Game Sense : Metroid and Stimulating Exploration

Just recently at E3, Nintendo announced a remake of the Gameboy’s Metroid 2 for the 3DS. Alongside the fact that Metroid Prime 4 was also briefly teased, it can probably go without saying that Metroid fans are the happiest they have been in years.

As its been a long while since we’ve gotten a proper 2D Metroid, several “inspired” games have come out in recent years that have tried to carry on that “Metroidvania” mantle. Two fairly recent examples I can think of that I’ve played are Xeodrifter and Axiom Verge. Now, I believe its incredibly important to judge games based on their own unique merits and not grade them too harshly based strictly on inspirational comparison. That being said, the two games I just mentioned failed considerably in captivating me from a gameplay perspective. In my personal opinion they’re not that bad, but they aren’t particularly great either… strong words, especially when you consider the praise a game like Axiom Verge got.

If you’ll bear with me, I’ll substantiate why I feel this way. I want to hold a game like Axiom Verge up to my favorite Metroid game, not to do a 1:1 comparison, but to show where I think the two take slightly different directions in a core aspect of the series: exploration. As for my favorite Metroid game, that would be the SNES classic Super Metroid.

Exploration: The Art of “Getting Lost”

I hear the term “getting lost” thrown around quite a bit when talking about Metroidvanias. Though there is some value to such a statement, sometimes I think there is a difference between what a player thinks the statement means and what a player actually wants when “getting lost.”

Let’s say that in real life you get lost in a forest, either by design or accident. Either way, the average person has their whole array of senses to not only help them find their way, but to enjoy their surroundings: a crisp breeze that picks up, the aroma of nearby foliage and the shifting lights and colors of a progressing day. The opportunity to fully engage with the situation is ever prevalent, and the real world provides us with a massive swathe of information and stimuli by which to soak in our surroundings or even find our way back to civilization.

Video games have the ability to transport us to new fantastical worlds, but our ability to engage in said worlds is far more limited. Generally speaking, we as players have been limited to mostly audio and visual cues to navigate and understand video game worlds. Not only does the player contend with a lack of raw information, but also the fact that they can’t translate what information is available the way they normally would in real life. The player may see a wall or a door in their game, but they can only understand it in what few avenues the game provides. I’m sure that many of us have had that awkward dilemma where we see something as simple as an in-game door but cannot for the life of us figure out how it opens.

In short, games often have to over-compensate: visual and audio elements are amplified in the absence of other senses, used as a means to highlight significance and bring more clarity to gameplay elements. We “touch” walls, for instance, by hearing the noise our bullets make when they hit it. Its a trade-off between navigating the real world versus the imaginary, but its one we often accept in exchange for traveling to somewhere like a barbaric planet and having a cannon for an arm. When done right, the lack of other senses (touch, smell, taste, etc.) only detract mildly from the overall experience.

Using Bread Crumbs

The following is a screenshot I took from Axiom Verge, a game I think takes “getting lost” to its more extreme extent. If you’ve already played the game, try to “suspend” your knowledge of the game and look at it objectively. Study it closely for about fifteen seconds:

Other than the obvious UI elements, what catches your eye about this scene? The little grey spider thing on the floor perhaps? The red buggy-eyed thing only partially in view above? Or maybe just the drab atmosphere created by all the reds and browns?

Or how about that generic-looking wall just to the right of the player character?

Believe it or not, this wall is actually important to your progress. There is a powerup in the game that allows you to “phase” through walls that are one tile thick. In theory and even in practice, this is a pretty nifty upgrade to give the player. And to progress farther in the game, you have to come back to this wall and phase through it.

But its a wall. Its one generic-looking wall out of hundreds in the game. And for me, ingraining the significance of something so ordinary into my head was very tough. Again, remember the limited number of stimuli games have to work with. This wall makes no special noises, has no special texture… its a wall. As I’m trying to process everything else going on around me and figure out all the tools in my arsenal, generic wall #213 doesn’t stick out very much. Goodness, even now I feel like an idiot for even ranting about some stupid one-tile wall, but the “figure it out” aspect of the game drove me mad at times.

Now let’s take a picture from Super Metroid that I found. What sticks out in this one?

Image from Metroid Wikia : http://metroid.wikia.com/wiki/File:Super_metroid_spike_floor.jpg

There appears to be some sort of passage behind you, but if you’ve made it this far in the game you would know that a gray door is a locked door. Obviously, spikes on the floor are bad. Where to go then? Much like the door’s contrast in color, we can see something on the ceiling that looks important: those blocks with plus-shaped holes are grappling hook points, which you can use to swing over the spikes. How we move through this room is apparent.

This is a simple example, but even to someone who has never looked at a Metroid game before, I would argue the game does a great job of drawing attention to important details. There are also several points in the game where you can see these “plus blocks” even before you get the grappling hook. You could see these blocks before you even knew what they were for, but they still stuck out. This is one of the keys to Super Metroid: many times when you got a powerup, you had these “Aha!” moments when you remembered a distinct place you had visited before but couldn’t get past.

Does it detract from the exploration aspect of the game? I would say hardly; in fact, I think it enhances it. You know something is beyond that grapple hook block. You know something is behind that oddly colored door. They are obvious obstacles perhaps but they make for very deliberate teases. Yes, Metroid had its fair share of “obtuse” secrets, but it was very good about gently nudging you towards the next critical section of the game. By modern standards several of Metroid’s conventions could be considered “pandering:” easy-to-identify obstacles, map reveal stations… but in reality it was like the game was playing a highly-sophisticated game of cards, showing just enough of its hand to keep you guessing.

In short, the stimuli in Super Metroid are fantastic. The game didn’t explicitly tell you which way to go; instead, it would sneakily push you back into place when you started straying off course. I could probably write an entirely new post on how Super Metroid does that through isolating and funneling the player to certain points. Super Metroid certainly wasn’t perfect in every regard (Maridia power bomb tube anyone?,) but for what’s it worth it certainly got it right a lot.

In Conclusion

In short, I think Super Metroid and Axiom Verge are two entirely different beasts. Super Metroid felt more focused, while Axiom Verge went for a more “meta” approach by “breaking” the game. I know the latter worked for some people, but it didn’t for me. Though its obvious that Super Metroid is a hard game to top, its hard to fault it for not only being laser-precise but doing it in a very natural way.

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