Demo Driver 8: Environmental Station Alpha
Anyone who has talked to me for a little while knows that I love Super Metroid. And I genuinely love it, have loved it for years, will not and, I feel, should not stop loving it. It’s a magnificent game, setting a standard for an entire genre that has frequently approached it and danced around what it accomplished without ever surpassing it – in a method that’s neither a disservice to the original nor a mark of shame for its numerous spiritual and literal successors.
Environmental Station Alpha is not Super Metroid. I don’t know if it can be Super Metroid, for that matter; that’s a high bar to aim for. What I do know is that I cannot in good conscience call it a bad game, but at the same time I can’t really say it’s a good one. It understands the formula, but it never feels like it’s actually transcending that formula, just twisting a new riff on it with minimal inventiveness.
The setup, at least, is classic. The best of the Metroid games drop Samus on to a planet with only a simple preamble; Super Metroid stretches it out a fair bit, but the bulk of the experience remains without explicit narrative. Environmental Station Alpha sends your unnamed robot into the eponymous station with the simple mission of finding out what happened there and reporting back in one piece; cue shooting at lots of wildlife and figuring out how to navigate obstacles. All well and good, all the start of a fine adventure.
And make no mistake – this game is very explicitly drawing from a list of Metroid cliches. Most of the enemies look explicitly like the various beasties you blast in a Metroid game. You start out with a short-range shot and weak jumping capabilities in a ruined area, then move on to a forested area. Calling it an homage feels too subtle; this is a game that is trying with all its might to be a Metroid game.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel like it quite scratches that itch, starting with two changes that shouldn’t be a big deal but are – enemies do not seem to drop health pickups, and your health meter starts at 10 instead of 99.
My memory of Super Metroid and its predecessor are not perfect, but I am more than willing to state that not every hit did 10 units of damage to Samus in either game. Even if they did, you could reliably pick up more health with a bit of dodging and shooting. The result was that Samus felt tough; not as if she could just run through every damage-dealing obstacle without a care, no, but sturdy enough that a single hit didn’t put her in serious danger.
By contrast, the little robot you’re controlling here never feels tough. At only ten health, it’s remarkably easy for him to be blown up with very little provocation – a stiff breeze alone will often do for him. And since the only way that I found to restore your health is to find another save point, the game is much less about a slow exploration of the area and far more focused upon desperately darting from one save point to the next, or at least what you hope will be a save point.
I can finish a first playthrough of most Metroid titles without dying once, not because the game is easy but because it gives me opportunities to recover. By contrast, Environmental Station Alpha saw me constantly dying, respawning, and trying a segment again. It’s the opposite of what endeared me to the whole Metroidvania genre in the first place. Not that this makes the game inherently bad, naturally; I’m sure there are people for whom this is exactly what they wanted out of the genre. Take this with the obligatory and intelligent grain of salt, then.
What’s a bit less forgivable is the fact that the game’s low-res graphics have the unfortunate side effect of making several enemies as well as your own sprite much, much harder to see. There are far too many spaces where enemies are obscured until the moment that they move to attack, which wouldn’t be an issue if you either had a long-range attack or had any reliably dodge abilities at your disposal. Not only do you not have any sort of roll or the like, you move slowly, jump awkwardly, and generally feel far less mobile before any upgrades than you ever did in a Metroid game.
There are, of course, other ways to do a metroidvania sort of title without adhering to the same tropes. I know that. But when you have a game that is so resolutely focused upon replicating Metroid down to the enemy selection, you kind of have to judge it on those merits. And your unnamed protagonist moves slower, can accomplish less, and generally feels far weaker than the queen of spacefaring bounty hunters everywhere.
It was the grappling hook that finally broke me, because the game makes this part of your very early toolkit while at the same time making it very difficult to use correctly. Super Metroid featured the Grapple Beam, and it wasn’t one of the most beloved upgrades, but it did work with reliability and in a predictable fashion. Far too much of the grapple hook swinging, though, seemed to be focused around precise timing that never felt comfortable or self-evident, resulting in far too many jumps that I made repeatedly, trying to swing a certain way without success.
In short, Environmental Station Alpha isn’t a bad game, but it is trying with great gusto to be another game which already exists and, quite frankly, uses all of the same tricks but handles them with much more panache. I understand wanting to have another proper Metroid title as well as most people, but the demo never finds time to be its own game while simultaneously being worse at what it’s trying to do than its inspiration. It’s worth a spin if you’re really in the mood for that classic title, but I found it something of a disappointment.