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Ion Maiden Savors the Strange Taste of Nostalgia

A few days ago, Jon St. John, the voice actor behind the ‘90s video game icon Duke Nukem, tweeted out a call to arms, asking fans of the character to rally together to try to get a new entry in the long-dormant series greenlit. While we live in a time where unlikely revivals from previous eras of gaming seem to happen on a nigh-weekly basis – sometimes venturing into returns that seemingly no one wanted, such as the case of forgotten mascot Bubsy the Bobcat – a machismo-oozing parody of ‘80s action stars seems like an unlikely candidate for redemption in this more progressive era of gaming.

It’s not at all clear even what form a potential follow-up would take, given that the linear level-based first-person shooting of “Duke Nukem 3D” and its famously-belated sequel “Duke Nukem Forever” have become unfashionable in recent years. However, former publisher 3D Realms seem determined to deliver one possible vision of what such a game might look like with the upcoming “Ion Maiden,” albeit shorn of the lunkheaded hero who first put the studio on the map. The highly-influential British metal band recently announced a lawsuit against 3D Realms, claiming that the game unfairly profits off their trademarks. How exactly that suit will proceed remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure: for what it sets out to be, “Ion Maiden” is quite a good game.

Perhaps that’s a bit unfair. After all, on paper, “Maiden” is exactly what die-hards have clamored for: an entirely new game constructed from the ground up in a modern take-off of the Build engine, the now-ancient tech that powered “Duke 3D,” along with the lesser-remembered “Shadow Warrior” and “Blood.” And while its “2.5D” sprite-based enemies and simplistic architecture might not impress the uninitiated, for my money, it looks exactly like a modern take on a game engine built in 1996 should look like, complete with a subdued color palette and low-res graffiti on its gray concrete walls.

Most surprising of all, however, is how “Maiden” manages to feel like a welcoming evolution of the strain of old-school shooting that “Duke 3D” still represents. You’d be forgiven for not taking notice, but there’s a strong argument to be made that we are living in the best era for retro first-person shooters since the early 2000’s. The likes of the highly-acclaimed “Dusk” and “Amid Evil” have adopted the mantle of high-intensity, high-mobility fare epitomized by the likes of the original “Quake” and the Serious Sam series, and the genre is better for it.

Still, while Duke himself looms large in our recollections, it’s the subtle design advances that “Duke 3D” introduced that make it such an important game, at least to me. Its arsenal of weapons is a perfect balance between satisfying versions of standard shooter fare like pistols and shotguns and eccentric toys like a “freezethrower” and a shrink/enlarge ray. Most famously of all, it was also one of the very first games to accurately capture a mundane indoor space that felt true to life, with light switches you could flip and toilets you could flush. It might sound a bit pedestrian today, but there’s a straight line from “Duke 3D’s” movie theater to the sprawling interactive expanse of “Half-Life’s” Black Mesa.

You could say that forging a new retro-shooter in its classic engine is a conservative approach, and it’s pretty clear that developer Voidpoint isn’t exactly trying to reinvent the wheel with “Ion Maiden.” The bombed-out Washington, D.C. of its first level feels very reminiscent of the post-apocalyptic L.A. of Duke’s first episode, and the quips that spring forth from protagonist Shelly “Bombshell” Harrison are Nukem-esque, to say the least. That said, they’ve taken the moment-to-moment gunplay a few steps forward, and that’s what makes the whole package sing. In true old-school fashion, this is a savagely-difficult game, with even the puny goon robots able to annihilate Shelly in no time at all with their fast projectiles, even on the default difficulty setting. Cover and circle-strafing are mandatory for any chance of survival, though locating some of the dozens of secrets seeded in each map will certainly give you an edge. Probably my favorite touch is how enemies blown up by the throwable “bowling bombs” give you a handful of much-needed armor shards, in a mechanic similar to the rip-and-tear “glory kills” of “Doom (2016).”

Voidpoint has made a handful of concessions to the advance of technology since 1996, particularly in the size of the levels. Rather than the short, straightforward box-corridors of many other retro-shooters, the current Early Access build of “Ion Maiden” features two sprawling “zones” that take an hour or two to complete each, segmented by auto-saves and brief loading periods. It might seem like heresy to some fans, but this pseudo-open-world approach allows the world to wrap back on itself in interesting ways, as well as giving you a clearer sense of progression. For example, you spend roughly half the first “zone” trying to access the basement of the same building, fighting your way up into the penthouse suite through an office complex. Once you reach the basement via a special keycard – this is a classic FPS, after all – you enter a winding labyrinth of drab subway tunnels that eventually lead to a harrowing boss-fight with a mech that took me around a dozen tries to finally beat.

These days, big publishers with dollar signs in their eyes often seem to stoke the fires of nostalgia for dusty franchises before they actually figure out a fresh angle to make the game appeal to a generation of players that don’t get a charge of glee up their spinal column when they hear the opening riff to “Grabbag.” That said, the success of both “Ion Maiden” and “Sonic Mania” show that publishers would be smart to hire out to developers or modders who have an unmatched ardor for these games, rather than trying to build out a love letter themselves. While I’m not sure that “Ion Maiden” has much to offer to those who didn’t grow up with Duke, it’s one of the finer examples of a retro-shooter to come out yet, and I’ll take as many of those as I can get my hands on.

The Independent Variable is a monthly column that delves into the unknown, unhinged, and downright bizarre in search of the most outstanding indie games by freelance reporter and curator Steven T. Wright. 

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