Used to be you’d catch some tiny screenshots in Gamepro or whatever, and from there your imagination was let loose. Everything this little game could be lived rent-free in your brain. The possibilities spiraled out from just the barest input but still dropped a node on every formative challenge previously experienced. This videogame could stand on the shoulders of those before, towering above them, building on years of history and experience, incorporating everything you’ve ever played and ever daydreamed about playing.
The reality was rarely in line, whether the limitations were technical or merely the copyright boundaries between insane cross-universe tie-ins. Officially licensed videogames usually felt short in terms of vision or execution, the others hinted at in static print just didn’t flow on screen like they did when every possible avenue of joy was still on the table. You’d think we’d have learned, but even after trailers and demos became the standard, the heat of potential couldn’t help but cook the brain into a tizzy of expectation over everything each videogame could be.
And now we’re in the age of Early Access. For the risk of buying in before going gold, we can dip our hands into all that potential. We aren’t devs but fans, and who knows how impactful that written feedback can be, but still, early access for a hyped videogame is the dizzy breath of new attraction, before incompatibilities and the messiness of human life conspire to complicate a simple and beautiful exchange. Early access is a sweet space to luxuriate for a little while.
Two games encapsulate this mode of thinking for me. Both are well boosted in my own nostalgia-ridden hope and on complimentary cusps of early access: Battery Staple’s 30xx, which I’ve been preaching on since a demo at PAX East, and Rockfish’s Everspace 2, building off the success of their first space shooter.
30XX finds direct inspiration from Mega Man X, one of my formative videogames, and follows 20XX doing much of the same. At this point Battery Staple isn’t promising much other than more of what I already want, but this time with a more period-appropriate pixelated art style and a static-stages mode for those who’d rather not power through the procedurally generated set. Given that my biggest hangup with 20XX was the paper doll Flash presentation, this updated dressing speaks to me on a very deep level. The preview build I’ve been on is still rough enough to be missing bosses and carry PAX jokes in the transitions screens, but I’ve still found myself comfortably swiping and blasting through many a minion, instantly hooked. The bones are solid as ever, and I salivate for more every day.
Everspace 2 fulfills a similar desire to expand upon the past, in this case, more Star Fox vibrations. This open-space shooter is already greatly expanded than even those modest ambitions (of mine), growing well shiny from the previous entry’s already immaculately spackled seams. This time around there’s no confinement to levels, or rather, you’re free to zip around between, building off a clone-warrior narrative that gives me the good Ann Leckie Imperial Radch seasoning. As Everspace 2 has already officially entered early access it’s more fleshed out than what I have seen of 30XX, but it already feels like a game built for expansion. Perhaps that’s the space talking, or the clearly marked space for upgrades and weapons and ships on a nearly games-as-a-service level. Cutscenes are voice-acted and sketched out in 2-D stills, and I’m not sure if there’s an end-game in place at the moment, but even for now there’s enough shooting and zooming to justify my own internal hunger.
Both of these games are clearly in progress though, with a couple crashes, occasional physics bugs, and taped off areas virtually marked as “under construction.” But being early access, both are postured in more honesty than, oh I don’t know, some triple-A game going gold in a similar state. Of course, early access is not for every dev or project, and both of these games have the privilege of fairly well regarded precursors to cushion the ride for a little ways. But so far I’m smitten, enjoying the effortless dances and easy conversation. To find that kind of joy, however brief, can be a blessing, in love or videogames.
// Levi Rubeck is a critic and poet currently living in the Boston area. Check his links at levirubeck.com