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
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.
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.
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.