Prior Notice: I will be using my own thesis Videogames Trough Generations: Structures, Strategies and Standards, KULeuven, 2009 as basis for this post. Problem is...this thesis is in Dutch and its size (100 pages) has discouraged any kind of translation attempt (also, I'm kind of lazy :)) so far. If anyone has the courage, and knows dutch, you are welcome to ask for a transcript and even make a translation. Use and references to this work must be done in a correct academic way off course.
That said, based on my extensive research on Videogame history I have noticed that there are three types of basic level-design forms to be found.
The first one is the Single-screen Type. Speaks for itself: everything happens on one screen without any kind of game-essential scrolling happening. This level-design type was offcourse a poster child of its time. First used by SpaceWar and Pong it would dominate level-design and even game-design as a whole till the mid 80's.
The use of this level-design type did have a set of consequences. The first one was that developers had to cram everything to fit on one screen. Not only that, it was also a bad thing that this "cramming" would also confuse/overwhelm the player. This forced developers to make characters and levels as compact but also as clear observable as possible. Another consequence was, when the game was well designed, you had games with a lot of action on a small area making Videogames an addictive and uniquely engaging entertainment form, as long as they keep upholding the Video-arcade principle (easy to learn, hard to master)
Despite technological advances, this level-design type is far from dead as shown with many flash games (tower defense anyone?) and a series of Wiigames (the Tanks game on the WiiPlay disk is a good example). But also more meatier games still feel its impact. Supreme Commanders' strategic view, or the strategy map from other RTS-games are actually made around the Single-Screen type. One could even say that the mini-map is also a derived result from this design type.
In 1985 Super Mario Bros introduced the second Level-design type: the 2D-scrolling one. Some other games prior did indeed experiment with scrolling levels, but these were actually the same level being looped. Super Mario Bros. bombarded you constantly with new levels. The consequences were quite profound. Developers were not limited to a simple measly screen but an infinite length of level was now possible. The bad news? The action got more spread out with some games taking this spreading out a bit too far,making them just plain boring. But the 2D-scrolling didn't directly killed the single-screen (as already shown) but was actually still heavily influenced by its design-principles. The levels in Super Mario Bros. actually seem more like several single screens pasted together. The Legend of Zelda (and others like it) actually scrolled from one Single Screen to the next. The result was that designers were still filling up games as if they were single screen constructed, giving them a high level of constant action. As the years past, this off course weakened. Levels became more intricate, fluent mazes or paths (with the exception of boss-fights who still happen in the confines of a single screen, increasing the action inside it) and action became more inter-screen connected. A negative consequence from this was that making inter-screen connected action was harder to pull of then just flooding a single screen with stuff. As a emerging undercurrent, the available action inside a game became more spread out. A positive, it did give us the Metroid formula and Sonic.
Fast forward to 1996: Super Mario 64 institutionalized the 3D Level-design type. Yes I know, absolutely not the first one, but still considered the one that showed how you should do 3D-games. Consequences? Fantastic great 3D-action dude!!! Negatives? Well...everything got even more complicated to fill up with action. For all who can, try comparing the average fieldplot in the first Zelda-game with that of OoT. Yeah, quite the drop in available action isn't there?
Positives? The potential to immerse players on a visual level became humongous. Big sprawling 3D worlds? Here it comes! Negative: Art assets are getting re-used a lot more,sometimes even entire levels. Also, huge 3D-worlds aren't all that cracked up to be if you're walking empty corridors for minutes on end (unless it's a survival horror game off course).
Yes, I am suggesting that throughout the decades games have gotten, well, boring, and the cause of this is technological advances. Now before you all pick up your pitchforks and torches, hear me out! I'm not blaming technological advances, I'm blaming game-developers of not trying to pour over the principles from one type to the other. Take Schmups for example, what level-design type? Well you would think 2D-scrolling of course, but Schmups actually combined Single Screen Level-design (trowing a lot of junk at you in every screen) and 2D-scrolling. Take the Serious Sam series for a while. Yes, level design is 3D, but the game trows enemies at you like it was a Single Screen game. And damn was it fun!
More recent example: Left 4 Dead. Yesyes, co-op is fun too, but the game actually combines Single Screen, 2D-scrolling and 3D level design in a top-notch fun package. Another more recent example? Dragon Age: Origins does a half-decent job of filling up every room with a good deal of fast-paced action not unlike the 2D-Zelda games, only less intense. Now, I love DA:O because of the addictive and challenging combat, but the mandatory re-visiting area's you cleared...boring. This is however sometimes alleviated by having you encounter mobs (the dwarven part is a good example of this) in supposed "empty" or cleared area's.
Radek Koncewicz asked the question what made those old 2D-games so great. It is partly because they are much closer aligned with the Single Screen level-design philosophy of trowing as much (manageable) action at the player as possible in a small area then 3D-games. And people love this! Just look at sales of the two New Super Mario Bros. games or WiiPlay (yes, some people just buy it for the controller, but the majority of those 22+ million sales, people actually wanted the game...or simply put, Tanks).
Also, game-developers, more action doesn't mean more violence, blood and breasts...seriously quit it!