An interview with D. We talk about his hacks, including work on the Langrisser series, Heroine Anthem and Magna Carta. In addition, we also talk about the various tools developed by D throughout the years to work with the many different kinds of data involved in romhacking and a great deal of the history of the early romhacking scene.
By Samantha “Kitten” McComb
“Metroidvania.” Most people who avidly play games are familiar with the term – a portmanteau of the famous games “Metroid” and “Castlevania,” typically used to describe a genre of games somewhere between action, platforming, and exploration. While games that follow the general format had been known to exist before Metroid, the series is typically given credit as the finest and most influential of the works in the genre, closely followed by Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and its many, derivative pseudo-sequels.
Super Metroid, in particular, is the most loved and revered of all these games, and its influence can be seen or felt in many popular game genres today. While Super Metroid has been talked and praised to death, what few people tend to focus on are the game’s many problems. Despite being the primary influence for dozens upon dozens (if not hundreds) of games from independent game developers, it seems very, very few of them pause to think upon what the game did wrong – or, for that matter, what it did right.
What indie game developers do not understand when making their derivative tribute games is that when they’re copying a better work, they need to evaluate what that work failed and succeeded at and improve upon on it. Or, at the very least, consider what ways they can make their game have its own personality. The worst parts of a game’s mechanics are often the most superficial and easiest to copy, and Metroidvanias typically tend to be made by the nostalgia-addled – those wishing to create a game “just like” their childhood favorite, rather than something with a unique identity.
In trying to create something just like what they once loved, they become wrapped up copying whatever elements they picked up on, often seemingly without any level of genuine, critical thought. Axiom Verge, a newly released Metroidvania, has amazing detail taken to the superficial, but sorely misses the finer details of the mechanics and world structure of Super Metroid (which Axiom Verge is pridefully obvious in aping).
I’ve been seeing Axiom Verge receive a relatively high amount of praise from game critics, and I while I feel that is deserved in some regards – this is a very impressive undertaking for a single person – I had an overall awful experience with it that has led me to strongly disagree with the general consensus. I’d like to go into great detail about how I think this game fails to establish its own identity, and how it fails to even come close to living up to the now decades old Super Metroid.
Let’s begin with the game’s aesthetics. The game’s visuals go for more of an NES-era look than they do SNES-era, borrowing much more heavily from the first Metroid than they do its SNES sequel. Doorways are similar to all the Metroid entries, both in visual resemblance in and in creating a blank screen while transitioning between them (which also plays into the game’s mechanics). Tiles (square chunks of pixels) are arranged in the same way they would be in an NES game, with a limit of 16 pixel height and width. Tiling is usually flagrantly obvious, giving the game a very “retro video game” look.
This is a deliberate choice, because working on a game of this scope with the intention to imitate the more advanced capabilities of a 16-bit consoles’ aesthetics would be a nightmare to one person, and also because it helps greatly with the game’s buggy/glitchy theme. People who played games during the NES era are ubiquitously familiar with cartridges bugging out while dirty/poorly connected or under the influence of cheat devices, leaving incorrect tiles loaded in place of the usual ones and leaving the player wondering exactly what happened.
Axiom Verge often chooses to simulate the aesthetic of those errors. While the heavily tiled look of the game does benefit it in many ways, it also makes areas intended to look highly organic fail in looking so. Super Metroid’s visuals were also tile based, but the diversity of tiles used, the cleverness in how they connect, and the frequent approach to partially transparent tiles help to add an organic look and feel that brings the world to life rather than making it look like a ton of interconnected squares.
While Axiom Verge seems to try and imitate strategies employed in Super Metroid’s tiling, it fails to do so and reminds you that it is a video game and you’re sitting in front of a television a little too much. Its visuals are often confused between whether they want to imitate the NES Metroid or SNES Metroid more, causing a dysphoric mess. Many of the game’s graphics also do things that the NES blatantly can’t, such as many of its transparencies, palette choices (the game uses many colors the NES cannot), screen size, dynamic screen scaling, the way certain things animate, the amount of colors on screen at once, the size of animated objects, parallax scrolling backgrounds (in the Edin section, there’s even multiple layers that move both horizontally and vertically), et cetera.
Among those less egregious violations are some highly noticeable ones that even an SNES couldn’t do, such as the times where enemies (particularly bosses) become masses of static while being hit and then explode via a distortion effect into small chunks of pixels that detach from the grid and fall off the screen. This is highly distracting given the intent of the visuals to look like an NES game, and reeks of cheap, modern effects. Your ever present life bar also throbs with a gradient pulse and is very distracting.
While I still appreciate the detail that went into much of the game’s spriting (it does border on gorgeous, at times), the choices it made to go “outside” of NES boundaries are so plentiful and frequent that it makes its adherence to the NES aesthetic in some facets both confusing and even offputting, at times. I understand that exceptions were made for artistic purposes, but where they were made is what baffles me. Instead of following the traditional palette limitations of the NES, Axiom Verge decides to limit each of the game’s unique areas to its own palette, which is perhaps one of the game’s greatest faults.
Foregrounds and backgrounds often blend together because of this, and many of the game’s areas lose any measure of distinct feel to them, thus becoming garish, repetitive messes. As your inventory grows, the pause screen or weapon select screen you’ll frequently be visiting bursts with an assortment of color just not present in any area in the game and clashes with it. Given the sheer size of the game’s map and the amount of exploration you’re required to do, areas feeling indistinct becomes a massive problem and is one of the many elements that begin to turn the game into a chore.
Enemy visual design is also one of the game’s weak points. Giant bosses are often much more animate than anything the NES could do, and are frequently composed of multiple moving parts animated cheaply in marionette fashion. They even sometimes scale the screen out, drawing tons of attention to how much they don’t mesh with the obviously tiled and simplistic world design.
Smaller enemies are often hit and miss in their design, as well, as they range from appropriate looking to seeming like something out of a bad DOS game (like the bugs riding rocks or the zombies). The palette limitations that are enforced on each of the game’s unique areas also apply to the enemies, so many of them excessively blend into the areas that they’re in, dulling their presentation significantly and even making them hard to pick out against the background when playing.
I love the NES and the way that the most impressive games for it make you completely forget there even are palette limitations (such as Kirby’s Adventure). Limitations being used are a great way to force the best out of the artist and make them use their creative talent to bring out what others can’t. In Axiom Verge, however, the deliberate use of palette limitations more or less exclusively harms the game.
As far as the game’s music goes, it obviously exceeds what an NES can do (even going as far as to have vocals in one area), but the use of synthesized sounds is pleasant and fitting. I’m not the best music critic, but this is a soundtrack I wouldn’t mind listening to outside of the game and is definitely one of its strong suits. Sound effects also feel appropriate to the style of the game, and are reminiscent of those from the era it imitates. To go into detail about the game’s attention to detail on the superficial, the horribly obnoxious noise that plays to warn you that you’re low on health chimes in tune to whatever the music is in the area that you’re in (just like in Metroid 2).
The different tracks in the game evoke many senses the Metroid games did, such as wonder, foreboding, isolation, and a feel of discovery. While the visuals sometimes compliment this, I feel that the music takes an aggressive charge in being the dominant source of the game’s better atmosphere.
Although I have many complaints about the visuals, I do want to stress that they’re, for the most part, not bad. I like them, despite how much some elements bother me and how sick I am of developers making pseudo-retro looking games with cheap, modern effects. Where this game really falls apart is on a mechanical level.
To begin with discussing the game’s mechanics, let’s talk about Super Metroid’s world and how the upgrades you obtain interact with it. You obtain abilities like a higher jump or a missile supply that you can fire. In a typical action game, these would enhance your ability to mitigate the game’s challenges and nothing else. In Super Metroid, they do both that and serve a purpose in gating some of the world’s content to you.
Missiles, rather than just be used to help you kill enemies more quickly, are used, essentially, as a form of key for certain locked doors. Fire five missiles and you may now open those doors! The high jump will let you avoid enemies and their attacks better, as it would in a typical action game, but it also allows you to journey to new paths you previously could not reach with your default jump… Thus also acting, in a way, like a key to a lock.
People look at Super Metroid and often consider this one of the strong points of the game – that items you obtain have multiple purposes, and that they make you feel like you’re making genuine progress in the world as you collect things. On the contrary, however, I believe how Super Metroid gates its content is one of the game’s biggest weaknesses and greatest flaws.
Why deliberately gate areas from the player when you can more gently urge them away with difficult enemies or difficult platforming? What is the purpose of preventing the player from accessing so much of the game’s content at certain times? Tease them with a challenge, and then let them decide for themselves if they feel they should come back to that area later when they’re better prepared, rather than forcefully locking them behind doors or below cliffs. Player freedom is to be celebrated, not scoffed at.
What makes the upgrades in Super Metroid memorable is not that they unlock new areas for you to explore, but how they change how you interact with both enemies and the environment. Super Metroid’s movement is intertial and, at times, awkward, and many abilities play into this. For example, when you get the speed booster, you can not only burst through a brick that can only be burst apart with it, but a multitude of new ways to treat that movement change open up.
Running quickly with the speed boost allows you to also jump higher, which is only called into place in necessity once in the game, but can be used in multiple areas. Once you learn that, you can then learn to apply that to the default running jump available to you from the beginning of the game, allowing you to make some tricky jumps and flex your skill. The speed boost also has an unexplained function that the game never forces you to perform to beat it, where you can store momentum and then unleash it in a burst, skyrocketing your character forward, upward or even diagonally (and is taught to you much like this next ability)
Another ability in the game isn’t even unlocked, but “taught” to you through observation of a friendly creature in the game’s environment who you happen upon when you fall prey to a collapsing floor you walked over. This ability allows you to jump off walls in succession, and can be done even at the start of the game if you’ve already learned it on a previous playthrough (or, I guess, read about it on the internet). This ability can become fundamental to one’s playstyle, and even allow them to obtain many of the game’s items earlier than they were meant to be, if you’re skilled enough.
These are the kinds of things that make Super Metroid shine so brightly, but what is often taken away from the game by indie developers is that you can gate the world to the player by forcing them to seek out and pick up particular items. Super Metroid respected the player enough to have little to incentivize them to seek out many of its secrets aside from the sheer reward of having trounced the game’s challenges.
Most of the game’s more elaborate secrets result in upgrades to your ammo stock or health, and are there just if you’re willing to search them out. While they are often rewarding in their own right to discover, they’re unnecessary to beat the game. In fact, in the many times I’ve played Super Metroid (usually once every two years, and once just before writing this article), even though I’ve done runs in under the “best ending” goal time of 3 hours, I’ve never once done a 100% item completion run (I don’t think I’ve ever even exceeded 80%).
Bringing this back to Axiom Verge, it is one of the many, many indie games that have for over a decade used upgrades in the most boring and tedious of ways, primarily to gate the player’s progress. Not only does it use more ways to gate the player than Super Metroid did, but the upgrades that gate progress are often used in uncreative and derivative ways, sometimes feeling as if their only use is to keep you from progressing.
At one point in the game, I obtained the ability to teleport myself through walls, but only walls that are exactly one tile thick. Later in the game, I gained the ability to teleport through walls that were two tiles thick, floors that were one tile thick, or to teleport very short distances freely about open environments. Even later than that, I finally gained the ability to teleport through three tile thick walls and two tile thick floors, as well as the ability to damage enemies and teleport freely through rocks that could normally be destroyed with my mining laser.
There are three tiers to that one ability, which is incredibly boring. While the final unlock actually significantly alters how you move around in the game (though is often used lazily as a double jump mechanic to gain necessary height on some movements, and we all know that double jumping is one of the laziest and most familiar forms of gating in these games), the previous two are only marginally more creative than numbered keycards.
The game often performs multiple gate checks on its progress or secrets, making sure that you can teleport this many tiles, launch your drone this far, jump this high, and have the ability to switch places with your drone. Oh, and also the area might end in a dead-end that unintuitively opens up if you activate a password you found in one of the game’s hidden, collectible text logs via a menu screen (also you must activate it specifically on that screen, as just leaving it activated from when you discovered it and entering the area will do nothing).
Let me comprehensively go over each of the game’s upgrades and items, so that we can have a better look at how they gate content, and also how they’re derivative of items from Super Metroid.
To begin, let’s start with the “field disruptor,” which is literally identical in function to Super Metroid’s high jump boots. When you get it, you can jump higher. This is used to gate in obvious ways, such as higher platforms or cliffs you wouldn’t ordinarily be able to scale. It’s also one of the first upgrades you get in the game, so it doesn’t gate much for particularly long.
Next, we have the laser drill. While this item can be used (rather ineffectively) as a short-range weapon, it serves the same purpose as the bombs do in Super Metroid. You use it almost exclusively to try and drill through certain blocks or find hidden weak-points in walls that will reveal secrets. Because it’s quicker to use than the bomb, the game often uses this as an excuse to pollute itself with more destructible blocks than Super Metroid, including one section with hundreds of blocks that becomes like playing an extra boring version of Terraria.
One of the early items you get in the game, and perhaps the game’s signature item, is the field disruptor (or what most players of the game like to call the “glitch gun”). This item fires out a distorting wave that can alter the properties of enemies or certain tiles in the game’s environment. While this sounds neat and is a delight to use for the first half hour or so, its joy quickly runs out when you discover that everything it can affect only has one different state when afflicted.
Nothing about the field disruptor is randomized, which seeks to very quickly sap out any meaningful connection the synthesized glitchy aesthetics would have to the behaviors it causes. This item essentially acts like Super Metroid’s “freeze” beam, most frequently being used to alter enemies to be slower, easier to kill, or to turn them (or the environment) into platforms. Some enemy behaviors end up being unexpected or entertaining, but the predictability of how the item works is incredibly disappointing and takes the joy out of the unknown of its intended glitch-ridden nature.
NES glitches signified instability, and their effects could range from benign to crashing the game or even deleting your save and progress. They felt like the game world was dismantling itself, and presumably, the field disruptor is meant to empower the player with the idea they can now do that at command. However, the gun acting like a toggle switch for enemy behavior turns into a boring video game function that only superficially imitates that interesting and frightening nature of those glitches. It becomes boring, predictable, and the antithesis of what made using something like the Game Genie interesting.
The item is also used very directly as a key to glitchy walls that had previously been gating you, and has two upgraded forms that allow you to glitch enemies it previously couldn’t and open more severely glitched walls (essentially acting like keycard level 1, 2, and 3). While the final upgrade gives it the alternate fire of a bomb that is highly reminiscent of Super Metroid’s power bomb, it doesn’t do anything new or interesting and still just gets rid of obvious walls you need to travel through or turns enemies to their alternate glitched state (which, of course, is almost always “enemy moves slower and is different colors or something” on the tougher enemies).
An item I mentioned the function of earlier is the modified lab coat, which allows you to move through one tile thick walls and has two upgraded versions (that palette swap your appearance). Again, while the change to movement is sometimes interesting, that only really comes into play when you finally get the final upgrade and have relatively little of the game left to go through. Did I mention you’re being torn apart and blasted away by vicious monsters in this game, but for some reason you only ever wear ordinary coats, and, to the best of my memory, it is never explained how you survive or what exactly it is that health upgrades do to your body?
This game’s equivalent to the morph ball of Metroid is the remote drone, which, as the name implies, is a drone that you control remotely. Using the drone allows you to bypass areas your character normally wouldn’t fit in, and can also be used as a remote-control proxy to fight enemies. While using the drone as a weapon, you are shielded and invincible, it has its own health bar (upgraded as many times as your character’s health is), and it has a relatively powerful weapon (upgraded as many times as your character’s weapons are) that can destroy blocks slightly less quickly than the laser drill.
The drone’s health regenerates naturally on its own, and this is comically easy to abuse during the game. About to die? Send the drone out. See a tough enemy? Send the drone out. Drone died? Sit in place, safely, wait for its health to regenerate, then send the drone out. The morph ball and bombs in Super Metroid cleverly effected how you moved about and interacted with both enemies and the environment, but the drone in Axiom Verge acting as its own separate entity makes it feel divorced from your character.
During boss fights, the drone is disabled due to how badly you could abuse it to cheese many of the bosses, and this feels like a concession from the designer that he couldn’t be bothered to balance the game around the very things he created for it. It also limits your mobility compared to Super Metroid. The protagonist of that game, Samus, was able to change her shape at any time. This manipulated her hitbox, changed her offensive capabilities, and modified her movement. While fighting bosses, this was able to be used creatively to your advantage, and Axiom Verge simply removes that idea. I kinda get the feeling the guy who made the game just fought bosses in Super Metroid by mostly standing in place and wailing on them (which mostly only works if you’re obsessive-compulsive about gathering items).
Like the field disruptor and modified lab coat, the remote drone also has two upgrade tiers that tediously block progression. One allows the drone to be launched further (into holes or onto platforms you couldn’t previously reach), and the other allows you to switch places with the drone (so that you can go through all the gates the drone couldn’t on the paths that only it could reach). Those two upgrades are used together to gate you from ultra high platforms, and are sometimes even used in combination with the third-tier labcoat to gate just that extra little distance (there’s no space jump equivalent in this game, an upgrade in Super Metroid that let you essentially jump infinitely with proper timing).
The last of the significant “key” upgrades I’ve yet to mention (aside from one that is literally called “sudran key”) is the grapple, which performs almost identically to the arm in Bionic Commando, but looks like a lobster claw. This is obviously equivalent to Super Metroid’s grappling beam, and although it can be attached to almost terrain and is much better to use (I am quite the fan of Bionic Commando), it is mostly used to shield you from progress in a very similar way.
In addition to those items, there are at least 24 (spaces for 32, I only found 90% of the game’s items) text logs to be found. They can contain boring, cryptic writings that flesh out the game’s dreadfully typical and awful story, or passcodes that gated you from reading the text logs you found in one of two different languages, or passcodes for hidden areas in the game.
There are also health upgrades (like Super Metroid’s E-Tanks) for your character, and range, projectile size, and strength mods to be found for your weapons. Health upgrades and weapon strength upgrades are occasionally found in complete and immediate forms, but are in the most infuriating of fashions usually split up into pieces (5 for health, 6 for weapon strength) that will eventually form an actual upgrade when completed.
Even further still, there are also at least 19 weapons (spaces available for 24) to collect. While none of these gate content (save perhaps one I found that was the only weapon I could reliably hit a particular boss with), many of them are redundant or useless, and by the end of the game, you will only be using two (whatever your most powerful close range and short range weapons are). An attempt to give each a unique and useful behavior was made, but I didn’t use the majority of them due to the fact the most powerful was almost always the most useful. Sometimes, power is just the best utility.
The combination of the game being gated and also having many, many useless items (“pieces” of upgrades, text logs, ineffective weaponry) makes it infuriating to come back to an area you couldn’t proceed in earlier only to be rewarded with nothing that will change how you play the game, or that you’ll see tangible benefit from. Many times you’ll return to a gated area only to progress an uninteresting room or two before being met with yet another gate you’ll need to return to (and sometimes ANOTHER GATE after that).
This design suggests the designer doesn’t respect your time an iota, and for some reason believes you enjoy collecting things simply for the sake of collecting them. Axiom Verge takes pride in the linear, gated tour it takes you through its world, carefully crafted to constantly have you trudging through already familiar areas to find a new and useless doodad. Dots on the map indicating something you may have missed in an area, like in Super Metroid, are not present at all, and map stations suggesting where to go next don’t exist, either. Also, despite the much larger areas, the game lacks a reasonable fast travel option, and backtracking is much more of a task than in the typical game of this type.
As mentioned earlier, I’d never once collected everything when playing Super Metroid in the many times I’ve played it. But, by the time I’d beaten Axiom Verge, I had 90% of its collectibles and only squeaked by in the final boss fight. I was playing on hard difficulty, and enemies and bosses ended up becoming so strong that I needed the majority of the game’s collectibles to be able to beat their cheap and lazy attack patterns through sheer attrition.
This essentially turns the health and weapon strength power-ups into a form of gating, as you need more and more of them to squeak by certain areas or boss fights as the game goes on. I love a good challenge, but Axiom Verge’s idea of “challenging” is enemies that move faster than you and relentlessly track you, and end-game bosses that end up doing roughly the same damn thing.
Nearly every enemy in the game, or at least nearly every enemy in the later areas, tracks your character like a homing bullet and moves at least as fast as he does, attacking constantly and posing a persistent and pursuing threat. Most areas in the game turn into slow, plodding, tedious nightmares because you are forced to stop and shoot nearly every single enemy (or try to abuse your drone to teleport past them, which often doesn’t work due to their speed).
Super Metroid’s pacing allowed you to travel for extremely far distances, past multiple save points before ever needing to heal, and its boss attack patterns were creative in such a way that many players would try to deliberately complete the game with a low number of E-Tanks if they wished to challenge themselves. Enemies were often non-hostile or easy to avoid, if you chose to, and few inescapably pursued you.
Rooms were mostly smaller, too, so enemies that did track you were able to be avoided by traveling between rooms, which reset their positions. Axiom Verge’s enemies are so powerful (again, reminder I played this on hard, I’m not sure how much this differs on easy) and so absurdly pesky that it often becomes a task just to make it from one save point to another to recharge. Save points in Super Metroid didn’t recharge your health, in case you don’t remember, and this further highlights the difference between both games’ pacing, and how Axiom Verge tries to make survival while traveling between each of these points much more of an arduous undertaking.
Enemy memory is not immediately reset upon changing rooms in Axiom Verge, it’s kept for whatever the most recent room you were in was. This further turns the game into a slog, as if you tried to simply run past the hordes of high-powered and player-tracking enemies and ended up in a dead-end room, leaving it will now have all those enemies piled outside the doorway, ready to unavoidably hit and swarm you when you transition screens.
Super Metroid’s “neutral” enemies that could hurt you, but mostly ignored you (or sometimes inadvertently helped you, like the digging machine before the ball jump upgrade) helped add greatly not only to its mechanics, but to its atmosphere, as well. You didn’t always feel threatened, and some areas were relatively peaceful and even awe-inspiring because of that. Axiom Verge occasionally attempts to imitate this, but fails entirely by having tons upon tons of nearly identically behaving monsters, several of them stronger, recolored versions of previous enemies.
Missiles were another way that Super Metroid allowed you to mitigate the challenge posed by its more powerful enemies, as they would quickly rid you of them when used sparingly. This room too tough? Use your missiles sparingly, aim them carefully, and you’ll be able to make it through. The relatively slow travel speed and limited ammunition added risk and reward element that kept the game traveling at a brisk and exciting pace.
When a room is too tough in Axiom Verge, on the other hand, or simply too annoying for you to want to bother to kill everything, you end up tossing your drone about, hoping to cheese the hell out of the situation. You either want to repeatedly toss the drone to kill everything and advance, or hopefully save a little bit of your time by bypassing the fight entirely with a few quick switch teleports.
If you want to play the segment really slowly, you actually bust out the glitch gun, switch the enemy to its alternate behavior with it (which is nearly always “slow it down a little” with the most pesky enemies), and then kill it. Rinse, wash, repeat for every enemy in the room until you’re ready to fall asleep. Enemy health is so significant and so much greater than the average enemy in any other comparable game that it inspires disbelief.
Even when nearly fully upgraded, enemies toward the end of the game are wretched, repetitive, time-wasting nuisances with behaviors you’ve seen repeated a dozen times, already. For a game that lasts what people claim is an average of 15 hours, the lack of variety in combat situations is so that it made me want to pull my hair out of my scalp.
Boss fights in Axiom Verge, early on, are just gigantic enemies with one or two attacks that they’ll repeat the entire fight and are predictably easy to avoid. While I can’t say that they’re particularly engaging and certainly would not praise them, they were a lot more entertaining than encounters with enemy hordes. One of the bosses that took up somewhere around six screens of the game’s visual space (and zoomed out, so that I could see it all at once) looked particularly impressive, but was comedically dull to fight.
During that particular boss’ final phase, I was unable to find a weak point. The obvious ones were gone, and he had started attacking one of the many platforms in the room repeatedly. I tried attacking just about everywhere, watching and laughing as he didn’t even attempt to shoot me, until I realized that the only spot to shoot the poorly indicated weak point (his mouth) was from the sole platform he was paying attention to and shooting. Cue laugh track.
Bosses later in the game basically became collectible checks – battles of attrition that are nearly impossible to win without just getting all the power upgrades and best weapons. They either spam the screen with projectiles, or track me and then attack with little-to-no telegraph they were about to. The final boss is one of the worst I’ve ever had the displeasure of facing in any video game of any kind, as it is stationary weak point with three constantly respawning, enormous drones that track your player at high speeds (so fast they will move on top of him) and fire projectiles lateral to you at an extremely rapid velocity and wide berth.
I could not find any way to avoid his attacks for more than a few seconds, and the fight actually caused me to backtrack throughout the game and pick up a huge variety of collectibles I had missed to be able to defeat him. My strategy? Literally stand in one place and alternate between firing two different guns.
The guns I used were based on whether or not the drones were currently dead and waiting to respawn or not. If they were alive, I let them swarm my character’s body and hit them with the flamethrower, which deals massive damage at a limited range to multiple enemies at once. If they were all dead, I aimed at the weak point and used the laser, which was a long enough range to hit where I needed to without me having to move. YouTube videos of the boss fight showed others fighting exclusively in very similar (if on easy difficulty) or identical (if on hard difficulty, like me) ways. No one I found had a strategy that involved more than a modicum of skill, and all strategies necessitated having tons of upgrades. The boss simply died before I did.
Mechanically, I cannot stress how awful this game is, and how it (in many ways) misses the strengths of the game it is poorly mimicking and worships. That people routinely praise games like this is incredibly absurd to me, and makes me wonder if they think about what they play in the slightest, or if they are merely constantly satisfied by their time dumps being rewarded with filling inventory screens and spoon-fed appeasement to their hording tendencies.
The final subject of Axiom Verge I want to discuss is its story and how it presents itself, and this is perhaps what is the very worst element of the game. Let us look back on Super Metroid, and how it begins with a voice sampled statement, continues with some narration from our player character to set the game’s premise, and then further continues by never, ever making you read anything but a brief description of how to use an item for the entire rest of the game.
One of Super Metroid’s strengths is that, regardless of your gender, Samus’ lack of personality and steely persona underneath a formidable power suit allows you project your own thoughts and feelings onto her and immerse yourself in the game. The Metroid series, or, that is to say, the original trilogy of Metroid games, relied very heavily on their incredibly thick atmospheres and brilliant mechanics to help you craft a powerful narrative of exploration and discovery within the game without needing to constantly explain things to you or develop characters.
YOUR character is the one that is developing as you play Super Metroid, and the game is so fondly remembered because of that powerful impact it had on the sense of imagination of those gaming at the time. The worlds felt alive, and you felt like the alien being invading them. It was a twist on the worn-out trope of fighting off hostile alien invaders, and was fairly unique and excellently executed for its time.
Axiom Verge instead opens with exposition, and then proceeds to have exposition constantly throughout the game on top of multiple collectible text documents. It tediously explains and explains at you, yet somehow causes you to ask more questions than it answers (wow, too deep). The sprite artwork for Trace, the main character, very starkly contrasts with the giant mechanical goddess faces he speaks to, as if you have a cartoon protagonist with mutton chops talking to surreal works of art.
Trace likes to barely question the insane world he is trapped in, how he is viciously murdering hundreds of its indigenous lifeforms, or why a t-shirt and later a lab coat protects him from instant death and the game’s harsh environments. At one point during the game, I walked by multiple mountains of human skeletal remains, grotesquely arranged in frighteningly large piles, being uncomfortably reminded of images of mass graves from real world tragedies. My character says nothing and seems unaffected, but then later has slightly sarcastic, b-movie comic relief banter with the robo-goddess that can kill and recreate him on command.
He also likes to say “crap” or “oh, crap” a lot (if “crap” is in the game script less than one dozen times, I will be astonished), as if the writer was trying to somehow evoke a Nathan Drake-esque persona in this dumb cartoon scientist with mutton chops (god, why? why does he have goddamned mutton chops and a saturday morning cartoon face?). The clash between the game’s protagonist and the world he inhabits is so incredibly unreal that it actively tears a massive void in your investment of anything going on. I cannot stress harshly enough or possibly be hyperbolic with how starkly ridiculous this is and how much it ruined how I might have been drawn into the game’s atmosphere, otherwise.
Later, the game ends with depressingly typical post-credits cliffhanger to hook you for the sequel, and I’m left wondering what on Earth I just wasted so many hours of my time on. The lead up to the end of the game teased player agency and being able to make a choice, but like the game’s paper-thin illusion of non-linearity, that, too, fell through. There is a burning, palpable rage surrounding me as I completed this frustrating mess of a game.
Why isn’t there some sort of running movement option available from the start so that I can bypass the game’s many, many nuisance enemies, or travel around more quickly? Why isn’t there something I can use to scan the environment instead of repeatedly using items/abilities against a wall until I’m sure there’s not a secret there? Why are almost all the bosses battles of attrition aside from an impossible-to-lose-to story boss that you can “beat” by standing still?
Why are there no clever, alternative ways to use the game’s abilities? Why don’t I just get a few linear upgrade options to my main gun, instead of twenty-four different options, 90% of which are useless? Why do enemies attack me from off-screen all the time? Why is this game so awful?
Axiom Verge is not only a worse game than Super Metroid, it is a clone of it that came out twenty years later and landed outside the stadium of understanding how to improve or even properly imitate that formula. It is praised for how powerfully it misses the point, and how it is just like that old game but, like, totally not like that old game, dude. It is another drop in the pond of the infinite wankery and worship that has gone on for Super Metroid, and yet another game that makes me go back to its hailed progenitor and actively enjoy the experience less, my love for it cheapened, its faults now more obvious as its worst elements have been reproduced once again.
Super Metroid may have been an excellent game, but its real legacy is games like Axiom Verge – plodding, dull collect-a-thons taking you on a linear tour of their supposedly “open” worlds, stopping and asking you to collect the trinkets and shinies constantly before opening up one more new area to you. What are these developers so afraid of in making their games so rigidly formatted? That you’ll skip areas? That you’ll not see every square inch of their precious world?
I hate to be “that girl” that is constantly bringing up From Software games, but in the latest game by them, BloodBorne, you can skip around half of the game’s bosses and content and still beat it with one of two endings, or still skip vast quantities of it and get a third ending. Why do the optional content? Because it is interesting and engaging on its own right, and I chose to. It is so liberating to have that freedom in a game, today, rather then being told to choke down every last little bit of it to “really” complete it.
Exploration is not exploration when you are simply throwing yourself at every boundary until you find the obscured ticket for one of the boundaries’ many tollbooths. A game in the spirit of exploration should not have the answer to the question “why are you here” so frequently be “because I don’t have the item I need for there.” Axiom Verge is bad, it is bad and a footnote in the history of point-missing pseudo-sequels to a game trilogy that dared to do a few things well.
Stop making “Metroidvanias,” start making experiences with actual identity.
Tired of Metroid romhacks? Try playing this Metroid romhack. 8/10 Editor’s Choice.