Recently, one of my friends started playing Hollow Knight and a couple hours in, I realized that he didn’t really know what a Metroidvania was. In that sense, me saying “Hollow Knight is a Metroidvania” is equivalent to saying “Hollow Knight is a game in that one genre I like”. So what even is it? I’ve been thinking about that a lot since then. As a bona-fide Metroidvania fangirl, I thought it would be interesting to offer my own thoughts and interpretation of what a “Metroidvania” is.
What’s interesting (and frustrating) about the word “Metroidvania” is that I find this word to be completely meaningless to anyone that knows nothing about video games. Think about the words “First Person Shooter”, “Point and Click”, “Hack and Slash”, “Fighting”, “Open World”, and compare them to something like “Metroidvania” (and to a lesser extent, “Rogue-lite”, “Souls-like”).
I feel like for a lot of people, the answer to “What is a Metroidvania” on the internet was, “a game that’s sorta like Super Metroid or Symphony of the Night”. Understanding what the term meant required you to have some understanding of the Metroid games and/or an oddly specific subset of the Castlevania games.
Granted, it’s more of a ubiquitous term today, but I think that makes the term even more confusing. And with the Castlevania series and the Metroid series faded away to Netflix and development hell respectively, the modern day genre is mostly carried by indie developers.
Metroid, Classicvania, Metroidvania
I don’t know if it’s just me, but growing up, I didn’t consider Metroidvanias to be their own subset of games, but rather a subset of Castlevania games. I sometimes see people get upset over the term Metroidvania because it gives too much credit to Symphony of the Night, which came after three solid Metroid games. As much as I love Castlevania, I do actually agree with that sentiment. Why not call the games “Metroid-like”?
Castlevania is a series with a lot of games. According to Wikipedia, there’s thirty games in the series, not including spin-offs. The problem is, a lot of these games are completely different from one another in terms of gameplay. I often see all the Castlevania games categorized into one of three categories.
- The platformers. These are the classic Castlevania games. Games like the first ever Castlevania game from 1986. “Classicvanias”.
- The games that were somewhat similar to Metroid games. Metroid-like? Metroid-eqsue? “Metroidvanias”.
- The games that we pretend never existed
(Yes, I know Curse of Darkness is relevant now because of Netflix and if one of your favorites is here, please forgive me)
So why did the term “Metroidvania” catch on to other unrelated games? It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how and when it caught on. The Wikipedia page points to Jeremy Parish, who manages the site http://www.metroidvania.com/, as someone who helped propagate the term. I personally remember various indie games self identifying as Metroidvanias, but I can’t say much more about this matter.
What is a Metroidvania?
I consider a Metroidvania to be a game built around upgrades and an interconnected map. As you earn upgrades, you gain new ways to traverse the map and can access new areas that you couldn’t before. For example, many games have ledges you just can’t reach without a mobility upgrade, and that’s to be expected. Some dead ends are only temporary.
A Metroidvania is “non-linear” in some way. Non-linear is a confusing term here. It’s not an open world game in that there’s tons of walls and boundaries and you are still confined inside a subset of a map. A lot of these games progress linearly, which is also confusing. An example of this would be that in Hollow Knight, it is impossible for you to learn how to dash until you learn how to fire projectiles. No matter how much skill you have in Hollow Knight, you have to get the projectile before the dash.
So it generally feels like the term non-linear is used to describe Metroidvanias from a micro, rather than a macro perspective. If you think about most 2D platformers, there’s essentially a start and an end in a level. Metroidvanias offer more exploration in the sense of having branching paths, dead end rooms, loops, etc. Game Maker’s Toolkit discusses how in Super Metroid, the way forward might actually be behind you. (And honestly, the entire Boss Keys series is amazing, I’d highly recommend watching season 2 of it if this blog post interests you enough).
It’s often a little frustrating when people complain about a game being bad because they don’t know what to do next. That to me is such a quintessential part of a Metroidvania game: exploring the map and finding new areas, shortcuts, and bosses. It’s almost like complaining about how a shooter has too much shooting.
But then again, “shooter” is a much more descriptive word than “Metroidvania” is.