If you aren’t much of a gamer, then the term “Metroidvania” probably sounds like a middling 1960s amusement park or, perhaps, an infectious disease—or maybe a future pandemic, if it has ambition. If you’re a gamer, on the other hand, the term “Metroidvania” brings to mind a very specific kind of game that has been growing in popularity over the last two decades. You can picture the world and gameplay, even if you have trouble defining the genre.
This isn’t surprising. The genre is big and growing even bigger. While you know one when you see it, sometimes it’s hard to figure out what makes Metroidvanias special or why they’re so popular. To fix that, we’re gonna go do a lesson on history and game design.
The history of the genre is in the name. That is, Metroidvanias are largely inspired by the gameplay of two different franchises: Metroid from Nintendo and Castlevania, from Konami. In the case of the latter, they’re mostly inspired by Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and its successors, which were inspired by Zelda, another long-successful Nintendo franchise. Their creative director Koji Igarashi suggests that their status as a 2D side-scrolling platformer resulted in comparisons not to Zelda but to Metroid, which shared the same perspective.
Other games began to pick up on the elements that made these two series great, but it was the 2004 release of Cave Story, an indie title created by developer Daisuke Amaya that blew the doors open. It showed a concrete melding of the styles of Castlevania and Metroid that added well-received twists on the formula. More importantly, it showed the viability of 2D platformers for indie developers and what a single indie developer could accomplish.
Unsurprisingly, Metroidvanias have been immensely popular in the indie world, with titles like Rogue Legacy, Hollow Knight and Ori and the Blind Forest receiving that unique combination of great sales and rave critical reviews. The term itself is a bit vaguer in origin. As mentioned, Igarashi believes it originated due to comparisons between Castlevania and Metroids’ 2D platforming formats. While it was popularized by Jeremy Parish, who runs the website Metroidvania.com, he learned it from a colleague.
Due to its size and popularity (as well as the difficulties inherent in drawing concrete boundaries between any genres of art), it’s difficult to explain what defines a Metroidvania, but two elements seem to be omnipresent, if expressed in wildly different forms.
First and foremost is the existence of a single, enormous, non-linear and interconnected map divided into separate “biomes,” each with its own aesthetics, enemies and challenges. Paths often weave between these biomes, with some rewards accessible only by finding creative or hidden trails from one to another. Much of the map is unreachable at the beginning of the game, but by acquiring abilities, items and sometimes simple keys, players get access to more and more of the map.
These permanent upgrades are the second element of Metroidvania games and often take the form of mobility skills like double-jumps, wall climbs and weapons that break through certain walls. Eventually, players are able to carve their own routes through the game by being creative with these abilities, sometimes skipping whole regions or bosses. Likewise, the nonlinear nature of the maps means that players can zigzag back and forth through the world, finding new opportunities to make use of their nifty skills and items.
The end result is a gameplay style that encourages exploration, a keen eye and revisiting old haunts. As said by Igarashi:
[Key elements of Metroidvanias] include designing maps that encourage exploration but which still guide the player on a main path through the game and providing means where the player can be aware of where they are in the game world at any time. This can be accomplished by graphical themes through the game’s world, visually unique milestones at key game point, overall map and player status information screens, and the means of moving around the map quickly.
Other trends exist in the genre: a story that must be pieced together by exploration, a focus on tough challenges, either through combat or whip-quick platformer sequences, and a distinct and unique aesthetic. But the key to the genre is still exploration. Anyone who is itching to dive into hidden caves, go off the beaten trail or see what’s behind that fence they walk by every day will find a welcome home here.
While Metroidvanias were once the territory of 2D gaming, some say they’ve made their way to the 3D world. The Dark Souls series arguably contains many of these elements, while the 2017 masterpiece Control feels like the truest transportation of the Metroidvania genre to the 3D world that we’ve seen so far.
Where to Start
As mentioned, if you have an explorer’s heart (and maybe an adrenaline junkie’s pulse), Metroidvanias are right up your alley. But it’s hard to know where to start, given how big the genre’s become. Still, we’ve managed to cobble together a list of games that are easy to find on modern systems.
An absolute masterpiece, Hollow Knight has a deeply tragic story that’ll make you realize you can, in fact, cry over bugs. The gameplay is smooth, the music phenomenal, the art adorably creepy and the world unlike anything you’ve ever seen. It’s a good pick if you want lots of stellar combat in your game.
Ori and the Blind Forest
Beautiful to the extreme, Ori and the Blind Forest is a work of visual art with perfectly matched music. It’s more linear than other Metroidvanias, but the story is gripping, emotional, clear and heartwarming, and it doesn’t take long to beat. It’s a good choice for those wanting more platformer shenanigans or a quick play-through.
Technically more a roguelike than a Metroidvania, Dead Cells has a great sense of humor and so many weapons. It’s a great pick for those who want a lot of replay value and the ability to have a new experience on every run.
Heavy on the Metroid end of the spectrum, Axiom Verge feels like a spiritual successor to the first half of the name “Metroidvania.” It’s got a fun retro vibe, and its simple gameplay should appeal to those intimidated by the fast-paced worlds in the games listed above.
Yeah, I’m putting this here. Control is a third-person shooter with hard Metroidvania elements, an odd world and story and some of the more unique mechanics I’ve seen in a third-person shooter. I’d recommend it for those turned off by 2D gameplay.
Hopefully, something here rings your bell. If not, keep an eye out. More Metroidvanias are coming out by the day.