I think that many of us longtime Metroid fans are finding ourselves in a similar position: All we desire is for Nintendo, creator of the beloved series, to put its heart into developing a game that endeavors to capture the spirit of our old 2D favorites. For a number of reasons (the most relevant being that members of the original R&D1 team have either been reshuffled or have since moved on or died), Nintendo has been unwilling to answer the call. In fact, I can think of nothing the company has said or done since Zero Mission's release that would inspire confidence that Miyamoto and his pals are prepared to listen to or even acknowledge the cries of the series' die-hard followers.
This puts us in a position where we have to attempt to get our Metroid fix elsewhere (and Lord knows we can no longer look to Nintendo platforms for Nintendo-like third-party games, which should tell you something). In the modern age, this is a desperate proposition, since there aren't many action-adventure games that can claim to accurately replicate Metroid's unmistakable visual presentation, its emotionally subversive music, or its organic sense of level design. Truth be told, many of these termed "Metroidvanias" are pretty excellent--all at once artistically brilliant, grandiose, and fun to play--but they're not Metroid; they simply don't meet the specific criteria.
Oh, many have tried to create spiritually compatible Metroid-like experiences, often ripping off the formula wholesale, but very few have succeeded in producing games that are capable of connecting with players on that level. And more than a decade later, we're still looking for the 2D action-adventure game that has the power to both evoke those same powerful emotions and prove to a doubting world that Metroid is something it can't afford to lose.
Enter Axiom Verge, which I've been tactically avoiding ever since its March 31st, 2015, release. Save for a handful of screenshots and about thirty seconds of action I viewed during a Twitch stream, I haven't seen anything that I'd list as having spoiled the game for me beyond "its graphics resemble the original Metroid's, and its gunplay is somewhat reminiscent of Contra's." I've done this because it's been my intention to find the right opportunity--a less-hectic period in my life--to block off an entire weekend, play Axiom Verge for the first time, and chronicle my experiences for you in this first "Modern Wonder" piece. I've long been meaning to begin introducing present-day games into the mix, and Axiom Verge, which aims to be an intersection between the old and the new, seems like the perfect place to start.
I've heard nothing but good things about Axiom Verge, including all of the hyperbole about how it's supposedly "better" than the games from which it's drawn inspiration. That remains to be seen. Clearly it's a love letter to the original Metroid in terms of visuals, but does it really have a deep understanding of what's beneath the hood--of why I became so hopelessly enamored with the NES classic? Can Axiom Verge do for the 38-year-old me what Metroid did for the 12-year-old me? Does it have the power to evoke those same types of feelings? Will the aesthetics of its world stir my imagination--invite me to wonder about what lies beyond the walls--as did those in the Metroid? Only time and experience will tell.
Right now, I'm as ready as ever.
Let's see what you've got, Tom Happ.
I'm surprised to learn that its art direction is decidedly 8-bit in tone, its graphics drawn specifically to emulate those we've seen in classic NES games (a style that all retro-obsessed indie developers seem to favor). I don't know what it was I thought I saw in those screenshots, but I remember observing that its environments were saturated with the gloss and sheen that I usually associate with the 16-bit fare (the increased resolution of today's games can sometimes deceive my senses). I was wrong. I mean, I knew that Happ was determined to pay tribute to the original Metroid, but I wasn't expecting for his homage to be so stunningly reminiscent (if not shameless in how replicates Metroid's basic look)!
It's uncanny, really; I can see 8-bit Metroid in every pixel of this scrolling title screen!
I was going to go on and on about how it's tradition to flip through the manual in advance of playing a Metroid-like game--excitedly familiarize myself with the storyline and the characters' motivations--but it's not even worth the effort. The era in which manuals were handy companions has long since passed, and we're now firmly entrenched in a digital age that regards them as ancient relics. Even then, Verge's digital manual has absolutely no meaningful content to it: Information available is limited to safety precautions, controller configurations, and legal restrictions. Well, that's a bummer.
This is typical of indie games, sure, but I'm disappointed to find that Verge doesn't attempt to buck the trend. But whatever--I'm perfectly fine with letting the game's storytelling devices fill me in on the important details. There's no need for me to blame Axiom Verge for my inability to separate myself from the old ways.
So let's get this thing started already!
My first guess is that we're going for a Doom-inspired storyline in which the destructive laser-blast unpredictably opens up a portal to another dimension, which is where the action will take place.
And, well, the main scientist, Trace, has apparently died, either literally or figuratively. The game isn't clear about what's being inferred.
Right away this first room manages to capture the feel of Metroid's freakier netherworld areas with its desolate environment and harsh ambiance. It would be like if Metroid started you in lower Norfair. The mood is a combination of tense and eerie, my sense of which is exasperated by the fact that I'm still in the dark about who the main character is, where we are, and why we've been brought here.
I spend an ample amount of time in Eribu's first room experimenting with the controls, which at this early stage offer only basic functionality. I'm delighted to find that our hero, the otherwise-merely-human Trace, is quite Samus-like in that he's quick and nimble and his jumps control fluidly, the whole of their elapsement fully manipulable. I have to hold down to crouch, which might cause me trouble later on when things get hectic and my Metroid instincts wrongfully inform me that pushing down will cause Trace to become locked into morphball mode. Or maybe I'm assuming too much. Perhaps he'll gain a similar ability later on and justify my deeply ingrained compulsions! Who knows?
I notice that the screen's upper-right corner accommodates a persistent mini-map a la Super Metroid (though, its usefulness is immediately rendered void in light of the fact that I'm playing the Wii U version of Verge, which provides convenient access to the full map via its constant display on the GamePad). Though, I'm intrigued by its inclusion. When I see it, I think, "This is what would have happened had an 8-bit game had the ability to look into the future and preemptively incorporate progressive elements from its sequels." It reminds me of how the 1993 Master System version of Renegade, a thoroughly 8-bit creation, incorporated contemporary beat-'em-up innovations like pop-up health meters.
But enough about that. For the moment, we're supposed to head to the "next room" and find a gun, though there are two ways to go. That decision can wait; first I'm going to make sure that I save my progress by reentering the egg-shaped pod, because I'm obsessive about doing so (my rules are that I have to save after the procuring of any item, no matter how trivial, and following any cut-scene so that I don't risk having to watch it again).
Suddenly, the environment springs to life, the graphics now bursting with luminance and animation; a cavernous background comes into view in synchronicity with musical accompaniment--an empowering theme tinged with cautious energy. Its message is simple: This world is hostile to our presence, so we'd better start blowing it to bits. (I find it a little weird, though, that the music doesn't loop; rather, it fades out and then restarts after a few seconds.)
Predictably our new gun can blast away the now-red, pulsating bubble blocks. Also, I find that Trace can fire in five directions while grounded (from left to right in an overhead arc) and diagonally downward while airborne, which imbues the Metroid-styled Axiom Verge with spirit of games like Contra and Super Metroid. It's just so interesting to me how Verge feels like an old game retrofitted with new ideas.
I see a surface that looks as though it can be morph-ball-bombed! I instinctively begin hugging against it, firing my gun wildly in the hope that I'll be able to blast away the bricks and find a hidden tunnel. I don't know if that particular mechanic will be part of the game's design, but something about Verge's construction has me wondering about what lurks beyond its walls.
The enemies hit kind of hard, though, and my health can be observed to be very limited in quantity. I get a bit reckless and attempt to tank my way through the green fuzz that chokes a vertical room's upper portion, at which point I bite the big one. I obviously lack the means for clearing it out.
It's interesting how the game handles Trace's regeneration: You don't just restart from the last save point as though nothing you've done since leaving the pod matters. Instead, as the mysterious figure explains it to us, we die but our memory is saved; our body is somehow transferred back to the save point, at which point we're resuscitated with our memory intact. In short: Dying will not result in the loss of any weapons or items you've attained thusfar, and none of your map coverage will be erased. I appreciate that the game takes this tact, yes, but I'm afraid that this approach might work to diminish the game's survivability factor, which I feel a Metroid-like game needs in abundance if it wants to create a deeper emotional connection with the player.
Trace is perplexed about this whole memory-transferring development. The rules of this world still aren't clear to him.
It's all here: The rounded doorways. The tattered, craggly brickwork. The long vertical corridors. The circumnavigating enemies. The bubbly blocks. I'd say that Verge's design was bordering on plagiarism if I didn't know that the creator's intentions were sincere. Now, while I'd like to see the game continue in its mission to capture the general atmosphere of Metroid, I'm hoping that it soon endeavors to find its own visual identity and otherwise differentiate itself with unique weapons and power-ups, environmental puzzles, and action scenes. Metroid is a great game from which to draw influence, true, but relying too heavily on its established formula can also work as an anchor.
My hunch is immediately proven to be correct, as a similarly placed, requisite escape mechanism teaches me as much; the Nova's splash damage is required to reach the orb.
The Nova in hand, I follow a now-accessible route and corral myself a "Size Node," which is said to permanently increase weapons' projectile size. The node's positioning in the menu and its accompanying number-value suggest that there are multiple of these throughout the game. It makes sense that there'd have to be a whole lot of them, since I can't even claim to notice a negligible boost from just this one.
And as foreshadowed, I enter the next room and encounter my first boss--an odd-looking creature best described as floating armored crustacean. It identifies us as a "demon" and speaks of someone named "Athetos," who apparently wants us dead. Exchanging dialogue with the creature establishes that there's no reasoning with it; it exists only to destroy us.
Our armored decapod friend is your usual projectile-spammer, his carpet-bombing attacks alternating between a slow-moving storm of energy particles and a deluge of explosive mines. The room's two bottom platforms provide me all the cover I need--enough so that I can calmly dodge all of the projectiles and continue furiously firing upward at the create's vulnerable underbelly.
This was a pretty rudimentary first boss-battle, not surprisingly, but there's a chance that my saying as much might be underselling it to someone who doesn't share my 35 years of gaming experience. I can see how such an encounter could be termed formidable for a novice player even on the Normal difficulty. Axiom Verge was obviously made for gaming veterans--people who know the mechanics of video games inside out.
The proceeding room holds my prize: The high-powered Laser Drill, which allows me to cut through rocks! Well, there's our morph-ball bomb equivalent! It's actually a drill that extends out from our gun, and it's mapped to its own button (R2); it can be aimed in multiple directions, including downward while Trace is airborne, and it can be operated continuously. What a great expansion on the idea! Way to go, Tom!
Talk about potential for secret-finding! If the amount of burrowing I've done so far is indicative of anything, it's got to be that there are excavatable surfaces everywhere! Really--what a cool weapon! Though, I wonder how much of the environment is actually destructible. I'd better drill everything in sight and find out!
When put to use in the immediate area, it allows for me to drill through a wall and procure another incremental-upgrade item--a Power Node, which increases the amount of damage inflicted by my weapons and items (more drill-power!).
And so it is that I can only drill through very specific block formations, which I can understand. The game could be wrecked otherwise. Though, even if it's just for the callous obliteration of enemies and bubbles, it's fun to charge about and drill with impunity!
Trekking along the only accessible path nets me my first Energy Node, which extends my health meter a tiny amount (so we won't be collecting Energy Tanks I take it). Continuing south brings me to a purple-hued area, where the musical conveyance suddenly turns ominous. There's a definite Norfair vibe here. The lenient penalty for death certainly dampens some of the tension, their dependability limiting the survivability factor I discussed earlier, but the emotive aesthetics still do well enough to keep me engaged and create an emotional connection, which is an important attribute for games of this ilk to convey.
I appreciate how each enemy emits uniquely gurgly sound effects when it takes damage or explode; it's one of those small details that goes a long way in helping Axiom Verge distinguish itself. Also, each weapon has its own distinct visceral appeal, which is one of the attributes you'll likely consider when choosing your favorite. The sound design, overall, is simply excellent in that regard.
When I begin to explore the long vertical corridors of Ebsu, Axiom Verge suddenly turns labyrinthine; there are so many ways to go, and I'm not sure which path is the most viable. I'm low on health, and the enemies (whose cast now includes a swift clawed fellow who relentlessly chases me down, and an acid-dripping spider-like ceiling-hopper) are starting to get nasty. Death is potentially waiting for me around the corner of any of these similar-looking corridors (it's fitting, then, that dried-up skeletons are a recurring visual). And the increasingly foreboding music is offering me no comfort.
Now that's what I call a "Metroid" experience!
That's fine by me. I don't need no hand-holdin'!
Her domain is home to the Kilver, a new weapon that fires a short-ranged explosion of green electrical energy; it'll no doubt play a key role in my mission to restore the power filter. It's immediately useful for firing piercing blasts through solid objects and taking out the clawed nightmares who can't get around them.
Interestingly, the weapon-select mechanics works like the Quick Select in the Ratchet & Clank games: Tilting the right analog stick pauses the action and brings up a menu within which you'll find your currently available guns arranged into a ring formation; from there, simply tilt the stick in the direction of your desired weapon. Considering how much real-estate there is in the "Weapons" category of the inventory, this could turn out to be one massive ring.
I meet a few dead ends in the middle portion of Ebsu but eventually work my way up to its heights, where something interesting happens. My ears perk up as a remarkably familiar roaring sound begins to reverberate throughout the vertical corridor that likely stands in proximity to the second boss' chamber. Why, it's the foreshadowing battle cries from Rygar! (Were these same noises audible in the previous boss area? I don't recall anything of the sort.) Could it be that Tom Happ is a fan of Rygar?! Man, I hope so. It'd be amazing if this was more than a coincidence! Its presence is a welcome addition, either way.
And yep--there's indeed a boss lurking nearby. Trace attempts to talk his way out of fighting the armored beast but finds that it, like the flying shrimp creature from before, is completely unreasonable. This golem-esque foe carries around what looks to be a combination vacuum-cleaner-and-laser-cannon (sure--why not?), from which it fires three-layer flame-blasts; it also discharges strings of projectiles from its forehead, their trajectories alternating between high and low. I die once before discovering that I have to target the rocky outgrowths on its head if I hope to inflict damage. Once that became clear to me, Rocky McMegamaid went down without much resistance.
Well, that battle wasn't as bad as I'd originally thought. Frankly, I found it to be much easier than the first.
My reward this time is the Address Disrupter, which "corrupts or de-corrupts weaker blocks and enemies." I think I've finally found my means for eliminating all of those glitched structures. The Address Disrupter, like the Laser Drill, is afforded the special privilege of being mapped to its own button (R1), making its power readily available to me. It does more than was advertised: Weirdly, it works to transform sections of the background's fungal excrescence into platforms; additionally, it turns the giant mushrooms' rising-bubble secretions into distorted lifts. When smaller enemies get caught in its net, they glitch out and lose their basic abilities. Neat!
I'll have to try this on everything!
My carefree drilling efforts lead to the uncovering of a "Note," which is written in alien text. Maybe the game will tell me what it says when I find the special Shadowgate glasses. I've seen this note-collecting system in many a past game, so I can say with confidence that it's likely a story-fleshing apparatus.
Mangled tile-work, negotiable screen borders, screwed-up enemy animation--this is Verge's transparent attempt to mess with the players' psyche and conjure up those same feelings of concern we had when our NES game would suddenly begin to bug out. At the same time, it's clearly looking to capture the allure of Metroid's "secret worlds" and the mythos behind them. I'm intrigued about where the game's narrative is taking me and what this is all meant to symbolize (is Trace stuck in a Matrix-like world?).
And while I'm fiddling around on the map via the GamePad, wondering why the game has suddenly decided to stop charting my course, the game crashes on me. I wait for a moment before acting, thinking that maybe this "crash" is actually a genius-level, Kojima-style storytelling device, but no--the game just flat out died on me. I'm guessing that's not an intentional design choice; I mean, you don't want to go that far in emulating the classics.
There's no major prize to be found here; rather, I secure a paltry "Health Node Fragment," five of which, I'm told, form a complete Health Node. Well, there's your Legend of Zelda rip.
Zi's southern marine area is home to another biomechanical cranial construction. This one is named Veruska, and she informs us that their computerized consciousness occupies a world called "Rusalki," which is "like a water machine." If I wish for them to survive, she explains, I need to activate repair drones in addition to repairing the power filter.
Much like Super Metroid, the master of the craft, Verge does well to tantalize the player with frequent previews of obstructed upgrades and its currently-inaccessible spaces. At the moment, there are a great many areas to which I'm not currently able to gain entry; specifically, it looks as though I'm going to be needing a double-jump ability and a morph-ball-like power that allows for Trace to squeeze into narrow spaces. Also, my Address Disrupter can't seem to clear away the glitched barriers in these new areas, so I'm inevitably going to have to find a way to upgrade it.
At the moment, only the area's top route is accessible, and it leads me directly to the Field Distruptor, which is said to alter local physics to augment the wearer's jumping ability. It's merely an overly complicated way of saying that Trace can now jump higher than he could before (the Field Disruptor is basically Verge's version of the High Jump Boots). This one upgrade, alone, will open up a ton of the map for me. There are no obvious uses for it here, however (instead, it looks as though I'm going to be needing different types of upgrades if I hope to advance past Kur), so I decide to head back to Zi.
Once there, I use my new high-jumping ability to access the area's upper portion, where I run into another indescribable monstrosity. Think of an enormous, screen-filling Jabba the Hutt outfit like a Metal Gear. Trace doesn't even bother trying to reason with this one.
The platforms on the room's left provide reliable cover, their convenient placement allowing me to take out both the creature's head ornaments and its laser-firing arm. With them out of the way, I can focus on the creature's lone weak point--its mouth, which I can damage only when it's open. If I position myself on the top two platforms, I can fire diagonally downward and hit the target with decent accuracy--connecting on, say, every other shot--no matter how rapidly the creature flails about its head in response; none of its remaining projectile attacks can reach this section of the room, so the battle is now completely trivialized (I assume this was a design oversight and I was meant to accost it in some other fashion).
Though, because the camera is zoomed so far back, I keep losing sense of the jumping controls, and I can't help but continue to fall all the way down into the poisonous liquid below. Getting back up to where I was requires braving through a storm of projectiles, which is also a challenge in light of the zoomed-out camera and its relative effect on jumping. This dreaded climb is the source of my repeated failures. It takes me four attempts before I can take out the boss without screwing up (which is embarrassing considering that I just described the battle as "trivial").
However, after all of that, it appears that I lack the power-up necessary to reach the room's right side (nothing short of the power of flight will carry me to the room's upper-right exit). I decide to head back to the save room and call it a day.
Axiom Verge's world design is top-notch. Its story has me pondering the possibilities. And I'm anxious to find out what else it has in store for me. Consider me thoroughly immersed.
Will it succeed in keeping me hooked? Click the link below to find out!