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Mini Metroidvania Ascent captures the joy of the genre in 30 minutes

The highs and lows of open-world exploration boil down in this free game

A screenshot from Ascent shows a pixelated alien scene featuring a crashed ship and a human in a white shirt. There is a floating blue orb to the left. Image: Johan Peitz
Russ Frushtick is the director of special projects, and he has been covering the world of video games and technology for over 15 years. He co-founded Polygon in 2012.

When it comes to introducing folks to the Metroidvania genre, you could throw someone into the deep end with Hollow Knight or you could just offer them a bite-size re-creation that captures the magic without an enormous time commitment. Behold Ascent, a freeware indie game made by Johan Peitz that gives you all the thrills of a complete Metroidvania in just 30 minutes.

Ascent is developed for the PICO-8, a “fantasy programmable game console” that has been used as a simple game-making tool for game jams and other small indie projects. But don’t underestimate the PICO-8’s 128x128 resolution — it’s capable of creating some truly memorable experiences. The internationally beloved Celeste, for example, began as a PICO-8 project.

While there are no current plans to turn Ascent into a much larger game, that’s fine, because it stands alone as a pretty stellar Metroidvania already. It checks all of the boxes that you’d expect to see in one of these game. You start off, essentially defenseless, in an explorable (yet dangerous) world. Eventually you’ll stumble upon unlockable upgrades that let you delve deeper into this world, from ledge-grabbing gloves to a handy butt-slam. By the end of the mini adventure, you’ll be far more capable in this alien world than when you arrived.

The experience is presented in perfectly minimalist pixel graphics — a hallmark of Peitz’s style. His projects generally involve re-creating genres with the most minimalist sensibilities (including the excellent Golf Sunday), and seeing him boil down a Metroidvania to its raw essence is spectacular.

Better still, Ascent is 100% free, and can be played in a browser with a keyboard, which means if you’re stuck at your dull job with 30 minutes to kill, you’ve just found a way to escape the world:

Controls:
Move with Left and Right arrow keys
Jump with Z
Climb ladders with Up and Down arrow keys
Special moves with X and Z

The next level of puzzles.

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