We’ve delved into the intriguing history and exciting future of the Metroidvania genre.
20 years after Symphony Of The Night, Metroidvania games have exploded. We talk with Ori And The Blind Forest developer Thomas Mahler about the return of this unique genre
It was 20 years ago that Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night first crept onto PlayStation, to a dissonant mixture of acclaim and confusion. Critics gushed over its glamorous, campy presentation and fusion of RPG elements with open side-scrolling exploration, while detractors wondered where all the 3D-ness was – after all, in ’97 it was de rigueur for a game to have polygonal graphics so jagged that you could skewer yourself on them. But its impact was palpable, manifesting itself in the coining of the term ‘Metroidvania’ soon after its release. To most of us, Metroidvania evokes 2D planes and vast maps made up of a hundred little boxes, each one denoting a room (or piece of a larger room). It evokes the joy of discovery when you go through a door you previously hadn’t noticed to emerge onto a whole new world-within-a-world, complete with new music, backgrounds, and obstacles. It evokes steady, progressive empowerment as you gain items and abilities that allow you to reach areas that previously seemed unreachable, and conquer enemies that seemed untouchable.
What it perhaps doesn’t evoke is The Legend Of Zelda, but that’s where Thomas Mahler, co-founder of Moon Studios and designer of modern Metroidvania classic, Ori And The Blind Forest, suggests the idea started. “Zelda and Metroid have almost the same structure,” says Mahler. “They present you with an entire world where, potentially, if you had all the abilities, you could go anywhere you want”.
Both games offer the player the theoretical possibility of sequence-breaking, even if the average player can’t exploit it. “As a kid, I remember having an Action Replay,” Mahler reminisces. “What was really fascinating is that in Link To The Past, you could put in a cheat to get the Power Glove at the start, and actually go to Kakariko while the rainstorm was still going on. To me, Metroid is a platformer version of Zelda, which is probably how [Metroid designer] Gunpei Yokoi and those people looked at it.” Mahler’s theory was echoed by Symphony Of The Night creator Koji Igarashi in 2014, when he said that with Symphony he wanted to create a Zelda-like game, not a Metroid-like.
The original Metroid was a design sensation when it launched in 1986, but neither it nor the similarly seminal Castlevania II (1988) caused Mahler to fall in love with the genre. “It was Super Metroid that really swept me off my feet,” says Mahler, praising the automap, which cut out a lot of the sluggishness that its predecessors were prone to, as well as its wealth of sequence-breaking opportunities. Plucky players could, with a bit of patience and skill, wall-jump their way into later areas in the game, or master the art of exploits that would, for example, grant super missiles early, unlocking much of the game from the get-go.
The knowledge that the game world already existed was a great motivator for players to try to explore it on their own terms, even if it took weeks (or sometimes years) to figure out how to do it. “It’s a design headache for developers – do you see this kind of sequence-breaking as a bug that needs squashing, or are you okay with players doing it?” Mahler muses. “In the end, I think the most interesting approach is to say ‘If a player’s really good and mastered the controls, let them go to many interesting places before they’re supposed to.’ I think that’s the sign of a good Metroidvania.”
Despite its critical success, Super Metroid didn’t hit Nintendo’s sales expectations (though it sold steadily for
“metroidvania evokes 2D planes and vast maps made up of a hundred little boxes… it evokes the joy of discovery”
a good several years), and Samus was locked away in a cryopod until the best part of a decade later. During the SNES era, few games followed the Super Metroid format, let alone that of Castlevania, which had made the switch to linear 2D platforming, and was championed at the time by the macho, traditional Super Castlevania IV.
And yet, amid the rudimentary polygons and texture warping of the PS1 era, Castlevania made a bold, unlikely return to the Metroid-style niche in 1997. Symphony Of The Night launched to critical acclaim, but suffered a starkly similar fate to Super Metroid. It didn’t sell well enough, and marked the end of the sparse Metroidvania cycle on home consoles, rather than a glorious new dawn. The Castlevania series remained prolific throughout the 2000s, but home console iterations moved towards 3D action, while 2D Metroidvania titles were demoted to handhelds. As a mass-market entity, Metroidvania was all but dead.
But if there’s one thing that Dracula, Alucard, and co have taught us, it’s that seemingly dead things are wont to rise again.
A free indie platformer called Cave Story popped up in a far-flung corner of the internet in 2004, telling a profound story within its minimal pixel art design, and harking back to Metroidvania with its open exploration, levelling system, and use of items and abilities to unlock
the world piece by piece. Spreading through freeware sites and gaming forums, it showed that there was still a lot of love for Metroidvania games, and that the framework offered plenty of untapped potential for developers (particularly those operating on tight budgets) to take it in new directions, which they duly did with the rise of indie-friendly platforms like Steam and Xbox Live Arcade.
Since 2012, more top-quality Metroidvania titles have been released on home platforms than in the 23 previous years dating back to the original Metroid. Some of these games – like Tom Happ’s love letter to Metroid, Axiom Verge – were content to mimic the greats of the genre, while others have looked for ways to evolve it. 2D Soulslikes such as Dead Cells, Salt And Sanctuary, and Hollow Knight, for example, fuse non-linear exploration with more involved, gruelling combat, and enigmatic world-building. “Hollow Knight is very interesting,” says Mahler. “Its pacing is all over the place,. It takes 20 hours to get double-jump, but it’s actually really well designed and has so many other things going for it that make it work.”
Then there is, of course, Ori And The Blind Forest, with which Mahler wanted to expand on the overlooked platforming aspect of Metroidvania. “If you look at the classic Igo-vanias, none of them really have great platforming. Symphony was more of a side-scrolling Diablo,” he says. “We looked at Super Meat Boy, and we thought ‘Hey, can we have a control set in a world where everything is connected? Where the platforming is as good as it’d be in a dedicated platformer?’”
Pitching the idea to Microsoft in 2011, Mahler avoided mentioning ‘Metroidvania’ for fear of spooking the publisher. “The genre was mostly dead at the time, so we pitched it as ‘a really cool platformer’, then sneakily interconnected the world during development.” Looking beyond its stunning Ghibli-inspired art design and eye-dewing story, Ori is a tough game that overcomes previous hang-ups of the genre. The world is seamless, and there is just enough guidance to prevent the player from getting lost; you can collect map fragments to reveal whole areas, and there is always a marker on the map broadly showing you the next story objective.
We ask Mahler whether letting players figure things out for themselves isn’t an essential ingredient of Metroidvania. “There was much less playtesting back then [in the ’90s], but when you playtest today, you see things like a player running around the world for five hours with no idea where to go, and see that what works for designers doesn’t always work for players,” he tells us. “Honestly, how long did it take you to complete Super Metroid, and how much time did you waste looking for that one block to shoot to get to another area?”
Moon Studios instead looked to a later-day Metroid title for inspiration. Metroid Fusion, Mahler says, made navigation a little too guided, but Zero Mission struck exactly the right balance. “It told you where the critical path is, but also let you say ‘F*** the designers, I don’t want to go to the top-left of the world, I want to go top-right”. Ori followed the same philosophy.
As a Metroidvania designer, Mahler warns that you always need to be aware of pacing from one area to the
“If there’s one thing that dracula, alucard, and co have taught us, it’s that seemingly dead things are wont to rise again”
next, more than in games with a linear sequence of independent levels. Backtracking is inevitable, and it needs to be interesting. “If you can only pass through a level one way, and there’s nothing new about it, then it’s boring,” he says. “But if you open it up and say ‘Now you have this ability, this area you’ve already been to has new content in it and allows you to do new things,’ it becomes interesting. But it has to be precise.”
Where classic Metroidvanias would rarely require the player to utilise more than one ability simultaneously, in Ori you’d often use three or four; for example bashing off multiple enemies to propel yourself up to a new area, before gliding down onto a higher ledge using Kuro’s Feather, and taking out an enemy with a falling stomp attack. The ease of executing such combos gave the game’s ethereal titular hero a liberating weightlessness. The mechanics, along with the stunning Ghibli-inspired aesthetic, made Ori an imaginative twist on the classic Metroidvania type of game.
Masterful though Blind Forest is, Mahler believes there’s a whole lot more that can be done with the Metroidvania formula, and mentioned that the sequel, Ori And The Will Of The Wisps, will allow for more good old-fashioned sequence-breaking. Other developers are also chipping
in with new ideas; the recently-released Metroid: Samus Returns reimagines Metroid II with refinements like the ability to scan areas for secrets and parrying, while Soulslikes like Blasphemous and Death’s Gambit look set to continue burrowing deeper into the darker side of the genre. Even Koji Igarashi is re-entering the fray with a spiritual successor to Symphony, Bloodstained: Ritual Of The Night.
Mahler throws around some outlandish Metroidvania concepts, such as a Lost Vikings-type game with a fully connected world, where two or more players start at different points and need to find each other, or for Nintendo to make a side-scrolling Zelda game (like Zelda II), but with non-linear exploration. “Especially now that they’ve merged their software departments, the 2D team could totally do something like that!”
The possibilities, as Mahler puts it, are infinite. Metroidvania may have existed as a blueprint for 20-odd years, but only recently has it blossomed into the diversity of a full, vast genre. This isn’t a fleeting Metroidvania moment, but a full-blown revolution. Somewhere out there, in parallel dimensions, a leggy space mercenary smiles beneath her visor, and an angsty white-haired vampire stirs in his velvety coffin (maybe preparing to rise again). Their mission is complete; their lineage lives on.
Metroid: Zero Mission had just the right level of map guidance, according to Mahler, who took cues from it for Ori And The Blind Forest.
Time to rediscover Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night, and give it the success it deserves?
The gothic look of Metroidvania getting you down? Then try the pleasantly saturated Dead Cells.
Symphony’s actual graphics didn’t quite live up to the sumptuous promotional art. That’s 1990s visuals for you…