Indie Game of the Week 127: Environmental Station Alpha

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Look, I realize I play a lot of spacewhippers (which I'll be calling explormers for a change) for this piece, but that's only because people keep making them. What am I to do? Not explore the wonderful maps they've made and the particular flowchart they've designed for how each of the upgrades opens a path to the next? This particular phenomenon, which I don't just limit to platformers with this concept but certain gated RPGs and action-adventure games like The Legend of Zelda also, are built like an enormous environmental puzzle that you can't really even readily process due to the enormity of it: it's like a hedge maze, where you can only appreciate its form looking down from high above, though you can certainly appreciate its function while you're lost inside.

Environmental Station Alpha made me think about what it is about explormers at their core that is so appealing, because the game itself has no grand ambition or gimmick or pretensions. Inspired to no small extent by Metroid Fusion, the player is a robot exploring the titular space station. It is presently devoid of human life and has since been taken over by a combination of the biological organisms that were being studied by the crew and a compromised station AI, all of which are hostile. Given little direction, the immediate goal at any given moment is to find notes left by the scientists, follow their directions to necessary suit upgrades or other sites of importance like the main generator, and fight the occasional boss that opts to end your expedition short. Even the upgrades themselves are as standard as they come: a hookshot, a double-jump, an air-dash (with multiple sub-upgrades), a charge shot for the main weapon, a suit for surviving high temperatures, and the requisite health upgrades. Health starts at ten points and goes up to at least thirty: hardly the hundreds that Samus ends up with, but that's sort of the point of ESA.

It wasn't long until I took to capturing and annotating my own map. Sometimes you gotta do the legwork yourself, especially with a map this big.
It wasn't long until I took to capturing and annotating my own map. Sometimes you gotta do the legwork yourself, especially with a map this big.

Environmental Station Alpha isn't concerned with being showy. Its 8-bit presentation - though it's a little more substantial than that under the hood - makes a clear statement that this is the genre boiled down to the core components. Instead of flashy bells and whistles, the developers instead opt to put all their efforts into creating a moderately-sized game - I'm near the end and have about 12 hours on the clock - with a concise difficulty curve and the most responsive controls you could ask for. Speaking as someone whose PC could be kindly rated by professional computer assembly sites as "rescued from a skip"-tier quality, I appreciate a graphically lo-fi game that has no trouble maintaining a steady framerate with zero lag: essential for most games, but especially so for explormers. Of course, your mileage with pixel art may vary, but I will say the artist(s) do a lot with a little here: the small sprite makes the various cavernous chambers of the station feel that much more immense and lonely, and the player's travels are accompanied with some great melancholy atmospheric VGM to befit the game's Metroid allusions.

In some respects, it's hard to sing the praises of an explormer that doesn't rock the boat or introduce much new to the existing and well-worn formula. It has little personality of its own, save the developer's well-hidden silly in-jokes and whatever eerie atmosphere it stole from Metroid's playbook, and it's unlikely you haven't encountered its specific formula a dozen times before, depending on how attached to this particular genre and its Indie incarnations you might be. All that said, the game hones in on and nails everything immanent to the explormer genre, with a surprisingly long runtime and a carefully calibrated difficulty curve that I can attest to being perfectly suited to my own level of skill at least: I consider any game of this type a winner if I can rarely beat a boss on the first attempt, but can usually pull it off before my tenth. It looks like it's packed with other secrets, some of which I'm slowly discovering as I inch closer to that elusive 100%. It may be the most vanilla ice cream of Indie explormers, especially when stacked up against the extravagant Neapolitan sundae that is the recent Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, but you can never go wrong with vanilla.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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