I have confession to make. I was never really all that into Metroid.
I mean, sure… I played it a bunch as a kid. It was right there, alongside Super Mario, Zelda, Castlevania, and the rest of the classic NES heavyweights. But it didn’t change my world like it seemed to for a lot of people. I never even played Super Metroid, let alone any of the Metroid Prime games that flooded out decades later.
For me, the game that hooked me… the one that lodged in my adolescent brain and never quite went away… was Blaster Master. The 1998 NES classic – Developed by Sunsoft – came out two years after the original Metroid, and arguably borrowed a heavy dose of its gameplay (along with a teaspoon of Zelda’s Dungeon/Boss mechanics). The tight controls… the world layout… the hooky soundtrack… not to mention that kickass fuchsia-and-white car/tank/submarine thing (Sophia the 3rd, represent!). Listen man. Blaster Master had it all.
Since that era, enough games have stuck to the “Metroidvania” formula that… well… that we even have a term like “Metroidvania”. For anyone unfamiliar with the phrase (a merger of Metroid and Castlevania – two titles that helped define the genre) it refers to any game that features an explorable, interconnected world in which certain areas are inaccessible. As players earn power-ups granting them increased mobility (or firepower), previously blocked areas become traversable. Add in a ton of hidden areas, collectables, incremental boosts, and memorable boss battles, and you’ve got yourself a Metroidvania game.
And for some reason, this year I’ve binged on several.
First up is Axiom Verge. Developed pretty much entirely by one guy (no seriously, Tom Happ did the game design, coding, artwork, and soundtrack), Axiom Verge can quite easily be called a love letter to Metroid.
It features a very retro 8-bit visual style and chiptune soundtrack, coupled with a modernized game design philosophy. All of the hallmarks are in place, including tons of nearly impossible to locate hidden areas. Axiom Verge even goes so far as to make a feature out of a glitchy “broken game” aesthetic that was a side effect of many classic NES-era games. Only here, it’s used as a very successful story hook, while triggering a lot of nostalgia for the early days of console gaming.
The game has a legitimately tough difficulty curve, somewhat mitigated by the powerups and weapons you can find along the way. The controls are rock-solid, and the game demands a lot of it’s audience. Attempting to nab a near-100% completion score was capital-H Hard, and only possible thanks to convenient online guides.
Unlike a lot of Metroidvania games, Axiom Verge feels much more freeform and non-linear. Aside from a handful of places, the game doesn’t always direct the player from one power-up to the next. In fact, many of the weapons in the game aren’t even necessary to locate (though they do make life easier towards the end). From a game design perspective, I’m not sure that making some of the power-ups optional was a good choice or not. There were cases where getting a new thing would take a lot of effort, but then not really be of any use, which came across as anticlimactic at times.
Overall, I had a blast playing it – despite nearly throwing my 360 controller through my TV during a couple of the boss battles. Maybe it was the retro vibe, but Axiom Verge really brought back memories of junior-high weekends spent trying to master the latest cool NES game. With the notable difference being that nowadays I can Google hints when I get stuck.
Next we’re going to talk about Shadow Complex. This game actually came out in 2009, during the onslaught of Xbox Live Arcade titles that were threatening to take over the universe back then. But Epic Games recently re-released a remastered version on PC. I loved it the first time through, and jumped at the chance to replay it.
Shadow Complex adds a depth-element to the gameplay, with 2D navigation against a fully-3D backdrop. And I don’t just mean “2.5D”, where it’s purely a visual layering… Players can actually fire their weapons at enemies in the back-distance, and this lends a novelty to the gameplay not found in a pure 2D title.
The visuals are sharp and clear, despite being a step behind current-gen gaming machines (remember, this game came out six years ago). It’s still super robust in terms of both design and overall aesthetics. Of the three games discussed in this writeup, Shadow Complex is the one with the loosest, least-crisp controls. At times it feels a little bit slippery, but it also doesn’t demand quite as much from the player as the two other games. Portions are challenging for sure, but it’d call it more of a casual platformer.
One of my favorite parts about Shadow Complex is the game world itself. Because the whole thing is realized in three dimensions, the sense of spatial navigation comes through really strong. For a Metroidvania title, that’s extremely beneficial, as it allows the player to more intuitively discover hidden areas, simply by the “feel” that there really should be something behind this wall, or under this floor, etc. A little parallax goes a long way.
The voice acting in the cutscenes is a little rough around the edges, but that doesn’t take away from an otherwise rewarding gaming experience. And it’s the kind of thing you can plow through in a couple afternoons and feel like it’s time well spent.
Even though I’d already beat the game when it first came out, replaying through all of Shadow Complex (100%, son.) was a real treat. I remember reading once that the head of Chair stated that a sequel to the game wasn’t a question of “if”, but “when”… And I still hope that’s the case, because I can’t wait for more.
Ori and the Blind Forest
Last up is Ori and the Blind Forest. I actually saw this game showcased while attending GDC (Game Developers Conference) last year, and other than noticing how graphically great it looked, I didn’t really pay too much attention to the game itself. I think some part of my brain has written it off as a kind of hand-drawn animation project masquerading as a kid-friendly action/platformer. Fast forward to a few weeks ago when a coworker of mine mentioned that Ori was actually more of a Metroidvania game. That, combined with the Steam Winter Sale, was enough for me to give it a shot.
Hooooooleeeeee Crap. This game isn’t just playing with the tropes of a Metroid title… it’s legit. and it’s freaking TOUGH. The controls are pretty tight, despite feeling a little more freeform than Axiom Verge (though not as loosy-goosy as Shadow Complex). It’s much more linear than either of the two games as well, really forcing the player to experience each of the three major game areas in sequence. Clocking in at right around 8 hours of gameplay, it’s not the largest game ever, but big and varied enough to be well worth the purchase price. Note that the final sequence of the game is one of the most brutally difficult in memory, but it was beatable with much (much) (MUCH) re-trying.
Okay – the visuals. Oh. My. God. It’s blisteringly gorgeous. Let me put it this way… I make game artwork for a living. I’ve been doing it professionally for a long time. I told a buddy of mine the other day that Ori and the Blind Forest is the kind of game that makes me want to give up game art and walk into the ocean. It’s mind boggling how stunning it looks.
Sure, there are a few design choices one could gripe about… how the characters and backgrounds are essentially a mashup of Disney and [insert any Miyazaki movie here]. But that’s like subtracting cred from a modern painter because they are a “mashup of Van Gogh and Rembrandt”. It’s a masterwork. In a class of its own against any other game on the market. Even the music is perfect… haunting, ethereal, dynamic. Knock it off with the exceptionalism, guys.
One genuine complaint I do have with Ori is that there are certain areas in the game that once you leave, you cannot travel back to. In a genre that is all about encouraging players to try and find 100% of the items and hidden bonuses, that’s a pretty tough point to overlook, and made for a frustrated minute when I realized that was the case. I’m not a all-or-nothing completionist, but I know some gamers who are… and this would be a deal-breaker for them.
All in all, Ori and the Blind Forest was a wonderful surprise, and one I’m grateful to have played through, especially considering how close it came to falling off my radar completely.
All three of these titles did a great job scratching my decades-old Blaster Master itch. Any one of them would be a great way to spend a lazy weekend. I’m confident that Metroidvania games will continue to appear with mechanics that play off familiar, tried and true themes – And I hope developers find interesting ways to push the genre into new territory as well. My Steam wallet will certainly be ready as soon as new contenders arrive.
But I guess my main point is… Not ONE of these games featured a magenta tank-car that could turn its wheels sideways and fly like a hovercraft. What gives?!?!?
|Ori and the Blind Forest