In sports, there is a tenuous relationship between the era of old heroes and the present occupation of the “new school.” Lebrons rise to wash the Ewings and Jordans out of the tapestry of basketball’s hallowed halls. Jon Joneses decimate folk legends with an eerie effortlessness. Time warps generations from motivated progressives taking yesterdays questions and turning them into tomorrow’s answers, into old men shake their fists from their porches at youth stepping perilously close to their lawns.
In games, we call it “homage.” Or “inspired by.” Or recently, “HD Remake.” Our entire model involves iterating and making the past look and feel as good as we remember it. Some studios do so by literally tidying up titles from eras gone. Housemarque has made the last ten years of their career by breaking the past to pieces, and rebuilding it in their image.
Sometimes, that’s been as simple as adding more voxels and adventure to Asteroids. Other times, it’s involved a dipping and baking Robotron 2048 and Smash TV in a coat of cablepunk. Like Super Stardust HD and Nex Machina, Matterfall’s list of ingredients are clear. Equal parts Mega Man and Metal Slug, a dash of Metroid. Shake over Ikaruga. Double strain into Mighty No. 9. Enjoy?
Avalon Darrow’s story is largely unimportant. Alien “Smart Matter” has infected human ecosystems and has turned everything into to highly deadly, wildly shootable creatures that only she can deal with. The narrative being driven by the act of playing is a far more compelling story. Almost every moment you spend jumping, shooting, and dashing across the game’s three worlds is rife with intense action. With life being a scarce commodity, and enemy projectiles always in abundance, the maneuvers you develop to survive is often the stuff of tall tales.
There’s much to relearn about side scrolling platformers when you first jump into Matterfall. Running and shooting are assigned to the left and right sticks – a Housemarque signature at this point. Jumping and dashing, side scroller staples, find themselves on the shoulder buttons, though. Remembering that X won’t save you from the doom of a bottomless pit is something that took hours to accept. It’s a minor change that also makes a statement: Housemarque is willing to change the very genetic legacy of old genres if it means producing a fresh experience.
It’s also willing to dabble in its own legacy to plant something fresh in the heart of such a monolithic standard of gaming. It polarity play on colors – some red enemies needing to be turned blue before demolishing – is a call back to Outland. The interspersed human captives needing saving in each stage carries the savior tradition in various other Housemarque games. Environmental triggers that have screen clearing capabilities (in the form of Matter Bombs here) are commodities in Resogun. Playing Matterfall isn’t just a hat tip to the Contra’s of yore, but a greatest hits of of Housemarque’s own recent catalogue.
The final product is a short and sweet, high octane shooter that hits more than it misses. Enemy types that are abundant and ubiquitous in every level are arranged in set pieces that truly test your mettle in creative ways. Some of the more unique ones, like a humanoid that phase shifts or a giant bull/bearbot, do more to kill the pace than enhance it. Some sections of the maps are well laid out and facilitate tactical platforming and decision making. On too many occasions, maps will sprawl into branching paths that often appear to encourage exploration, but only sometimes lead to a pay off that is more fruitful than a set of points crystals. Castlevania it is not.
At it’s most focused, though, past and present collide to create a worthy prototype for a successor to the estate that Mega Man built. Purists will, inevitably, argue against it’s claims to the throne. “It’s too short,” they’ll say. “It’s too flawed.” “It didn’t score 38 points in the finals while having the flu.”
Greatness is never a slave to the past, but ever inspired by it.