Terraria: 2D Simplicity Thriving in a 3D world

by Richard Watson

Terraria: 2D Simplicity Thriving in a 3D world
November 17, 2019 Richard Watson

Terraria is a 2D side-scrolling sandbox game that released way back in 2011. It is still going strong today, with more updates to come. How can it compete in the modern gaming world of photo-realistic graphics?

Ask a gamer what never changes, and there’s a few answers you might get. ‘War’, ‘FIFA’, ‘EA’, or perhaps ‘Bethesda’s persistence in releasing new versions of Skyrim’. I would add another entry: Terraria’s price on Steam.

Ok, Steam has sales all the time. Aside from those, and one rise in its base price in 2014, Terraria has maintained a steady price of £6.99 with impressive consistency. Sure, it’s not a high price – but for a title to maintain a price tag higher than at its release for so many years is a little anomalous.

Even more unusually, Terraria was born right in the era of, for lack of a better term, ‘disposable gaming’. With new ‘AAA’ titles being pumped out yearly by the massive studios, a 2D side-scroller from an indie developer could easily have been overlooked. Yet, many years (and many iterations of Call of Duty) later, Terraria had clocked over 27 million sales.

All very impressive – but how? The past decade of gaming has demonstrated great technological leaps, to the point where screenshots can be indistinguishable from photographs. Yet a pixelated side-scroller where you battle floating eyeballs still grips a large audience.

Who needs 3D anyway?

So far, there have been four major stages of Terraria’s development. From the initial release, 1.0, to the current 1.3, each large patch has added a lot of content. With new bosses, events, weaponry, armour, accessories, and mechanics, the game has well over doubled in size.

Each update brought more to what fans believed was already a near-perfect game. 1.1 brought ‘hardmode’, an entirely new section of the game tacked onto the end, albeit a little haphazardly. 1.2 added over 1,000 new items, as well as a multitude of bosses and events, as well as UI and ‘quality of life’ improvements.

Most recently, 1.3 introduced a final boss, and entire new difficulty: ‘expert mode’. For many players who had mastered defeating any boss on the first night (and in many cases sticking it on YouTube), expert mode introduced a sharp difficulty increase proving popular in today’s Dark Souls-hardened pseudo-masochistic gaming community.

Terraria’s story is not over yet, either; the upcoming update 1.4, known as ‘Journey’s End’, is to be the final entry in the game’s journal (well, at least until Terraria 2). Judging by the spoilers and teasers revealed so far, ‘Journey’s End’ will add new boss content, graphical changes, and an even more gruelling level of difficulty: ‘master mode’.

Re-logic have clearly put a great deal of love and care into the game. While supporting a game for so long isn’t unheard of, it is a great deal more unusual for one that isn’t massively multiplayer. This doesn’t explain the game’s success, though; if it wasn’t so popular, the updates wouldn’t have come.

In trying to unravel the mystery, I went back to play it again. I’d wanted to wait for 1.4 to drop, but with such a foggy development timeline — and my deadline for this article rapidly approaching — I caved in early. It had been a year since I last played, yet I instantly felt gripped.

I dived straight into expert mode, and after a few nights of helpless slaughter (I’m not going to disclose who was slaughtering whom), I found myself entering hardmode. After some more nights of slaughter, some dead mechanical bosses, and some less-than-PG language directed at a giant carnivorous plant, I had completely forgotten what I was meant to be doing.

Though it may sound a little clichéd, in the moment I remembered why I was playing, it clicked. For the umpteenth time, Terraria had roped me in. Hours and days melted away as I farmed a winged pig-shark Cthulunado-launching (yes, really) thing and constructed my glorious new mage tower.

The game’s simplicity is the key to its success. A mere seven pounds unlocks a 2D world of adventure, underground jungles, giant glowing mushrooms, and magically-levitating skulls. And it’s your world: aside from boss and gear progression, there are no rails you have to follow. The guide will give you hints as to what milestone is next, but your route of progression is up to you.

The player is given the choice of magic, guns, bows and arrows, minions, or just a good old sword. Combat is very much the game’s central element; each boss has unique mechanics to stretch and challenge the player. Weapon turnover is constant, with one individual weapon rarely being useful for more than a couple of bosses.

It feels rewarding because it makes you work for your achievements; but it doesn’t take anything away unfairly, either. You can be sure that if you die, it’s your fault. Every time. The more you die, the more you learn, and the angrier you get. Bosses can take dozens of rage-filled attempts, but you find yourself repeatedly coming back.

Sound familiar? The appeal of a challenge never fails to hook a gamer. You almost forget it’s a 2D side-scroller when you’re trying to avoid dying at the jaws of a giant laser-shooting mechanical worm for the tenth time. All you care about is surviving, and the well-earned kill feels that much more rewarding when your gear was pulled out of the ground with your own bloodied hands.

Even approaching a decade since original release, Terraria is still there for me whenever I burn out on whatever other game previously caught my fancy. While I’m a little ashamed to admit it, as of writing I’ve clocked just shy of 1,400 hours in its two-dimensional world. Ironically, its low price has led me to spend more, in that I’ve bought probably six or seven copies for friends who have subsequently become addicted, too.

If we widen our scope, it’s clear Terraria isn’t alone. With games like Dead Cells, Stardew Valley, and Starbound, it’s evident that a game can still succeed on a handful of pixels.