PC, PS4, Vita
The core team behind Super Metroid was 20 people in size. Tom Happ has created Axiom Verge on his own. Not with a few pieces of artwork or a soundtrack donated by developer friends, but the entire thing. The result shouldn’t hold up to close scrutiny – by rights, its music should feel undercooked, its animation should be a little clunky; something should land with a thud – and yet it can be reasonably compared to Nintendo’s 1994 SNES classic, making it one of modern indie gaming’s great achievements.
During production, Axiom Verge has been described as a Metroidvania game, but it’s only the first part of that awkward portmanteau that matters: in truth, this is a Metroid homage, pure and simple. With a visual style pitched somewhere between the 8- and 16bit console eras, with a helping of modern effects sprinkled on top with varying degrees of restraint, the game feels familiar from the beginning, as you set out to explore a network of multitiered, varyingly themed environments with some old-fashioned running, jumping and shooting.
Shooting a lot. The emphasis on gunplay is pushed further by the amount of weapons available to those willing to unpick the levels in order to uncover their hidden rewards. One gun unleashes a forked crackle of energy, while another projects an electrical beam that latches onto nearby enemies to deliver a continual pulse of damage. Not all of the options look or feel so distinctive, but there are enough kinks to encourage a type of experimentation that becomes absorbing in itself.
True to its roots, the game demands the application of various approaches to its many challenges – and then more still to uncover that bubbling stream of hidden delights. Happ’s approach to creating the game’s levels sees him often piecing together visually discrete blocks, which encourages you to poke around in corners to identify sections that will give way to the grind of your drilling tool and allow passage beyond. Playing the game to the conclusion of its story doesn’t take too long, but 100-per-centing it feels like another matter entirely.
Happ treats Metroid like a keen student, his passion for Nintendo’s work, and understanding of what makes it so valued, shining through every pixel illuminated on the screen. Importantly, though, his one big new idea – a disruptor-beam weapon that can alter the properties of your surroundings (see ‘Disruptive technology’) – isn’t the gimmick it threatens to be at the outset.
Axiom Verge has its limits. Some of its bosses feel disappointingly static, its vintage visual stylings don’t always work in its favour, and it is shot through with an exceptional degree of familiarity. But in terms of reaching its clearly defined goals, it is a triumph.
Though you can usually pick out individual pixels easily, the game throws the whole vintage motif out of the window when you meet this boss, scaling out dramatically to capture the entire environment on one screen