best before 24.12.2019

by Hartigan Malchop

Traces and Double Visions

Howdy folks, it’s your old pal Harty Malchop once again, and as the year is once again windin’ on down an’ round these parts the lights are startin’ to come on to wink warmly at you in the deep nights, natcherly, I’ve been taking the chance in these indoor wintery evenings to spend some time playing vidya games. As it happens, I’ve been playing me a few metroidvanias lately. What’s a metroidvania you folks may ask? Well, it’s a type of game where you fight critters an’ wander about a map (usually in two dimensions), an’ the game don’t tell you where to go, but there are certain areas you can only get to when you find various ability-enhancin’ items. Like, say you won’t be able to get up onto a real far ledge until you have rocket boots that make you jump higher than a jackrabbit, or you can’t git on through a flooded place until you get the magic water-wings of floatin’. There’s a real particular satisfaction to these types of games, as you git better tools that let you open up new rooms an’ areas, filling in the map of the world as you go.

It is very difficult to get a taxi at this time of year in Hollow Knight.

In my stretch of map-wanderin’, I done played through the sad bug kingdom game Hollow Knight, the cute black an’ white Gameboy-style cat-in-a-mech Gato Roboto, an’ I am some ways through the evil castle fightin’ Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. Bloodstained is an interesting game because of its genealogy. The -vania ending of ‘metroidvania’ that describes this style of game comes from the game Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, where you played as Dracula’s son, Alucard, who had all sorts of vampire powers, including havin’ great hair. Bloodstained is made by the same gentleman, Koji Igarashi, who was in charge of makin’ this earlier example of a metroidvania, and a whole lot of Bloodstained is a tribute to that version of Castlevania. The funny thing, folks, is that I ain’t never played Symphony of the Night, so I’m playing a game referring back to something I only know in sketchy outlines and from watchin’ videos. There’s a strange feeling in situations like that, when you can see the ghostly remains of something behind a place. Sometimes that dislocation can mix the familiar with the alien an’ take you out of yourself, an’ I think that’s one of the things I’ve been enjoying about another metroidvania I’ve been playing lately, called Axiom Verge.

Sure, the cat in the mech suit that shoots missiles looks cute in Gato Roboto, but if cats had access to this technology, how long do you think we’d last as a species?

The other half of the name ‘metroidvania’ that ain’t got to do with vampires, as you sage folks probably know, is from Metroid, a series of games that set the tone and structure for this style of map-fillin’ play. Now I never got my hands on the first Metroid game back in the dim distant days of the original Nintendo Entertainment System console, because I never had me a NES, but I did have a buddy who did. Lil’ Harty used to have sleepovers at this buddy’s place, and would sit there in wonder an’ confusion while watching his pal play the original Metroid into the depths of the night, which, at that age was probably around nine-thirty in the evening or so. Back in them early days, vidya games was all exciting not just for the game itself, but because of the mystery around ’em. We didn’t hardly know a dang thing about these games, it being much harder to look up stuff, what with phones mostly being for ringing up people instead of hopping into that big ole gushin’ information waterslide of the internet. All we knew about Metroid was that you was some bounty-hunter in a space-suit on a strange alien planet which had creepy music, distinctive areas, an’ signs of an unknown lost civilization, an you had to git around an’ fight creatures an’ try to work out how to even find the ending. I didn’t get to play a Metroid myself until much later on the Gameboy an’ the SNES, but whether on big screen or little, the game always had the same fundamental vaguely unsettlin’ set-up: you were alone in a strange map in an alien world, an’ you had to find abilities that would let you explore the furthest reaches in that map.

Metroid – a game where a lady called Samus has to fight space-hedgehogs.

Axiom Verge is a sorta retro love-letter to Metroid. You play a feller called Trace, who wakes up in a world (called the Breach) he don’t really understand, where there’s a mixture of gigantic technology an’ oozing, flying, bubbling organic growths, an’ he has to try to work out what the heck is goin’ on’ an how he might get back home. The most staggerin’ thing for your pal Harty is that this here game was pretty much the work of one hand, an individual by the name of Thomas Happ, which makes me feel a mite bashful in comparison, what with me not being awful prolific at even gettin’ these humble little notes out to your fine selves.

Trace takes a break from the stress of a hostile alien world with some relaxing yo-yoing.

As to how Trace is goin’ to find his way through the sections of his world, the answer is partly by gittin’ a whole heap of fancy guns. You git to run around an’ use guns that shoot flames, electricity, bombs, whirly things, an’ even a sort of ray that makes enemies glitch out, messing around their tiles of color an’ changin’ their behavior. Along the way, Trace acquires himself a natty science-magic labcoat, meets creepy flesh-an’-metal monsters who want to squish him, not to mention colossal white-masked biomechanical creatures that may or may not be on his side. Slowly, he kinda pieces together how he ended up in the Breach and what he is up against, although, to be honest, your pal Harty is maybe a lil’ slow, an’ didn’t quite understand everything that was going on in the game. But that was also sorta okay by me, because the plot of Axiom Verge feels like it’s translated from a foreign language, like it ain’t supposed to entirely hang together, an’ that’s also what playing games way back in the world of the original Metroid was all about.

Don’t ask me, pal. Like Mr. Malchop, I’m as confused as you are.

An’ that’s one thing I loved about Axiom Verge, it’s a fun game to play as you go around fightin’ freaky-lookin’ critters and explorin’, but to me it gets that disorientin’ sense of being somewhere alien an’ yet somehow familiar just right, in no small part due to the music (which Happ also did his ownself), which is often squelchin’ an’ spooky, like an electronic ghost from another planet, but which also has a few firey foot-stompin’ tracks in there that feel that they come from a different time, or at least from an older dimension. Heck, there was one room I was always happy to backtrack through, just to hear the synthesized call-to-prayer tune that played there. Y’know folks, I think the last time my ear was pulled hard enough to pay attention to a game soundtrack was probably back in the day of a game called Bastion, but I got so wrapped in the music from Axiom Verge that I jest went out an’ bought the album for myself as a lil’ early present.

Giant stone head is the only way to travel.

There’s a certain careful combination of comfort an’ confusion in a metroider like Axiom Verge to get that alien thrill just right, an’ I guess I don’t remember this happening so much when I was just a lil’ Malchop, but lately I have these same moments in my everydays, where somethin’ feels familiar and also unknown at the same time. F’r’instance, there was this one bar where me and my buds used to drink some years back. It was called Nuttin’s, an’ that ole haunt suited us just fine, even if it were a shabby kind of drinking hole, because we were a little shabby ourselves. Also, you could get yourself a few beers an’ a bowl of fries an’ chili to share at such a low price that even we could afford it. Even if the beer weren’t the best, we didn’t ask no questions, because we were plum happy just to have a place to sit an’ hang out, with all the other young’uns about town who were there for the same reason. Well, not too long ago, I happened to meet an old pal at Nuttin’s, an’ in the years since I been there, some new owners had come in and completely redone the joint. Back in the day, the owners wouldn’t have fussed to paint the place even if the plaster were peeling. But now the bar was bright an’ shiny an’ new, an’ filled with people eatin’ and talkin’, but people who looked a whole lot less rough around the edges than the clientele used to be. Heck, I suppose I might have spruced up a little as I’ve gotten a mite older myself, but there sure was a gentle sorta confused shock in visiting the saloon. Y’see folks, the bones of the old building were still the same under the paint and new booths an’ chairs, it was like a sort of double-layered vision – the ghost of the place where I spent many happy hours floatin’ like a tracing on top of the purty new place it had become- one world superimposed on another. It was still a joint that served beer an’ food (although much pricier now), but in a disorientin’ way everything was a little different too.

That thrill of the strange familiar ain’t necessarily a bad thing, I guess it’s bound to happen as we start growin’ up, an’ you’re going to be seeing different versions of the same places, things from the past remade into somethin’ new an’ interesting. When it comes to vidya games, I’m pleased as punch that we live in an age where great games like Axiom Verge are gittin’ made that play on the past, on what we know an’ what has been built before. That is sure a territory this Malchop is dang excited to keep on explorin’.

Bloodstained has got you a whip for Christmas.

Now folks, I’m goin’ to leave y’all be, but before I mosey on to the holiday season, I just wanted to say to all of you: no matter if you are spendin’ this strange fadin’ end of the year somewhere familiar, somewhere strange, or somewhere mixin’ in between, just know that your pal Harty wishes he could be with you, an’ he’s thinkin’ fondly of you.


You can email us at bestbefore@subsidingsun.uk


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