Axiom Verge wears its inspiration proudly. It's Metroid in a new skin, and it doesn't take a video-game scholar to see echoes of Planet Zebes in the alien environments. This is a science-fiction adventure in which exploration is at the heart of your enjoyment, and the bevy of rewards waiting to be discovered pull you onward. For those who have been pining for Nintendo to return Metroid to its 2D roots, you may have to wait a while for that dream to come true, but you can take solace in Axiom Verge. And yet, there's more behind the creation of this ambitious homage than sticking Samus on the PlayStation.
Tom Happ, the sole creator of Axiom Verge, has drawn inspiration from many far-reaching places. Not only did he dissect classic games to unearth their timeless appeal, but delved into literature as well, transporting themes of evolving identity to the digital realm. In our interview with Happ, we learned that even games with an obvious pedigree have much more going on beneath the surface than we first envisioned. We discovered the many pieces that have combined to make Axiom Verge so darn intriguing in this edition of Game Dev Recipes, and how these different parts will shape the finished adventure.
“Originally, my intent was to combine a lot of my favorite classic games, and Metroid being my favorite among them, that's why it's so much more dominant over the others,” Happ says.
Where were you in March 2010? That's not easy to remember off the top of your head. But Tom Happ would have a quick answer: He was beginning development on Axiom Verge. As the one person working on this game, he decides every feature, and there was no doubt that it would always follow in the heals of the incomparable Samus Aran. Much of the basic construction comes from how the original Metroid was designed.
“I discovered this works best with the NES Metroid level design because, the way the individual tiles are set up in 16x16 increments, it telegraphs that every part of this world is something you can interact with,” Happ explained. By singling out individual bricks and creatures like Metroid did almost 30 years ago, he was able to subtly indicate what's important and what's background decoration without having to overtly explain such things.
“Super Metroid influenced the overall map structure,” Happ says.
One could write a dissertation on Super Metroid's level design. There's an elegance to behold that makes the world seem simultaneously organic and manufactured, alien yet comforting.
The interconnected passageways tempt you to venture down every wayward path as you breathe in the mysterious air. While Metroid laid the groundwork for this construction, it was Super Metroid that perfected it, and it's that extraordinary sequel that Axiom Verge draws so much inspiration from.
“The larger map structure of Super Metroid, and the way things interrelate, having to get one item to bypass a certain area,” Happ says, “I really did study that closely.” And the result of his examination is a world in which you're continually pushed to see everything. “Exploration is the main focus.” He points out: “If there's a barrier, you want to surmount it in some way to see what's on the other side.”
“In terms of controls and responsiveness I would say it's a little more like Contra.” Happ says.
It's hard to understand how a game feels just from watching footage. Although Axiom Verge looks like Metroid, it plays like Contra, which is a beautiful contrast in mechanics. “One thing that seems to be true of both Fusion and Metroid is there's a little bit of lag to your movement and that's intentional, they're trying to have the character accelerate when she moves," he notes. In contrast, “there's no acceleration in Axiom Verge; When you move, you're immediately moving at top speed.”
Movement isn't the only element that should remind you of Contra. “Little things like the cool downs between shots are a lot quicker in Axiom Verge,” Happ says, which makes sense given the immediacy of your actions. And that's not all. “The bosses are more inspired by Contra than Metroid. It always felt like a downer to me in the Metroid Prime games where the boss is attacking you and you spend the first 10 minutes of the battle running around trying to figure out what things actually work.”
The bosses are not puzzles in Axiom Verge; they're fierce opponents. Find their weakpoint and fire until either they're dead, or you are.
“There's also a lot of influence from the science fiction I read,” Happ says.
Alastair Reynolds is a British science-fiction author who dabbles in transhumanist themes. Happ is intrigued by the questions of what makes us human. “There's one novel of his where one character clones himself and there's just hundreds of clones and over thousands of years they all develop their own personality.” Happ says. “It's just kind of saying you aren't necessarily yourselves, or your molecules, you're also your experiences and as you go on in life, you're becoming a different person through your different experiences.”
“There's a lot of that that goes into the storyline.”
Bionic Commando, Blaster Master, Rygar
“I originally conceived that his main weapon was going to be a combination of the Bionic Commando grapple, the Rygar disc armor yo-yo, and it would also be able to detract to become a vehicle kind of like Blaster Master,” Happ says.
Sadly, that multipurpose weapon won't find its way into Axiom Verge. Instead, there are now three separate items that serve as callbacks to those classics. Although Happ wouldn't go into too much detail on what we should expect, it's not hard to envision a grappling hook making its way into Axiom Verge, or a weapon that echoes back to that iconic Rygar disc. What requires a little more imagination is how Blaster Master's agile vehicle would function in such a world. For now, we can only dream about exploring alien ruins on board a vehicle, and how that could change basic navigation.
“Some of the weapons in Axiom Verge are basically Star Control weapons,” Happ explains.
“I looked at shmups and some games I felt handled that really well were Star Control,” he says. “The style of each weapon is meant to be really different from each other. I wasn't going for Diablo, where a weapon can be completely identical to another except one is fire and the other is ice. I actually wanted them to behave differently.”
“Each weapon is actually a completely different mechanic for you to learn,” Happ says. One weapon that sounds particularly empowering gives you the ability to glitch creatures and the environment.
Depending on what you're interacting with, the object glitches in a different ways, which sounds like a fascinating way to push you to experiment. Maybe you'll be able to go through a solid wall or enlarge an enemy so it fills the screen. Who knows? But it certainly sounds like a clever twist on the basic Metroid formula.
Are your expectations now sky high? Well, Happ is prepared for people hyperventilating with anticipation only to find out Axiom Verge doesn't meet their wild exceptions. “I've gotten a lot of hype, and when that happens, people are inevitably disappointed,” Happ says. “I think there's probably going to be some of that, and there's going to be people like 'Oh my god, this is the second coming, it's the greatest thing ever.'”
Is that just a talented creator being modest? We'll have to wait a little while more to find out. Here's Happ's idea of what Axiom Verge should be. “It's meant to be the way that games of 20 years ago are in your memories, as opposed to the actuality of what they're like,” Happ said. “For those who are younger, I try to give them that same feeling without having this unavoidable sense of 'I'm playing this old grandpa game.'” We'll see how this assortment of influences melds together next year, when Axiom Verge hits the PlayStation 4, Vita, and (eventually) PC.
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