Why ‘Cosmos Bit’? We couldn’t tell you either. It’s an odd name for a game that would dearly prefer to have ‘Metroid’ somewhere in the title.
Stop us if you’ve heard this before. You are Stella Mironova, and you’ve picked up a distress call form the Planet Jufier. It houses a small colony of scientists, but they’ve all gone missing, leaving only a keycard behind to access their laboratories. So, you’re hopping out of your spacecraft and diving further and further below the surface to find out where they’ve gone. Needless to say, these scientists delved a little too far down, and got overrun by green bug-eyed beasties.
It’s the simple setup for a spot of Metroidvania, with emphasis most definitely on the ‘Metroid’. Stella starts the game with nowt but a pathetic blaster and a single jump, but by exploring room after room of a sprawling map and defeating some bosses, she soon gathers some upgrades, like double-jumps, secondary weapons and grenade-like bombs.
There’s nothing linear about the way you progress through Cosmos Bit. The map expands to the west, then east, then south and then east again, as you hit up against walls that you can’t pass now, instead needing an upgrade to circumvent. Which is pretty much the definition of a Metroidvania. What makes Cosmos Bit slightly more irregular is that several upgrades are locked behind a shop (conveniently also the game’s save points and life refreshes), which require you to stockpile some of Jufier’s gems so that you can purchase them.
We want to timeout for a moment, as the shop is one of the strangest we’ve encountered. A large proportion of the game’s unlocks are available in the shop from moment one. You can max out Stella’s lifepoints, for example, if you have the right number of red, yellow and blue gems. But, the thing is, the price for these upgrades isn’t all that prohibitive. By entering and re-entering certain gem-heavy rooms, you can afford to buy each upgrade after five minutes or so. Now, it might be the min-maxer or JRPG fan in us, but this seemed like a small, grindy price to pay. So we paid it. We spent the opening twenty minutes of Cosmos Bit grinding the same rooms, over and over, so that we could be a super-Stella, overpowering all the fights that followed. It’s an odd old system.
Until the double-jump becomes yours, there’s little in the way of platform-hopping, and – even then – it’s not exactly demanding. Sequences of ledges are mostly there to get you across the map, rather than threaten to toss you into pits of lava. Instead, Cosmos Bit is more interested in combat, although it’s not altogether great at it. You can fire to the side, strafing if you hold the fire button and then move. You can fire upwards – essential for the one-note bosses who dangle from various ceilings – and that’s about it. Upgrades allow you to fire more powerful things in those same directions, but ultimately you are locked to battling up and side-to-side.
But enemies don’t stick to those directions of approach, of course. They’ll attack from all sides, which makes the combat a bit simplistic and frustrating. To accommodate, Cosmos Bit makes the enemies brainless, patrolling on a route or dumbly firing on a schedule. So, while the lack of control over your blaster isn’t painful, it does make Cosmos Bit meek. You can travel from one corner of the map to the other, and the biggest threat will be random bugs that pinball across the screen, rolling a random number to see if they hit you. Everything else is easy as pie.
We’re not building up a pretty picture of Cosmos Bit, but trust us when we say that it’s greater than the sum of its scrappy parts. For reasons that are hard to put into print, we actually found ourselves enjoying the small amount of time we had with it.
We suspect that the simple, NES-era Metroid approach to game structure is the main culprit. Sometimes, a Metroidvania can go overboard and give you a ruddy great map, full of collectibles and umpteen blocked walls that can only be unlocked later in the game. Cosmos Bit isn’t interested in this. Once you unlock a new upgrade for Stella, you’ve probably got a single lock that the key will open. Two at a push. The result isn’t as mundane and boring as you might think, as past that lock is a wodge of new levels that are rewarding and use that new ability well. Finish them, and another upgrade is yours, sending you hurtling off to another corner of the map to do the same all over again.
And, like Metroid, the few pixels used to create Cosmos Bit have a bit of magic about them. We felt a sense of loneliness and claustrophobia as we dropped further and further into Cosmos Bit’s world. There’s virtually no-one else in the game to share the experience with, not even in the game’s automated shops, which gives the game a Doom-like sense of dread. We wouldn’t say it’s scary exactly, but it’s imposing.
Talking of fear and dread, we should pause to comment on the save system. It is manual to the point of having no autosave system at all. Kill all the game’s bosses and die immediately afterwards, and you will be scooped up and returned to the start of the game if you haven’t bothered to save. Even more old-school than that, it actually costs to save the game in Cosmos Bit, and if you don’t have the required gem then you better go grinding for it, shooting the game’s in-game rocks like a confused miner. More than once, we died only to find that up to an hour’s worth of play had been lost thanks to our inability to plan ahead. Don’t be like us. Save plenty. And then, like us, curse the designers who thought that this method of saving should be exhumed from circa 1989.
It would be easy to find Cosmos Bit guilty for a series of gaming crimes. It’s got an unhealthy love for Metroid; it’s reasonably rough to look at; it invites grind; and the save system is as creaky as Resident Evil’s doors. But, like the parent of an ugly child, we can’t help having some affection for Cosmos Bit. It takes the increasingly unwieldy Metroidvania genre and distills it down to the simplest of adventures. And while it may not challenge, it will hold your attention, delivering upgrades to your Poundland Samus at a furious pace. Not prime Metroid, then, but a cover act that gets just enough right.
You can buy Cosmos Bit from the Xbox Store