While the Sega Genesis seemed to reign supreme in my hometown (and in my heart), I often yearned for one very special Super Nintendo game that has helped cement an entire genre in the annals of gaming history: Super Metroid. It was, in fact, the only game my friends ever seemed to hold any interest in on Nintendo’s 16-bit console despite a fairly robust catalogue of exclusives. It wasn’t until years later, when other more “nefarious means” of playing older games, was I able to enjoy Super Metroid from beginning to end, and I still hold the title in high regards.
It is safe to say that I’m not alone in my assertion about Super Metroid, with it and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night being the two most beloved titles of its ilk. Platformers have always been mainstays in the gaming community and have inspired numerous fledgling game developers to have their own take on classics from their childhood. No game in recent memory seems as enthralled with the “Metroidvania” style other than Axiom Verge, a game that wears the 16-bit era on its sleeve. Every bleep, bloop, and flicker of this retro throwback covets the days of old and lets it spring to life in this original platformer.
Axiom Verge centers around a scientist named Trace, the epitome of every hardcore science geek grad student I have ever met in my life. He is bookish, has an awful haircut, and will probably find a way to kill us all by mistake. Trace is thrown into the middle of an alien conflict, with little to no understanding of why he is there or who he can ally himself with. Reluctantly, he runs headfirst into a war he knows nothing about in the hopes of returning home.
As Trace is just a normal guy, he reacts to the world like a lot of people would; with a sense of curiosity, he wants to avoid fighting 100-foot monsters by talking to them. It is a stance that few protagonists in memory seem to take, opting for the path of peace instead of mindless slaughter. That doesn’t stop him from building an arsenal of weapons that can obliterate anything that comes his way, but I guess it is the thought that counts.
Like any good Metroidvania-style game, Axiom Verge is focused on exploration of the world, with little guidance along the way. Some obstacles you come across will block your path or otherwise hinder advancement, requiring players to branch out into other areas to find a new ability. Once you find the next tool of the trade, Trace becomes a wrecking machine as he can now tear through previously challenging encounters with ease. That is, of course, until you get to a newer area and you’ll be forced to adapt to your surroundings. Axiom Verge, in some respects, is like Bloodborne or any other game with an “old school” mindset; nobody is holding your hand as you progress and learning from each encounter will spare you an untimely demise.
To keep Trace moving through the unusual alien landscape, players will collect a number of abilities and weapons. At first, it seemed like most abilities were kind of useless and only needed in a few scenarios. By all accounts, the default gun seemed to do the job. With time I learned that some weapons would excel where others had failed me. A mix of long range, short range, tracking, and explosive guns are at your disposal, but to find all of them requires a lot of backtracking and a keen eye. Most abilities you’ll come across as you advance, but some abilities like health or damage increases (and even weirder ones I don’t want to spoil) will take some effort on your part. Since you can’t drop a marker on the ever-expanding world map or see a beacon for something you missed, you might have to *gasp* take notes if you want to keep track of your progress. Scouring the map for hidden passages can be taxing and time-consuming, but the benefits are invaluable.
What I found most striking about Axiom Verge was the visual aesthetic. Sure, many games have rehashed the look of a bygone era, using many tricks of the trade to fake scanlines, flickering, and bit art, but developer Tom Happ cobbled together something much more special. It not only looks like a sophisticated, detailed effort for the SNES but it feels like it would have been released back then (albeit at a much higher frame-rate). Every sound, visual, and unintentional flicker brought me back to a time where games were surreal. The screeching of the sound chip, the synthesized vocals in the background music, and the sprawling landscape are all fantastic throwbacks for the right audience.
Oddly enough, the “retro” feel of the game also has a downside; I can’t always tell what is intentionally broken or what was an oversight. Part of the game mechanics involve hacking the physical environment to remove barriers or transform enemies to make them vulnerable to attack. This results in graphical glitches that are obviously intentional and can be seen throughout the game. At times, Axiom Verge looks like a game being played in debug mode which, while an awesome effect, makes it harder to see if everything is running as intended. Some enemies have some of the most bloodcurdling battle cries around which amount to nails on a chalkboard. Screen flickering is reduced by default, so anyone sensitive to that won’t suffer much. Still, the effect can be overwhelming at times, with sprites popping in and out frequently. As for the monster screams and audio gurgling, it is an unfortunate issue that drowns out an otherwise diverse and enjoyable soundtrack. Plenty of old games went a little too far with their sound effects, and for better or worse, this game does too.
Super Metroid came out over 20 years ago, but thankfully Axiom Verge isn’t completely caught in the past. Aside from poking fun at the unintentional nuances in classic gaming, the game takes the time to bring about an extensive control scheme to keep players in the game and not in the menus. All of the DualShock 4 buttons are used, including the touch button, R3, and L3 making this game psychotically efficient. Your go-to weapons can be added to the R3 and L3 buttons on the fly, or you can give the sticks a spin to select another one and give yourself a moment of respite. Unlike Super Metroid, two buttons aren’t wasted to aim up and down; rather, you can lock your movement in place to jump vertically or shoot in eight different directions. It may not seem like much at first, but being able to utilize cover and give yourself extra precision while jumping is a welcome addition that gaming has drummed up over the years.
Here Comes a New Challenger
Axiom Verge obviously pays homage to action/adventure puzzle platformers from the 1990s, so the demographic of Twitch gamers seems fittingly served. Aside from exploring the world and trying to “break” the game, Axiom Verge also features a speedrun mode. Stripping out that pesky dialogue and slapping a timer on the game, the speedrun mode makes for an interesting alternative. Speedruns aren’t my thing, but the prospect of beating the game in under 4 hours or only picking up 40 preccent of the items is a great way to add value to an otherwise enjoyable title. With such precise controls, plentiful pickups, and innumerable strategies to try out, finding the fastest way across an otherwise 8-10 hour game is something even I can get behind.
Over the past few years, I’ve heard my friends complain that games are just too easy compared to what they grew up with. Axiom Verge doesn’t fall into that category per se, but it does offer a good challenge for those that seek it. For others, it is a game worth exploring to get back with your gaming roots while experiencing a new take on classic gameplay, even if you hit a proverbial wall along the way. It is rewarding to overcome adversity in the platforming or to watch a boss be reduced to thousands of pixels. Axiom Verge leverages everything you’ve come to expect from retro gaming and uses it all to create a memorable new platformer that gives even the best classic Metroidvania games a run for their money.
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