Axiom Verge

You’ll be able to get a free Metroidvania fix next month when 2D action romp Axiom Verge temporarily sheds its price on the Epic Games Store. It follows the Jackbox Party Pack, available until February 7, and will be free from February 6. 

I’m far too impatient for games like Axiom Verge, which I hear is pretty tricky, labyrinthine and full of death at the hands of alien nasties. Take a gander at the trailer below. 

Andy’s Axiom Verge review should tell you everything else you need to know. It’s very good, he reckons, so maybe I’ve been missing out. 

Axiom Verge joins the superb Shovel Knight as a game that doesn’t just borrow the aesthetic of retro games, but understands why they worked so well as games too. It’s one of the purest expressions of the ‘Metroidvania’ genre on PC, focusing on tight design, minimal story, and addictive, rewarding exploration. Be warned, though: another way it pays homage to the past is with its stiff difficulty. You’ll need the reliable precision of a good D-pad to get past some of its huge, bullet-spewing bosses.

It will be available from February 6 until February 21. 

Owlboy

Welcome to our round-up of the best Metroidvania games. That slightly awkward portmanteau refers to a hybrid genre inspired by Metroid and Castlevania. They tend to be 2D platformers that have you exploring dungeons, defeating bosses, and picking up items that unlock new zones of the map. Within this simple format there is plenty of room for variation and, it turns out, lots of gorgeous art. 

A few of the games on the list have been lovingly crafted by small teams and even individuals over the course of a decade or so. Others, like Dead Cells, experiment with fusing the metroidvania with other genres to create a powerful hybrid. Whichever games you pick, expect lots of 2D platforming and some tough boss fights.

Ori and the Blind Forest

Ori's warmly animated world and slightly tearful opener barely hint at the incredibly tricky platforming challenges that follow. PC Gamer's Philippa Warr has compared this to a teddy bear that wants to punch you in the face—it's a cute and beautiful-looking game, but damn tricky. The pleasant soundtrack puts you at ease while the game rarely does.

 Axiom Verge

One of the very best modern examples of the form, Axiom Verge is set in a dark, Giger-esque alien world populated by mysterious giant mechanical beings and, of course, a slew of bullet hell boss monsters. New paths open up as you discover fresh alien gadgetry, like a trenchcoat that lets you phase through walls, and a device that lets you control a small alien bug to crawl into new cave systems. 

Combat is simple—blast the alien things flapping around each level—but there are loads of weapons to discover, and plenty of secrets if you’re determined enough to glitch or blast your way through secret walls. It’s a sinister and slightly unnerving game with some genuinely dark moments, but that makes it a fitting tribute to the lonely hostile corridors of the original Metroid games. 

Hollow Knight 

This one takes a while to get going, but once you have a few upgrades it’s a spectacular hand-drawn metroidvania with a snappy melee combat system. Hollow Knight borrows its melancholy apocalyptic atmosphere from Dark Souls, and also its currency recovering system—if you make it back to the place you died you can reclaim your last life’s earnings.

Hollow Knight looks gorgeous, and it’s full of interesting bug characters that sell you new gear and give you extra quests. The bosses are challenging and the dodge-and-slash combat is a serious test of skill once you’ve unlocked a few moves and started running into the game’s more serious enemies. The world is beautifully put together, too, and you learn more about the fate of the city as you dash, skip, and double-jump into new zones.

Owlboy

You’ll notice that many of these games are set underground in endless cave systems. Owlboy is set in a floating cloud kingdom. As said Owlboy, Otus, you have to flap around the world in a slightly cumbersome manner befitting a character who is regarded as an idiot by his village. You can teleport friends into your claws as you fly around. Different pals come with different abilities; some will fend off nearby enemies with projectile attacks, others will help you to access new zones in true metroidvania fashion. It’s tricky to say much about Owlboy without spoiling the story, but suffice to say it’s an emotional ride depicted in lovingly detailed pixel art. 

Shadow Complex Remastered

Blast your way through a military compound with machine guns in this futuristic Metroidvania. It’s billed as a “2.5D” game, which means you run and jump on a 2D plane, but can shoot into the background as soldiers and battle robots. You play as an ordinary man called Jason Fleming who gets lost on a hike and stumbles across a high-tech group bent on starting a civil war in the US. The game escalates from there you strap on their armour, raid their armoury and start blasting their mechs. The game was originally released on XBOX Live Arcade, but lives on Steam now as Shadow Complex Remastered.

Cave Story+

Daisuke Amaya’s seminal indie metroidvania is available on PC as Cave Story+, which features the original 320x240 visuals and the updated version. You play an amnesiac boy who wakes up in a cave full of rabbit folk called Mimigas. They are being picked off by the malign creations of a mad scientist, who you need to chase across 15 levels. It’s a big game, especially considering it was made by one very dedicated creator with a clear love for the 16-bit era. An absolute classic and a must-play if you love metroidvanias.

Iconoclasts

From one solo creator to another. Joakim Sandberg spent many years painstakingly designing, animating and composing for Iconoclasts. The result is a cheery and colourful metroidvania starring a friendly mechanic called Robin. This is a relatively shooty one featuring more than 20 bosses, but the worlds are packed with chatty characters. It’s worth picking up to see what seven years of one guy’s life’s work looks like.

Steamworld Dig 2

Approachable, and not too difficult, the Steamworld Dig games deliver a gentle hit of Metroidvania action supplemented by lots of Terraria-style digging. You can pickaxe your way through the levels, but this isn’t a sandbox. You have to tunnel your way to new zones and grab new gadgets to upgrade your hero, a steam-powered cowboy robot in the first game and a blue woman in flying goggles in the second. The sequel has more varied environments and a bigger world to explore, so that’s the best place to start.

Dead Cells

Dead Cells straddles the line between Metroidvania and roguelike, which makes it a warped child of Super Metroid, Castlevania and Rogue. You battle through randomised dungeons, starting from the beginning each time you die. As you chop up enemies in beautifully animated exchanges of sword-blows and bow attacks they drop cells that you can pour into your character. 

This persistent element eventually gives your guy the sturdiness to reach new zones you haven’t seen before, fulfilling the typical metroidvania exploration pattern. Dead Cells is a game about blasting through dungeons as quickly and efficiently as possible. When you arrive in an area a timer starts on a hidden treasure door somewhere on the level, if you can find it before the timer expires, you get access to a room full of special items and sweet cash. Dead Cells is a high pressure game compared to others in this list (bar Ori and Hollow Knight), but if you like action and great pixel art Dead Cells is a good option, though it still has some time to mature in Early Access.

PC Gamer

There's a fairly famous story about the creation of Mario 64 that explains how the team at Nintendo figured out 3D movement for its revolutionary platformer. "We were working on something really simple—deceptively simple, even, from the perspective of the team that would go on to finish the huge, final game," said director Shigeru Miyamoto in a roundtable for the game's strategy guide, handily replicated here. "There was a room made of simple Lego-like blocks, and Mario and Luigi could run around in there, climb slopes, jump around, etc. We were trying to get the controls right with an analogue 3D stick, and once that felt smooth, we knew we were halfway there."

That makes me think about the one unifying element of all great Nintendo games—basic actions always feel good. It might be the way throwing a boomerang feels in a 2D Zelda game, or running up a wall while transformed into a cat in the Wii U's Super Mario 3D World, or moving in morph ball mode in any Metroid Prime. Great Nintendo games start with that, for me, then the rest of the magic comes from art, sound and level design. Its games come from a wide range of studios, and yet it's something I notice about them time and time again. 

"For me personally I think Nintendo are just the masters of putting a smile on your face," says Finn Brice, CEO of Starbound developer Chucklefish. I visited the studio late last year to check out the Advance Wars-like Wargroove. "And I think that’s what we try to bring to our games, it’s what we’ve learned from Nintendo. We want people to buy our games and not just appreciate the mechanics and not just tell a good story, but we want the moment-to-moment experience to make them feel good."

Nintendo-style games felt like they lived outside of the PC's sphere when I was a kid in the '90s—a few platformers like Jazz Jackrabbit and Earthworm Jim aside, it just wasn't where you found the types of games that you'd see on the SNES or N64. We now live in a very different time. Indie games and the digital marketplace mean we've seen a ton of games with Nintendo DNA, made by creators who grew up with those old consoles. From Metroidvanias to 2D platformers to Zelda-likes, there's a variant of pretty much every old Nintendo game type. Hell, there's even a pornographic WarioWare-like

Super Meat Boy has over 2.8 million owners on PC, according to SteamSpy

"Before there are any levels made or anything concrete is created for a game I'm working on I always make the movement feel right and I finalise it before I do anything else," says Tommy Refenes, co-creator of Super Meat Boy, when I relay Nintendo's process of figuring out Mario's movement in three dimensions. "For Super Meat Boy it took three months of figuring out how I wanted Meat Boy to move and what I wanted him to be able to do and how I wanted the player to be able to accomplish those things. Super Meat Boy Forever was exactly the same. I believe it's crucial that level design and controls fit together perfectly and I'm hard pressed to find a Nintendo game where it appears they don't share the same belief." 

"Something that marks Nintendo’s games out for me is their commitment to fun," says Jonathan Biddle, whose next game is the lovely-looking co-op game The Swords of Ditto, out next month. Biddle previously worked on Stealth Bastard. "They treat the pursuit of fun as being a worthwhile endeavour in and of itself. In fact, they take it very seriously! While other developers might focus on storyline, or impressive cutting-edge technology, Nintendo instead double down on squeezing as much enjoyment out of their gameplay as is possible. Because their teams are smaller than their competitors, if they focus on this type of quality game design, they can punch above their weight—something they have been doing consistently well at for decades."

"My work has typically been structured in the same way," Biddle continues. "I've always worked from the small details outwards, trying to make something that is enjoyable on the lowest level, and built the larger systems in support of that, rather than, for example, creating a world and setting a game within it. Also, as much as I enjoy it in other games, I'm not one for putting complex meanings in my games. I generally like to make something fun; a toy, something to be played with, something that hopefully makes people smile."

I played two long games of Wargroove last year, and wrote all about how it went here.

'Small details' is something that Chucklefish picks up on as a Nintendo trademark, too, citing how Luigi would whistle the Luigi's Mansion theme tune in both of those games as you played. "The tiny attention to making you entertained in every aspect of the game, I think it’s what really defines [a Nintendo game]," says Rodrigo Monteiro, lead programmer and producer on Wargroove. 

For Chucklefish, too, the team finds players gravitating towards smaller details in Starbound. "The things people discuss when we see them discussing areas of the game, are weird tiny interactions or quotes in the game rather than grand experiences," says artist and designer Jay Baylis. "It's like, 'I stumbled across a graveyard and someone happened to be crying near it, and I thought that was a relative and I thought they were really sad about their relative dying', and that’s a random interaction in the game. But that's a small thing they remembered the most."

"The main quality I think Nintendo brought to game design, if not innovating it than at least doing it the best early on, is having games teach players how to play games while playing," says Thomas Happ, creator of Metroidvania game Axiom Verge. "The important thing to remember is that games are a learning experience from beginning to end. I always try to keep the player learning new things and applying what they learned. You never want to bring in some difficult element before you have trained them to surmount it because that leads to frustration. And before the player achieves mastery of something you need to have something new come up or there will be a period of boredom, which is what kills games."

Andy described Axiom Verge as "a massive, challenging retro-flavoured shooter that takes the Metroid formula and runs with it."

How it was, or how you remember it? 

You can see the look of series like Metroid, Zelda and Mario filtering down to other indie games—and not just from the SNES era. Last year's Rime reminded me of Wind Waker before anything else, and Owlboy developer Simon Stafsnes Andersen cites the cel-shaded GameCube game as an influence in giving his game's characters a recognisable shape, as well as ensuring that each environment feels interactive. 

If you're going to make a SNES-looking game for the modern age, though, it's never as simple as borrowing a style. "I think when people try to make games look like old games, it’s often to their detriment," says Chucklefish's Baylis. "I see a lot of 16-bit RPG-looking games, and they’re objectively nice, but they don't look inspired because they look like a SNES game, rather than looking how you would remember a SNES game. I think that’s key. You've got to find people’s rose-tinted memories."

"For example, Stardew [Valley] to Harvest Moon," says Monteiro. "I can’t speak for how Eric [Barone] was thinking when he developed it, but I think that Stardew captures the experience you remember having in Harvest Moon but not necessarily the experience you actually had in Harvest Moon."

The Swords of Ditto is out next month, and has the best damn trailer.

Wargroove, which riffs heavily on Nintendo and Intelligent Systems' long-dormant Advance Wars series, offers a similar challenge to the team at Chucklefish. "People have said with Wargroove, the graphics are basically the same as Advance Wars," Baylis says. "When it's not actually the same as Advance Wars—they remember Advance Wars being that good, and then you look back and it just doesn’t look anything like the same—it looks very different to it." While the colour palette and style immediately puts you in the mindset of Advance Wars, the detail on the map is a world apart. Nostalgia only gets you so far.

It's interesting to see the ways this has looped back around for Nintendo. Indies are now swarming to the Switch, and there can be real benefits to developers getting their games on that platform. It means those console owners are getting the types of games that Nintendo isn't releasing at this point in time—games that made the PC their home years ago. 

May 13, 2015
Axiom Verge
NEED TO KNOW

What is it? Sci-fi shooter inspired by classic Nintendo games. Influenced by Metroid, Castlevania Reviewed on GeForce GTX 970, Intel i5-3570K @ 3.40GHz, 16GB RAM Alternatively Mark of the Ninja, 90% Copy protection Steam Expect to pay 15/$20 Release Out now Developer Tom Happ Publisher Thomas Happ Games Multiplayer None Link Official site

Developed by one man over five years, Axiom Verge is a remarkable feat. Not only because creator Tom Happ did all the art, music, programming, and design himself, but because it s damn good too. It s inspired heavily by the Metroid series, but it doesn t feel like a rip-off. The DNA of Nintendo s game is felt in every pixelated corridor—the compelling exploration, the backtracking, the eerie otherworldly atmosphere, the tough bosses—but it has plenty of ideas of its own.

You play as Trace, a goofy-looking scientist who, after an experiment goes explosively awry, wakes up in a strange alien world that looks like something out of H.R. Giger s nightmares. It s a strange bio-mechanical place filled with weird monsters that Trace must battle through to escape. Honestly, I didn t find the story that engaging. It wasn t the narrative that kept me pushing on, but finding out what new boss, enemy, power-up, or weapon was waiting for me around the next corner.

Really, the story is just an excuse to explore, and it s exploration that defines Axiom Verge. The game is comprised of several huge maps, which can be explored freely. You re nudged subtly between bosses and areas, but it never feels like you re being guided. It s through ample use of gear-gating that the game stops you from venturing too far. In true Metroid style, you ll frequently come across obstacles that are seemingly impossible to get past, only to find a gadget later that unlocks the way.

These include a drill to break through blocks, a coat that lets you teleport through solid objects, and—my favourite—a thing that de-glitches parts of the level that have gone all garbled and weird, like a NES cartridge that someone forgot to blow in. That feeling of returning to a section of level you were totally stumped by later with the right tool, and it suddenly making sense, is a constant delight throughout.

Weapons also help you bypass obstacles. One fires balls of energy that can be remote-detonated, letting you unlock a certain type of door. Others, though, are just for killing, and they re all really creative and fun to use. Your ever-expanding arsenal includes a laser-shotgun, a thing that shoots arcs of electricity, heat-seeking orbs, and what I can only describe as a space-boomerang. They all have proper names, but I can t remember any of them. You re never short of interesting ways to shoot things.

The strange, sinister world Trace finds himself in is a vast, interconnected maze. As you explore, a map is filled in that you can pull up at any time to get your bearings. Important rooms like boss and save chambers are marked with a distinct colour, but mostly you ll have to rely on your memory to keep track of where stuff is. I became obsessed with filling in every cube on the map, and my exploration was rewarded with health-boosting power-ups and documents that fill in the backstory. Again, the story isn t really that vital to the experience, but it s there if you re interested.

Trace s movement is snappy and responsive, but I found shooting diagonally a bit clumsy. You can t stand in place while firing, so it s impossible to shoot at an angle without moving forward at the same time. It s a tiny thing, and I got used to it for the most part, but it was always niggling at me. Otherwise, this is an impressively solid, polished game that feels like it was built and play-tested by an entire team, not just one guy.

Axiom Verge joins the superb Shovel Knight as a game that doesn t just borrow the aesthetic of retro games, but understands why they worked so well as games too. It s one of the purest expressions of the Metroidvania genre on PC, focusing on tight design, minimal story, and addictive, rewarding exploration. Be warned, though: another way it pays homage to the past is with its stiff difficulty. You ll need the reliable precision of a good D-pad to get past some of its huge, bullet-spewing bosses.

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