Of all the stupid jargon the games media has invented to describe something that only the most enthusiastic amongst us will ever understand, there’s one godawful word that sticks in my craw every time I feel the urge to utter it, which is, unfortunately for me, all the time (seriously, guys: my throat really hurts.) That word, of course, is “Metroidvania,” a portmanteau meant to describe the common design elements between Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, along with every subsequent game designed to mimic the two. For those uninitiated few who need a refresher, the formula for creating a successful Metroidvania is, more or less, as follows (gracious thanks to Daniel Primed for the succinct summation):
- 2D platforming
- free-roaming nature (few restrictions on where to travel)
- emphasis on exploration
- a progressively expanding ability system tied to exploration and combat
Now, as much as I hate using the neologism coined to describe this most potent of gaming cocktails, the truth is, I would trade all the Marios, Zeldas, Grand Theft Autos, and (insert your favorite game series here) that have ever existed for half as many Metroidvanias. In the nearly twenty years since Super Metroid launched for the SNES, there’s been no other design that has held up so well from generation to generation, nor one that has influenced the creation of so many great games – even those that aren’t specifically meant to ape Metroid and Castlevania, like Minecraft, Batman: Arkham City, or the recently released Tomb Raider reboot.
If your tastes are anything like mine, you’re probably always up for another roll in the hay with Samus and Alucard, but why not try something new for a change? Each of the following games offers a fresh take or interesting variation on the Metroidvania formula, and each is sublime in its own right. So, read on – no matter what platform you game on, you’re sure to find something special!
Platform: PS3, Vita
Year of first release: 2013
Developer: DrinkBox Studios
DrinkBox Studios, developer of the Tales from Space games, is back with a vengeance with its third release, which hit PS3 and Vita in North America on April 9th. Guacamelee is classic Metroidvania through and through, with vast, interconnected environments to explore, secret collectibles hidden everywhere, and plenty of sequence-breaking exploits for speedrunners to take advantage of. What sets it apart is its unique presentation: if you’re not charmed by its humorous take on Mexican mythology (you play as a recently-deceased farmer-turned-luchador, on a quest to save
the world El Presidente’s Daughter from a sombrero’d skeleton with plans to merge the lands of the living and the dead) and don’t find yourself addicted to its sassy trumpet themes, perhaps you’ll get a kick out of identifying the countless references to video game and Internet culture that DrinkBox has stuffed its game with. Having said that, don’t be surprised twenty years from now when you go to play this future-classic and realize you can’t remember what the deal was with the monkey in the shearling coat.
Year of first release: 2011
In Monster Tale, players take control of Ellie, a young girl on an epic quest to defeat the Kid-Kings, a group of not-quite-evil human brats who’ve seen fit to take over Monster World. The game’s open-ended platforming and light RPG elements aren’t quite as satisfying here as the games DreamRift was inspired by, but the game’s pet-sim element takes the “familiars” system of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and runs with it, devoting the DS’s entire lower screen to the care of Ellie’s pet, Chomp, who can evolve into several distinct forms depending on how players choose to interact with him. This is a good one for introduce young children to the genre, but challenging enough that experienced players will enjoy it as well.
Fun fact: If you’re wondering where you’ve heard of DreamRift before, wonder no longer: they were responsible for the better-than-its-console-cousin 3DS version of Epic Mickey. Staff at DreamRift also worked on another essential under-the-radar DS title, Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure.
Platform: Xbox 360, PC
Year of first release: 2009
Developer: Chair Entertainment
Back before Chair made its millions from the visually stunning but yawn-inducing Infinity Blade titles for iOS, it released Shadow Complex on Xbox Live Arcade. Though the game doesn’t do much visually to set itself apart from all the military-themed Unreal Engine games that have flooded the console market this generation, it has earned a special place in the hearts of longtime gamers with its rock-solid platforming and hidden objectives that tests even the most skilled players. Shadow Complex remains one of the purest, most heartfelt love letters to Super Metroid ever released and is an essential addition to any platforming fan’s library.
Now, seriously, Chair: how about putting some of that Apple money back into games that people actually, you know, want to play?
Year of first release: 2011
Developer: WayForward Technologies
If you’re still holding out hope for Metroid: Dread, it’s time to let it go. It’s never going to happen.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a proper Metroid experience on the DS – in fact, thanks to the luminaries at WayForward, you get two! The more recent of these, Aliens Infestation, plays a lot like Metroid: Fusion, which makes it the best Aliens game ever made by default (it’s also fitting given the similarities between the two franchises, but you can Google that if you’re interested.) Due to its segmented narrative, Infestation’s world isn’t a huge, interconnected network of chambers and tunnels like most of the other games in this list, but each level is big enough that it’s easy to get lost if you don’t pay attention to your map. Aliens Infestation distinguishes itself with its so-called “permadeath” mechanic, in which characters who die are gone permanently and players can lose the game if they lose too many characters. This, along with the ever-present threat of xenomorphs lurking behind every door and ventilation shaft, lends a palpable sense of — ehem — dread to the game, making it an easy recommendation for players who like a healthy dose of tension in their platforming.
Oh, and a little word of advice: turn the volume down – way down – once the credits begin to roll. Trust me on this one.
Platform: Wii, iOS
Year of first release: 2008
Developer: Frontier Developments
With its gentle pace, inviting landscapes and soothing soundtrack, LostWinds is everything Aliens Infestation is not. An early standout on the WiiWare service, the game puts players in control of Toku, a young boy with the ability to manipulate the wind. Both LostWinds and its equally wondrous sequel have recently migrated onto iOS, and the combination of intuitive touch screen controls and Apple’s gorgeous displays makes both titles shine beyond their already-excellent (and now Wii U-compatible!) Wii versions. The game’s low difficulty level might offend some players looking for the challenge of a more traditional Metroidvania experience, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more relaxing rainy-day platformer, no matter how skilled you are.
Year of first release: TBD
Developer: Joakim Sandberg
You’d be forgiven for never having heard of The Iconoclasts before – the indie PC gaming scene can be even more inscrutable than the App Store – but now that you have, lone wolf developer Joakim Sandberg’s latest really ought to be right at the top of your list of gaming priorities. Sandberg’s detailed sprite work, fluid animation and catchy soundtrack will draw you in immediately, but the deeply-written characters and cerebral narrative put this game on a level rarely seen within the platforming genre. You can download The Iconoclasts right now, for free, from Sandberg’s website, but there’s one unfortunate catch: the game is far from finished, and the developer hasn’t given any indication that this will change any time soon. A recent PC Gamer preview based on an IGF build of the game seems to suggest a final release isn’t far off, so with any luck, we’ll all be playing The Iconoclasts by the end of the year (2014 update: nope!) In the meantime, here’s everything you need to know about the game:
And hey, Joakim, if you’re reading: I will Kickstart the shit out of this if it gets us a 3DS or Vita release. Just saying.
Platform: PC, 3DS
Year of first release: 2010
Developer: Terry Cavanaugh
You don’t really need to know how to pronounce this one, but you should be aware up front that VVVVVV’s gravity-shifting platforming will destroy you. Still interested? Good.
This C64-inspired puzzle-platformer, which has players rescuing the five missing crew members of an interstellar vessel that has been marooned on a hostile planet, has less in common with Metroid and Castlevania than most of the other games on this list – there are no weapons, few enemies, and you can’t even jump! – but its non-linear structure and copious checkpoints make it really easy to pick up when you have just a few minutes to spare. Just make sure not to play in public if you’re prone to hissy fits.
And also: Oh. My. God. That soundtrack.
You Have to Win the Game
Year of first release: 2012
Developer: J. Kyle Pittman
VVVVVV is excellent, but if you’ve already played it, give You Have to Win the Game a shot. Featuring a similar art style, a slightly-less-punishing difficulty level, and a price of free, this one’s an easy recommendation for players interested in…well, all of those things I just mentioned.
Platform: iOS, Android, PC
Year of first release: 2012
Developer: Tiger Style
Waking Mars was the first open-ended platformer of real substance made specifically for smartphones and tablets, and it’s appropriately more puzzle-oriented than action-heavy. Yes, this is another “space man explores a mysterious planet” game, but it earns an easy recommendation just for daring to be different. How different? Let me explain.
In Waking Mars, you play an astronaut on a mission to study and catalog the plantlike life forms populating the inner world of Mars. By mastering your understanding of each unique creature, you’ll be able to turn the planet’s inhospitable caverns in to living, breathing gardens of exotic delight, and ultimately will make your way off the planet. It sounds like a tough sell, but If you’ve ever fantasized about trading Samus’s missile blaster for a watering can, Waking Mars proves that you can blend even the most disparate genres into an unforgettable experience.
Platform: PC, PS3, Vita
Year of first release: 2012
I’ll admit up front that I’m not a huge fan of Knytt Underground’s minimalist art style, and its playable character looks like she was designed by the people responsible for MineSweeper – but the proof, as they say, is in the play, and Knytt Underground’s gameplay holds up in spite of its visual blandness. If you’ve finished Guacamelee and are looking for “more like this” on your current Sony platform of choice, you really don’t have too many options – it’s either this, or the obtuse-but-excellent Tomba! – but even the worst Metroidvania is better than most anything else you can play today. I’ll just leave this trailer here for you, and if you like what you see, head on over to the PlayStation Network and give the demo a shot. You just might love it.
Shantae: Risky’s Revenge
Platform: DS, iOS
Year of first release: 2010
Developer: WayForward Technologies
Shantae. That’s the name of one of those Bratz dolls, right? The original Shantae, released for Gameboy Color at a time when the world had already moved on to the Gameboy Advance, suffered the fate of being the best platformer with the worst name on a system chock-full of great games with more marketable names, like “Super Mario 47” and “Mega Man 20XX.” Seriously, take a look at the game’s cover art and answer honestly: does that look like a game you would have bought?
Fortunately for players, developer WayForward was paying attention as the value of Shantae skyrocketed on eBay (even during a recession), and responded by building an even better sequel for players who couldn’t justify dropping $100 or more on a Gameboy game (which is now available on the 3DS eShop!)
Shantae: Risky’s Revenge, a download-only title that, just like its predecessor, is better than any other platformer released on DS, stars a genie named Shantae who’s been tasked with ridding her peaceful village of the influence of Risky Boots, a lady pirate with a penchant for meddling in the lives of the little people, and also not wearing a whole lot of clothing.
Genie versus pirate: shouldn’t be too difficult, right? Wrong. At the beginning of the game, Shantae is stripped of all her godlike geniepowers, and forced to hoof it across the land on her own two legs. Luckily, Shantae’s no ordinary girl even without genie status; she’s capable not only of transforming into various creatures to navigate tricky environmental puzzles, but of whipping the daylights out of Risky’s minions using nothing but her luscious ponytail.
That’s right: Metroidvania + head banging. Rock and roll, mother lickers.
Platform: PC, DSi, Wii, 3DS
Year of first release: 2004
Developer: Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya
Cave Story. If you’ve played it, you knew it was going to show up on this list; if you haven’t, shame on you, fake gamer! Long held up as the one of the finest examples of independent game development, Cave Story legitimized the movement to develop modern games in the style of the classics we all played in our youth, and proved that it didn’t take gigaflops and polydongles to make a compelling experience in the 20th century.
Cave Story tells the story of Quote, an amnesiac robot who wakes up in an underground colony of rabbit people being tormented by a nefarious, upjumped scientist. Its combination of brilliant artwork, fantastic level design, pitch-perfect score and countless secrets that only the most obsessive (and skilled) players will ever find puts it at the absolute pinnacle of Metroidvanias not called Metroid or Castlevania – it’s quite simply not to be missed. Good thing, then, that it’s been released on pretty much every platform that matters.
Fun fact: Cave Story is a digital-only release, like most of the titles on this list, though a revamped, polygon-based version was released at retail for the 3DS. It may not be the definitive version of the game – for my money, that would actually be the eShop version of the game (also released for the 3DS) – but the mere fact of its physical existence makes it a required purchase for serious Cave Story fans. It also proves, yet again, that gameplay is what really matters in the end – because no matter what it looks like, Cave Story is one of the best games you will ever play.
And that’s a wrap! Have you played all the games on this list? Which ones are your favorite? What other Metroidvanias do you think players should check out? And what about that word, Metroidvania – do you love it, or hate it? Sound off in the comments below!