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Games for Adults: ‘Axiom Verge’ Picks Up Where Nintendo Left Off

Video games can be great and important works, but not all of them are. Games For Adults is Playboy.com’s regular column highlighting the ones that will make you think about more than hit points and head shots.


Axiom Verge is the 2D Super Metroid sequel that fans have been clamoring after for over a decade, since 2002’s Metroid Fusion, the last old school style game in the classic Nintendo series. That is, except for one thing: it’s not actually a Metroid game, and it wasn’t even made by Nintendo.

The Metroid games belong to a video game sub-genre called the “Metroidvania,” named after Metroid and Castlevania, another classic series. These games involve labyrinthine environments that players explore more and more extensively as they unlock new powers for their characters. But although there’s been a deluge of these two-dimensional, side-scrolling, retro action games released over the past few years, none have mirrored Nintendo’s classic franchise as confidently and directly as Axiom Verge. And that’s a lot more important than you’d think.

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The actual, official Metroid series has gone in some weird directions over the past decade, including a 3D, first-person version called Metroid Prime (beloved by fans, but very different from the originals), and a universally-hated spin-off called Metroid: Other M whose development was outsourced from Nintendo to another Japanese studio. The lack of a new traditional Metroid game is a severe void that Nintendo has refused to acknowledge all these years—and that one man, and one man alone has been able to fill.

That fan, Tom Happ, took the initiative with Axiom Verge, and it only took him five lonely, tumultuous years.

DEDICATION

“There wasn’t ever a time I wanted to quit,” Happ writes. “I think the key to my motivation was breaking things up into discrete goals, each of which was entertaining and enjoyable in its own right. And if something became tedious—collision programming, for example—I’d break off and do something else for a while. It’s like constantly tricking your mind into thinking about the present task at hand and not the grandiose scope of what’s to come.”

That scope turned out to be very grandiose indeed, but Happ didn’t set out to make the Metroid sequel that Nintendo won’t. It just evolved that way, he said. Over the years it shaped up to have Metroid’s fingerprints all over it, an amalgamation of some of the best Metroid-style games, with a well-written story to boot. But it’s no mere modern copycat.

The game starts with the death of the protagonist, a young scientist, who then wakes up in a strange alien world. From there you’re tasked with exploring this prodigious world and uncovering its many hidden secrets. One of the game’s highlights is the glitch gun, a novel feature that was inspired by old tools like the Game Genie and Gameshark—sketchy gadgets that let ‘90s gamers do things in their games that game developers never intended. The glitch gun has all sorts of strange effects on the game, like a glitchy weapon in an old Nintendo games.

Castlevania, and that series’ creator, Koji Igarashi, were also a source of inspiration for Happ, particularly in the arsenal of weapons it provides players. “I always felt that [Castlevania:] Symphony of the Night had a lot more variety in this regard than Super Metroid, which could become tedious when all that was left to find was missile expansions. You can also see Contra in the controls, Star Control in some of the weapons, Rygar and Blaster Master in some of the level aesthetics, Bionic Commando in the grapple mechanic, etc.”

Those, for the uninitiated, are a whole bunch of retro games.

CREATIVE FREEDOM

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Happ worked on a plethora of bigger-budget games at a company called Petroglyph before becoming fully independent. Happ felt that these large projects, which involved hundreds of people, just didn’t feel satisfying creatively for him. Every person only works on a sliver of the overall game, and that impact feels minimum for each individual. Being in charge of his own vision was an enticing prospect for him.

But development on Axiom Verge was only a side project for the first three or four years, he said. Happ would come home from Petroglyph and work on his own game ideas instead of relaxing. Eventually, Axiom Verge was the one idea that stuck.

“I just started with a list of tasks I wanted to get done and didn’t worry about meeting a deadline,” Happ told me.

It was two or three years into development when Happ realized he had something special in his hands, when he showed the game off for the first time via a YouTube video and started getting positive feedback. Gamers were hungry for a game like this, and it showed. His timing was perfect—it’s been so long since Nintendo’s even mentioned a new traditional Metroid game—but Happ was still slightly shocked by the immense positivity for the game.

“I guess I had just assumed it would disappear into the forgotten reaches of the internet,” he said. “I justified it to my family by saying I hoped the sales would help pay the phone bill. Now that it’s released, obviously, it’s exceeded my wildest dreams. But it’s a whole new world now. I’m still getting used to it.”

Happ is currently busy with making new versions of Axiom Verge for Sony’s handheld console, the PlayStation Vita, and, after that, potentially other platforms as well. It’s currently available on PlayStation 4 and PC.


Alex Gilyadov is a freelance writer with an eclectic taste in film, music, and games. He believes Breaking Bad is the greatest show mankind has concocted, and that The Sopranos is actually a bit overrated.


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