What does it take for a game to be so iconic that the very core mechanics that it builds itself upon actually become a genre? The answer? Its own influence.
Metroid’s influence on Axiom Verge is so strong that on the surface, you could almost see it as a shameless ripoff of the franchise. The same, however, could once be said about Metroid itself. After all, it probably wouldn’t be the series that it’s so well renowned for today if it didn’t have the blueprints of Ridley Scott’s Alien written within its code. The point being, regardless of how strong the influence is, the final product can still be exceptional. But, can the same be said about Axiom Verge?
The most impressive thing about Axiom Verge is that the whole thing has been created from the ground up by a single person. Thomas Happ designed the art, the music, and all that’s in between pretty much by himself. Starting as a side project, Axiom Verge soon manifested into a game that would fill the gap that Samus Aran left open for so many years. Of course, Metroid: Samus Returns has recently graced the Nintendo 3DS, but it’s been 13 years since we had an official full side-scrolling adaptation, and even then the Nintendo Switch may never even see one quite as traditional. However, Thomas Happ’s effort does happen to fill that absence nicely.
First released in 2015, Axiom Verge tells the story of a scientist known as Trace who gets caught up in an explosion inside his lab. He wakes up with the belief that he has died, yet finds himself confined within a strange alien habitat. The broken English of a female voice calls out to him for help, which becomes the carrot that Trace needs to seek out the answers for his circumstance.
This leads into a whole world of exploration as Trace finds the right tools to press forward. You start empty handed but soon come across a weapon known as the Axiom Disrupter. Eventually, you become armed to the teeth with a wheel full of gun upgrades and a bag full of special abilities. One interesting ability, in particular, allows you to glitch certain enemies into an 8-bit mess which modifies their behaviour that can either benefit or hinder you depending on its race. For example, glitching one enemy may manipulate it to create a new platform for you to seek a reward, whilst corrupting another may aggressively strengthen its attack pattern.
Experimenting with your newfound weapons and abilities to open up new areas help enhance the sense of discovery within a world that just begs to be explored. Each section looks gorgeous and completely unique, bursting with colours and music that fit each of the otherworldly environments perfectly. The memorable backdrops are especially important as they help to remember any blocked waypoints that you may stumble across before an upgrade. This becomes almost a necessity due to how basic the map is in your inventory.
The map design itself can potentially split opinions between players due to the lack of information that it provides. In Super Metroid for example, you can upgrade your map information to give you an idea of areas that you haven’t explored yet, as well as a few notable points of interest to help you move forward. In Axiom Verge, however, you build the map as you progress with the only thing that is highlighted being your save rooms and two markers that you can set. The only real notable way that you can see if you have filled the map is the thick border that rides the perimeter of each section. To some, this may lead to a lot of cumbersome running around and backtracking, whilst others will undoubtedly appreciate it’s lack of guidance.
The controls in Axiom Verge are tight, responsive and very well thought out with the added option to fully customise your input layout. The gunplay works a bit like Contra III: The Alien Wars with the way your left shoulder button anchors Trace in one spot. This allows you to shoot at all angles without slippage. Your right stick works as your weapon wheel so you can easily access your desired trajectory of choice and your more unique abilities are executed with various buttons and inputs.
The pixel art style leans more towards the NES era than it does the SNES, which makes the glitch mechanics look even more effective. However, the visuals do take advantage of modern technology, which is especially evident when it comes to the bosses – which are usually mammoth-sized and full of detail. Some will even force the screen to pan out as you figure out the right approach to take it down. The soundtrack that accompanies them is truly epic, as it is with the rest of the game. It may echo the whistles of Metroid Prime a bit too close for comfort at times, but it does so in a way that matches the atmosphere perfectly.
It’s undeniably evident that the whole checklist of the Metroid formula was ticked off during the development of this game. And yet, somehow, Axiom Verge does manage to put a nice little spin on things to give it its own identity. There’s even a clever way the morph ball elements are implemented in the form of a remote-controlled bedbug, again somehow still making it a familiar yet interesting experience. There’s also a speed run option that is well thought out, removing any random enemy patterns to level out the playing field for the eccentric completionist. (The original Metroid remains a popular game amongst speedrunners).
The similarities are its biggest criticism as to how closely it rubs shoulders with Nintendo’s bounty hunter, but it does seem to be the motive in mind. After all, Nintendo has been reluctant for so long in revisiting its 2D roots that anything after Super Metroid – Prime trilogy aside – never quite captured the lightning that the 1992 title bottled so tightly.
If you have never played a Metroid game before then Axiom Verge is a great way to get your feet wet and see what the fuss is about. Even if you are a veteran of the series it will most certainly satisfy that nostalgic crave that is so fondly remembered. As a game that stands on its own, it’s an incredible effort by a one-man army that had me glued to the screen for hours on end. Everything works so effortlessly in sync, and is topped with a layer of polish that can only ever be found with tons of loving hard work, care and attention. With plenty of hours of gameplay, neat ideas and lots to explore Axiom Verge is a must-have title for your Nintendo Switch.