of those extra lives you’ve hopefully built up prior to this will disappear in seconds and it is unfair. There’s nothing wrong with a steep difficulty curve as long as it is introduced properly. That isn’t the case here. If the game were more properly balanced it would be a goofy, fun game. Instead it is infuriating.
There are some cool play mechanics buried in 3-D World Runner however the overall execution is sloppy. I suppose those with a high tolerance for frustration could see it as a challenge but in my opinion there are better games in the same style on the same system to spend your money on.