Axiom Verge and Titan Souls: Nostalgia-Driven Game Design
For a while now, its been the growing rage in indie games for designers to hang their hat on appealing to nostalgia of vintage ideas and sensibilities. It’s been a part of the scene ever since it began gaining momentum with the first Summer of Arcade and the early independent successes on Steam. Early on, there were games like Castle Crashers, which was a throwback to 16-bit era beat’em ups, and VVVVVV, which was a throwback to Commodore 64 adventure games. But it’s feeling to me like more and more indie designers are leaning far harder into duplicating their childhood favorites. While games like Castle Crashers and VVVVVV felt like they were building upon their retro influences, a lot of games now feel like they just want to be carbon copies of those classics.
The first game that struck me as being overbearingly old-school was Shovel Knight. Every time I read an interview from those developers, the designers were quick to stress the influences they had based their work upon. To me that was a huge turn-off. I would hope that passionate creators would be more interested in bringing new ideas to life rather than trying to desperately recapture experiences we’ve all already had.
The thing that terrifies me most about getting older is that I fear not being able to appreciate new experiences in life. It’s the attitude of an old man: “Everything was better in my day.” I’ve reached an age where I’ve started becoming acutely aware of this attitude pervading my peer group. In gaming, I see so many people my age outright dismiss games like Minecraft and Hearthstone that are popular with today’s youth purely out of the belief that their life experiences have been exceptional, and there’s no way that these new games could ever stack up to the old masterworks. While they produce insipid reasons to justify this claim, I find it transparent that the root of their attitude is often that old games are better simply because they’re older. That’s not to dismiss arguments that there are some virtues in game design that have unfortunately been lost over the years, but I don’t ascribe to that statement purely out of a self-centered belief that only my experiences growing up are valid. And, to clarify, I don’t think an appreciation for retro gaming is wrong, I still try to play a lot of the classics that I missed. But appreciation of the old shouldn’t interfere with appreciation of the new, or vice-versa.
And that’s why the lead up to Shovel Knight irritated me. The entire proposition that was being laid out for that game was that it was good because it was trying to be exactly like those old games for which we have fond memories. That it harkened back to a “better” time. I’m not a huge expert on cinema or really music, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard a movie promoted on the basis that its exactly like a classic movie such as The Godfather or The Shining (unless if its an obvious cash-grab remake). In music, you have cover bands, but I think those are generally relegated to a lower status than those musicians putting out original music. Since the advent of Kickstarter and crowdfunding, though, I feel like game designers that are playing off nostalgia are finding themselves placed on pedestals by both traditional game coverage sites and many gaming communities.
But here’s the thing, after playing Shovel Knight, I wasn’t actually all that bothered by it. I wrote a fairly positive post about it some time ago: link. While Shovel Knight is heavily inspired by Mega Man with its themed boss-centric stage design, it manages to advance a lot of its own ideas to create something that has a clear inspiration, but also feels very distinctive. I’m left wondering why people with such clear design talent would be so reductionist in describing their own game. Perhaps thats just the influence that crowdfunding is having on games today. The gamers with the most disposable income to divert into crowdfunding are also the gamers that have reached an age where nostalgia is starting to kick in hard. For Shovel Knight to pass it’s Kickstarter goals, maybe its promotion had to heavily push the NES influences. Or maybe its simply just the developers’ own worship of the classics clouding their own appreciation of what they’ve accomplished.
Enter Axiom Verge, currently only available for PS4, a new game in the long line of recent indie releases that flies the “Metroidvania” banner. Except in this case, it doesn’t just use the Metroid-style configuration of an open 2D world, it also sets off to replicate the same aesthetic design and 2D sidescrolling shooter gameplay found in its NES template. Axiom Verge with its sprawling alien caverns composed of recurrent 8-bit tiles, its blaster wielding scifi hero, and its creepy-crawly enemies leans much farther into Metroid than Shovel Knight ever did into Mega Man. I’ll be upfront and say that I actually like this game. I’ve heard so many people say “It’s not like Metroid, it is Metroid,” and I reluctantly find myself agreeing with them. It grates on me to feel that way, because I’m left questioning whether it’s good to celebrate a game for being so derivative.
I mean, I like Axiom Verge quite a bit. It copies the Metroid formula extraordinarily well. The designer really understands what made the widely-celebrated series work. And it’s not like Nintendo is doing anything with Metroid these days. In the early ‘00s, there was an amazing resurgence of Metroid with Metroid Prime on the Gamecube and Metroid Fusion/Zero Mission on the GBA. But it seems like after Other M, Nintendo is content to let us forget about the series. We can’t even get Zero Mission on Wii U VC here in North America.
And although Axiom Verge doesn’t break the Metroid mold like Shovel Knight did with Mega Man, it does bring a few unique ideas to the table. The items/powerups and weapons you collect in Axiom Verge are almost entirely unique. Your not going to be launching into screw attacks or doing hyper jumps in this game, rather Axiom Verge employs several clever means of mobility and environment manipulation that have never been seen in a Metroid game. And while it features a scifi storyline set on a desolate planet devoid of civilization, I find the story and setting to be far more bizarre, alien, and abstract than the “destroy the alien menace” plots found in most Metroid games. I was a bit surprised by how the plot develops, it turned out to be a bit more interesting than I originally expected. Otherwise, I also think the level design is suitably well thought out. So I’m conflicted about Axiom Verge. I can’t deny its a good game, but at the same time I’m bothered by how derivative it actually is.
Unfortunately, I can’t be as positive toward Titan Souls. If Axiom Verge is resurrecting memories of Metroid, then Titan Souls is giving it a try at Shadow of the Colossus. Superficially, I initially thought it was meant to be like Zelda, but actually it is more like SotC viewed through a Zelda filter. The entire game is based around fighting bosses, but the bosses are more similar to Zelda bosses. They are more these somewhat big monsters that chase you around a room, instead of massive beasts that you climb upon to reach a weak point. You travel a mostly quiet and empty fantasy overworld to find the boss rooms where the actual challenges are held. Like SotC there are no enemies or really puzzles to solve in the overworld, its just a place that you must travel through. I enjoyed journeying through the world of SotC, because it had an atmosphere of mystery and wonder….a sense of profound history to the land that helped make Wander’s quest feel epic in nature. I’m afraid I can’t say the same for Titan Souls. From what I’ve seen it’s just sort of a pixellated wilderness meant to break up the boss rooms. So far I haven’t encountered anything that feels wondrous or special.
The lack of atmosphere is far from Titan Souls greatest problem. The developer’s big idea for making this game more than just a top-down SotC is that both the player and the bosses go down in one hit. There are no health bars. If a player takes damage, they immediately die and are returned to a checkpoint on the overworld. The bosses also go down in one hit, but only if damage is done to their weak point. Usually, there are only brief moments when the weak point becomes exposed, or sometimes damage has to be done to other parts of the boss before their weak point is revealed. To accomplish this, the character only has a bow and a single arrow. If they miss, they have to retrieve the arrow or they can hold down a button that telekinetically draws the arrow toward them. While drawing in the arrow, the player is held stationary, making them vulnerable to the boss’ attacks, so sometimes it’s not the best way to get the arrow back.
Herein lies the problem with Titan Souls. It’s very abrupt. In a game like Super Meat Boy, when Meat Boy dies, he is immediately reconstituted at the start of the level. This makes the high difficulty easier to adapt to, as the player has less of a wait time with which to become frustrated. In Titan Souls, death precipitates a brief but still noticeable black loading screen, and the player is revived at a checkpoint in the overworld. They must then run back to the boss room to try again. It’s generally not a long way to get back, maybe 10-15 seconds, but it gives the game an unpleasant stop-go rhythm. Consequently, the overall pacing is just very poor. And since these are Zelda-style bosses, they operate in a pattern that takes some time to understand, and dying on one hit makes trying to figure out this pattern more tedious.
I’m probably not going to finish Titan Souls, I’m afraid. Its been a few days since I’ve even really wanted to pick it up again. It fails both because it doesn’t capture what made its inspiration successful and because the ideas that it uses to set itself apart are more gimmicky than innovative design. Axiom Verge, on the other hand, really nails the Metroid ideal and introduces a few new tricks that are actually cool. Axiom Verge is more of an exception to a rule, though. Most games that try this closely to mimic a clear inspiration end up not quite getting the formula right, and consequently feel like cheap knock-offs. It’s kind of surprising to see one be so successful.
While I’m still not completely comfortable with the trend, I’m less pessimistic about these nostalgia trips now than way back when Shovel Knight came out. Over the last year, while “AAA” games have been on fire with various deleterious issues, indie games have sustained as a real creative force. And there’s so many of them coming out right now across the entire spectrum of gaming genres and production values, that these blasts from the pasts really aren’t something to worry about stunting the further creative growth of indie gaming as a whole, and now after playing Axiom Verge, I feel that sometimes they may just hit the nail on the head.