As independent game developers have risen in prominence over the past few years, mercifully filling in the space in modern gaming libraries previously occupied by mid-budget releases from larger studios, there’s been one timeless game design that’s been revisited and experimented with seemingly more often than any other: the exploration-based platforming subgenre we call the “Metroidvania.” I love these games — Super Metroid is among my all-time favorites and I could replay it endlessly — and it’s been nothing short of amazing seeing how developers like Image & Form and Over The Moon have managed to make the genre feel fresh after more than two decades. Even more remarkable is the fact that so few developers have attempted a straight up recreation of the classic Super Metroid design without any modern experimentation. Are they afraid to mess with perfection? Worried their game has to feel somehow unique to make an impact on players? Who knows? What I do know is, Xeodrifter is the freshest Metroid-style platformer I’ve played all year largely because of its simplicity, and I’m still kind of stunned that it’s Renegade Kid’s first attempt at the genre.
There’s not a ton of setup to Xeodrifter: you’re a little red space man whose ship’s warp core has been damaged during an interstellar journey, and you’ve picked up a series of energy signatures emanating from a cluster of nearby planets that just might be your only means to fix your ride. From there, you’re free to land your ship on one of the four planets and begin making your way toward the energy signatures, though you won’t make it very far if you don’t head first to the green planet at the top of your star chart. That’s because most paths are inaccessible to you at first, either blocked by a wall or filled with water that you’ll only be able to navigate with a submarine that you’ll find somewhere on that green planet. Once you’ve acquired the submarine, you’ll be able to head deeper into each of the four planets, each time uncovering new equipment that will let you explore even further.
Most of the upgrades you’ll discover are firmly rooted in the traditions of Metroid. There’s a Run ability that lets you speed across lava pools and works more or less the same as Samus Aran’s Speed Booster, a Rocket that propels you upward through vertical shafts in a more streamlined take on the Space Jump, and a Solar Flare that destroys barriers that your regular gun can’t damage, like Samus’s missiles. And because this is a Renegade Kid game, there’s also a Plane Shift powerup that lets you hop back and forth between background and foreground platforms, making use of the 3DS’s stereoscopic screen for simple, yet satisfying platforming puzzles like those in Mutant Mudds. Xeodrifter’s hero starts out with a gun that’s about as effective as a pea shooter, though in a fun twist on Metroid’s weapon upgrade system, you’re able to customize your gun’s behavior by mixing and matching from among five different parameters using collectible Gun Extenders that are hidden throughout the game. You might put all your Extenders into the Speed and Wave parameters for a quick, wide attack that more effectively targets creatures that aren’t directly in your line of sight. Or maybe you’re dealing with those terrible alien bats on Planet 4, in which case a combination of larger, stronger bullets is called for. You can even mix low-powered versions of all five parameters at once, though I found Spread to be a waste of resources in pretty much any combination, mostly because Wave works so much more effectively. No matter your style of attack, you’re likely to find a combination that suits you, and there are three different presets so you can switch among them with a convenient touch of the screen.
As Metroidvania veterans might expect, upgrades can be combined not just for the sake of solving a puzzle or traversing through a previously blocked off area — think lava-running combined with plane shifting — but to increase the efficiency with which you traverse through an area, which is a handy benefit of the game’s cohesive design for speedrunners. My favorite way to zip through an area is to mash down on the attack button with fast, powerful bullets to clear out anything directly in my path, while combining the Run and Phaze abilities, which has Xeodrifter’s little hero moving so quickly that the in-game camera has to constantly reset to keep up with him. That said, I haven’t yet perfected my route through the game, and though my first speedrun attempt landed at somewhere between 50-60 minutes, the lack of an in-game clock means there’s no way to efficiently track completion time. Of all of Xeodrifter’s relatively small set of issues, this might be the most disappointing.
For players who don’t care about speed, Xeodrifter can be completed in about 2 hours, though it took me just short of 8 to find every hidden Gun and Health Extender my first time through. Of course, that completion time is largely dependent on how well you cope with the game’s often brutal difficulty level. Automatic checkpoints are few and far between (before and after boss fights only), so exploring areas that are beyond your comfort level can be both rewarding and stressful; on the one hand, you might make it past a particularly challenging section by the skin of your teeth with a new Gun or Health Extender in tow, but you’ll still have to make it back to your ship to save your progress, which isn’t always as easy as you’d think. Boss fights can also be head scratchers; they’re essentially pattern-recognition games, but in some instances, you might find yourself frustrated by what seems like an endless behavioral loop and unable to figure out how to advance. But this isn’t any different from past Metroid games, and once you’ve figured out what triggers the next pattern, you can carry that experience forward to the next boss, because they’re all variations on the same creature (which reminds me of a Gamma Metroid, but cuter.) That said, it’s a shame each planet didn’t get its own unique bosses, as you’ll only really use a handful of your unlockable abilities during each fight.
Xeodrifter’s influences are obvious, but it’s also very clearly a Renegade Kid game, with lots of little flourishes that set it apart from similarly scoped games and convey that sort of hyper 8-bit feeling the developer does so well. I love the puffs of dust when your hero lands a jump, the buoyancy of the player character when he jumps into water, and the pulses of energy that pass through the shelled creatures you’ll encounter as they charge their weapons. With only four distinct locations throughout the game, there isn’t a ton of visual variety, but each planet is very clearly its own entity. Planet 3 has a deliberately “Norfair” vibe, while Planet 4 looks like the Engineer’s Ship from the Alien movies. Each planet effectively conveys that dread of being alone on an alien world, which is critical to the developing sense of self-empowerment these types of games are known for. Roth Sothy’s chiptune soundtrack ties the whole thing together in understated, yet efficient fashion.
If you’re counting, you’ll notice I’ve used the word “Metroid” ten times so far in this review, and there’s a good reason for that: Xeodrifter is the purest take on Super Metroid that currently exists on the 3DS. And that’s a great thing for those of us who are sick and tired of waiting for Nintendo to bring Samus out of cryosleep. It might be small in scope, but it does just about everything right. And with secret areas to uncover and plenty of potential for speedrunners, there’s more than enough reason to come back for multiple playthroughs. This is Renegade Kid’s best game yet, and that’s all the more remarkable given that it was designed and completed by a team of six people in just under six months. Other games might impress with greater production values, a longer quest, or more modern design elements, but nothing else I’ve played this year hit me in the Metroid vein quite like Xeodrifter. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a woman inside that little red space suit.
Invisible Gamer’s review of Xeodrifter is based on final review code provided to us by Renegade Kid. In the interest of full disclosure, this reviewer would also like to point out that his name appears in the “Special Thanks” section of the game’s credits for providing feedback on a pre-release version of the game, which he playtested earlier this year. He was not aware before completing the release build of Xeodrifter that he would be featured in the credits, and he had already formed his opinion on the game before he discovered it.