Often imitated but never bettered, Super Metroid and Castlevania may no longer hold the same pulling power they once had, but their legacy still firmly remains in tact. Games such as Guacamelee, Strider, Teslagrad and even the Dark Knight in Batman: Arkham Asylum all took the maze-like structure created by the two former gaming superpowers and made them their own in the last decade alone.
Originally released in 2014 for 3DS and PC, Xeodrifter proudly joins the ranks of the Metroidvania revival. You control an astronaut, stuck in deep space after an asteroid collides with his ship. Lost in a system with only the resources of four nearby planets at his disposal, the stranded spaceman must fight his way through 8-bit labyrinths of weird alien creatures and strange environments if he’s to make it home.
Your first obstacle is to figure out which planet to begin on. While your ship can dock with all four on the map screen right from the outset, the tricky part is discovering which one will grant you the most access. Underwater passages, mile-high ledges and walls so thin that you can smell what’s on the other side block your way almost immediately and a process of elimination is required to find the correct path.
Environments aren’t your only obstacle. Each level is populated with all sorts of weird alien creatures that float, bounce and shoot around their surroundings. Armed with only a trusty blaster by your side, you can of course decide to shoot your way through. However, some enemies require a substantial amount of hits and more than often, it’s quicker to just circumnavigate them. From jumping green blobs to one-eyed laser shooting rocks, shooting each and every enemy is a somewhat unnecessary task. In true Metroidvania fashion, you’ll have to retread old ground in order to access new areas of each level and progress further into the unknown. Pausing the game opens up your in-game menu and from here you can monitor which passageways in these labyrinths have so far gone unexplored.
Scattered throughout each level are a number of health and weapon power-ups that will increase how many lives you have and how effective your weapon is, respectively. There are four firing types that can be modified to suit each environment best, and by assigning weapon points to each on, you can create a number of shooting patterns to your liking. Rapid fire, increased effectiveness and triple-way spread are all available and it’s up to you consider which ones will be the most effective, depending on the enemies in that level. You can also assign your favourite combinations to a number of hotkeys that can be changed to suit the situation. The trouble is that while this pause menu would have worked well on the dual-screens of a 3DS, on PlayStation it means constantly pausing in order to switch up your tactics.
Weapon upgrades aren’t the only power-ups on offer as you’ll also unlock a number of items and skills that are crucial to completing the game. With a submarine, you can submerge underwater, the phase ability will let you pass through walls and the rocket pack will allow you to reach dizzying new heights. There’s also the ability to plane jump, which means you can teleport between the foreground and segments of the level in the background. At times you’ll have to perform some of these skills in sequence in order to access new areas, so getting to grips with them quickly is vital.
But these power-ups aren’t just lying around. You’ll have to defeat each of the seven bosses scattered throughout the four planets in order to unlock them for your ever-growing arsenal. The bosses themselves are gigantic parasitic space crabs that are quicker and stronger than your average alien. But they’re also all the same. Granted, each one in turn is a tougher variation on the last, but they all require usually the same strategy. Chances are, if they’re using some sort of new attack, then you’ll have to use the last skill you obtained in order to best them. In a galaxy full of strange beasties and oddities, it’s a bit of a shame that the boss fights are so criminally underdeveloped.
As for the universe, it looks pretty good presented in 8-bit. The addition of a second plane really makes the best out of an old formula and is perhaps the most interesting feature of Xeodrifter. Enemies and backdrops vary enough to keep you engaged, while the midi soundtrack doesn’t get old, even if you are forced to replay segments over and over again. Overall, the game takes between four to six hours to complete, and depending on your levels of patience at the difficulty of some areas, you can make your escape within two to three sittings. Collecting all the health and weapon power-ups extends the life of this game a little more, but with no multiplayer or leaderboards in sight, your friends will just have to take you at your word when you tell them how fast you beat the game.
The pioneers of the genre may no longer hold much sway, but their traditions live on in games like Xeodrifter. Renegade Kid’s throwback to yesteryear in both style and gameplay make for a rather difficult, but ultimately rewarding game that perfectly captures the tone of pulp sci-fi. A lack of variety particularly in terms of the boss battles is perhaps the only downside to this 8-bit adventure, but if a sequel is in the works, then perhaps next time we can go truly where no game has gone before.