What is a “Metroidvania”?

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.

Genre Naming

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.

11 thoughts on “What is a “Metroidvania”?

  1. Great takes and generally agree with the sentiment.

    Metroidvania is, unfortunately, the term that is used to describe these games in the popular space so we’re stuck with it. I didn’t even know what a Metroidvania was until 2014 and I’d been playing them for over a decade by that point. Prior to that I referred to them (in my own head) as exploration platformers, which actually describes the gameplay experience. You explore, you platform. Perfect name. 😛

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Puts on sociolinguistics cap – Well any hobby is going to have specific associated terminology or jargon. Part of entering that hobby sphere is that there are terms specific to that hobby.
    Philately talks about imperforated stamps
    Book genres have obscure terms such as Cli-fi, Wuxia, Bangsian or the antiquated bildungsromans and picaresque novel.
    Attempting prescriptivist language is never quite going to work, terms arise within groups (in this case within ‘gamers’ those who share the activity of gaming) and so any descriptivist will take the terms used and offer them in context with a meaning, describing the word and how it is used. Prescriptivism is largely invalidated since it simply doesn’t work, or can only be imposed by an authority, that ignores the general usage of words by the masses. For this reason dialects exist for many languages, because the usage doesn’t conform to a standardised version. Decrying a term like metroidvania is a particular prescriptivist approach that will ultimately end in failure. Better to use a descriptivist approach and make a glossary available to those new to the hobby… Something similar to this https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glossary_of_video_game_terms
    That describes terms as odd as mudflation, zerging, and expands the acronym for the genre 4X into something comprehensible.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am extremely unqualified to properly discuss sociolinguistics, but this comment was an interesting read.

      I’ve had several discussions recently with some friends (including the one that inspired this post) about “stan twitter lingo” and how absolutely ridiculous it is and the general feeling of “How on earth did I pick up all this jargon? None of this makes any sense.” Ever since then I’ve been thinking a lot about slang used within subcultures and hobbies. With words being spread more quickly than ever with the internet and social media, terms like Metroidvania are easily propagated – in this case it seems like it was propagated through Parish’s website, among others. Luckily, it’s also easier than ever to be antiquated with jargon when picking up any hobby (i.e. the Wikipedia glossary).

      Skimming through the glossary was pretty fascinating with how many terms and words I take for granted, and I assume I’m not the only one. It evidently resulted in the problem that inspired this post (hence the last part in which I attempt to actually explain to him, a reader, what kind of game Hollow Knight actually is).

      Lastly, mudflation is something I was well aware of, but had no idea that there was a name of that phenomenon, and it’s a really fun word haha.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yep even innocuous words like FPS and RPG given as acronyms are quite incomprehensible, and even first person in first person shooter is used quite differently to the literary term. So that isn’t straightforward either… Why is the first person, first instead of an inside person? Semantically language is strange anyway, there’s no reason why the word ‘chair’ should mean a three or four legged object used to sit on, you may as well call it yǐzi (Mandarin), chaise (French), or sillón (Spanish). A noun, in this case the coined Metroidvania, isn’t descriptive, that isn’t the point of nouns… Nor would the word fantasy mean: medieval world’s filled with magic, until you learnt that. It’s the fun of language as being symbolic arrangement of syllables, it’s incredibly abstract but that’s what makes it so versatile and fun to use.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I absolutely love Metroidvania, my favourite game genre these days. It HORRIFIES me if someone doesn’t know what it is!!!
    Actually, I think a lot of gamers these days will just dismiss them as they’re “from the past”. 2D platforming is an anachronism, for a lot of them, and it’s all about massive AAA games.
    But for my money, Metroidvania offers some of the most fresh and engaging modern titles. Exploration is encouraged and you must use your head.
    Hollow Knight is possible a bad one to start with first time out, though. It’s ruddy difficult.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s my favorite genre too ^_^

      He decided to play Hollow Knight before he realized how difficult it is, but he stuck with it and is now well over half way through the game, so that’s pretty neat.

      Liked by 1 person

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