Metroidvania Part 1: The Mummy Demastered

I’m currently in the middle of a ~week long break from work. Since I travel semi-regularly for my job, I decided to make this a staycation. Spending some time at home getting caught up on languishing personal projects, dealing with a few long-put off tasks, and just relaxing seemed like exactly what I needed.

Lately, I’ve been trying to put more time and energy into my creativity-driven side projects, namely: game development. During this break I’ve spent a fair amount of time working on a personal project (Tanki) that was originally developed over a weekend for the Global Game Jam. In Tanki, the player controls a cute cartoonish tank by drawing instructions on a command screen, and then pressing a transmission button. Tanki then executes your commands and (hopefully) avoids any life-threatening obstacles, hitting a flag pole at the end of each level. The game is puzzle-oriented and many of the levels can be solved via repeated bouts of trial and error.

While I’m excited about the progress being made on this game, it isn’t the kind of game I’m ultimately interested in making. In addition to doing work on Tanki, I wanted to spend sometime researching and analyzing games that are more closely aligned with my development aspirations. This is also a great excuse to spend my time off grinding through some awesome games I’ve had my eye on, or even had in my Steam/console library but haven’t gotten around to playing yet.

The games that have stuck with me the most all tend to have a few things in common:

They look like they’d be right at home on an NES/SNES.

They’re 2D side scrollers with some challenging platforming elements and tight controls.

They tend to have a bit of a spooky/moody feel to them — usually the player is fairly isolated in a compound, on a planet, or at some other location with no other signs of non-threatening life.

They offer a mix of action/combat, puzzles, and exploration of an ever more accessible world that opens up as you collect powerups — “Metroidvanias.”

I obviously love a lot of games that have few, or sometimes even none, of these characteristics. Super Mario Brothers, while known for its tight controls, isn’t exactly spooky/moody and is often pretty light on puzzles or long-lived power ups, for example. But when I think hard about the most rewarding game play experiences I’ve had in the last few years, and even tracing all the way back to my childhood, they all feature most of these elements. In actuality, my fixation on most of my favorite games trace back to Super Metroid, and the fact that the developers making these games were similarly inspired by its isolating and expansive world.

This brings us to The Mummy Demastered.

My intention is to collect my thoughts on the things I found most (and least) enjoyable and engaging while playing TMD. Over the next few days/weeks, I’ll be working through some other games in the genre and comparing their strengths and weaknesses, primarily with the goal of informing my own future game development. While I’m not aiming to make this a proper game review, I do think it is worth calling out that this game is affiliated with the poorly-received Universal’s The Mummy reboot. To put it simply: This is a really, really good game that is at least loosely tied to a really, really bad movie.

Oh, and there are going to be spoilers. So if you haven’t played the game yet and intend to, you may want to forego reading this for now.

Metroidvania 101

This game is a true Metroidvania. It checks every item off of my list, some of them many times over. I’ve even seen comments Twitter refer to this (in a complimentary way) as a “Super Metroid ripoff.” I don’t think that’s a fair characterization, but the game certainly does fit fairly cleanly into the genre carved out by its predecessor. At its core, it could be a game built off of the same engine/mechanics as Super Metroid. The player controls a soldier (I think mercenary is actually more apt) under the employ of Prodigius, deployed to an underground cavern “somewhere in Iraq” investigate a situation.

The world is a series of interconnected rooms. At the start, a small set of the rooms are accessible to the player, while many other rooms are blocked by various types of barricades — some are boarded over, others have steel bars guarding them, etc. This is a classic mechanic of the genre; the player is shown areas that they know they’ll eventually be able to access, but they’re locked out of for now. It immediately puts you in a frame of mind to begin looking for a weapon or power-up that will allow you to pass a particular type of barrier and explore all the chambers protected by that type.

Each room is basically an instance. If you leave and return, all of the enemies will have respawned.  In fact, the entire room resets. Any crates or other objects you’ve broken will be restored.  The only exceptions are bosses, collection of rare/limited items such as those that permanently increase your health bar or grant new abilities, or other one-time encounters. Most enemies do not immediately respawn while you’re in the room, with the exception of some areas that are constantly flooded with enemies as part of a challenge. For example, there are several challenging platforming sections that are made more difficult by a constant bidirectional flow of crows trying to knock you off your perch as you move from tiny ledge to tiny ledge.

There are save rooms. There are ammo-refill rooms. There are large boss arena rooms. There are long vertical platforming chambers that serve as hallways that interconnect many of the more interesting exploration areas. There are even plenty of rooms that have easily killed flying creatures that constantly respawn to allow you to easily grind for health/ammo. Essentially, these are all the archetypal features of a Metroidvania.

Is this just Super Metroid?

The description above covers basically any Metroidvania. That, on its own, would make some people (including myself) want to play the game. “A Super Metroid expansion pack? Cool, I’m in!” The Mummy Demastered is more than that, though. It diverges from the genre in significant ways and introduces novel mechanics.

The game focuses on gunplay. Even when you’ve scoured the map and collected tons of weapons and power ups, you’re ultimately left with two options: a shooty thing (some variant of gun) and a bangy thing (some variant of grenade.) I actually found myself longing for a good melee option at a few points, which never came. Ultimately, it wasn’t necessary to feel more than powerful enough to wipe out any enemy that got in the way. There are lots of guns to choose from, and they’re unique enough that they don’t feel redundant, which is a problem I’ve encountered in some other games.

The character will eventually be able to run faster, jump higher, and climb along the ceiling. However, TMD never introduces a grappling hook or some altered physical form a la the morph ball. The game play is all geared towards Contra-esque running and shooting (which might be explained by the fact that the studio, Wayforward, also developed Contra 4.)

Waypoints are a major quality of life improvement in this game. If you’ve played Super Metroid or any other Metroidvania without a guide, you’ve probably spent some amount of time doubling back, revisiting rooms, squinting at your map, scratching your head, and wondering which direction you should be heading. While the freedom of this style of game can be great — it’s not just a long, straight hallway with enemies scattered throughout like some 2D games — it can also be overwhelming. If you miss an item or some subtle cue to take a particular action, you can waste hours of time trying to get back on track. TMD avoids this pain by providing you with constant, reliable signal about what you should be trying to tackle next.

Represented by golden tokens on your map, waypoints typically show the location of the next boss fight or next interaction required to move the story along in some significant way, e.g. getting you closer to beating the game. The great thing about these is that they aren’t forceful; they’re just there to guide you along. For instance, after beating the 2nd or 3rd boss I realized I had collected a lot of items that would open areas to me that I couldn’t access earlier in the game at the start of the map. I decided to backtrack and explore, hopefully collecting some power ups or weapons along the way. I began heading in the opposite direction of my next waypoint and was able to return to the start of the game, where I picked up a few ammo and health bar expansions, as well as at least one new gun.

The game didn’t try to nudge me back on course. It didn’t put up a dialogue saying “Hey, we’re on a mission here! You’re going the wrong way!” It left me to explore as I would in any other Metroid-style game. However, when I was ready to get back to completing the game, I knew exactly where I needed to head on my map to pick things back up. This was made all the easier by the game’s inclusion of…

Fast travel. This game has a fairly robust fast travel system, implemented as a series of helicopter pickup and drop-off points. There isn’t a ton to say here; they provide a fairly painless way to traverse large sections of map much more quickly than just running back through the world. Another Metroidvania, Axiom Verge, also includes a fast travel mechanic, but I find The Mummy’s to be much less cumbersome and it definitely saved me a significant amount of time when I would double back to search for power ups.

You’re not special. One of my favorite things about this game is that the main character is not someone special. Unlike Samus Aran, the main character is just a faceless and nameless soldier. I’m not being poetic or projecting here; this is actually a fundamental game mechanic. Why? When you die, your body becomes a zombie, but retains all of your gear. You have to go track down your past incarnation, kill it, and get your loot back before you can resume your forward progress. The zombified version of yourself is one of the toughest enemies you’ll encounter because you’ve been stripped of all of your weapons and power ups (including health bar expansions, armor, etc.) and it has your weapons. So, expect it to throw grenades at you and shoot you with your own assault rifle. This is an interesting mechanic, although I never actually died at the hands of my zombie self while playing.

Minor Issues

Overall, I love this game. I beat it playing in two long stretches, totaling about 6 hours of game play. On my first run through, I collected 68% of items and discovered 93% of the map. I saved 21 times and died 12 times. I went in cold, not having read any strategies, looked at a map of the world, or any of the like. This game got all the big things right, and I only noticed a few small things I would have changed while playing.

 

Dialogue boxes are a little clunky. Dialogue in games is tough to do. You want to make sure you give the player instructions they need, without being overly intrusive. It seems that in this game there is an invisible trigger that brings up certain tutorial boxes (i.e. press A to jump), and these can be re-triggered repeatedly. It’s not a significant problem, but it did feel a little awkward when navigating narrow corridors early in the game and I triggered the same prompt two or three times by taking a step back.

No map zoom/pan?! Seriously? This game has a huge world and a correspondingly large map. However, there is no way to zoom in on the map. I may be getting old, but I found myself squinting terribly to figure out exactly where I was — the block you’re currently inhabiting flashes white steadily, but there is plenty of white and other colors all over the screen at the same time. I really wish there was a button to clearly highlight where you are, and the ability to zoom in on sections of the map.

The difficulty curve is a little weird. I died 12 times when playing the game. I never died to a normal enemy/hazard, and can only recall even coming close once. I think some of the rooms could be beefed up a bit in terms of difficulty, or the drops that replenish health/ammo could be slightly less generous. I also found ammo to essentially be a non-factor in the game, as the only time I ever really ran out was during boss fights.

All of my deaths came at the hands of bosses. The first boss was extremely easy. I died many times to the 2nd boss, who was described as “the one that devours the dead” but was kind of like a goofy dinosaur from hell. This was largely because I was trying to be a bullet sponge and not actually working on dodging his fireballs, but I didn’t have enough health for this to be viable. Most of the bosses that followed Satanic Yoshi weren’t really challenging, although this may be because by the time I encountered them I had gone and explored enough to buff my health and weapons substantially. I found that for several of the bosses, I had enough health and ammo that I could essentially completely ignore their attacks/patterns and just empty my weapons into them. They would die before I did.

I died two or three times against the final boss of the game, which I suppose is reasonable given the gear I had amassed and that the game seems to favor being fun over frustrating, which often means not oppressing the player too much.

Limited inventory size. The game only lets you carry two guns (plus your default infinite ammo rifle) at a time. This is a little bit of a bummer, as it means you need to go to ammo rooms in order to swap in/out new weapons. Some guns are particularly effective (or ineffective) against certain enemies, so it can mean some running around to swap weapons at times. This isn’t a huge issue, and likely just adding a 3rd weapon slot would have made the game a little too easy at times, but it was still unfortunate to not be able to spend more time using each of the weapons, since they’re all so fun and distinct from one another.

Redundant run-leap puzzle mechanicThere is a powerup that lets you jump farther once you build up a running start. Once you collect this, it is used over and over again to acquire hidden items. At first, this was pretty unique, as it sometimes will require you to go into an adjacent room and begin building up speed in order to make the jump in the next room. However, it quickly felt redundant because of how extensively it seems to be used.

Pointless collectibles. I beat the game with 68% of items collected. Many of these items were things like guns, grenades, health bar upgrades, and so on. However, >20 of these items were “relics.” Relics are just… collectibles. They’re like the hidden packages of old in Grand Theft Auto: we hid a bunch of things all around the world, go collect them for no obvious reason. I’m a bit disappointed that the game contains 50 relics, but there isn’t really any reason to collect them all beyond completionism. There may be an achievement or something similar, but I’m not really motivated by that. I wish there was at least something like an ultra powerful weapon to unlock if you collected all 50. Or, instead of having health bar add-ons at all, why not give the player a health boost for every 10 relics they collect? This would make sense within the context of the story; your character could get life force from these, the same as he gets abilities from other runes that are collected. It would also make me feel like I wasn’t running around on a scavenger hunt for no reason.

Final Thoughts

I had a ton of fun playing The Mummy Demastered. It’s a fun, horror-themed variation and an extremely capable implementation of a classic Metroidvania. Even though I’ve already defeated the final boss I may continue exploring what the game has left to offer, at least to collect the health and ammo expansions I missed, if not the ~20 relics that I failed to find on my first pass through. I’d strongly recommend it to anyone that enjoyed Super Metroid or Axiom Verge, and perhaps especially to those who found Super Metroid to be a bit too challenging or obtuse at times. The mechanics Wayforward added are nice improvements on a classic formula; it might be hard for me in the future to go play an expansive world game that didn’t incorporate some kind of fast travel.

 

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