‘Iconoclasts’ and the Power of Influence

How and why Konjak's dense metroidvania took its inspiration from the less-popular sequels to the genre's titans.

Nearly a decade in the making, “Iconoclasts” put a new spin on the well-worn metroidvania genre when it launched earlier this year. Both a sprawling quest across a large, interconnected world and a series of dense puzzle rooms to be solved one by one, “Iconoclasts” represents eight years of effort almost entirely by a single man: Joakim Sandberg, the individual behind developer Konjak.

True to its name, “Iconoclasts” breaks with a number of video game traditions and clichés. Its plucky heroine, Robin, wants to make the world a better place, but her efforts to play do-gooder in defiance of her government’s strict laws causes more problems than it solves. Likewise, the game doesn’t precisely go out of its way to make its complex narrative accessible to newcomers; much of the game world’s workings make little sense until you revisit them after working your way through the entire story. Even the final boss defies expectations, coming on the heels of a huge story twist that all but sidesteps the sinister organization that drives most of the narrative while still making perfect sense within the context of the plot.

Sandberg describes the game and its story as reflections of his own personal obsessions. At the same time, “Iconoclasts” also reflects his own distinct taste in video games. As with many exploratory platformers, “Iconoclasts” draws inspiration from some of the most influential series in the metroidvania style, including “Wonder Boy” and, of course, “Metroid” itself. Yet Sandberg has been up-front about the fact that his greatest love for those formative franchises tends to be for their less popular entries, the games few fans and even fewer designers cite as favorites.

Where countless designers look to “Metroid” and “Wonder Boy” by imitating 1994’s “Super Metroid” and 1989’s “Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap,” Sandberg instead gravitates toward those games’ sequels. Indeed, this might be the most iconoclastic thing about “Iconoclasts.” The game has a radically different feel from other indie titles that work from the “Super Metroid” template, such as “Shadow Complex” and “Ori and the Blind Forest.” The differences between “Super Metroid” and “Metroid Fusion” can be subtle at a glance — after all, both involved bounty hunter Samus Aran powering up as she explored a dangerous maze-world full of hostile creatures — but their fine details resulted in decidedly different play experiences.

For example, where most people agree that “Super Metroid” was a masterpiece, “Fusion” has proven to be a far more divisive work. Part of that has to do with its exhaustive, and often exhausting, dialogue: Players are given lengthy plot summaries and objectives every few minutes, a far cry from “Super Metroid’s” atmosphere of mute isolation. Sandberg for his part agrees that “Fusion” turned out too talky: “It really should let you skip the narrative!” he says, chuckling.

Despite that flaw, Sandberg finds himself drawn to “Fusion” in particular because of the unique moment-to-moment sensation of its play. “My big obsession with making games is game feel,” he says. “‘Metroid Fusion’ is the best ‘Metroid’ game in terms of how it feels and how it plays. [2004’s] ‘Zero Mission’ based itself on that, but ‘Fusion’ came first. I love the way it introduced new ideas, and I love the idea of hanging from ledges and pulling yourself up into a tiny hole — I basically copied that in my [‘Iconoclasts’] engine.”

Indeed, “Iconoclasts” protagonist Robin shares much in common with “Metroid” heroine Samus Aran. While less heavily armed, she moves about with a nimble fluidity that calls to mind Samus’ post-Super NES adventures. And, like modern Samus, she can grasp ledges to pull herself up to platforms too high to be reached with a simple jump. This, he says, came directly from “Fusion’s” reinvention of Samus, where she shed the floaty feel of previous games in favor of a more responsive move set.

“‘Fusion’ was the first ‘Metroid’ where [Samus’ jump changed]. When you jump straight into the air from a standing position in an older ‘Metroid’ game, Samus doesn’t flip. But if you press jump again in midair in ‘Fusion,’ she’ll start to spin, so you can do the infinite Space Jump from a standing position. That’s the kind of thing that makes me prefer one game over another — the attention to detail and flow, the ease of use. And that’s something they kept in later games, even ‘Metroid: Other M,’ which is basically ‘Metroid Fusion’ controls in eight directions.”

However, great controls mean nothing if a game doesn’t offer players a reason to put them to use, and Sandberg sees “Fusion” as a success on that front as well.

“A big part of my love for the game is that it’s the ‘Metroid’ with the most bosses. The entire concept of the game is you meet these X-Parasites, and every ability you recover from them involves a battle. That’s my neanderthal mind: ‘I’m going to love this more because it has more bosses!’

“I do enjoy the fact that ‘Fusion’ is a guided experience, because what I love about a ‘Metroid’ game isn’t necessarily exploring. It’s more about enjoying the controls of the game and fighting things, which ‘Fusion’ has the most of, in my opinion. ‘Super Metroid’ is a very important game. It did things first, and sometimes better… it didn’t need words to tell its story, which is always impressive. I’m not really the biggest fan of getting lost in games, and I think that carries over into ‘Iconoclasts.'”

However, while “Iconoclasts” owes its tremendous boss encounters, play mechanics, and general sense of flow to “Metroid Fusion,” Nintendo’s game may be less of an influence on Sandberg’s creation than a far more esoteric retrogame: Sega’s “Monster World IV.” Created by developer Westone for the 16-bit Mega Drive console in 1994, “Monster World IV” didn’t officially make its way out of Japan until Sega released it for last-gen consoles in 2009.

“Monster World IV” is even an outlier in its own legacy, and not just because it failed to connect with international audiences until years after its tech had become obsolete. For one thing, it was the final entry in a series that began with 1986’s “Wonder Boy.” But as the title suggests, Wonder Boy doesn’t appear in the game; he’s replaced as the lead character by a young woman named Asha. Likewise, “Monster World IV” tamps down the open-ended structure of the latter “Wonder Boy” titles in favor of a contiguous world that ultimately favors linear progression.

“Monster World IV” has never sat entirely well with many “Wonder Boy” fans. “Personally, I was always a little disappointed in the changes to the structure,” says game historian Kurt Kalata, curator of the site Hardcore Gaming 101. “‘Monster World IV’ had better level design, but at the expense of the open-ended elements of ‘The Dragon’s Trap’ and ‘Wonder Boy in Monster World.’ The Monster World series had always walked the balance of ‘action’ and ‘RPG,’ but this fell more on the ‘action’ side.”

“Still,” Kalata notes, “the visuals had gotten better, and both the female protagonist and the Arabian setting gave it a more unique style than the comical-fantasy style of the previous games.”

It was this visual reinvention of the “Wonder Boy” franchise that particularly resonated with Sandberg. Even before “Iconoclasts,” “Monster World IV” has exerted an enormous influence over his work.

Iconoclasts
CREDIT: Konjak

“I love the aesthetic,” he says. “The charm of the main character’s expressiveness without words. And I think the translation is really good — I even borrowed their term ‘procure’ for acquiring things!

“I worked on a game before ‘Iconoclasts’ called ‘Minna of the Pirates,’ and it took even more visual inspiration from ‘Monster World IV.’ I copied the hand design of those sprites, where you have a separate thumb and index finger, but the rest of the hand is like one big fat finger.”

Even “Monster World IV” critics acknowledge that the game felt like a natural successor to the “Wonder Boy” franchise in terms of its visual evolution. Kalata observes, “Westone games always had strong character expressed through simple things like detailed animations and distinctive sound effects. For ‘Monster World IV,’ look at the way Asha walks, runs, or even performs simple tasks like opening treasure chests. You can get a lot of personality through small things like this.”

Where “Monster World IV” makes its presence felt most in “Iconoclasts,” Sandberg says, is in its dense structure. Although the layout of the overall world resembles that of “Metroid Fusion,” inside each area players find themselves confronted by increasingly convoluted platformer labyrinths. Although Robin has only a limited selection of abilities at her command, most of them revolving around the oversized wrench she carries, the game puts these to use in elaborate ways. Navigating certain areas, such as the tower midway through the adventure, takes much longer than those spaces’ size would suggest. Their elaborate layouts and crisscrossing passageways demand players develop a certain spatial memory and intuition — something Sandberg says he adopted from Westone’s game.

“Almost every square inch of ‘Iconoclasts’ has either an enemy to beat or a door to open,” he says. “Some sort of puzzle. Something akin to opening a door to get to the next room. That’s very much in the spirit of ‘Monster World IV’s’ dungeons. It was like a side-scrolling ‘Zelda’ in terms of puzzles. OK, the puzzles in ‘Monster World IV’ are very, very simplistic and very, very repetitive. But I really like that concept, and used it as a basis.”

That said, Sandberg has been cautious about too closely imitating either of the games that helped inform his own design philosophy. “Monster World IV” in particular, he says, trips over its own feet at times.

“It’s kind of funny that ‘Monster World IV’ inspired a project that I’ve spent eight years on, because only half the game is good,” he jokes. “Once you get to the ice pyramid, you don’t want to play ‘Monster World IV’ anymore! It’s one of my favorite games for the first half… which might seem weird for someone who has said so much about it being such an inspiration. But once you get to the ice palace and have to repeat things that took an hour the first time and now takes two more hours… you’re just collecting statues. You don’t want to play anymore, but at least you’ve appreciated the aesthetics.”

Thinking over his history with the games that have had so much impact on his own, Sandberg laughs. “I’ve beaten ‘Metroid Fusion’ maybe 100 times … ‘Monster World IV’ I’ve beaten once.”

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