Somewhere along the way, Metroidvania-style exploratory platformer games became the single most popular genre of creation among indie developers.
The connection makes perfect sense; the people who have branched out to create their own passion projects want to make the games they enjoy, similar to the ones they grew up with, in an underserved corner of the industry. And mastering the intricate construction and interlocking design that go into a really solid Metroidvania title represents a creative puzzle that appeals to the sort of nerd who likes to think about how game design works.
The recent indie boom has brought us some truly excellent examples of the format, with many other brilliant-looking titles yet to come. And yet, as much as I look forward to games like Axiom Verge, Castle in the Darkness, and Chasm, these games look backward — back to bygone eras of gaming. That, too, is all well and good, because chunky pixel graphics represent an art that shouldn't be lost in an era of nearly photorealistic 3D visualization through VR headsets. Still, a certain something has been lost amidst the indie Metroidvania explosion, and it wasn't until I checked out a demo of Moon Studios' Ori and the Blind Forest that I realized what we've been missing.
Namely, we've been missing the breathtaking sense of seeing great game design at the bleeding edge of video game art. Watching Samus Aran's armored body shift through subtle, complex animations as she breathed heavily while exploring the subterranean labyrinth of Zebes. Marveling as Alucard dashed elegantly backward to evade the mighty jointed Armor Brothers, leaving behind him a fading afterimage of his dhampiric form. The tentpoles of the Metroidvania style weren't just exquisitely designed; they sat at the leading edge of graphic design in games, too.
But then 2D game art went away as a going concern of game publishers — in fact, it was going away by the time Castlevania: Symphony of the Night came out, which is why Konami treated it as a side distraction to the real future of Castlevania, the N64 game. (Please enjoy a moment to chuckle with the benefit of hindsight.) Polygons eventually evolved beyond behind primitive boxes to render hyper-detailed characters and settings, with complex riggings and shaders making possible a sort of expressive range that's prohibitively expensive with hand-drawn animation.
2D animation in games became a sort of lost art for a while. Even Nintendo, inventors of the form, struggled to get back into the game after taking a break from 2D design for a decade; the New Super Mario Bros. series got off to a rough start and didn't really come into its own until the Wii sequel. Still, the overwhelming success of Mario's return to side-scrolling helped spark a renewed interest in 2D game art whose outcome could be seen in full effect at this year's E3. Nintendo's booth featured Kirby and Yoshi games whose visuals emulated tactile materials (claymation and yarn, respectively), while Sony and Microsoft offered classic-style indie games as far as the eye could see.
However, while Sony's booth definitely won on quantity, only Microsoft had Ori and the Blind Forest, quite possibly the prettiest 2D game ever made. Pretty is as pretty does, of course, but Ori stands apart: It plays as good as it looks.
You may have seen Ori in the middle of last week's Xbox press conference. It was the game that seemed unlike all the others. Amidst screaming and explosions and violence and snark, Ori possessed a wordless, ethereal beauty that set it apart from Microsoft's other offerings. For those of us at the Galen Center, it was the calm eye of a noisy storm, and it actually justified the ridiculous light-up wristbands Microsoft made everyone wear into the auditorium. When Ori's mother died in the game trailer, and fireflies lit up the forest, everyone's wristbands began to glow similarly. It was a moment of quiet emotion surrounded by a wall of noise on either side, and it left a lasting impression.
Ori proved to be exceptional well beyond its memorable moment at the press conference, though. A gorgeous game is all well and good, but too many games hide dull mediocrity beneath a façade of beauty. Ori, however, embodies its creator's firm conviction that great looks shouldn't get in the way of excellent mechanics and responsive controls.
Director Thomas Mahler used to work with Blizzard's cinematic department, so he knows a few things about great animation. That much is clear in Ori's trailer; when the eponymous protagonist is tossed lovingly into the air by its mother, the motion of the catch demonstrates the subtle sense of kinectic mass that the best Disney cell animation possessed back in the day — something even that legendary animation studio has lost with the move to computer-rendered cartoons.
Great animation is hardly new to video games. Shiny made a splash in the 16-bit era by rather faithfully adapting Disney arts cells into sprites, and by one-upping their own licensed projects with the gloriously drawn Earthworm Jim. More recently, Ubisoft has invested considerable resources into its UbiArt framework for Rayman Legends and Child of Light. But Ori succeeds where games like Rayman have stumbled: Its lush, fluid animation never gets in the way of the action. It feels crisp — uncompromised.
Mahler stresses the importance of spot-on controls. Platformers, he feels, shouldn't be mushy or unresponsive; characters shouldn't have to complete an animation cycle before they'll do what players tell them to. Even a few milliseconds of input lag can make or break an action game, as anyone who's ever tried to play Punch-Out!! or Parappa the Rapper on an HD television can attest. The fruits of Moon Games' labor are obvious the first time you pick up the controller to play Ori: It looks like a golden-age Disney cartoon, plays like Super Metroid, and controls like a '90s Capcom fighter. It's the best of several worlds rolled into one.
And unlike many indie Metroid-alikes, Ori doesn't feel particularly slavish to its inspirations. Rather than acquire a double-jump (for example), the demo gives you wall scramble that allows you to reach higher areas within limits. The character Ori wields a small energy weapon that can strike enemies within close range, though Mahler deliberately gave this skill an auto-aim mechanic so that players don't have to fuss about with lining up their shots. This doesn't make the game easier, though; on the contrary, it simply frees players to focus on evasion and defense, because the creatures in Ori's world move quickly and hit hard.
To help mitigate the challenge level of the adventure, Ori includes a limited at-will save mechanic. Players can generate a quick-save point anywhere they like at any time — but it runs off a meter that slowly recharges over time, so this ability can't be spammed like emulator save states. Instead, it's somewhat akin to the save crystals of the original Tomb Raider, best saved for moments shortly before obvious challenges (or anywhere else your gaming instincts recommend prudence).
The specific mechanics of save points can be tweaked by unlocking advanced skills along a corresponding skill tree path; Ori also incorporates a handful of Elder Scrolls-like trees of abilities that players can choose from in order to customize their play through at their leisure. Cautious (or clumsy) players can crank up the capabilities of the manual save point system, while more confident platform fans can forego manual saves altogether and double down on other factors like attack power or defense.
All in all, the various elements that make up Ori give it a feeling that reminds of long-ago days of playing classic exploratory platformers and soaking up the details while wondering where to go next. If the final game plays as well as the demo suggests, Xbox One has a masterpiece on the way. We may never see a proper sequel to Shadow Complex (or to Metroid, for that matter), but Xbox and Metroidvania fans alike can look forward to what looks to be something truly special in Ori.