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Before I start, let me get something out of the way: I have never played either a Metroid or a Castlevania game (blasphemy, I know). However, if it is any consolation, I have at least played a ‘metroidvania’ style game thanks to the superb Shadow Complex. Given my relative lack of experience with the sub-genre it’s difficult for me to judge the relative merits of Shadow Complex in contrast to its predecessors and peers. What I can say, however, is that having played a variety of different titles on Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade, that Shadow Complex is one of the best games available on the service, and that it is one of the games that has helped redefined the service.

 

What initially drew me to Shadow Complex was its gorgeous presentation. Utilizing the Unreal 3 Engine, the team at Chair did an amazing job at crafting a varied and interesting world for players to explore. Playing the game you get a sense of the attention to detail that the level designers must have put into the game, as the placement and look of each and every rock and pipe that makes up the titular complex appears to have been painstakingly considered. The result is a the game is not only visually appealing and memorable, but one that is also immensely playable. Indeed, perhaps the greatest strength of Shadow Complex’s presentation is how it is used to support and enhance the game’s core gameplay mechanics. Part of the appeal of any metroidvania style game is finding all the upgrades and items that the developer has hidden throughout the game world. In Shadow Complex exploring the world is pure joy since the beauty of the level design encourages the player to explore every nook and cranny.

Of course, graphics alone do not make a game, and it helps that from a gamplay standpoint that Shadow Complex is very fun and addictive. That being said, almost everything here you’ve seen before — not that is a bad thing, and that being said, Shadow Complex does have something special to set it apart from its peers.

Metroidvania style games have been in existence now for almost a quarter of a century; the original Metroid was released in 1986. Since that time a variety of developers have worked hard to polish and perfect the formula. However, to the best of my knowledge Shadow Complex is the first Metroidvania game to feature player leaderboards — one of them tracks every player’s fastest game completion time. A feature like this might seem to be fairly insignificant, but it’s a feature that in the context of the genre is a game changer. To put it into perspective, a search of ‘Metriod speed run’ on YouTube produces 3,650 results. The videos speak to a culture that the genre has created in which players compete to finish a game in the genre in the least amount of time or with the bare minimum of optional items. Of course, for many merely knowing that they are the best at a certain game in their circle of friends is not enough, and while sites like YouTube have made it easier to figure out who in the world has finished Metroid the fastest, few metroidvania games have taken to heart the culture that the genre has produced and ingrained it the very soul of the game like Shadow Complex has. For instance, in Shadow Complex I know that my completion time of 32:52 is the best among all my friends, that it is the three hundred and seventh best time posted by anyone who has played the game, and that I would need to complete the game in under seven minutes to have a shot at being considered the fastest player to have played the game.

That Shadow Complex can connect its community in this simple but intuitive way is in large part thanks to it being a part of the Xbox Live Arcade ecosystem. Microsoft — to it’s great credit — has been quick to embrace the Internet as a way to connect the millions of players that game on their console every day; something Sony has been slower to embrace, and something that Nintendo has totally ignored. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that when Metroid: Other M ships later this year that it will have the same robust community features that Shadow Complex has, and it’s something that I honestly think could potentially add a lot to that game. In that sense, what greatly contributes to Shadow Complex’s success is the very fact that it’s the Arcade service.

Of course, that success goes both ways. Prior to games like Shadow Complex, Braid, and Castle Crashers arriving on the service, most of the games on Xbox Live Arcade were either casual games or retro re-releases. Suffice to say, with the exception of a game like Geometry Wars, there was nothing on the service that gamers had to play. That changed with Shadow Complex, here was a game that had the polish of a full priced retail game with a fraction of the cost. I imagine that games like Shadow Complex did so much to change the landscape of the Live Arcade that Microsoft was forced to launch the Retro Arcade Room in order to give the titles that used to make up the service a chance to succeed, since those titles couldn’t compete anymore with the quality of the new wave of Live Arcade titles. In any case, I hope that the service continues to evolve, and that Shadow Complex is only the beginning of many great but affordable titles to grace the service.

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