Most retro games are like margarine. They’re adequate substitutes, products that look roughly the same and serve a similar purpose but are radically different when you examine the chemical composition. You can usually tell when it’s not the real thing.
Axiom Verge, however, is much more than an approximation. It might as well be called I Can’t Believe it’s Not Metroid, the closest you can get without buying butter, and the experience is just as fattening and delicious.
Axiom Verge feels exactly like something that would have spent two months chilling in your Nintendo after Christmas in 1989. It has tighter controls and a more forgiving save system, but it’s otherwise a time warp to your childhood, abetted by a pulsing soundtrack and obnoxious beeping that kicks in whenever your health is getting low. From the menus to the monsters to the cut scenes, nothing about the game looks modern.
The illusion is so close to perfect that it’s easy to overlook the fact that Axiom Verge is modern and benefits from modern conventions. At the most basic level, Axiom Verge is sporting a much more robust engine than anything made for the NES. Any glitches are there on purpose, and the main character – a science bro named Trace – handles far more smoothly than any of the Belmonts.
It’s also much deeper than the original Metroidvanias. Axiom Verge makes use of the entire PS4 controller with a mindboggling array of weapons, items, and hidden areas. It would have been a technological marvel in the era that it imitates, a game free from the performance issues that often plagued early console titles. It’s essentially Castlevania on Viagra.
If you yearn for the halcyon days of Contra and Metroid, Axiom Verge is the game you didn’t know you were waiting for. It’s a hell of a lot of fun to play.
It’s also an astonishing accomplishment for solo developer Thomas Happ, who has manufactured a qualitative sensation almost entirely through mechanics. Axiom Verge wants you to remember what it is to not have all the answers. Like most Metroidvanias, the game is packed with secrets, and you’re not necessarily supposed to find them. That might sound obvious, but it’s a sharp break with the evolution of the genre. Though Drinkbox’s Guacamelee borrows the tropes, it sands the edges to make a more streamlined, less opaque experience. The detailed map shows you know where the secrets are hiding. There’s no reason to waste your time with anything other than the immediate challenges of precision gameplay.
It works well for Guacamelee, a highly entertaining action game that never sends the player rushing to Google for answers. At some point, developers realized that withholding secrets was pointless after the advent of the Internet. Guacamelee therefore has less exploration and a much stronger emphasis on performance.
That’s why Axiom Verge feels surprisingly novel. It’s not merely the kind of game that doesn’t exist anymore. To an extent, it’s the kind of game that can’t exist. The original Castlevania games were deliberately frustrating, forcing you to play the same segments dozens of times to learn the way forward. That trial-and-error was the only way to stretch two-hour games into projects that took weeks to complete.
More importantly, the relative scarcity of information contributed to an underground culture that was exciting because it made you feel like an insider. Secrets and tips were doled out in whispers, passed around on playgrounds and family rooms and the video game equivalent of speakeasies. Every code was worth its weight in clippings from Nintendo Power.
Nowadays that trade economy has tanked. We look up the answers whenever we get stuck because we lack the patience to do the same thing over and over and over again without any hints of progress.
With Axiom Verge, Thomas Happ has recognized that the secrets themselves aren’t necessarily that important. There’s an intrinsic joy to the conversation, the idea that sharing what you’ve found can be as much fun as finding it. That’s what he’s trying to recreate and – more impressively – he’s actually managed to do it.
The possibility space in Axiom Verge is virtually infinite. Every single brick – of which there are tens of thousands – hides a potential secret. It’s a neat trick that simultaneously guarantees that while no one player will find everything, every player will find something. The nearly constant feedback provides the rush that keeps you searching for the next reward.
By the time you do resort to Google, you feel like you’ve traded the secrets you’ve found for the ones you haven’t, and in its own way, that’s just as satisfying. You’re once again participating in the trade of information surrounding a game. Axiom Verge has just enough momentum to keep your feet moving until that point. There’s no need to leave to look things up as long as you’re still unlocking new secrets on your own.
All of the other retro trappings – the artwork, the soundtrack, and even the gameplay – are in service of that more qualitative ideal. Axiom Verge is not effective because it looks like Metroid. It works because it’s a great experience that builds a particular sentiment, a gameplay sensation that hasn’t been in vogue since the early 90s. The modern stuff – the extra content and features that ensure the game never crashes – is only there to hide the seams so you don’t notice the present dancing at the fringes of the past. The sci-fi plot may be generic Aliens by way of Event Horizon, but the cliché is integral to the authenticity. It’s one more sublime detail that helps construct the illusion.
Unfortunately, Axiom Verge also demonstrates just how perilous the balancing act can be. It gets almost everything right, including the level design and the first few boss fights. Though the enemies pose a challenge, you can outwit the game, using your surroundings to flank the more predictable AI. Moving forward feels like an accomplishment.
But the later boss fights are a letdown because they abandon the trial-and-error that make the core game so much fun. They’re basically bullet hell shooters where there’s no cover and no earthly way to avoid the bullets. The final showdown is a storm of pink projectiles. You have to stand and hope that the boss drops before you do, which is fine as long as you’ve collected all the upgrades. The more difficult the game gets – the more it pushes towards the frustrations of a forgotten age – the less interesting it is to play because the difficulty constrains the player’s options. There’s no way to beat the final boss with superior strategy.
It’s the one thing the game doesn’t fully grasp, making the false assumption that people are nostalgic for old games solely because they were hard. The solutions in Castlevania II were obtuse to the point of absurdity, but the game is quite simple once you know them. The appeal isn’t the frustration. The appeal is mastery. As the player, I want to know that my own ingenuity and skill will be enough to carry me through the game. That’s why the modern analogues are games like Bloodborne and Dark Souls, which are punishing but that nevertheless reward veteran play.
Axiom Verge wants to show you how difficult it can make your life, but there’s a reason the industry grew beyond that particular brand of design. Challenges are more satisfying when the player has a degree of agency in the outcome, and for the most part Axiom Verge gets that right. The final boss is dull because it doesn’t allow for creativity, even if it does have some semblance of balance.
Yet in spite its flaws (or maybe because of them), Axiom Verge is unmistakably the work of an auteur, and for that Thomas Happ deserves all the credit. Every aspect has been carefully considered, and it’s a superlative display of how to build sentiment through mechanics.
At the same time, it aptly reminds you why certain conventions get left behind. It’s cruel to frustrate the player without providing any means to alleviate that frustration. The game works because of Happ’s careful curation of what to update and what not to, but a single misstep proves to be the game’s biggest drawback.
Despite the links to the past, that’s what inextricably ties Axiom Verge to the modern era. Original NES developers were working with a limited tool set. Best practices were not yet established, while console specs sharply restricted the art and gameplay decisions that were viable. We can examine how developers used those tools, but there’s not much to be gleaned from the fact that Metroid features blocky 2D graphics. Old games looked that way because they had to.
Axiom Verge represents something different. There are far more graphical and artistic possibilities than there were the twenty years ago, so fact that Axiom Verge chooses the retro look is itself a noteworthy decision. We can ask what Thomas Happ hoped to communicate with those particular characters and assets, but we can also ask why he wanted to make such a throwback in the first place.
Every detail helps answer that question because every answer represents a directorial choice. Newer games aren’t necessarily better, and many older games accomplished more with less. But game developers are working with a broader palette than ever before, which is why Axiom Verge is the kind of game you could only make with twenty years of hindsight. Better development tools give audiences and creators more variables to consider, and games like Axiom Verge are proof that we haven’t even begun to explore the implications.