CompartMentolized: MetroidVanias

Posted by Mento (3241 posts) -

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:

That upside-down L thing is an upper-case Gamma by the way. It has nothing to do with Waluigi.

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.

#1 Posted by Ravenlight (8057 posts) -

I want a CastleMetroid where you fight Dracula in space. Someone's got to have made that game before, right?

#2 Posted by Video_Game_King (36566 posts) -

@mento said:

(Also, the despite the common misconception of the contrary, I don't actually create the terrible portmanteau name and work my way backwards when devising these blog features.)

I understand that. Sometimes, the puns just pop up on their own, like when Jay-Z suddenly showed up in my 999 blog.

and if you beat the game quickly enough, the lady protagonist takes off her clothes.

Who said anything about it being a lady? Or am I the only person who remembers Alucard's throbbing cock at the end of Symphony of the Night?

#3 Posted by Icicle7x3 (1246 posts) -

That upside-down L thing is an upper-case Gamma by the way. It has nothing to do with Waluigi.

Everything has to do with Waluigi!

#4 Posted by MooseyMcMan (12011 posts) -

This is literally the best use of a Venn Diagram that I have ever seen.

#5 Posted by believer258 (12964 posts) -

Metroidvennia. Huh.

The problem with this is that it encompasses a massive amount of incredibly varied games. By this metric, you could fit a Shin Megami Tensei game like Strange Journey and Super Metroid into the same genre. I guess that could count as a genre, though, if you're looking for some non linear exploration and combat and don't really care about the methods involved in achieving those goals.

A short but curious digression - I've played a bit of Strange Journey in between studying for school and it did, indeed, remind me of a Metroid-like game. It may have been the atmosphere. It may have been the music. But nevertheless it brought to mind Metroid games.

#6 Posted by Do_The_Manta_Ray (911 posts) -

@ravenlight: Fighting Dracula in space, huh? I got just what you need here in my truck

It ain't a game, but it's the second best thing.

#7 Posted by Video_Game_King (36566 posts) -


What's Mac doing here? Shouldn't he be at Paddy's with Charlie and Dennis?

#8 Edited by Mento (3241 posts) -

@believer258: True enough, but as you say it's not like dungeon crawlers always feel completely separate. I mean, that is what Metroid essentially is: A big dungeon underneath Planet Zebes that you just so happen to jump and shoot through rather than poke around in with a sword and shield. When you factor in the MetroidVanias with overtly fantastic themes (like UnEpic, as another recent Indie example), the dungeon crawler genre doesn't feel like a zillion miles away.

But yeah, as most RPGs are non-linear in nature, this would have to be reserved for the action RPGs that emphasize exploration like Vagrant Story and other various dungeon crawlers and roguelikes that fit that mold. If you're playing something turn-based or more plot-directed, it becomes an entirely different experience. (Though this still leaves games like Skyrim that qualify, which doesn't seem right. As I said, far from perfect.)

#9 Posted by Daveyo520 (7378 posts) -

Love these type of games. I wish I could play Guacamelee but I have nothing that can play it. I recently finished Aliens: Infestation and it is pretty good. It does not have any RPG elements in it though. Well maybe upgrading guns is kinda like leveling them up? I am glad I bought all of the Castlevania DS games to fill the hole that I have in my heart for them.

#10 Edited by GreggD (4587 posts) -

Okay, I've come to realize that the 2D platformer portion of the requisites is superfluous for one series: the Arkham games. Those are probably the best examples of MetroidVania breaking out of the 2D plane.

#11 Posted by BisonHero (8564 posts) -

I feel like the vast majority of "Metroidvania" games are more like SuperMetroidlikes. Correct me if I'm wrong, but Castlevania basically just added XP/skill points/random loot drops to the formula, right? Super Metroid already had a big ol' map you explore, losing all your powers at the start, finding a bunch of powers that allow you to access more areas, and finding a bunch of optional upgrades that improve health, ammo, shot power, etc. I don't think Samus getting missile expansions or energy tanks really counts as RPG element, nor do I think the armour and blaster upgrades you find in Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet count as RPG elements.

Like 90% of the games mentioned here are alphas. Like you said, Dust: An Elysian Tale has enough RPG elements that it is full on omega, but almost no games have actually had those RPG elements, so I think it is weird that Metroidvania is the go-to term, when almost everybody seems like they're just drawing on what was in Super Metroid.

Also, in the Venn diagram, I would replace "platforming" with "nonrandomized map that you must explore with little guidance", or something to that effect. I think it's more central to Metroidvania that the environment is explorable, has a map screen you fill in, and you have to revisit areas, and it really isn't that important whether that environment is platforming-based or not.

#12 Posted by Video_Game_King (36566 posts) -

losing all your powers at the start

I don't remember that part. Wasn't that more the 3D games....and Zero Mission, to a lesser extent?

#13 Posted by Hailinel (25787 posts) -

@bisonhero said:

losing all your powers at the start

I don't remember that part. Wasn't that more the 3D games....and Zero Mission, to a lesser extent?

Yeah, there's no requirement that powers be lost.

#14 Posted by BisonHero (8564 posts) -

@hailinel said:

@video_game_king said:

@bisonhero said:

losing all your powers at the start

I don't remember that part. Wasn't that more the 3D games....and Zero Mission, to a lesser extent?

Yeah, there's no requirement that powers be lost.

Yeah, I guess I more meant like "staged boss fight at the beginning", which both Super Metroid and Symphony of the Night have, but I forgot you don't really have any powers to lose at that point in Super Metroid. I guess SotN premiered the whole abilitease thing.

#15 Posted by Mento (3241 posts) -

@bisonhero: Sure. I'd probably agree that Super Metroid is the standard by which all others of this type are judged, but I also think Symphony of the Night set an interesting and important precedent when introducing all those RPG elements. For one, it proves that you can add something to the Metroid model and have it not collapse, which opened the door for odd entries like ITSP. Second, there are still quite a few games that borrow those RPG aspects. Guacamelee is probably not one of them, granted (the upgrades are all health pieces and additional combos right?), but Dust and UnEpic certainly are. (Though if you were to go further back, Legacy of the Wizard was also a combination RPG/Metroidvania that pre-dated SOTN by quite a few years.)

Honestly, I think the Castlevania half of the portmanteau is largely due to recognition than anything else. There are so many of those Castlevania games of the Super Metroid mold that like as not one of them will be the first thing people will think of after you explain the concept to them instead of Metroid.

The platforming circle came about after noticing how integral it was to Knytt Underground's gameplay, which is to say that it is entirely the gameplay. Because of this focus, the game has some exceptional jumping and physics puzzles that wouldn't be quite as necessary in a game like Muramasa, which is all fancy combat and the occasional tree branch to jump on, or a decent mix of combat and platforming like the Metroids and Castlevanias. The non-signposted explorable open world stuff I would say is actually a bit more integral to the genre's definition and less a flexible aspect that some MetroidVanias might concentrate on while others neglect it to focus their attention elsewhere. That a MetroidVania can entirely focus on its platforming or completely excise it and still result in a similar experience is kind of weird and awesome.

#16 Edited by Brackynews (4247 posts) -

I'm starting a new feature where I take a type of game and dissect it for some detailed analysis


It's no Vennia Diagram, but there's some hot rebus action for ya.

#17 Posted by Mento (3241 posts) -

@brackynews: Right back at you, buddy:

Wait, does it still count as a rebus with just one ideogram?

#18 Edited by Brackynews (4247 posts) -

@mento: If the rebus was Jill Sandwich, then I could've allowed it. I will accept any and all ideograms involving Jill Sandwiches. Thankfully there are many.

#19 Edited by GalacticPunt (1196 posts) -

I want a CastleMetroid where you fight Dracula in space. Someone's got to have made that game before, right?

Would be cool. So like Jason X, but with the Lord of Vampires. I'd call it Dracula X. Wait a minute...

#20 Posted by JimiPeppr (542 posts) -

2D seems to be kind of a weird "requirement" to me. There aren't many 3D games that also fit the other criteria (the core of which, in my opinion, is the exploration with barriers to advancement), so you're not really accomplishing much by leaving them out. I will now help you disregard my previous statement by listing a couple of games that I consider to be 3D MetroidVanias: Minecraft and Antichamber.

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