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It took me around two and a half hours to play through Xeodrifter from start to finish, and I felt like I was going way too slow. This game was practically built to be speedrun. All of the enemies either remain stationary and fire bullets in a specific pattern, or move around in a predictable way, making it very easy to plan a route through the game based on avoiding certain enemies and killing other ones. Likewise, your character has a very clear movement speed, jumping arc, and firing speed, the latter of which can be modified using power-ups. It actually lets you collect a certain number of power-up points to put into different gun mods, and then lets you create three different loadouts for those power-ups, so that you could switch between them quickly as needed.
There is only one boss in the game, which you’ll fight six times, and between getting his pattern perfectly locked down and retracing your footsteps several times across the cyclically-designed world, you’ll probably start plotting optimal routes through the game by the end of your first playthrough–so by the second or third, you can already be testing your times. Each of the six bosses drops a power-up which affects the way that your character moves, and each of these powers can be activated smoothly and strung together on the fly, so you basically never have to stop moving for any reason. If, like me, you end up dying in certain spots multiple times and having to cross the rather lengthy stretches without save points, you’ll probably start trying to plow through the levels as fast as possible just out of frustration.
It’s kind of only natural for this game to feel like a speedrun, since the development process itself was a speedrun of its own. Xeodrifter was born as a result of developers Renegade Kid realizing that there was no proper Metroid or Metroid clone game on the 3DS, and deciding to see if they could produce one in a single market quarter. It ended up taking them closer to five months, but the result is a stripped-down and tightly-constructed Metroid-lite, which focuses primarily on the core components of exploration and movement mechanics that make up the biggest portion of what the Metroid-like genre title describes.
The biggest hint that Xeodrifter is basically a Super Metroid speedrun made into its own game would have to be the sideways and upward dash moves, which mirror the animations of a Super Metroid shinespark to a tee. For those who don’t know, shinesparking is a technique in Super Metroid which is almost completely unneeded for completing the game normally, and only has a handful of obvious uses for collecting secret stuff, but is vitally popular for getting through certain areas in Super Metroid speedruns. Shinesparking is somewhat difficult to pull off just right without getting the hang of it, but Xeodrifter gives it the ease of a button press, as it streamlines its focus purely on the faster elements of Samus’ moveset.
Xeodrifter is a fun little diversion which I didn’t mind buying at the sale price of two and a half dollars, though I’d be hesitant to recommend it at full price if you weren’t planning to play through it multiple times and maybe try to beat the current world record speedrun. After playing through the game, though, I found myself with a sudden and severe Super Metroid itch which that game just didn’t quite scratch; that’s when I noticed that Axiom Verge was still thirty percent off, and decided fuck it, I’m not waiting for it to get any cheaper.
Speaking as someone who is a big fan of the 2D Metroid games and has played a lot of Metroid clones, I can say in full confidence that Axiom Verge is the best one I’ve played; and even that I nearly enjoyed it as much as Super Metroid itself. This game nailed a huge amount of what Super Metroid got so right, while adding its own twists on the formula, and even improving on the overall level design in a lot of subtle ways. However, interestingly enough, the one aspect which this game didn’t really copy is the movement mechanics.
The player character, Trace, moves pretty slowly compared to Samus, and he never really gets any kind of major speed boost or anything close to the shinespark. This isn’t to say that his movement mechanics don’t get expanded on, as they do in a lot of interesting ways, and the methods for getting around the levels continually open up as the game goes along; but there really isn’t the same feeling of fast and smooth control over the character that Samus has throughout the later Metroids. It’s kind of funny that Axiom Verge even has a speedrun mode, because while I do think it would be a fun game to speedrun, it’s for totally different reasons compared to Xeodrifter.
In Axiom Verge, a speedrun would be all about planning a route. This is a game which continually rewards the player for being observant about its level design, and for testing out all the tools at their disposal in every room and on every surface of the game world. For instance, a lot of its long vertical shafts have ways for you to climb up through the walls–or certain spots where, if you jump down, you’ll fall straight to the bottom–which may not be obvious at first. You’ll find these kind of routes out of natural curiosity, as the game encourages you constantly to be on the lookout for hidden areas and items, and utilizes a massive array of teaching tools which I could honestly write a book about if I wanted to.
If Xeodrifter was dedicated to capturing the satisfying way that Samus traverses her game world, then Axiom Verge is dedicated to capturing the satisfaction that comes from drinking in that world in its entirety and learning all of its secrets. I’d actually say that the game is better-paced than Super Metroid was in how it reveals its new areas, and only has you circling back through them at times when you’d want to do so anyways. By the time you reach the end of the game, with all of the powers at your disposal, then you’ll also have unlocked some methods for getting around the world quicker which makes exploration and testing a far more inviting prospect than it ever was in Super Metroid. I never found myself feeling like going back to another area would be too much of a hassle, and usually I was eager to go back and try to get into whatever hidden area I noticed just off-screen before. Also, while getting killed in this game reverts you back to a save point, you actually keep any of the items that you’ve collected, which relieves the stress of having to go back and forth through the same area trying to grab an item and then make it back to the save point without dying.
Just as Super Metroid would continually reward players who obsessively went back through and tried to do everything, Axiom Verge will pay off your more insane obsessiveness in kind. When I finished the game at around twelve hours of playtime, I’d visited 94% of the map and collected 70% of the items, even though I’d probably spent a third of my playtime just running around looking for secrets. I finished the game pretty satisfied that I’d gone out and done all kinds of awesome and memorable stuff, and that I’d gotten to be sufficiently overpowered for the final boss, and yet there were still all kinds of really out-there secrets which I’d yet to know about.
The world of Axiom Verge is satisfying to traverse not so much because of the feeling of the controls, but more because of figuring out what needs to be done. There were times when I’d be staring at a wall, thinking, “what the hell do I have to do here?,” and then getting not only the satisfaction of figuring it out, but then the additional satisfaction of pulling it off, followed by the even greater satisfaction of being rewarded for it with a new item.
The biggest thing which separates the core gameplay of Axiom Verge from that of the Metroid games is the amount of variety that it allows for in approaching it. There are a fuckload of unlockable guns, most of which are hidden, and all of which allow for different ways to approach your enemies based on what you think is cool. I played a huge amount of the game using the close-range shotgun weapon which could hit through walls, just because I liked getting in close and finishing the enemies off quickly, even if it meant taking a lot more damage. Then later I picked up some other guns I loved which made it a lot harder to decide which to stick with.
Axiom Verge wears its Metroid influence on its sleeves. It has bosses which are obviously modelled after Kraid, Ridley, and Mother Brain, and which appear at similar moments in the game; as well as overt references, such as typing the classic Justin Bailey code into your code machine and then spending the whole game dressed in a bikini like the one that Samus would be wearing at the end of the first Metroid. I’m not sure I’d say that Axiom Verge reaches the same heights of artistic design, environmental storytelling, and cohesive worldbuilding that the Metroid games do (especially Zero Mission), but it comes damn close, and it certainly captures a lot of the best atmospheric elements of those games. There are moments which reminded me just as much of Metroid Fusion or Metroid II as other moments did of Super Metroid, which made the whole game a very fitting love letter to the franchise. The tradeoff for the buttery-smooth controls of Samus are that we get some new and inventive mechanics which open up the worldbuilding in new and exciting ways, so I felt like that trade was well worthwhile.
Overall, I would highly recommend Axiom Verge as one of my all-around favorite games, and the best 2D Metroid game since 1994. Between this game and Xeodrifter, it was interesting to see how two games could so clearly borrow from and pay homage to the Metroid franchise and copy so many of its core mechanics, while ending up with a completely different appeal from one-another. It’ll always suck that Nintendo hasn’t and might never roll out another proper 2D Metroid game, but if that dearth is what’s inspired their imitators to bring so much A-game into the fold, then it may actually be a blessing in disguise.
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Renegade Kid talks about the development of Xeodrifter:
Gaming podcast let’s play thing with my brother Vic: https://www.youtube.com/user/VABHermitSociety
Axiom Verge speedrun I used footage from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ybw5Zse1jqs
More games analysis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=shPMz-zGyRU&list=PLw6UBKuaMyFBKc29Rhdt6Liy4nZUb9mOs