It boggles the mind how Axiom Verge is the work of one man. It took five years for creator Tom Happ to produce the game on his own, putting together this game that deftly incorporates elements of Metroid, Contra, and other retro classics.
With a list of influences like that, it's tough for us to not be excited to blast through Axiom Verge when it's released on Wii U later this year. The positive buzz the game received from fans and critics alike upon its original PlayStation 4 and PC release last year ensures this is one to watch for retro and Nintendo fans alike.
We caught up with Happ to learn more about his curious little game and what it was like to spend half a decade building it.
You worked on this game by yourself for five years, which is an intense and prolonged commitment. And there's a ton of stuff in here — nine labyrinthine areas containing nearly 1000 rooms, as well as tons of weapons, abilities, and upgrades to get. Is the end result reflective of your original scope? What fuelled you to see it through?
Yep, scope-wise it's very close to what I originally imagined - the world map and room count were the first things I established at the start. Though at first I had envisioned there being 100 weapons, I pared it down because it basically had the effect of watering down their value (I still have people comment to me that the 23 weapons in the current version may have been too much). I think the key to seeing it through was to make sure that I was always doing something fun and interesting. I tried to arrange my schedule so I was never doing something tedious for more than a week at a time so that I could get a sense of accomplishment more frequently. Kind of like building in my own reward loop during development.
You worked on all elements of the game — programming, design, art, animation, and music. Which part was most challenging to you? What did you learn?
I never really felt like development was that difficult compared to the other things...publishing, marketing, business stuff, etc. I definitely struggle with keeping track of who I need to send signatures to or what kind of ratings I need to satisfy, etc. But of the elements you listed, I'd say collision programming is the worst. When there's a bug in that area it's very often deep in some iterative loop but doesn't manifest until the code reaches some part nowhere near that section.
Axiom Verge was heavily influenced by games like Metroid, Contra, and Blaster Master. We're seeing a pretty strong Nintendo-console through-line in that lineup. Would you consider yourself a Nintendo guy?
I'm basically an all-around gamer. I typically just buy whatever system currently has the games I want. I'll seriously just buy a console to play a single game if that game is good enough. I did that for Ocarina of Time on the N64. But I think if you were to pick the greatest system of its time, it was probably the NES. Still, Axiom Verge isn't just influenced by NES games. There's some Revenge of Shinobi (Genesis) in there, some Star Control (PC/Genesis), Mass Effect (360/PS3), Out of This World (PC), etc.
What was your approach when thinking about GamePad integration?
It was kind of a no-brainer with this sort of game - exploration and item acquisition are the main things you want the player to be focused on. I think anyone who's ever played a "metroidvania" has felt some frustration at trying to reconcile the tiny minimap with what they're seeing on the big map in the menu, having to always switch back and forth - this ameliorates that a lot, plus in Axiom Verge's case, the huge amount of weapons you normally have to scroll through in an item wheel. There'd probably be an uprising if I used that secondary screen for anything else.
The game's reception has been overwhelmingly positive. During the five-year development, what did you picture as success? What has been most surprising to you in this area after release?
I told my parents I'd be happy if the game made enough to help pay my phone bill. I honestly didn't think it would even make that much. So, the whole progress of the game after I released the first trailer and people went crazy for it was a surprise. It's so hard to explain how surreal and weird it feels, even after all this time.
Given the game's influences, does Axiom Verge's Wii U arrival feel like some sort of homecoming? How does it feel to be selling on the same storefront as those three games?
It definitely seems like it's finally reached its home turf, so to speak. Again this isn't the kind of thing you ever expect to happen - to be a fan of a NES games and then have your game selling with the best of them on the same store - but I guess it can and does happen!
Big thanks to Tom for speaking with us!