I'm starting a new feature where I take a type of game and dissect it for some detailed analysis, like one of them there fancy scientist types might do were they to stop working on improving the human race and our understanding of the universe and talked about video games instead. What intrigues me more than most, and this was something I technically started blabbing about some time ago when I wrote those blogs about Roguelikelikes and Zeldalikes, are those hyperspecialized sub-genres that engender those always worthwhile discussions that point out when a game is or isn't part of the accepted, very specific criteria that some Ur example set back in the day.
(Also, the despite the common misconception to the contrary, I don't actually create the terrible portmanteau name and work my way backwards when devising these blog features.)
What Is a MetroidVania?
Well, the general accepted criteria is that of a non-linear action game which emphasizes exploration. There's a whole bunch of sub-criteria too: There needs to be barriers to prevent further exploration until certain power-ups have expanded the player character's traversal abilities; it needs to be a side-scrolling 2D platformer; it needs RPG elements, even if they're only as perfunctory as upgrading one's health and attack power; it needs a map that fills in as you explore; it needs "zones", where chunks of the game world have a distinctive look to set them apart; a major boss fight to break up each "zone"; and if you beat the game quickly enough, the lady protagonist takes off her clothes. Some or all of these sub-criteria become less essential depending on how stringent your personal definition of a MetroidVania happens to be.
I feel the three aspects of a MetroidVania that are the most vital yet paradoxically the most dispensable are the combat, platforming and RPG elements. In all three cases, I'm talking about going beyond the superficial: If the character swings a sword to make an enemy flash a few times and vanish, that doesn't constitute a sophisticated combat system. Rather, the distinction would be better served with combo systems and complex boss battles and the like. In equal measure, solid platforming isn't making the player jump on a few ledges in order to reach the next area, nor does an occasional energy tank or missile upgrade qualify as the game having an in-depth RPG side to it.
A MetroidVania may choose to emphasize one or more of these aspects (and is usually better off with at least two) but isn't much of a game without at least one of them. This is because these are three strong genres in their own right that designers have been developing for (console) generations and it is necessary to have at least one as a sturdy foundation before building all these non-linearity/power-up enabled exploration/space bikini elements on top of it.
Here, I made a helpful diagram to show you what I mean:
While this isn't a perfect model (for instance, very few games would fit the Zeta intersection, since the RPG elements really only exist to serve the combat element), there are plenty of MetroidVanias which can be spread around this diagram. For instance:
- Most Metroid games are Alphas. All Samus ever needs is a stronger gun and a few missiles now and again. Don't tell me its platforming is never challenging when you reach those sequences where a big ol' countdown timer shows up.
- Vagrant Story, Muramasa: The Demon Blade and Aquaria might all qualify as Gammas as they lack any real platforming aspects. Vagrant Story's more an RPG, Muramasa a brawler and Aquaria is all underwater.
- As it lacks combat of any kind, a game like Knytt Underground (which is what got me thinking about this whole issue in the first place) really only qualifies for the Platforming circle, though is still a MetroidVania by any applicable metric. VVVVVV is a similar case.
- Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet on the other hand can only really qualify for the Combat circle. No platforms, no leveling-up outside a few shield power-ups. It's a MetroidVania shmup, really.
- Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is a rare Omega (or would be rare, if it weren't for all of its portable offspring). I'd also qualify the recent Guacamelee! and Dust: An Elysian Tail as same. Each challenges the players with both their platforming and combat, and there's ample RPG elements to boot.
- Guess what only fits into the RPG circle and still counts as a non-linear exploration-heavy game? Dungeon crawlers and roguelikes. Yep. Someone's mind just exploded.
This isn't to say that a MetroidVania is a better game, or even a "truer" MetroidVania, for being an Omega. Nor am I suggesting that these three genres are the be-all and end-all of a decent MetroidVania game (I did list all those sub-criteria earlier, and many of those tend to factor quite highly in a person's appraisal of a MetroidVania as well). My point is simply that I'd be happier to expand the term a little to factor in more games of a non-linear exploratory bent even if they're not precisely like the interstellar bounty hunts and supernatural vampire slayings which lend the sub-genre its name, and I feel this diagram nails down what a player could reasonably expect from a game of this type while simultaneously embracing many MetroidVania outliers.
Folks are determined to make the sub-genre as specific as possible for the sake of clarity, though you lose so many interesting games because they fail to tick all the necessary checkboxes: Metroid Prime would be out because its 3D first-person perspective. The Arkham games don't have any platforming and aren't side-scrollers either. Vagrant Story lets you explore in random directions, but Lea Monde doesn't have much in the way of floating platforms everywhere (lots of boxes though!). Knytt Underground is out because you don't hit anything, your character is defenseless, there's no bosses and there's really no barriers of any kind to overcome with a fancy new power-up.
Really, genres overall just seem like a thoroughly reductive way to view the games we play: to pigeonhole them as best as we're able. Gamer-152 talked a bit about the need for them on his Genrelisation blog (a great read as much as I disagree with it, but as it's on the front page you don't need to take my word for it) but I just can't see genres lasting much longer if all they are is a way to describe a game in ten words or less in the most myopic way possible.
Anyway, go ahead and rail against these broader definitions and that silly diagram as much as you would like in the comments below. It is what they are there for, after all. Thanks for reading and please feel free to come up with more games that either fit those intersections or escape them entirely. Either would be intriguing.