By now everyone’s heard the story behind Legend of Zelda. Miyamoto supposedly wanted to recreate the feeling of exploring the woods near his childhood home. James Cameron (or so I heard) got the idea for The Terminator from a dream where he saw that image of the metal skeleton slowly rising up from the flames.

Is it completely true? Who knows.

Authors love to say that kind of stuff in hindsight to make their creations sound more profound and universal. One thing’s for sure, though: really enduring works do tend to come from someplace deeper than just “I wanna sell you a game.” There’s usually a reason behind them, something more substantial that the creator is seeing and feeling.

I don’t know who came up with Metroid, but I’d be willing to bet there’s a story behind that, too.

Back in the day it stood out not only for its mechanics, which were innovative enough that they still bear its name, but because it created a distinct and surprising atmosphere. You can tell something’s up from the first few bars of the theme that plays on the title screen. Hey, that doesn’t sound like a run-of-the-mill space-bounty-hunter-chasing-aliens shoot-em-up, which would have been the natural choice. It almost sounds like a horror game; and in some ways it is.

Just look at the background. It ought to be a heroic action scene with Samus firing a laser or something like that, but instead it’s a barren landscape under a black expanse of space. Of course you can read too much into anything, but it’s hard not to think that, consciously or unconsciously, there was a method to design choices like this.

All of these elements lend it an unexpected feeling of isolation. Maybe today it’s harder to appreciate the sense of vastness that Metroid communicated in the 8-bit era.

There you were, dropped onto a desolate planet, totally alone. Nobody to help you; no home base to back you up or brief you on the situation. Just you, hostile unknown enemies, eerie alien statues, and miles and miles of dark, twisting caverns. Nothing between you and oblivion but a suit of cold metal armor. It was all on you to complete your mission and find your way out. That was all you really needed to know.

Super Metroid may have been a better game in pretty much every way, but it never had quite the same edge. Then the later games did what sequels always seem to do: over-explain everything and spoil the mystery.

So when I play a tribute-type game like this, it makes me wonder what its author was seeing. Was he seeing Metroid, or his own creation, unique enough that it can stand on its own?

Well, it’s different, that’s for sure.

If Metroid took a visceral, horror-type angle, this one’s much more cerebral. It’s sort of trippy concept sci-fi; 2001 to Metroid’s Alien. That ends up being both a blessing and a curse.

This is actually relatively normal in the scheme of things

You start off in pretty much the same place: stuck on a strange planet all by yourself. Since they’re not going for a dark and oppressive atmosphere, they have more freedom to go wild with the environments, and they put it to good use. There’s a tremendous amount of variety here for an 8-bit-style game. You’ll explore everything from deep caverns to bizarre outdoor alien vistas. Vivid colors and crazy visuals are everywhere and really make each section stand out. It could have degenerated into total chaos, yet there’s also a thread of coherence that ties it all together.

The ghost of H.R. Giger does a lot of the heavy lifting on that end. Despite what I just said up above, on the surface this game actually has more similarities to Alien than Metroid does. I mean, if you’ve seen any promotional images, you probably noticed that creepy face which could have been shipped here directly from LV-426.

That’s the one

In general a biomechanical theme runs throughout. Every zone is filled with weird bubbles and pustules, interwoven with machinery of uncertain origin, glitches in the fabric of reality and pulsating blobs that might be organs but you probably shouldn’t touch them to find out. Not to mention the bosses, which manage to convey menace in their malformed immensity but also a sort of pathos, like each one is lost in a haze of confusion and sadness. You feel repulsion and pity at the same time.

I don’t know what it is, but I put it out of its misery

You might be wondering if there’s a point to all this bizarre stuff, and I’m almost certain there is. See, it has to do with dying, or maybe not; and then being transported to another dimension. Or was it another timeline? And then there are these creatures that, uh,

Ok look, I’ll level with you: I didn’t really understand what it was about.

This guy seems like he had tons of ideas, though, and I’m sure it makes more sense if you play it a few times, or at least if you’re better about reading though scattered notes than I am.

This is one of those stories that takes a lot of explaining, and a good chunk of it is done via computer logs hidden all over the place; and even when you do find them, half the time they’re written in some kind of alien glyphs. I assume there’s a way to decipher all of these things, but I wasn’t going to screw around all day trying to find it so it’ll have to remain a mystery. The part I did catch seemed pretty intriguing, for what it’s worth.

Things like this made me wish I understood it better

As a “Metroidvania,” (that’s what they call things like this now) the game itself is much more Metroid, in the classic sense, than -vania in the Symphony of the Night sense: non-linear exploration but mostly linear progression for the unlocks, with no real character customization outside of limited weapon choice. Like I said, there’s plenty of variety to explore, but sometimes they’re not very clear about where you ought to go next.

It’ll probably be full of stuff like this

Obviously backtracking comes with the territory in these games, but there’s a little more here than you bargain for. Every time you find a new key item it’s like you have to scour every corner of the world all over again just to find that one little door you saw yesterday and forgot about.

The weapons arrive with a similar lack of guidance. They’re not always very well differentiated in terms of their roles, and you’re sort of left to find your own way there, too; although I feel like a bit of a jerk complaining about details like this considering that one guy built all of this from scratch. I guess you’ve got to put it in perspective.

At least they let you ride around on whatever this is

So to answer my own question from way back when, overall this game really does manage to set itself apart in a lot of meaningful ways–the setting, tone, visual theme and nature of the story–while remaining familiar enough to evoke the original. Above all it’s clearly a labor of love, and in the end all of the confusing stuff, which might have annoyed me in something less visionary and genuine, ends up being part of the unique charm. It was a just little surprising that a game that was so well-received actually turned out to be fairly inaccessible on a number of fronts. So be prepared for that.

There’s a awful lot here, but it’ll take some patience to get the most out of it.

Developer: Thomas Happ Games LLC

Publisher: Thomas Happ Games LLC

Purchased on: Steam

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