Axiom Verge

Well, that didn’t take long. It was only 68 days ago that Shovel Knight dethroned Journey for the #1 spot on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. Journey had sat as king of the throne for 1,048 days. And there’s MANY more amazing looking indies coming in 2015. I tell you, we’re in the Golden Age of Indie Gaming, and ain’t it sweet?

Axiom Verge certainly had an advantage over Shovel Knight. Metroidvanias are my favorite gaming genre. They factored hugely into my gaming upbringing. Meanwhile, I can probably count the number of times I’ve even held an NES controller on one hand, and I certainly didn’t grow up playing Capcom’s NES library. So maybe it was fate that finally a Metroidvania would take the crown here at IGC. Then again, I think it speaks volumes about its quality that I was (and still am) gaga over Shovel Knight despite having no heart warming childhood stories about the time I ran through Duck Tales in a single life or the hours I spent designing fantasy Mega Man bosses. Shovel Knight holds a special place in my heart, and it does so simply by being an incredible game.

But, Axiom Verge has beaten it. And handily at that. It is the best independent video game I’ve ever played.

I've seen a lot of tributes to the Kraid fight in Super Metroid. This one outshines the rest.

I’ve seen a lot of tributes to the Kraid fight in Super Metroid. This one outshines the rest.

Think of Axiom Verge as the evolutionary Metroid. The same basic concept and play mechanics are present. The same enemy placement sensibility, where each corridor has the same enemies that you encounter one after the other. It’s so close that if you re-skinned the lead character Trace with Samus Aran sprites, put bubbles around each door, and replaced a drone you acquire a couple of hours into the game with the Morphing Ball, you would swear this really was a Metroid game. It’s that seamless.

Really, I can think of nothing else that speaks as great a volume as that when it comes to praising Axiom Verge: that you could believe this was an authentic Metroid game, made by a team of veteran designers working for gaming’s most prestigious house. But it wasn’t. One guy made this. And it’s better than any adventure the house of Mario has given their super heroine. Whoa!

Sacrilege, you scream. Look, we (or at least, people with similar taste to me) whine about how Nintendo turns out samey games. Every Zelda has the hookshot, the master sword, a boomerang, etc. Every Metroid has the Morphing Ball, the Grappling Beam, the Wave Beam, etc. Nintendo can get away with this because we keep eating it up year after year. I’m guilty of it too. Now here comes along a game that could be a Metroid, but it does things different. No Morphing Ball, the Bionic Commando grappling hook instead of the Grappling Beam (you can grab pretty much any platform instead of designated grappling sections once you acquire it), no bubble doors, new gun concepts, new enemies, a deeper story, but the same core gameplay. This is exactly what we’ve been asking for. For years. It’s the twist in the formula we’ve all been hoping for. The logical evolution of the Metroid mechanics.

The platform Trace is standing on here is practical invisible. The game has since been patched to make it and others like it stick out more, but there's still some minor visibility issues in Axiom Verge.

The platform Trace is standing on here is practically invisible. The game has since been patched to make it and others like it stick out more, but there’s still some minor visibility issues in Axiom Verge.

And then comes the Glitch Gun. It’s not really called that. It has some stupid name like data disruptor. Just call it the Glitch Gun, everyone else does. Probably inspired by the types of graphic abnormalities that happen when you haven’t sufficiently blown on your NES cartridges enough, it’s sort of a more proactive version of Samus’s visor from Metroid Prime. When you shoot most enemies with it, you “hack” them, making them glitch out. This might make them simpler to slay, or it might make them useful, even able to open up hidden rooms. The gun will also interact with the environment, creating or destroying blocks, opening up new pathways, or unveiling secrets. It’s very clever and mostly well done. However, later in the game, once the gun is upgraded, I struggled somewhat in consistently clearing out the most advanced glitch blocks, often phasing some in while making others phase out. It’s a small niggling complaint, but it almost always happened when I was trying to clear the blocks out. Beyond that, the biggest mistake I think the developer made with the Glitch Gun was not giving it to players right out of the starting gate. It’s what sets Axiom Verge apart from its heritage more than any other play mechanic. You want to flaunt that stuff right off the bat. If someone has a flying car, I don’t want him to show it off to me by taking me on a trip down the Pacific Coast Highway. Even if it’s a nice ride, I want to see the car fly! And I want to see the Glitch Gun in Axiom Verge right from the start.

Actually, since I’m complaining about things right now, I should point out that I don’t love the graphics. The world Tom Happ has created for Axiom Verge hits similar notes to other games in this genre, but it lacks liveliness and color. The story explains it to some degree (my insane fan theory: Murky and Lurky are behind this), but the starkness of the color is kind of exhausting. And it occasionally gets in the way. It’s often hard to distinguish between the foreground and background. The problem is Axiom Verge is too married to the limited color palette of the 8 bit era. Although I’m quite fond of neo-retro games, I think developers should remember that you shouldn’t handicap your own game in the process of paying homage. Cheat the rules occasionally. Use shading and color techniques not available on classic  platforms, but do so in a clever way so that people don’t notice. Axiom Verge looks very convincing as a classic game, but that often works against it more than it helps it.

The controls are smooth. If there’s a problem with them, it’s that there’s just so much shit to do. By the end of the game you’ll be using pretty much every button on the controller, and unless you’re one of those freaks that can rub their head and pat their belly at will, you’re bound to slip up. I also felt the lack of ability to shoot at a downward diagonal angle while moving made the search for hidden rooms a bit more tedious than it had to be. I had to stop and shoot straight down, move a couple of spots forward and do it again while on the hunt for hidden stuff. It took me twenty-six hours to finish Axiom Verge, and you could probably shave at least an hour of that off just by giving me the ability to fire downward while running. Oh, and the dead zone for the right stick is too small. Combine that with my tiny hands and I kept accidentally bumping it, interrupting the game to select a new weapon. The dead zone should just stop short of maximum range, since it’s unlikely anyone is going to just nudge the stick to pause the game and choose a different gun. Then again, that might have been my fault. I have extraordinarily clumsy hands. Really clumsy. Dangerously clumsy. The last guy I gave a hand job to now goes by the name Sally.

Exploration and meaningful backtracking are the backbone of Metroidvanias. Something I’ve noticed about indies is they often just don’t fucking GET IT with that. Yea, you force players to go backwards, but when you do, you have to make it interesting by including hidden goodies along the way that were previously out of reach with the weapons and items you had access to the first time you were in that area. Huge props to Tom Happ for grasping this. There is so much hidden crap in Axiom Verge that I don’t think I went ten minutes between any pick-up. Even when I would occasionally get lost trying to figure out where the next event would take place at (some kind of Metroid Primeish GO HERE beeping spot on the map would have helped), I was stumbling upon so many goodies that I never got annoyed with it. By time I knew the game was getting ready to wrap up, I decided to take a stroll through all the previous stages just to see what I missed. Shockingly, it was a lot. Even in places where I was certain I had gotten everything, I was wrong. And I didn’t even get a 100% item pick-up, despite having 96% of the map explored. Holy fuck. As much as I’m grateful, I have to wonder if Tom has some kind of mental disorder that led to this. Dude is like a demented Easter Bunny.

I grew to love its story. The plot is problematic for some, because it fails to grab you immediately. This happened to me too. For the first several hours, when friends asked me about it, I said “you’ll want to buy this for the gameplay.” But once the story gets rolling, I actually did care. Quite a bit. I just don’t think the game handled the delivery of the story well. Part of that comes down to the lack of voice acting, because, once again, the game is married to being old school. Oh woe be it, if only we had access to the types of space-age technology that would allow voice acting in video games. Oh wait.

Notroid.

I called this the Ghostbuster gun. You’ll see why.

But, I did grow fond of lead character Trace, and skeptical of whether or not the mysterious giant mecha baby heads that drive the plot were friend or foe. I just wish it had been told better. Having said that, there’s a couple “okay, that was cool” story moments that are integrated into the gameplay that were very risky to include from a creative standpoint. They worked, grabbing my attention and leaving every gameplay moment that followed feeling like the stakes were higher, with tension added that was totally authentic. Axiom Verge might have one of the most interesting sci-fi gaming storylines I’ve ever seen. Saying it gets off to a slow start is an understatement, and I’m guessing many players will be so underwhelmed by it that they’ll blow off the remaining dialog, but they’re missing out.

I loved Axiom Verge. I can’t believe how much I loved it. I never expected to walk away from it having enjoyed it more than any of Nintendo’s entries in the Metroid series. Axiom Verge isn’t a Metroid game. It’s a tribute to Metroid. My expectations were set to “respectable tribute.” Not “better than the originals”. But it is. And yeah, I’m a whippersnapper who was in my twenties when I played Super Metroid for the first time, so I’m not nostalgic for those SNES and GBA classics. You know what? I think even those who would burn me at the stake for saying Axiom Verge is better than Super Metroid (and it is) would have to at least stop and think about whether I’m right or not. It’s that good. It’s for real. It’s the best indie of all-time, at least in this Chick’s book.

Special Note: I am friends with Axiom Verge producer Dan Adelman, whom I previously interviewed on this blog. My friendships with game developers do not and will never influence my opinions on their games. My friends are my friends because I give them my unfiltered, often blunt opinions on their games. Ask my friend Marc. They expect nothing less from me. As for me, I would never be friends with anyone whose friendship is conditional, based on me liking their stuff. That’s not the way real friends treat each other. But my readers deserve to know who I’m friends with, so I’m letting them know.

Axiom Verge logoAxiom Verge was developed by Thomas Happ
Point of Sale: PlayStation 4, Steam

igc_approved1$17.99 (normally priced $19.99) has a father who screamed at her for including the hand job joke in the making of this review.

Axiom Verge is Chick-Approved and Ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

A review copy of Axiom Verge was provided to Indie Gamer Chick prior to the game’s release on March 31. Indie Gamer Chick has since purchased a copy. All games reviewed by Cathy are paid for by her with her own money. For more on this policy, check out the FAQ.

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It’s the Age Thing

Some people chalk up my site’s growth to what is called “The Girl Thing.”  I don’t agree with that, because I don’t really play the gender card too often.  And when I do, it’s usually self-deprecating and done for laughs.  I’ve had a couple of people tell me my site’s name is cringe-worthy, or “atrocious” as one fan described it.  Yikes.  Look, it’s really simple.  We came up with a list of names, and Indie Gamer Chick seemed like the most memorable.  That’s all.  It was almost Indie Game Stuff.  That would have sucked.  So would have Random Game Crap.  Indie Gamer Chick was catchy.  That’s why we chose it.

I’ll admit, people might be more likely to give my writing a look over because of The Girl Thing.  But landing a long-term reader requires more than that.  It takes a unique point of view, and I’m not really interested in looking at gaming from the point of view of a female.  But gaming from the point of view of someone from my generation?  Now that is something I want to communicate.  I turned 23-years-old today.  On average, that’s eight to ten years younger than my typical reader.  That doesn’t sound big, but in terms of how far games had progressed from their childhoods to mine, it’s humongous.  My average reader grew up in the era of Atari or the NES.  I grew up with PlayStation, Nintendo 64, and Sega Dreamcast.  While your teen years were spent with Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo, I spent my teens on PlayStation 2, GameCube, and Xbox.  Needless to say, I think that gives me a different perspective.

Memory is a funny thing. I honestly don’t remember my childhood looking this bland.

My older readers had it easier than me, because gaming evolved with them.  They were there as games transitioned from large sprites to complex open 3D worlds.  On the other hand, I have to look back on gaming’s history without the benefit of nostalgia.  Thankfully I did have a Game Boy Advance, and as everyone knows, 90% of the really good games on there were just ports of SNES games.  So I don’t go into shock every time I play something from gaming’s past.  In fact, I’m quite fond of several Golden Age coin-ops.  But, I do have to admit that I can be mortified by some of the games you guys consider classics.  I also can’t put myself in your shoes and try to picture a game like, say, Manic Miner, at a time when it was considered good.

People get weirdly over-protective about nostalgia.  Some people have told me that when they have kids, they won’t be allowed to play modern stuff until they learn to have an appreciation of their classic games.  Scary.  Do you know what a normal person would call that?  Brainwashing.  And the whole concept is fucking absurd as hell.  It would be like saying your kid can’t watch 30 Rock until he sits through the entire series of Mork & Mindy whether he likes it or not, but he damn well better like it.  What that attitude does is turn gaming from a pastime into a cult.  If the child catches a whiff of what modern games are like from one of his friends (assuming he has any friends left after his father is done fucking him up), he’s not going to have an appreciation for his daddy’s era of games.  He’s going to think his dad is off his fucking nut.  Every form of entertainment his father pitches to him from that point forward will carry the taint of that time daddy sat him down and forced him to play Golden Axe.

The thing about nostalgia is it’s always in the eye of the beholder.  The childhood favorites I have played as an adult, even HD ports of them, haven’t aged well.  Xbox Live Arcade has brought me re-releases of Banjo-Kazooie and Perfect Dark.  These were two of the defining games of my childhood, and yet after an hour spent with each of them today, I would rather be dead.  Games have come so far, and I can’t pretend they haven’t for the sake of feeling like a child again.  I don’t even like Modern Warfare 3, but I would rather play that today over Perfect Dark, which was probably the definitive game of my childhood.  Despite that, saying that I have no interest in playing it anymore in no way tarnishes my memories of Perfect Dark.

Portal 2 is amazing to you and I, but our children could very well prefer cutting their own fingers off to playing it. Only time will tell.

Which is not to say nostalgia is wrong.  You should feel proud of your gaming heritage, and there is nothing wrong with replaying your childhood favorites and not cringing at them like I have mine.  Perhaps your classics have aged better than mine.  What I’m saying is don’t try to convince people of my generation that those games are relevant to us.  They’re not.  Most of the games that were legendary at the time of your childhood are probably going to be torture to people my age.  Very few games are truly capable of withstanding the test of time and becoming masterpieces.  And really, shouldn’t it be that way?  There’s no 30-something trying to convince me of the greatness of Pauly Shore’s filmography, yet plenty are trying to tell me that I have it all wrong about Manic Miner.  Here’s the thing though: Pauly Shore was HUGE for a time, a tremendous box-office draw.  Nobody would dare call In The Army Now or Bio Dome timeless masterpieces.  That would be silly.

Yet, every rinky-dinky game from the 80s that wasn’t a total abomination is somehow just as good today as it was when you were a kid.  And it might be, but for you.  For me?  Not so much.  I think the original Legend of Zelda is lame.  I can’t honestly believe anyone would still want to play that over almost any triple-A game released over the last five years.  I certainly can’t believe anyone would say it’s still the best Zelda ever!  To me, guys who say that sound like fucking raving lunatics.  Then again, when I say I don’t think it’s any good, people say I’m the raving lunatic.  Which side is right?  Both.  Or neither.  I guess.

On the other hand, I think Link to the Past holds up almost flawlessly, and that’s a game that I didn’t play until it had been out for over a decade.  I think it’s fitting that the first game in the series doesn’t hold up as well.  It demonstrates progress.  Why do we have to pretend that people my age will find the original Metroid good?  Super Metroid is right there, and there is a chance they will find that good, on account of it actually holding up.  Don’t get me wrong, a game doesn’t have to be an absolutely flawless diamond to still be good today.  I played the Adventures of Lolo since starting this site, and I thought it was perfectly swell.  Is it an all-time classic?  No.  And neither was Boulder Dash, a game I tried after reviewing an XBLIG clone of it, just to see if I was missing some perspective.  I wasn’t.  Judging a game’s merits by today’s standards in no way takes away from its accomplishments at the time it came out.  Would anyone want to play Space Invaders today?  Of course not, unless you’re really desperate to be bored.  Does that take away from what it has meant to gaming history?  No way.  Would I like to play Pac-Man today?  No.  Would I like to play Pac-Man Championship Edition DX?  Fuck yea.  Does that mean Pac-Man Championship Edition is more important to the history of gaming than the original?  Of course not.  Having an appreciation of history and wanting to experience history are two very different things.  I don’t need to infect myself with the black plaque to grasp how bad things were in 14th century Europe.

I’m not a big fan of Frogger, but I really want to try Frogger: Hyper Arcade Edition. By the way, it is my birthday, Konami. Hint, hint.

It’s this perspective that makes me unique.  Gamers of past generations need people my age to tell them where gaming is now.  Just like my generation needs yours to give us a sense of where gaming has come from.  Somewhere between the two, we might get a sense of where gaming is going.  Here’s a preview: your kids are going to be even more mortified by your stuff than I was.  And their kids?  They’ll end up passing laws saying that anyone with a Pac-Man tattoo or a Donkey Kong cabinet in their garage just opted out of Social Security.  It will make you long for the days when that miserable Indie Gamer Chick was simply saying “you know, I do believe The Simpsons Arcade Game was kind of shit.”

Manic Miner 360

Let’s travel back to 1983.  It was a dark time in the world.  A time when people lived in fear of communism, nuclear annihilation, and Walter Mondale.  A time when kids had to play their Ataris in three feet of snow, and do their math homework using solar-powered calculators like savages instead of their cell phones.  A time when the most high-tech consoles had “vision” in them instead of “box” or “station.”  A time when “playing with your Wii” sounded like a shameful act, as opposed to today where.. nevermind.  Most importantly to me, it was a time where I wasn’t born yet.  Thus, I’m not particularly nostalgic for what the early 80s had to offer.

Party like it’s 1983! Let’s all freebase cocaine and watch Knight Rider!

So Manic Miner 360, an XBLIG port of a 1983 ZX Spectrum game, isn’t something that would make me get all warm and gushy.  My reader base might feel otherwise.  Oddly enough, the average reader of Indie Gamer Chick tends to be about ten years older than I am.  In a way, I’m tickled pink over that.  I mean, it’s pretty cool that so many older people are interested in what I, some snooty little shit who wasn’t weened on Space Invaders and text-based RPGs, thinks about gaming.  On the other hand, it can be a bit of a curse at times, especially when it comes to nostalgic releases like this.  When I started to complain about the flaky controls and unforgiving design, I was immediately hit with several “it was good back in the day” tweets.  Somehow, I’m guessing a response of “this isn’t back in the day!  It’s today!” won’t be a sufficient explanation for why I’m not having fun.

I guess there’s no point in debating whether people who liked this game thirty years ago will still enjoy it today.  They obviously do.  I do question whether they really enjoy it on the same level they did as kids.  You mean to tell me that all the evolution gaming has gone through in 30 years doesn’t change your perception of Manic Miner?  Look, I can’t see things your way on this.  Without the perspective of nostalgia, I kind of have to take games like this on face value.  It controls like shit.  Movement and jumping are very stiff.  The levels are frustrating.  The game centers around “gotcha” game design, where you can’t possibly know about a hidden trap until it activates.  Manic Miner isn’t really a platformer or a punisher.  It’s a trial-and-error memory test.  Each level typically has one specific path that you have to follow, and enemies have predictable patterns that you have to memorize.  Once you have that shit down, it’s just a matter of keeping it all together and fighting with the abysmal controls.  Some people liked it.  A few people told me they knew of people who could beat it without the infinite lives cheat (which is thankfully built-in and optional).  Yea, that is impressive.  So is being able to fart the Star-Spangled Banner on command, but I don’t want to take the time to learn how to do it.

Mind you, I’m told this is a truly faithful port, so if you loved the broken controls and restrictive design thirty years ago, nothing has changed here.  Same graphics, same sound effects, same clunky jumping, same dick-moves.  For some people, that’s all they want.  This is a game made for them.  Can a new audience from my generation get behind this game?  Some weirdos might, in the same way there are people my age that have Pac-Man tattoos and dress like Don Johnson.  I’m not saying everything from the 80s was terrible.  I can’t think of anything that wasn’t off the top of my head, but I’m sure there’s something from that decade didn’t suck.

After beating a level that featured things that were certainly not Pac-Man, I entered a stage that featured something that was definitely not Donkey Kong.

I know it’s aggravating for older people to have to listen to people my age say intolerant, obviously erroneous statements like “everything from the 80s sucked.”  The 80s probably didn’t suck any more or less than the 90s or whatever the fuck the last decade was called.  Did anyone ever come to a consensus on the name for the last decade?  If not, may I suggest the Goobers.  No reason why, I just think that would be funny.  My point is, nostalgia is whatever you make of it.  Like any form of entertainment, one Indie Gamer Chick’s trash is another geriatric’s treasure.  Maybe people my age need re-releases like Manic Miner to show us whippersnappers just how lucky we are.  Lucky that we didn’t grow up in an era where games had bad control inputs, shoddy design level design, load times of six minutes, install times upwards of hours and, uh, nevermind.

Manic Miner 360 was developed by Elite Systems

240 Microsoft Points should have probably been 80 Microsoft Points instead in the making of this review.

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