oxm in­ves­ti­gates … metroid­va­nia

You may not have heard of Metroid­va­nia, but this gam­ing sub-genre prob­a­bly ap­plies to half the games you’ve ever played, and it’s still go­ing strong

XBox: The Official Magazine (US) - - CONTENTS - Robin Valen­tine

It’s per­haps the clunki­est genre name in games, but many of the best ti­tles ever made have been what we now call ‘Metroid­va­nias’.

The ex­plo­ration of a sprawl­ing yet in­tri­cately-con­nected world; the dis­cov­ery of items and abil­i­ties that al­low once closed-off paths to be opened; the hunt back through past ar­eas for se­crets and hid­den trea­sures. These el­e­ments com­bine in the form of a magic for­mula, still as compelling in 2018’s Hol­low Knight as it was in 1997’s Castl­e­va­nia: Sym­phony Of The Night. It’s a genre given life as much by the cre­ativ­ity and pas­sion of scrappy in­de­pen­dent de­vel­op­ers as by in­dus­try gi­ants, de­fined and re­de­fined by each new wave of cre­ators. Read on, and dis­cover how the Metroid­va­nia changed gam­ing for­ever – and then stuck around to see the re­sults.

The Metroid­va­nia genre wears its ori­gins proudly in its name. Though it was ar­guably not the first game to do what it did, Nin­tendo’s 1986 game Metroid is widely ac­cepted as the main ori­gin point for the Metroid­va­nia. The sec­ond half of the genre’s name comes from

Castl­e­va­nia: Sym­phony Of The Night which 11 years later firmly es­tab­lished the tem­plate of what we think of as a Metroid­va­nia to­day.

At the time the game re­leased in 1997, it was an act of re­bel­lion. The se­ries’ en­tries to that point had largely been, like many of its con­tem­po­raries, lin­ear and short. With the lack of re­playa­bil­ity an ever grow­ing con­cern, many se­ries had opted to be­come more and more dif­fi­cult, ar­ti­fi­cially ex­tend­ing their length with rep­e­ti­tion of frus­trat­ing se­quences. The re­sult, Sym­phony Of The Night’s direc­tors Toru Hag­i­hara and Koji Igarashi ob­served, was that long­time, ded­i­cated fans would still burn through in no time, over­com­ing any chal­lenge put in front of them, while new play­ers would find them­selves stuck and dis­heart­ened. The so­lu­tion? In­spired by The Leg­end

Of Zelda, and fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of Metroid and its se­quels, the team did away with lev­els and stages, in­stead craft­ing one sprawl­ing map gated via path-re­veal­ing items and abil­i­ties, with an RPG-like up­grade sys­tem fur­ther dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing it from other 2D plat­form­ers of the day. The struc­ture had a nat­u­ral longevity, en­cour­ag­ing play­ers to ex­plore and then re-ex­plore its world as new paths and se­crets opened up, while be­ing ac­ces­si­ble to a wide range of play­ers. In the process,

Sym­phony Of The Night not only cod­i­fied the core struc­ture of the Metroid­va­nia, it changed the way many thought about ac­tion games en­tirely, prov­ing as it did that games could be so much more than just in­creas­ingly more frus­trat­ing.

Cas­tle crasher

Re­leas­ing at the same time as a raft of early, for­ward-look­ing 3D games, Igarashi and Hag­i­hara’s pixel art, 2D plat­former did seem oddly old-fash­ioned in some ways. But, whether the pair knew it or not, their ex­per­i­ment was in many ways a pre­dic­tion of gam­ing’s fu­ture. In the present day, al­most all AAA games are sprawl­ing and open, not lin­ear, and, like Sym­phony Of The Night, fea­ture light RPG el­e­ments over­laid on their ac­tion. Gat­ing progress with un­locked tra­ver­sal abil­i­ties re­mains a com­mon el­e­ment too – just this year, both Shadow Of The Tomb Raider and Darksiders III have, in their own ways, fol­lowed that tried and tested for­mula. Even FromSoft­ware’s Dark Souls se­ries owes a debt. The first game’s in­tri­cately in­ter-con­nected map is much closer to a 3D take on a Metroid­va­nia than it is a typ­i­cal open-world game or fan­tasy RPG. While pro­gres­sion may not fea­ture an un­lock­able dou­ble-jump or grap­pling hook, ar­eas loop around one an­other in ways that feel very

Sym­phony Of The Night – you’ll fre­quently pass a locked door or blocked pas­sage and won­der how you could pos­si­bly get through it, be­fore hours later find­ing the pulling of a switch or drop­ping of a lad­der has turned it into a new short­cut from a later area back to an ear­lier one. In turn, Dark Souls has been one of the most in­flu­en­tial games in re­cent years, in­spir­ing count­less more ti­tles to fol­low the same de­sign phi­los­o­phy. Rock­steady’s

Bat­manArkham se­ries and the Res­i­den­tEvil games also have el­e­ments of Metroid­va­nia about their game­play pro­gres­sion.

But many other games have taken even more di­rectly af­ter Sym­phony Of The Night. Some of the first of what we now call in­die games, in­clud­ing 2004’s hugely in­flu­en­tial one-man-project Cave Story, were faithful Metroid­va­nia suc­ces­sors, and the genre seems to have found a com­fort­able home in smaller and down­load­able ti­tles ever since, with many of its con­stituent el­e­ments – such as its 2D per­spec­tive, pixel-art look, and plat­form­ing – be­com­ing syn­ony­mous with the in­die games scene.

In 2009, Epic re­leased Shadow Com­plex on Xbox Live Arcade. Though it wasn’t in­die, it was a smaller, down­load­able-only re­lease at a time when that sta­tus was widely held to be syn­ony­mous with a lack of qual­ity, scope and

“Blood­stained: Rit­ual Of The Night asked for $500,000, but ended up rais­ing an as­ton­ish­ing $5.5 mil­lion”

pol­ish. And it was a Metroid­va­nia throug­hand-through, dur­ing some­thing of a lull in the genre’s pop­u­lar­ity.

It was both a huge com­mer­cial and crit­i­cal suc­cess, break­ing all sales records for an XBLA game and earn­ing Game Of The Year awards and ac­co­lades from across the games me­dia. In the process, it proved both that down­load­able games were ready to be taken just as se­ri­ously as their disc-bound cousins, and that Metroid­va­nia games weren’t just an exercise in retro nos­tal­gia – they could feel as fresh and ex­cit­ing in 2009 as they did back in 1997.

Sa­mus ever

In its wake, the in­die Metroid­va­nia boom that we still reap the re­wards of to­day be­gan in earnest. From the Mex­i­can wrestling of

Gua­camelee! to the grim fan­tasy of Dust: An Elysian Tail to the bet­ter-than-the-movieit-was-based-on slick­ness of The Mummy

De­mas­tered, count­less smaller teams (and even sin­gle-per­son stu­dios) have made the genre their own, both pay­ing lov­ing trib­ute to the old, and mu­tat­ing it into some­thing new. In 2013, SteamWorld Dig com­bined the genre’s sta­ples with Minecraft- like dig­ging for an en­thralling jour­ney into the depths; in 2015, Ori And The Blind For­est used it as the core of an ex­pe­ri­ence that proved 2D graph­ics could be as spec­tac­u­lar as any­thing three­d­i­men­sional; and last year, Hol­low Knight be­came the snake eat­ing its own tail when it flavoured its genre-faithful ac­tion with the sen­si­bil­i­ties of the Metroid­va­nia-in­spired

Souls games – cre­at­ing one of our new favourite gam­ing worlds in the process.

And tes­ta­ment to the pas­sion that many play­ers still have for Sym­phony Of The Night’s legacy was the 2015 Kick­starter for spir­i­tual suc­ces­sor Blood­stained: Rit­ual Of The Night. Headed up by Igarashi him­self, it asked for $500,000, but ended up rais­ing an as­ton­ish­ing $5.5 mil­lion, mak­ing it the most funded game ever at the time – it took the be­he­moth that is

Shen­mue III to steal its crown. We’ll see the fruits of that project this year, and it’s far from the only Metroid­va­nia due in 2019. Xbox-ex­clu­sive Ori And The Will Of The

Wisps looks ready to build on the tri­umphs of its pre­de­ces­sor, craft­ing an even more beau­ti­ful world with, by the looks of it, an even big­ger tear-jerker of a story. An­other Kick­starter suc­cess, In­di­vis­i­ble com­bines Metroid­va­nia ex­plo­ration with a unique fight­ing-game-meets-RPG com­bat sys­tem. And even Rem­edy’s sur­real new ad­ven­ture

Con­trol seems heav­ily based in the genre’s con­ven­tions, with ‘Ob­jects Of Power’ un­lock­ing tra­ver­sal abil­i­ties such as lev­i­ta­tion with which to ex­plore a more open, less lin­ear game than the stu­dio has ever made be­fore.

With its spirit of ex­plo­ration, pro­gres­sion and, above all, dis­cov­ery, the Metroid­va­nia em­bod­ies so much of what we love about gam­ing. What a treat, then, that it seems to be as im­mor­tal as Drac­ula him­self. n

Ab ove ShadowCom­plex was so good that it didn’t even mat­ter that its pro­tag­o­nist looked like an Ed Hardy model in train­ing.

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