The recently released XBLA side-scroller Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet wears each of its various influences proudly on its sleeve. You'll probably see them if you play it, but if I had to list them all, I'd take a deep breath and say: a moderately tripped-out short from Fantasia grafted onto PixelJunk Shooter through the lens of Limbo by way of Shadow Complex, all wrapped up in a weirdo Dr Seuss-gone-wrong art-style.
But of course, when I say that it channels Shadow Complex, I mean that it actually channels Metroid and Castlevania, because Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is a "Metroidvainia" game, through and through. (I believe the fact that we still grudgingly surround the word "Metroidvainia" in quotation marks means that the term itself is never going to be more than an inelegant portmanteau. But what term to use in its place? I have no answer.)
Players spend much of ITSP flitting about in a little spacecraft that calls to mind nothing so much as Marvin the Martian's wee little flying saucer, using various upgrades to open different sections of a vast, backtrackable map. The game's defining aspect is certainly Michel Gagné's fantastic artwork, all silhouetted beasties and tentacles and ice-sculptures and deadly plant-life, lunging and swaying about the titular planet's surface.
Despite its convoluted (and, let's be honest, overly precious) name, ITSP is fairly simple as Metroidvainia games go; most of the secrets, gates, and hidden upgrades aren't actually all that hidden at all. But all the same, it scratches a very specific itch, conjuring that special feeling these games give — that of gradually digging, pushing, probing; feeling out a vast, unknown space for nooks and crannies, mining for treasure and gradually mastering a complex, ever-evolving ecosystem.
And ITSP is nothing if not an ecosystem; a free-standing, indifferent world of burrowing monsters, giant automated drills, crystalline caverns and whirring, grinding gears. For a gameworld so ostensibly filled with life, it all feels a bit dead and cold — nothing beyond my ship's portholes seems particularly aware of me, and enemies in the game feel more like part of an automated security system than sentient foes.
But in a way, that vague emptiness highlights ITSP's appealing exploration aspects even more — the entire experience doesn't conjure a space odyssey so much as a diving expedition thousands of leagues beneath the sea, deep within gorges and hollows untouched by man.
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet doesn't quite achieve the just-one-more-room addictiveness of some of its influences, and combat and inventory management are a bit of a chore (there are more than four buttons on the 360 controller, guys!). But the game's clever puzzles, constantly surprising variety and never-not-gorgeous art design more than make up for those shortcomings. And more to the point, like any good Metroidvainia game, it offers regular doses of that small, unquantifiable thrill: I've unearthed a new upgrade. Where can I go now?
From the presumed sequel to Shadow Complex to the coming 3DS re-release of Cave Story, to 3D games like Darksiders and Batman: Arkham Asylum, we sure do seem to be seeing a lot of traversable-world, exploration-based games these days.
An overload of any genre can quickly lead to fatigue — so many first-person shooters! Too many lengthy RPGs! But if the creepy crawly pleasures of Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet are any indication, I don't think I'll be getting tired of Metroidvainia games anytime soon.