Preview events offer only brief glimpses at very big games. Who knows how any given game will pan out in its final form? The most we can say is This Could Be Good.
Developer: Thomas Happ
Publisher: Thomas Happ
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita
Release date: Early 2015 on PlayStation; PC version coming later
Thomas Happ seemed tired of talking about Metroid. He was eager to point out the other influences—like Farscape and the writing of Alastair Reynolds—that have shaped Axiom Verge, the game he’s been developing on his own for the last four years. But the comparisons to Nintendo’s beloved space adventure series are unavoidable. Even Reggie Fils-Aimé, the president and face of Nintendo’s American operation, stopped by the Axiom Verge station on the perimeter of Sony’s E3 booth to say, “Oh yeah, that does look like Metroid,” as Happ recalled on his blog. (Surely he left out the part where Reggie shook his hand and menacingly whispered, “You better lawyer up.”)
Reggie’s not wrong. Axiom Verge looks, sounds, and plays a lot like Metroid. It stars a scientist who dies in a lab accident and wakes up on an alien world, which just so happens to contain a bunch of interlocking rooms and themed cave systems that branch out in all the cardinal directions. The scientist finds all sorts of crazy guns and power-ups lying around, which allow him to push even farther into previously inaccessible territory. The surroundings are blocky and unnatural, evoking the same abstract alien horror as Nintendo’s series. Less abstract but just as horrific are the bosses. The one I encountered was a towering, undulating slug that fired lasers from cannons on its back.
But there’s a less-seen side of the original Metroid from which Happ is also drawing inspiration: its many glitches. He fondly remembers an era where even Nintendo’s own official magazine would instruct readers on how to break the game and brute-force their way through Metroid’s walls. The game was never supposed to work that way, and those “secret levels” were never supposed to be seen, but to the boundless imagination of an NES-playing kid, Happ says, exploiting these glitches is like escaping the game’s artificial confines. If there’s more to see in the world of Metroid, why wouldn’t the people who made this game let you see it?
And so below the Metroid-like adventure on Axiom Verge’s surface is an experiment in channeling that glitchy spirit. Even though they might resemble the games of the past, modern games don’t work the same way under the hood, Happ said. It’s not feasible to build a game so that glitches would come about naturally, as accidental hiccups in the game’s internal logic that manifest themselves in odd ways.
Instead, Happ has emulated the kinds of glitches you might see in a classic NES game and sprinkled them through Axiom Verge. At one point, you’ll find what is essentially a “glitch gun.” It fires a blue pulse that alters the world around you. Enemy critters might slow down or transform into docile squares of corrupted data. Solid walls might turn into cracked stone that can be eliminated with your laser drill.
The most exciting possibility, however, is that you’ll accidentally open up a door to one of those glitched-out secret areas, like the “hidden worlds” of the original Metroid. Happ has yet to work out all the specifics, but he imagines these “glitch levels” will be randomly created and spread throughout the game, so that they’ll never look the same or be found in the same place twice. They’ll be optional and contain some sort of random weapon or item at the end. During my demo, I wandered into one such area after blasting some flickering wall tiles with my glitch waves. The screen filled with static, and I entered into a long series of chambers with tough enemies. Unfortunately, I didn’t last long.
Axiom Verge stands apart from the retro revival crowd by looking beyond the design and aesthetic sensibilities of classic games. Happ and his creation have a reverence for the sense of the unknown that surrounded video games during their infancy. It was a time where a game’s every secret wasn’t immediately laid bare on the Internet, and we didn’t fully understand that a glitch was usually just a glitch rather than a carefully hidden secret. Axiom Verge would be promising even if it were nothing but a loving, detailed take on Metroid, but this additional layer channels a passion for some of video games’ long-lost mystery.