What's a metroidvania?

Sorry for the clickbait-y title. I couldn‘t find a thread on metroidvania description and I’ve got a specific question that perhaps the forum would enjoy answering.

I teach a university intro to game design class. I was thinking last night that lots of games recently call themselves or are labeled a "metroidvania". A combination of Metroid and Castlevania, but what does this really _mean_ and which parts are which?

What I would like to do is create an assignment in my class where the students play a metorid and a vania and dissect a bit what it means to be each. Analyze features, and mechanics, etc and see if they can put together what being a metroidvania is, at least surface level.

My question to the forum is: which Metroid and which Castlevania should I assign them to play and dissect? My first thought was Super Metroid for SNES and Castlevania IV for SNES because then I only have to give them one emulator.

I'm not a expert on either series so I'd welcome any other suggestions.

Meteroidvania is a funny term because really, if I were a game-categorizer, I would call Symphony of the Night and all the rest just Metroid-likes. Or, a more meaningful genre title might be 2d sidescrolling action-exploration games, though it‘s a bit of a mouthful. I mean, how much do most of these games really take from SoTN? I’ll admit I haven‘t played a ton of them, but a lot of them don’t even have the RPG stat elements, do they?

As for the 2 games for your assignment, whatever Castlevania you choose would have to be post-Symphony of the Night, since the earlier games (1-4) don't have any of the elements people would nowadays associate with Metroidvania.

Metroidvania is not a combination of Metroid and Castlevania. It‘s just used to describe and explorative 2D platformer. It’s a term that, Jeremy Parish, the one who coined it, is very tired of and regrets starting, mainly because of how tiresome semantic discussions of it have become over the years. We‘re all really tired of it, myself included. The Wario Land series is my favorite Metroidvania. It was really a shortsighted classification from the cultural prevalence of Super Metroid and Castlevania Symphony of the Night on the english speaking web of the early 00’s. Throw it in the trash. Listen to / read any of Parish‘s recent mentions of the term. You’re in a position to properly inform your class rather than perpetuate this.

Interesting feedback from everyone, thanks! For folks interested in at least one recent mention by Mr. Parish himself there's

https://www.usgamer.net/articles/design-in-action-%7C-symphony-of-the-night-and-the-metroidvania-lie

which is interesting and clears up some info. Aria of Sorrow (plus some others) is essentially the "Metroid styled Castlevania". You learn something each day! Seems writing about this is pretty easy to find online so perhaps not worth the student exercise, but we'll see.

PERSONALLY I would rather call them Ys III - likes, Faxanadu Clones, Zelda Twos, or Dragon Buster Clones, half joking.

La-Mulana has more DNA of Maze of Galious than Metroid or Castlevania, by a long shot.

I searched “METROIDVANIA WAS A MISTAKE” and this was the top result:

https://kotaku.com/stop-calling-games-metroidvania-1836051152

Also here‘s Jeremy’s whole video series about it!

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLd3vJYdenHKGrWrvCGsIbOOl_h_6tzERM

Thinking about it more. lots of games are still referred to this way and it's probably still interesting for beginner students to review why these two series have created a term/genre. Plus playing videogames for homework is cool dang it.

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@treefroggy#30976 a term that, Jeremy Parish, the one who coined it, is very tired of and regrets starting,

actually, Sharkey did it, but Jeremy popularised it.

>

I picked it up from my former 1UP.com coworker Scott Sharkey, who had simply used it to describe the handful of Castlevania games to that point which adopted a Metroid-like exploratory world view. Unlike him, I used the word frequently, loudly, and indiscriminately, all in an attempt to spread the good word of a game format that, in 2003 or so, seemed in danger of vanishing forever.

https://web.archive.org/web/20170120221744/http://www.usgamer.net/articles/design-in-action-%7C-symphony-of-the-night-and-the-metroidvania-lie

Sometimes people ask “what's an immersive sim” and my jokey answer is “any game where you read people's mail to unlock a door” and for metroidvania I think it‘s any platformer where you run past a platform you can’t reach until you get the double jump

@hellomrkearns#31081 I recall now! I miss sharkey

A Metroid-like has some key features I would identify:

  • - Non linear critical path
  • - Primarily in control of one character (or team of characters)
  • - "Action Adventure" in the sense that you are generally a person or thing that is both fightin' and runnin' around
  • - Interconnected, persistent game world on a macro level
  • - Emphasis on navigation/pathfinding, as in, a distinct hesitancy to communicate to the player where to find the critical path at any given time, or even how to connect different points of the critical path to each other
  • - Progression is guided by the discovery of a cohesive suite of character abilities, in-game resources, or mechanical functions
  • - Said character abilities, in-game resources, or mechanical functions lend the player character(s) a mixture of combat, mobility, interactive, or logistical advantages/tools.
  • - Through the unlocking of said stuff, regions, secrets, or barriers to progress placed by combat challenges/hazards become passable, expanding the accessible spaces in the aforementioned interconnected and persistent game world.
  • All of these characteristics come with a major caveat... there are varying degrees to which these features can and cannot be illusory.

    What I mean by that is that, for instance, all Metroid-likes need some degree of non-linearity in the critical path, it can't just be a linear path with clever tricks to make you forget you don't actually have any real agency to decide on where to go, like having just a series of branching paths in between consistently converging points on the critical path that you can't do out of order. If you get to critical path point 1, and you can Task 1A, Task 1B, Task 1C and Task 1D in any order, only to just end up at critical path point 2, and you are intentionally gated from doing 2A, 2B, 2C, and you can't even think about doing critical path point 3 or 4, I'm not sure that meets the genre characteristics. A Metroid-like would be designed in such a way that even if you had to do CPP 1 before CPP 2, it would be less worried about directing you after that, and you could do CPP 3 or 4 as you wish.

    Another example of how this genre's conventions can be a bit illusory is when the tools you unlock are more like abstracted keys rather than an actual expansion of the mobility or interactive functionality of your character. Getting a double jump and being able to reach higher areas is simple enough, it makes things previously inaccessible accessible by expanding the player character's available ways of interacting with the game world. To pick a somewhat more illusory example that's within the genre, Metroid's space suit by default will not allow her to explore super hot regions like down into an opening in the core of the planet where it is extremely hot. Getting Metroid a Varia Suit upgrade means that she can withstand super high temperatures, and as such those areas of the game world become accessible.

    However, you could make the argument that the Varia Suit's exploratory function is equivalent to if you had just placed impassable doors around the regions they wanted to gate off until you got the Varia Key, right? More than a lot of other action adventure games, though, Metroid-likes commit to not just creating those interconnected persistent worlds, it commits to creating the persistent illusion of a certain attitude towards traversing it. The Varia Suit is a more convincing illusion of being a functional tool because it generally also comes packaged with a defense boost, and is thus both a logistical and a combat upgrade. So if the Varia Suit is the Key to the impassable barrier of super hot temperatures, it is also a means to better traverse the rest of the game world in its totality, since you're getting a significant combat upgrade. I mean, not that Metroid-likes don't also have keys a lot of the time too, it's just that, the most conventional of them will put in work to make those at least less significant feeling than the expansions of your player character's abilities, usually by ensuring many of those new abilities have combat functionality as well as mobility functionality or logistical functionality. You don't beat a boss just for a key, you beat a boss for a Triple Jump, or, at least, a Magma Ray *and* a key.

    Maybe the most genre-defining element of a Metroid-like is, I'd say, a distinct hesitancy to direct the player along the critical path, or, at least, a hesitancy to too clearly communicate what the connections between points in the critical path are. The player is left to piece together how it is to find points in the critical path, and often, how to traverse and navigate through the world to get to them. Even simple branched paths become something with an overall different psychological effect when nothing compels you to go down one branch instead of the other, or the branches twist around each other, and there's no real way to tell whether you're being asked to pick down forks in a road to begin with, and so on.

    Navigation and pathfinding stay a continuous part of the gameplay, in the sense that traversal through the world is a lot more complicated than just getting from point A to point B, because that will often have multiple possible routes, how you traverse through the gameworld changes on a micro scale too as you unlock more mobility upgrades, which can also unlock even more possible routes as you can access new shortcuts or just more alternate pathways.

    Even just as it might seem that a Metroid-like is directing you to a specific location for a specific reason. A fun one that plenty of Metroid-likes do is to put a point of interest on the map, but in a point in your map that remains completely blank between that point and the nearest part of your map that has been explored. This is giving you direction, but really only in the vaguest sense of compelling you to head literally giving you a direction to head roughly in, with no actual path even hinted at until you get closer to it. Even more so when your map doesn't even suggest a potential path to this goal, implying you need to figure out how to even begin heading in that direction.

    I would say that these games are more about navigation than exploration. I think you can explore in many games that aren't Metroid-likes, because exploration is more about seeing and experiencing, which you can do by just knowing there is unexplored space. Navigation implies that the act of finding the path is a more involved process than just following a quest marker and understanding there are things to do and see within the lines of the map. Navigating through Metroid-likes feels different, I think, because they structure the worlds and gate, guide, onscure, and hint at directing you around them in a way that will make you feel that the map is, well, a map in a more literal sense, as in, a visual representation of just one part of a cohesive physical space that has blank spaces only because you haven't filled them in, rather than like in other action adventure games where you feel it is a HUD feature that shows you explicitly where the in-game space ends.

    I think if I have gotten enough criteria down, it should be simple enough to say why some games that are close in structure to a Metroid-like, aren't Metroid-likes.

    various Legends of Zelda aren't Metroid-likes despite having open, persistent, interconnected worlds, and a series of power-ups that upgrade or expand combat/mobility/interactive/logistic function. I would say for one that is because even when they're not all that linear, and, to be clear, they usually are pretty linear, they don't do nearly enough to obscure the connections between the points on the critical path. Your various Hyrules and Hyrule Fields and Oceans have plenty of secrets within them, sure, and traversal around them can change over time as you get more tools, but it's not as if the confines of the map expand so much as they increase in density. There will always be a sense of the totality of the game world from the beginning, and traversal is often pleasant, but is not engaging so much as it is immersive and theatric. You can never really get a sense of feeling lost. At least not for long, anyway.

    Furthemore the game's narrative or interface will heavily suggest an intended order for the critical path, even when it can be done out of order, which kind of dispels the illusion of non-linearity (which is a different thing than sequence breaking even if they can overlap). You can tell me that you can do the 7 Dark World dungeons in Link to the Past in a variety of orders, but there is clearly no real reason to do so, it doesn't make them any more compelling to have a tool you got from a dungeon later in the intended sequence, if for no other reason than the game isn't going to make a habit of punishing people for doing things in the intended order. It also calls to mind something else that makes Zelda games not like Metroid-likes, in that the parts that do get you to navigate and pathfind, the dungeons, are self contained experiences with little to no cohesion or interconnection between each other, even if there is that within them or if you were to remove the game world in between them. This tends to lend better to the narrative structure of Zelda games, it's not like there's anything wrong with them.

    Dark Souls might be closer to the definition of a Metroid-like given how there is non-linearity, pathfinding and navigation, a reluctance to direct player to connections between the critical path points, an interconnected and looping game world that you can totally get lost in, and some gating but also many ways to sneak around it. However, I don't think it is a Metroid-like because it eschews the genre convention of expanding the player's mobility/interactive capabilities in favor of abstracting traversal through areas with mostly either Keys of various kinds (Blue Key opens Blue Door) or surmountable by sequence breaking via raw skill to overcome combat challenges. I think this creates a very different kind of attitude toward exploration--the confines of the physical spaces you find yourself in are usually pretty clearly communicated, and finding hidden areas is more a question of being observant and poking open an illusory wall than having a particular skill to recontextualize the physical space with a new way you can interact with it. Running through Undead Burg when you're so strong you don't care about being hit 'cause you got the key to Lower Undead Burg is not the same as returning to the first area of Super Metroid once you've got Super Missles. Again, as much as Dark Souls clearly owes to Metroid-likes, this doesn't make Dark Souls lesser but different.

    One of the most disappointing games to feel like a Metroid-like, but not be one, was Carrion, that funny little “reverse horror” game from last year where you basically play as John Carpenter's The Thing.

    For some reason, this game has maps shaped like a Metroid-like, gives you a steady string of new abilities that both improve your combat and interactive/logistical abilities, and has areas that loop and interconnect to one another, but it's almost like they started designing the game like a Metroid-like and got fed up in trying to create a game world that was as engaging to navigate and traverse through as in a Metroid-like, because the game basically shepherds you from one point in the critical path to another without stopping. This was such a huge missed opportunity, I feel like Carrion could have been a real fun time if it attempted an even half baked Metroid-like world structure and just let the player explore it rather than hint at this being the case by letting you interact with the world in new and often fun and interesting ways.

    Wait, after thinking of Hollow Knight and the Ori series, I forgot a crucial aspect of Metroid-likes, which is that you're a little guy

    @Gaagaagiins#31178 thank you for such a detailed reply! A non-sarcastic A+ for you. Certainly excellent material to help detail this for students.


    @baktegon#31297 Oh, you‘re welcome! I didn’t think I would necessarily be contributing to your class material but that makes it even better!

    For the record a lot of my musings came out of thinking of in particular _Hollow Knight_, which is an entry in the genre par excellence. Maybe even a little _too_ excellent in that it really exemplifies a lot of those particular things I may have shamelessly pointed out as most important to the definition of the genre. Which, I think, is out of more than just personal affection, it's not just a fantastic game or a fantastic entry in the genre, it's also fantastic because of how much it leans into the genre's conventions, I think.

    Also I have watched a lot of [Boss Keys](https://youtu.be/a1hHOVIkrcc), from Mark Brown via Game Maker's Tool Kit. Which, ironically, was first more of a Zelda dungeon analysis series! I was thinking about it more today even, and I think it's really interesting how much of what makes a Metroid-like a Metroid-like is found in Zelda dungeons, but how much it changes that kind of experience when you compartmentalize those game world areas into self contained experiences (the dungeons). It's kind of like, a Metroid-like is if a Zelda game's dungeons all got mashed together, with the rest of the game world shrunk down to just a few largely ornamental or cinematic liminal spaces in between them, and you could do them in a wide variety of orders, almost.

    @Gaagaagiins#31299 I was gonna mention boss keys too!

    new Metroidvania Works dropped, and it‘s Knightmare II! Which is awesome– another that inspired La Mulana

    https://youtu.be/Gt4WtGJGP6I

    I would argue some of gaagaagiins empirical notes, it is a forum after all, but I don’t care! lol

    @treefroggy#31567 I‘m fine with disageeing so long as we’re clear that Samus is little. I mean look at Chozos in comparison to her, lots of enemies look like big bugs*, look at the size of Kraid in Super Metroid!

  • * - Could be another link here, are Metroid-likes when there's bugs?


  • that settles that, I hope