If you remember the days of 8-bit sidescrolling goodness with a particular fondness, you’ll love Axiom Verge . Dubbed a “Metroidvania” title for its combination of old-school elements from the classic Metroid and Castlevania franchises, this one-man feat of development proves that excellent gameplay never goes out of style. Tom Happ, an industry veteran who started Axiom Verge as a hobby in his spare time, has created a game that faithfully captures the essence of those wondrous 2D adventures. From the full-on retro visuals and awesome audio to the intoxicating blend of action, platforming, and exploration, this one is the current holder of my 2015 Retro Award.
I freely admit that from a graphical standpoint, nostalgia is the driving force behind one’s enjoyment of such a presentation. If you’re a young teen and the oldest game you can remember is on the PS2, you have no emotional attachment to these archaic graphics. If, on the other hand, you grew up in a time when such visuals were the norm, you’re destined to smile. Just don’t forget one thing: Happ doesn’t rely entirely on the ol’ heartstrings because this is still an exceedingly well-designed and well-paced game, which is critical regardless of the graphical display. Plus, the whole experience is just so spot-on; it’s like stepping back in time. It’s vintage through and through, with a few subtle yet important gameplay refinements.
The audio is especially impressive because while it captures the essence of old-school sound, it also takes a subtle yet distinctly modern step. The effects are totally retro but the soundtrack has a certain variety we didn’t have in the old days. What strikes me is just how well composed each track is, and how well it fits the style and tone of the game. There are a few exceptions (one has a bizarre vocal accompaniment that I just find off-putting) but really, the music is surprisingly special for this retro production. Combine this with some great old-fashioned graphics – a lot of the bosses are sweet – and you’ve got an instant throwback gem.
While it is called a “Metroidvania” title, the game feels a lot closer to Metroid . In fact, it reminds me very much of Metroid II: Return of Samus , my all-time favorite GameBoy title. The only difference is that it’s a little denser; the action is faster and more robust, and the challenge is stiffer. But make no mistake: The game isn’t as brutally difficult as certain 2D sidescrollers from yesteryear. It can be tough but there is some much-appreciated leniency. For example, your health is fully restored at save points, and enemies are more likely to drop health when you’re low. However, there’s still a Dark Souls vibe sometimes; i.e., how far should I press forward without returning to save…?
As for the basic gameplay, it’s appropriately straightforward: You can jump with the X button and fire with the Square button. As you progress, you gain access to a few tools – such as the drill and the nifty disruptor – which are easily used with the R1 and R2 buttons respectively. The control feels just about right; at first, I thought it was a little loose, but then I remembered how these games always controlled, and this is darn close. Besides, there’s one added implement that makes the experience that much easier and in fact, that much more strategic. You can lock the angle of your selected gun with the L1 button, which is great because aiming and movement are tied to the left analog stick. By locking your gun, you can stand still and shoot at an angle, and that’s a godsend if you wish to be careful.
As one might anticipate, you earn a variety of power-ups and weapons as you press forward through the sci-fi maze. There’s the standard blaster-type weapon, and then you unlock guns like the Nova (fire once to unleash the bullet; press Fire again to blow up the projectile) and one that discharges a powerful electrical attack. My only issue with the earlier weapons is that they lack range, which I kinda want. That aside, the diversity of the guns and the timing of their discovery is excellent. You can also find power-ups that permanently increase your health and the effectiveness of your items and ammo. You’re not a superhero and your fragility demands caution, but at least you feel prepared.
The variety of the landscape and the enemies you encounter is another big draw. It seems like each new one you encounter presents you with a completely different obstacle, and that’s no easy feat from a design perspective. You might even stumble across secret worlds, which are hidden within the map and can only be located by “glitching out” parts of a hidden wall with your disruptor gun. They give a CRT effect (yeah, remember the ol’ tube TVs?) and you might find something useful in there…perhaps the elusive Heat Seeker weapon! I haven’t found that gun yet but I keep hearing good things. At any rate, exploration is a huge part of the game, and you’ll always want to see what’s in the next room. This kept driving me forward; even when I said, “okay, I’m done for now,” I found myself pining to see what was ahead.
Obviously, that’s the mark of any good game. But what’s even more appealing to me is the wonderful balance Happ strikes: Firstly, there’s a beautifully-struck balance between old-school and modern advancements. I mentioned it before; the inherent challenge coupled with the benefit of health-restoring save points, enemies more likely to drop health when you need it, and the lock-on function, etc. Secondly, the pacing and variety is spectacular. The bosses are placed strategically throughout and these fights, along with other important areas, have red access tubes as opposed to white. To have an idea of what to expect is something I always wanted in those old games.
The game is challenging but not frustrating or annoying; the boss fights often have patterns the observant can exploit, the weapons are mostly effective and enjoyable, and the world design is great. It’s a maze, of course, but it’s a huge, involving, well-thought-out maze. Yes, there’s a story but really, it doesn’t matter much. And Happ knows it never mattered much and kinda pokes fun at his own narrative, which results in a tongue-in-cheek sci-fi plot that will elicit more smiles. And the growth of your character from a relatively helpless guy into a fully outfitted soldier is invigorating; besides, who doesn’t like spider bots that you can remotely control? These are the kinds of things that set this game apart.
Axiom Verge is a glorious throwback to the 2D days, but it doesn’t forget that we’re playing in a very different age of interactive entertainment. Those subtle refinements and features that enhance the playability are greatly appreciated. Unlocking a weapon or ability that compels you to return to earlier explored areas to find previously inaccessible power-ups is just plain addictive, and the overall balance and diversity is top-notch. Plus, this isn’t over in only a few hours; the game will last you around 10 hours and you might want to go back for more. There are a few minor flaws – for instance, some of the areas are more ho-hum and less inspired – but otherwise, this is a proper homage and an absolute blast to play.
The Good: Excellent retro-style atmosphere throughout. Top-tier, and surprisingly diverse, music. Fantastic pacing. Many different enemies offer distinctly different challenges. A diverse and rewarding arsenal. Very well-designed world. Subtle updates and refinements to a standard classic formula.
The Bad: Some of the environments are a little boring. Not thrilled with a few of the earlier weapons.
The Ugly: “There is no ‘ugly’ in such retro awesomeness.”