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8-Bit Cafe: The Shadow Complex Origin Story

Just where did the so-called metroidvania genre get its start, anyway?

By Jeremy Parish 2009-08-18 16:18:12.227

Category: 8-Bit Cafe
Tags: Xbox 360 Metroid (NES) Zork I (PC) Pitfall! (2600) Metroid (Wii) Shadow Complex (XBOX 360)

Shadow Complex hits Xbox Live tomorrow, and unless you have a really, really deep-seated loathing of Orson Scott Card (which is, I am given to understand, not an uncommon point of view), you should consider picking it up. As I mentioned in my review, it's a good game that hews quite closely to Super Metroid. Hard to complain about that!

As you may know, I'm kind of a big fan of the Metroid games. Of all non-linear 2D platformers, in fact. A few years back I started up a project called the Metroidvania Chronicles in which I intended to thoroughly dissect the genre and explore its history while determining what makes a good free-roaming platformer tick. Sadly, it's withered on the vine (like so many of my personal projects) because work-related obligations have kept me from sinking as much time in these games as I'd like. 

There's also another issue behind its demise, too: as I've read and studied and researched more about these games, I've become less confident in placing Metroid as the origin of the free-roaming platformer. Certainly it was the defining work in those early years. But was it really the first? Tough to say. The way the medium has evolved over the years makes proclaiming any specific game as "the first" anything a foolhardy venture. Really, I need to go back and completely rethink the project... but of course, as soon as I do, some obscure 1984 platformer for some forgotten Japanese PC will come to light and I'll have to make room for that. Curse your occluding powers, mists of time!

That being said, I feel like the following list serves as a pretty decent line of succession for the birth of the metroidvania sub-genre. Of course, I've surely missed something or another in here, so please fill in the shameful gaps in my knowledge.

Zork: It wasn't a platformer, but this text-based adventure built on ADVENT by incorporating a number of elements that would become standards of free-roaming platformers. Zork took place in a huge, open world that could be freely traversed, although reaching certain areas required the careful application of items and tools found along the way. You could also collect new and better weapons along the way, and -- in true Symphony of the Night style -- earning the best ending required a very specific combination not-entirely-intuitive actions. (1979)

Pitfall!: David Crane took the simple concept of running and jumping as defined in Donkey Kong and broke it beyond the boundaries of a single screen. Though it predated the advent of true scrolling for the genre, Pitfall linked together dozens of screens into a huge, complicated, and not quite as linear as it looked forest filled with treasure. Pitfall II: Lost Caverns went a step further by scrolling between its connected screens, which it stacked into a more intricate 8x27 labyrinth full of caves and hazards. (Pitfall: 1982; Pitfall II: 1984)

Knight Lore: The game that kicked off the isometric platformer craze that swept British microcomputers in the '80s, Knight Lore's world was about the same size as Pitfall II's, but it was presented all on the same horizontal plane. You could almost think of it as a compromise between Pitfall! and Pitfall II, even, splitting the difference between a strictly flat world and one built in multiple vertical tiers by tilting the camera to an isometric perspective. From what I've played of Knight Lore, you collect items which aren't specifically necessary to progress, although you do need to use them as makeshift platforms from time to time. (1984)

Xanadu: Falcom's first platformer (to my knowledge) was a sort of RPG turned on its side. Although the fairly primitive original never left Japan, Americans should be familiar with the general structure and feel of the game thanks to later sequels or spin-offs or whatever you want to call them: Faxanadu and Legacy of the Wizard. Players run, jump, collect stuff, and explore. Weirdly, though, you don't fight enemies directly; bumping into a foe sends you to a top-down battle screen reminiscent of the company's earlier RPG Dragon Slayer, to which this is a sequel. Of sorts. Honestly, Falcom's game lineage is a giant mess and will only give you a headache. (1984)

Metroid: And finally, the one that cemented everything. Metroid was a big deal at the time, because not only was it an exploration-based platformer in an era of linear side-scrolling, your character acquired permanent power-ups. Almost like an RPG, in a way. But what really gilded the ol' lily was the fact that the powers you acquired didn't just make you stronger; they actually were the keys to unlocking the rest of the game world. It's hard to say just how much Metroid was influenced by its predecessors, since Nintendo's development staff has always tended to be awfully insular. But, whether deliberately or otherwise, the R&D1 team headed by Gumpei Yokoi and Yoshio Sakamoto defined a genre here, and you can draw a straight line between this 1986 classic and modern games like Knight & Grail and, of course, Shadow Complex. (1986)

Knight Lore screen from here! Xanadu image and others from HG 101. Pitfall II screen from Atari Age.

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Comments (24)

  • emomarkus
  • Funny...

    Posted: userComment.createdDate by  emomarkus

    "As I mentioned in my review, it's a good game that hews quite closely to Super Metroid. Hard to complain about that!"

    Isn't that what much of your review did?

  • jparish
  • No.

    Posted: userComment.createdDate by  jparish

    There's a difference between criticism and complaints.

  • Vegan
  • Zork

    Posted: userComment.createdDate by  Vegan

    Zork was crazy. It didn't even tell you what the objective of the game was. Seriously, it never does.

  • CaptainCafeman
  • Some others

    Posted: userComment.createdDate by  CaptainCafeman

    It depends how tightly you define 'free-roaming platformer', but Ant Attack on the ZX Spectrum predatedKnight Lore by a year.  It's well worth reading the history behind what was a truly innovative, if not often remembered, game; it's impressive that such a technically limited platform could support such an (relatively) diverse environment.  It's almost, although not quite, GTA with ants.  Well, maybe if you squint ...

    There was also Drol on the Apple, Atari, and C64, a vaguely Pitfall-esque exploration / arcade platformer released in 1983.  Not as much depth as Pitfall and more a platformer crossed withDefender, but still worth remembering.

  • jparish
  • Ant Attack

    Posted: userComment.createdDate by  jparish

    I'm aware of Ant Attack, but I don't think it's really germane to this particular lineage. The mechanics don't really have anything to do with platforming or traditional level structures, and despite what Edge would have us believe it's hardly the first game to use an isometric perspective.

    Drol, however, I shall have to look into.

  • kentdoggydog
  • Impossible Mission?

    Posted: userComment.createdDate by  kentdoggydog

    What do you think about Epyx's Impossible Mission for the C64?

  • FriedConsole
  • Orson Scott Card

    Posted: userComment.createdDate by  FriedConsole

    Yeah I don't get the Orson Scott Card haters.  Usually when you ask them why they hate him it usually because of his religion.  I am not a member of the Card's religion but his books are awesome. Some people seem to read in a religious subtext to his books that really isn't there.  It's a stupid reason to hate somebody's work.  I don't agree with Tom Cruise's philosophy but I still dig some of his movies.  Unless they do something heinous, like Roman Polanski, I don't really care.

  • CaptainCafeman
  • Games with isometric perspectives

    Posted: userComment.createdDate by  CaptainCafeman

    You're probably right, but it was the first game I'd personally seen that had an isometric perspective and an actual level design with open exploration and apparent town planning (as opposed to something like Q*Bert, Crystal Castles, or Zaxxon which, while being isometric, were still very level focused and / or linear).  I'd also debate the lack of platforming focus - my memory, which I'll freely admit may be faulty, has quite a bit of the game involving navigating 3D spaces to leap across to areas that would have been otherwise inaccessible.  Metroid it ain't, but then again, I'd also argue it's a long bow to draw to link Zork into the genre. :)

    Now that I'm thinking about it, I wonder why almost all the original isometric exploratory games I can think of were on the ZX Spectrum (closely followed by the C64, although my memory has the ZXas being the hotbed for that type of development).  There must have been something about the hardware or architecture that made it easier to create them on those platforms over the Apple.

    Don't get your hopes up too high with Drol - it was a fun game, but it was definitely 2D, had no 'tool use', and was primarily about navigating a platform environment while shooting enemies and avoiding traps.  It didn't have any of the exploratory focus inherent in something like Knight Lore.

  • Merusdraconis
  • More Orson Scott Card

    Posted: userComment.createdDate by  Merusdraconis

    While his early books are pretty great, the one that Shadow Complex takes its setting from, Empire, is unfortunately drenched with his hate-filled personal views. The game doesn't dive into it at all, as Parish mentions in his review. (I think that review might have confused people, because Jeremy is a hard marker by industry standards and so "B" equals "good", instead of "A" equalling good and "A+" equalling "so good".

  • PerrySimm
  • How about...

    Posted: userComment.createdDate by  PerrySimm

    ... "Montezuma's Revenge" (1984)? Has always been kind of the classic Metroidvania predecessor in my eyes.

  • jparish
  • Thanks for the suggestions

    Posted: userComment.createdDate by  jparish

    I have every intention to play Impossible Mission, but they keep announcing remakes and rereleases and then never following through. 

  • Brandone
  • re: FriedConsole

    Posted: userComment.createdDate by  Brandone

    If you're curious why someone would dislike Orson Scott Card, you need look no further than his wikipedia page, in particular, the section about his views on homosexuality.  Sure, it may not come through too often in his writing, but you can see why people might not want to support such a loathesome creature, even in the smallest way.

    I mean, hey, Fred Phelps might make the greatest RTS in human history, but I still wouldn't buy it.  It could have a self-contained, staggeringly epic story, but that wouldn't be enough.  And I'm sure there'd still be people who'd say "Just because he thinks all dead soldiers go to hell, and he pickets their funerals... well, that's a stupid reason to dislike his game."

    'Course, it's not the same situation here, since Shadow Complex didn't burst fully formed from Card's head, but just being related to him makes it fairly distasteful as far as I'm concerned.

  • FriedConsole
  • Re:Brandone

    Posted: userComment.createdDate by  FriedConsole

    I don't agree with Card's view on homosexuality but it's often hard to be too judgemental on older generations for those views.  His views probably stem more from his generation than his religion.  You would have to dismiss pretty much all art pre-1970 by white Americans becuase most all of them held homophobic and racist beliefs.  It doesn't make their beliefs correct but it would hard to say if I grew up in that generation I wouldn't have the same beliefs.  You could pretend you would be some kind of rebel in 1820 that would be against slavery but you would probably be for slavery and homophobic if your white and hetrosexual.

    I am not going to throw out my early Disney movies, Elvis's music, Tom Cruise movies or the U.S. Constituion becuase of their views.  Unless the media holds a view that is distasteful, I am not going to do a background check on every artist involved in the work. As I said before unless the artists did something physically henious, limiting your media to people who have the exact same beliefs would mean you could only watch your own home movies and read your diary. 

  • el_benito
  • British Isometrics

    Posted: userComment.createdDate by  el_benito

    I was a big fan of Solstice back on the NES, not that I ever beat it, of course. I was peripherally aware of the existence of others games of that sort, thanks to the DVD menus for The I.T. Crowd, of all things. It would be neat to see a wrap up on that, but I suppose that's something better left to HG101.

  • Lonecow12
  • Card

    Posted: userComment.createdDate by  Lonecow12

    Well the whole plot from Card's book stems from this Post-Obama Right Wing Propaganda, that all the far far Right are spewing these days.  The plot has Republicans as the heros in a Civil War where Liberals form a hostile takeover of the US. 

    However, he wrote the book to go along with some big video game franchise (other then Shadow Complex).

    The actually writer of Shadow Complex is a liberal, so I'm sure he tried to leave out all the hate speech of Card's.

    It puts me in a tough spot becuase I LOVE Metroid more then any other series, but I really really don't want Orson Scott Card to get a dime of my money.

  • Cary Woodham
  • Drol

    Posted: userComment.createdDate by  Cary Woodham

    I've played Drol before and I don't think it's really Metroidvania-ish.  It's just a really stretched out Donkey Kong.  Really weird, too. I played it on my Apple ][+.  My favorite games on that were Aquatron and Spare Change.  --Cary

  • TommyAtomic
  • Lonecow

    Posted: userComment.createdDate by  TommyAtomic

    I'd hesitate to say that anything Card's put out has been 'hate speech'.  One could argue that some of his views are silly, back woods, what have you, but hate speech?  Not so much.

  • jparish
  • yeah

    Posted: userComment.createdDate by  jparish

    I don't hold with all of Card's viewpoints and I don't have any real use for his writing, but I'd looked into his political leanings and alleged remarks and while I see some strong opinions I don't see anything that really qualifies as hate speech. But let's please not get into this here because I am sick to death of hearing about it. None of it has any bearing on Shadow Complex in any case; it was scripted by a liberal Jew, not a socially conservative Mormon, and none of the novel's politics come through in the game at all.

  • Lonecow12
  • Kind of relevant

    Posted: userComment.createdDate by  Lonecow12

    "None of it has any bearing on Shadow Complex in any case" But it kind of does. I don't want to get into a political debate either. They are just stupid and never ending, so I take back earlier what I said about "Hate Speech". But looking at a broader perspective without ruffling any feathers it is interesting to see this even enter the conversation about a XBLA game. 


    There are a lot of controversial games out there, but I can't think of any mainstream games off the top of my head that have a direct connection to the political party problem we have right now.


    Of course like you said Shadow Complex doesn't get into any of that, but if it doesn't, why even base the game off something like that?  It's like it wants to dip into the pool of political controversy, but just puts it's toe in and backs out. 

    The gamer in me is glad it doesn't, but the part of me that likes to see some controversy wishes it did.

    Alright I'll drop it.

  • Demiath
  • This game is about as non-political as the Communist Manifesto

    Posted: userComment.createdDate by  Demiath

    and none of the novel's politics come through in the game at all.

    Interesting. Now, I've only played the first two hours of the game so far (on Hardcore, so I haven't got very far yet), but I take it then that the flashback scene in which the protagonist's dad tells his son to join the US military because there's "something greater than yourself worth fighting for" isn't built around a classic conservative theme - and that the "daddy was right after all" sentiment echoed time and again couldn't be meaningfully categorized in political terms? Also, I guess the name "Progressive Restoration" simply refers to the well-mannered, respectful and pleasently incremental way in which the bad guys will topple America's government - and not to a common contemporary synonym for "liberal"?

    Taking great care not to get mired down in endless political discussions is often a good idea, but as more or less thoughtful consumers we should always be willing to make room for at least some ideological analysis of popular culture.

    And, for the record - despite my unease with the politics of this game - I still think it's a kick-ass Metroidvania game well worth 1200 MS Points and more...

  • Ignatius_J_Reilly
  • OSC

    Posted: userComment.createdDate by  Ignatius_J_Reilly

    Been a long time lurker here on 1up, and just now felt the need to chime in.

    First of all, thanks for all the great work you guys do here.  You work very hard to bring us great gaming content.


    Second, OSC is just a cranky old man.  He doesn't deserve QUITE the level of hate he receives, but the man is a jackass indeed.  I am a Greensboro native, and still live here.  Unfortunately, OSC still lives here as well.  I run into him sometimes, and he is far from friendly.


    He also writes a weekly reviews column for the local conservative rag, The Rhinoceros Times.  Here is his latest column.  I haven't read it, but I can guarantee you he didn't like whatever he is reviewing.  If you like to get your OSC hate on, check it out sometime.  Like I said, he is just a cranky old man who thinks he is brilliant and totally shits on everything he reviews that isn't wholesome family fun. 


    In closing, don't avoid Shadow Complex because of OSC.  He already steers enough people away from fantastic entertainment through his movie and book "reviews."

  • jparish
  • When I say none of the politics come through in Shadow Complex

    Posted: userComment.createdDate by  jparish

    what I mean is that its dialogue is so generic and its political stance so muddled it's impossible to tell what the real intent actually is. The main villain speaks entirely in ultra-right-wing clichés and actually comes off as some sort of fascist, not a raging leftist. Without knowing the premise behind Empire, you'd honestly assume the bad guys are a bunch of right-to-arms fundies rather than hippies gone horribly wrong. The fact that the real-world U.S. has experienced a regime change of sorts since development on Empire first began makes it even more muddled. When they kill off the vice-president in the opening cinema, there's no reason to assume it's not Biden.

    I'm not afraid to look for subtext in a game, but Shadow Complex doesn't seem entirely certain what its subtext actually is.

  • Lonecow12
  • Story

    Posted: userComment.createdDate by  Lonecow12

    Okay well that is good to hear.  No one actually talks about what exactly is covered in it.


    But I guess my problem now, is that all these reviews say the game is amazing, and a true herald to the Metroid type game, but they all say the story is crap.


    Political affiliations aside, if the story is crap then what is my motivation for playing through the game?  I don't need some masterwork story to compell me to play a game.  Metroid, for example has a very bare bones story, but it is enough motivation for me to want to get Samus to kill Mother Brain and get the hell out of dodge.


    From the demo, if the game's only motivation is to save your girlfriend, I'm fine with that as long as I feel like I want to or need to save her.  But if the game gets heavy handed with it's politics or story and it stops being about one man stuck in the middle then I'm not really interested.  If that makes any sense.


    I guess I'm trying to make sure there is a difference between story and motivation for continuing to play the game.  The story can be crap, as long as I like the characters enough to keep playing.  I know it's stupid, but I have to like the people I'm playing as to enjoy the game.

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