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

Games Master - - Welcome - Robert Zak

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”.

Liv­ing leg­end

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.

Metroid­ma­nia

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.

Cas­tle crash­ers

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.

The gothic look of Metroid­va­nia get­ting you down? Then try the pleas­antly sat­u­rated Dead Cells.

Time to re­dis­cover Castl­e­va­nia: Sym­phony Of The Night, and give it the suc­cess it de­serves?

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.

Sym­phony’s ac­tual graph­ics didn’t quite live up to the sump­tu­ous pro­mo­tional art. That’s 1990s vi­su­als for you…

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