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Critical Essay Series: Shadow Complex

How Shadow Complex represents the Platypus in a videogame evolutionary timeline.

Shadow Complex intrigues me in so many ways. It intrigues me because this kind of game could only come out in either 2009 or 1999. It intrigues me because playing this game is almost like looking at a revisionist’s timeline that had used the current generation of gaming technology, but decided to create classic 2-D games with it instead of embracing the 3-D space.

But most of all, Shadow Complex intrigues me because it is a walking contradiction in that it is so deeply rooted in the past, yet the final product ends up showcasing the modern gaming sensibilities of today.    

Back in the early part of this decade when Nintendo was talking about “re-booting” the Metroid series, many had imagined Nintendo to stick with its roots and give us a similar experience to games like Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Yet when Nintendo had unveiled Metroid Prime to the world, many were so caught up with the fact that Metroid had made the jump into 3-D so flawlessly that most industry experts had overlooked the fact that a seismic shift had just taken place.

By making the current Metroid 3-D, Nintendo had conceded to the fact that a 2-D Metroid style game was no longer in the zeitgeist of the console experience. For the most part, they were right. How could you defend paying $50 for a 2-D “Metroidvania” game in a generation where 3-D gaming was finally maturing?

The answer; you couldn’t. Nintendo understood that by not redefining one of their corner stone franchises into the 3-D space, they risk sentencing the nostalgic power which Metroid held into obscurity. During the GameCube era, this was something Nintendo could not afford.    

So now, we fast forward to the year 2009. Unlike the early part of this decade, gaming sensibilities have evolved in a way that would surprise those in the turn of the current century. In this gaming climate, any game is plausible to have a healthy following thanks to the era of digital distribution. This is where Shadow Complex enters the conversation.

Shadow Complex is a game developed by Chair Entertainment that uses the Unreal Engine 3 and is currently a download only title on Xbox Live for only fifteen dollars. So why does all of this matter? Well let’s look at the facts. Shadow Complex can only be purchased as a downloadable title, which means that it is not taking up physical shelf space at some store. The game is only fifteen dollars, so it is reasonable enough that if you are interested in the title it is a low risk purchase.

The game also runs on Unreal Engine 3, which basically means it is using current generation technology in which most 3-D games are made from in this era. Add all these to the fact that the game is basically Metroid  and you get the equivalent of a modern day 2-D game or to be more specific, the evolution of what Metroid would have been if Nintendo had stuck with 2-D.

As I stated before, when Nintendo decided to move the Metroid series into the 3-D space, you figured you would never have a proper console 2-D Metroid ever again. The last “Metroidvania” type game that had appeared on consoles until Shadow Complex was Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and that was over 12 years ago.

For that reason, Shadow Complex is an anomaly. A brilliant anomaly, but an anomaly never the less. It looks and plays like something that is picked out of an alternate universe where 3-D gaming was a fad in the 90’s and 2-D gaming is the primary architecture for games. So in many reviews, gaming journalists comment that Shadow Complex is the natural evolutionary step from Symphony of the Night.

However in reality it is more like a huge evolutionary jump from a creature that has taken its first steps out of the primordial ooze to intelligent man, bypassing all of stages of development in between. The reason that the analogy of the evolutionary jump is a better fit is because of the game’s use of modern gaming tropes in its execution.

 

Now when I say this, I am not only talking about the technology in which the game incorporates through the lessons learned through the advancements in modern computing, like the use of 3-D space or graphical effects. That only scratches the surface. What I am talking about is the implementation of modern gaming ideas in how it incorporates them into its core design philosophy.

For example, if you were to play Symphony of the Night today, many people might be turned off by the constant grind it presents. In the game, some objectives take quite a bit of effort and time to complete. For those who are only familiar with modern gaming sensibilities, this potentially could be such a deterrent that they would stop playing the game out of sheer frustration.

In Shadow Complex however, they have incorporated these modern gaming sensibilities into its core gameplay design. Game design elements like no objective taking longer then fifteen minutes to complete or having lots of secret rooms in the game, but none of them being essential in completing the game, really showcases those tropes of modern gaming.

All these elements of modern gaming sensibilities combined with the blueprint of a game that is over a decade old, results in the fact that Shadow Complex is the Metroid game if Nintendo had decided not to create the Metroid Prime series. For that reason Shadow Complex can straddle the fence between those who remember the Metroid series fondly and to those who have never played a “Metroidvania” game in their life. It ends up being most people's favorite because it can be enjoyed by all.

The modern gaming sensibilities appease those only familiar with modern gaming tropes and older gaming enthusiast enjoys the fact that they get to play the 21st century version of a 2-D Metroid. Yet, you can not help but see Shadow Complex as a blip in the timeline of the evolution of games.

Even though Shadow Complex was popular to many, I would be shocked if it became a catalysis in which developers started creating “Metroidvania” games or even 2-D games in general. The mindset of the industry has moved on to a 3-D space, which makes Shadow Complex an irregular branch off of the modern gaming timeline.

In the end, Shadow Complex is a reminder of how far the mindsets of which we view games have come. Only in the age of digital distribution could Shadow Complex exist in this modern era of gaming. However for that very reason it also becomes more then a “Metroidvania” clone, it represents what modern gaming could have been.  

[Shadow Complex is developed by Chair Entertainment and is currently available for the Xbox 360 as a downloadable exclusive for Xbox Live] 

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