Kodrick

What is a Metroidvania?

Cody Moore
July 28, 2022

History

The Metroidvania genre has been around for a long time. Nintendo’s Metroid made one of the first examples of the genre, and in the few years after it was released in 1986, Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night helped refine it. The name Metroidvania, as you might have guessed, is even a combination of the Metroid and Castlevania names. Games of this genre are designed with the idea of non-linear levels, allowing players to backtrack and explore different areas that they had previously been unable to reach. 

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night introduced RPG mechanics when it released in 1997, showcasing the first major revision to the genre, and, in effect, fundamentally marking the beginning of the genre as it is now known.

As the years passed and new iterations upon both the Metroid and Castlevania franchises released, the usage of the term Metroidvania become more popular. Despite its now common use, the origin of the name is not entirely known, with Koji Igarashi, development lead on the Castlevania series, stating that he didn’t make up the name, though he is grateful for the term as a way to coin the genre.

In 2004, Cave Story was released as an homage to Metroid. It released to critical success, and served as a leading example of the Metroidvania genre in the early years of the indie revolution. In 2009, Shadow Complex released and became one of the best-selling titles on the Xbox 360 store. Creative Director on Shadow Complex, Donald Mustard, called Super Metroid “The pinnacle of game design.”

Because Metroidvania games are almost always 2D – and many use that very nature as a defining attribute of the genre itself – many Metroidvania games are accessible to the Indie game developer. Over the past decade, many different Metroidvania games have released to success, including games such as Guacamelee, Ori and the Blind Forest, Hollow Knight, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, Iconoclasts, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, Axiom Verge, Ender Lilies: Quietus of the Knights, Salt and Sanctuary, and Metroid: Dread. Most of these games were developed by Indie companies, and some of them are almost as iconic for the Metroidvania genre as the original games. It would be hard to imagine a list of metroidvania games that doesn’t include Hollow Knight, for example. 

It seems obvious that, despite its age, the Metroidvania genre is only growing, and that growth is playing a respectable role in providing a market for indie developers to work on their passion.

Structure

There are a number of common elements in Metroidvania games. The first of these, and arguably the most important, is an emphasis on exploration and discovery. Many games in the Metroidvania genre have large maps which provide the player with a freedom to explore wherever they want. There are often multiple different areas, with different art styles, mechanics, or collectibles. There are even hidden areas which may simply be hard to find, but easy to get to, while others may have a tantalizing reward just out of reach and the player is challenged to figure out how to reach it. Some areas are even gated off entirely using insurmountable obstacles. The player may be required to continue playing, keeping this obstacle in mind to return for when they gain a new item or ability, allowing them to continue through and explore beyond. Often, this means the gameplay makes a secondary emphasis on 2D-platforming, with dashes or double-jumps, or even other, more exotic, movement mechanics. 

The platforming in most Metroidvania games is a defining aspect of the gameplay. A good game can be built almost entirely upon how the platforming feels to the player, because that is what the player uses to explore the game. It’s much harder to be interested in exploring a nest of anthropomorphic bugs if it doesn’t feel good to move around and explore. 

The feel of movement in a Metroidvania can even be the claim to fame for the game as a whole. Ori and the Blind Forest, for example, is a game with flaws. But despite those flaws, the parts that are done well are artfully designed and almost masterfully enacted. The ‘Bash’ skill allows the player to redirect themselves using the attacks of enemies. This leads to a flowing gameplay which almost feels like a form of dance. For Ori and the Blind Forest, where the gameplay is much more focused on movement, platforming, and platforming puzzles, the ‘Bash’ ability is an extremely important part of the game, to the point that many who play it will remember most how they used the ‘Bash’ skill.

 Combat is another common aspect of the Metroidvania genre. In fact, almost all Metroidvania games have combat as a fundamental aspect of the game – aside from platforming challenges, enemies are often the greatest limiter to the player’s ability to explore. In a way, some Metroidvania games use the combat as a secondary type of exploration. Some enemies are significantly harder, and finding new tools to overcome these challenging enemies can be just as fun as finding the items themselves. In other cases, running into a boss may be just as exciting as finding a new area. New types of enemies may just be interesting to find and overcome.

Many Metroidvania games also have some amount of RPG-like progression. In some cases this manifests in the gameplay as a leveling system, but often the progression system is based more upon finding new items or upgrading items to be better. This progression can focus on almost any aspect of the gameplay, from platforming to combat to exploration. Hollow Knight takes a novel stance on exploration by requiring the player to sit at a bench to ‘update’ their map after exploring a new area, and even then only after purchasing a map from a mapmaker. More than that, though, Hollow Knight allows the player to upgrade their map when they buy new tools to use with their map, making it easier to mark interesting locations, or even allowing the player to add new skills so that they can see where they are on the map. By default, you simply have to read the map. 

The sense of progression for a Metroidvania is also doubled in that the player is meant to get better at the game. While this is almost universally true in video games, it is generally more represented as a coherent design idea in Metroidvania games. The reason for this is that because there is so much emphasis on movement, exploration, and generally platforming, the difficulty level between the early parts of the game and the latter parts may have a large gap, in addition to quite a few more complex mechanics. This can be particularly noticeable in platforming-centric Metroidvania games like Ori and the Blind Forest, where the difficulty of the first few hours are, seemingly, exponentially easier than the latter parts, where movement becomes a constant, gliding aspect of the gameplay. 

Development of the Genre

A major milestone in the development of the Metroidvania genre is the ascendance of Indie games as a primary section of the video game market. Many Indie developers make 2D games because they are simply less complex, and because Metroidvania games are almost exclusively 2D, Metroidvania games are a mainstay in the indie development scene. For example, Cave Story, a critically successful game when it came out, was made by only one person. Since then, many of the greatest games of the Metroidvania genre have actually come from Indie teams, rather than major studios. Hollow Knight, Axiom Verge, Guacamelee, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, Ori and the Blind Forest, Steamworld Dig 2, Blasphemous, Salt and Sanctuary, all of these are made by Indie teams.

Highlights of the Genre

If you haven’t already noticed, we think Hollow Knight is one of the best examples of the genre. It has a wonderful blend of exploration, atmosphere, soundtrack, and gameplay. Movement feels fluid and enjoyable, and the combat is rewarding, if difficult at first. The game is beautiful, and the benches found throughout the game for the player to ‘rest’ upon, thereby saving the game, serve to reinforce the idea of finding a small bit of respite in an otherwise hostile world. The collectibles, items, and additional skills found throughout the game are enjoyable to use as well. There are many different options for players to explore, making the game work for their own playstyle. We highly recommend it.

Ori and the Blind Forest is a beautiful game, both in terms of its story and its gameplay. The movement is smooth and feels great. As we have already mentioned, some of the movement mechanics in the game make it feel like one of the best platforming games around. Depending on who you ask, though, this game might not be a ‘true’ rendition of a Metroidvania. Our opinion, though, is that it fits the criteria well enough.

If you’ve never played anything in the genre, Super Metroid is still one of the best examples we could highlight. Though older, many fans of the genre still love it. It doesn’t have quite as many progression elements as newer games, but it does have the mainstays of the genre, including exploration and non-linear level design. If you’re really curious about the origins of the genre, start here.

Guacamelee, a Metroidvania in the style of Mexican Luchadores and the vibrant style that comes with the Dia de Los Muerte, also exemplifies some of the best in the genre. This one has an interesting combo system for its combat, and the movement feels smooth and responsive. The highlight here is that you can play together with up to 3 other friends.

There are many other Metroidvania games, and more are released constantly. We could probably stay here all day talking about them, but these are some of the ones we think provide a solid peek into the genre. 

Have we missed any? What’s your favorite Metroidvania? Let us know in the comments!

Written By
Cody Moore
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