MMORPG. JRPG. MOBA. Bullet Hell. Roguelike. If there’s one thing the video game industry loves, it’s impenetrable acronyms and baffling genre names.
The metroidvania genre – a portmanteau of two key franchises, Metroid and Castlevania – has been around since the mid-1980s in various forms. The games are typically 2D platformers set within a large map constructed from a series of smaller interconnected worlds. The genre encourages exploration, with areas of the map inaccessible until the player retrieves specific items, power-ups or weapons, which will then allow them to progress further. Metroidvanias heavily motivate the player into backtracking and scouring the map for secret areas through experimentation with gradually unlocked tools and weapons.
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Although some titles from the 80s – such as the Dizzy series from the Oliver Twins and Wonder Boy in Monster Land from Sega – contain elements of what the genre would become known for, it was Nintendo’s release of Metroid in 1986 that really set the (morph) ball rolling. The explosion of the indie scene over the past decade has since given rise to a golden age of the metroidvania, with dozens of titles released each year.
The shock announcement of the long rumoured Metroid Dread at this year’s Nintendo E3 event sent ripples through the gaming press. It instantly became one of the most anticipated video game titles of the year. Here are 10 great metroidvanias to hone your exploration skills in the run up to the return of the series that started it all.
Super Metroid (1994)
Not the granddaddy of the genre (that would be the first Metroid on the NES), but the title that largely set the language and standard elements of the genre for years to come. Intergalactic bounty hunter Samus Aran returns in the third game in the series, as she once again takes on the space pirates in pursuit of the dangerous parasitic lifeform – the metroid.
Introducing an automap and save rooms, the game is a foundational text for the genre. Its influence is woven into every game that followed in its wake. Featuring atmospheric music and a haunting sense of solitude, Super Metroid is timeless.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997)
For the first 11 years of its life, the Castlevania series had largely been a linear platform series with the introduction of some light exploration elements in later titles. This all changed with the release of Symphony of the Night on the original PlayStation in 1997, a game that combines the structure of Metroid with some light role-playing elements.
Players take control of Alucard, Dracula’s son, as he explores his father’s castle on a quest of destruction. Throughout the journey, Alucard unlocks the power to shape-shift into a wolf, bat and mist. The game transformed the series, and subsequent Castlevania games developed this new direction of gameplay even further – eventually giving birth to the metroidvania moniker.
Set in the Mexican wrestling world of the luchador, Guacamelee! combines traditional metroidvania elements with beat ’em up mechanics and absurd characters. Main character Juan is a resurrected farmer given the power of the luchador through a magical mask.
Throughout the game he learns powerful wrestling moves and, in a parody of Metroid’s morph ball ability, is able to squeeze into small passageways by turning into a chicken. The game also features a world-flipping power, with Juan able to transport between the world of the living and the dead. A short, sharp romp that’s perfect for newcomers to the genre.
Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse (2014)
The third outing for the ponytail whipping genie, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse sees the eponymous hero team up with her nemesis in order to stop a new threat to Sequin Land.
Like later Castlevania titles, such as Portrait of Ruin and Order of Ecclesia, this game eschews one large interconnected map for a series of smaller maps that can be travelled between. Featuring detailed pixel art, outstanding animation and an unforgettable soundtrack, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is a perfect entry-level title.
Ori and the Blind Forest (2015)
The stunning visuals of Ori and the Blind Forest are the first thing that you’ll notice. The next is a gut punch in the opening scene that rivals Bambi (1942) for most upsetting introduction to an irresistibly cute character. Once you’ve dried your eyes and moved on, what awaits is a beautifully presented adventure with a surprising amount of challenge.
It’s hard to understate how good the game looks in motion, with sumptuous layers of background hiding endless details and giving the game the appearance of a metroidvania by way of Studio Ghibli.
Hollow Knight (2017)
In a genre crowded with modern classics, Hollow Knight stands apart as something truly special. With gorgeous stark visuals drawn from a cold palette, a haunting soundtrack and a wonderfully melancholic story, the game wraps its traditional mechanics in a beguiling package. It’s set in the ruined insect kingdom of Hallownest, where the player controls the nameless knight on a journey of discovery through the dead world.
The responsive combat and challenging boss fights have left fans hungry for more, and the sequel, Hollow Knight: Silksong, is one of the most anticipated upcoming indie games in recent years.
Dead Cells (2018)
As if the genre name metroidvania wasn’t awkward enough, Dead Cells is a self-described ‘roguevania’ – a game that combines the traditional metroidvania structure with the randomness and replayability of the roguelite genre.
The game drip feeds the player pieces of story and lore as they guide their undead character through the ever-changing map. The intoxicating blend of the ‘just one more run’ roguelite mechanics within the structure of a metroidvania creates an experience that’s unlike any other in the genre. One for the loot hounds who enjoy dying over and over again.
The Messenger (2018)
Ninjas were everywhere in the 1980s, nowhere more so than in the arcades and home computers of the time. They were inescapable – from Sega’s Shinobi in the arcade through to the baffling Ninja Scooter Simulator on the ZX Spectrum. The Messenger is a metroidvania that pays loving homage to these titles of yesteryear, while featuring a unique time travel mechanic that allows the player to travel from an 8-bit world to a 16-bit world in order to solve puzzles and navigate around its complex map.
Openly inspired by the notoriously difficult Ninja Gaiden on the NES, The Messenger offers a stern challenge and hundreds of secrets for completionists to discover.
With a grim gothic atmosphere, religious-themed enemies and lashings of Catholic guilt, Blasphemous is a metroidvania steeped in the culture and traditions of its Spanish developer, The Game Kitchen. Players take control of the Penitent One, a lone member of the Brotherhood of the Silent Sorrow sect. Adorned in a tall pointed helmet attached to an emotionless mask, the Penitent One travels through the dark world of Cvstodia in search of a powerful sacred object.
Healthily influenced by the Dark Souls series in both design and gameplay, Blasphemous is a meaty and beautifully disturbing example of the genre for those who are looking for a dark and atmospheric adventure.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night (2019)
Legendary Castlevania series producer Koji Igarashi returned to his roots in 2019 with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night – a spiritual successor to the games with which he became synonymous. After a massively successful Kickstarter in 2015, fans waited nervously to see whether the master’s homecoming would be worth the wait. What they got was a confident return to form in a game that was praised for its gothic horror design and masterful handling of the best of what the genre has to offer.
With the Castlevania franchise seemingly in extended hibernation, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a great alternative for those missing the company of Dracula and the Belmont clan.
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