The Explormatorium

Explormers - known elsewhere on the internet as Metroidvanias, Castleroids, or JumpyFindyMapExpandies - are extremely my shit. I've long been trying to put into words why exactly that is, and my usual pitch is that these games frequently combine my love of 2D platforming, the keeping notes and updating maps more common to CRPGs, and the many varied approaches to level design that results from gating off specific areas based on necessary upgrades. That there's so many games being made in this specific model speaks highly to how compelling it is, and even if their developers start running out of ideas as market saturation hits critical mass I'll still probably never get tired of playing them and meticulously exploring their every dead end.

With the following list of Explormers What I've Played, I've tried to highlight the most exceptional or unique aspect about each one. It's easy to think of these games moving off a production line with the volume that are released each year, but the majority of developers creating these are always looking to put their own spin on it or emphasize different facets of the platforming/combat/exploration/puzzles/character development paradigm that they appreciate most. I've also put this list in chronological order, to better demonstrate how much the genre has grown.

And hey, not to put too fine a point on it, but if you happened to need the distraction of a few giant maps to explore at the moment I hope you find some inspiration here. (And be sure to contribute your own suggestions in the comments; I'll have a master list of those I've yet to try going on too.)

List items

  • (Nintendo, 1986-08-06)

    The game that started it all. Well, possibly. Depends on how far into the weeds you feel like going: 1985's Xanadu and 1982's Pitfall had elements of non-linear 2D platforming, if there's where the definition begins and ends for you.

  • (SunSoft, 1991-09-20)

    Hebereke's NES debut also introduced the idea a revolving cast of characters, each with their own particular strengths. (You could argue they sourced that idea from Legacy of the Wizard: a Falcom game I've never been able to finish.)

  • (Nintendo, 1991-11)

    Metroid 2's big change was having several targets instead of just one. Samus's quest to completely genocide the Metroids had her plumbing every depth of their home world to finish them off. Hey, sometimes a girl has to have hobbies.

  • (Nintendo, 1994-03-19)

    More a remake than a sequel, the 16-bit Super Metroid also introduced a lot of Samus's more versatile tools. Importantly, it was also the first (or one of) to have an in-game map to guide the player.

  • (Konami, 1997-03-20)

    While Rondo and Dracula's Curse had non-linear elements - branching pathways leading to different stages - Symphony of the Night was the first to truly embrace the concept. Alucard's patricidal quest was also one of the earliest explormers to have explicit RPG mechanics, with levelling and equipment customization.

  • (Konami, 2001-03-21)

    Circle of the Moon began a series of handheld "IGAvanias," and its most notable unique aspect was a magic system that depended on mixing cards together.

  • (Konami, 2002-06-06)

    The first of the non-linear IGAvanias to actually have a Belmont in the lead (unless you count Symphony's prologue), Harmony of Dissonance cleverly modified the "two castles" conceit of Symphony to make them two geographically-similar structures that coexisted in the same space but in separate dimensions. That meant puzzles where you'd make changes to one castle to open up paths in the other.

  • (Nintendo, 2002-11-08)

    Super Metroid's follow-up and, to this day, the furthest game in the Metroid timeline. Fusion introduced the X parasites: creatures able to transform anything they inhabit. Honestly, my favorite innovation of this game was the Nemesis-like "SA-X": a near-unkillable X parasite that had taken over Samus's old Varia Suit and was persistently on her trail, creating some tense encounters.

  • (Nintendo/Retro, 2002-11-17)

    I'm skeptical about most 3D explormers, largely because 3D platformers already embody a similar but distinct genre that's all about exploration and collecting stuff, but the Prime series is a deliberate attempt to evolve the 2D Metroid explormer blueprint into a first-person 3D action game. Between the informational scanners and the immersive aspect of the first-person perspective, I dig this trilogy a lot.

  • (Konami, 2003-10-21)

    This one's more of an edge case, since there's only a small amount of backtracking with the right upgrades. Most of LoI involves a series of empty rooms with different enemy encounters to whip through, and maybe the occasional room full of giant traps. This focus on combat serves it well enough, at least, and I liked the alternate protagonist modes.

  • (Konami, 2003-05-06)

    Aria establishes the highly versatile soul system, where protagonist Soma Cruz can "equip" the freed souls of the enemies he defeats to give himself new attacks, buffs, boosts, and passive abilities, including the usual array of traversal upgrades.

  • (Nintendo, 2004-02-09)

    A remake of the first Metroid with a few extra bells and whistles, most notable of which is Samus's "Zero Suit" mode which forces her to be stealthy and avoid conflict.

  • (Nintendo/Retro, 2004-11-15)

    Prime's divisive middle chapter has a curious light/dark mechanic that is similar to Harmony of Dissonance's "alternate dimensional castles" idea, only with different hazards and challenges for each of the two realms.

  • (Pixel, 2004-12-20)

    Perhaps not the first Indie explormer, but easily one of the most influential, this one-man Japanese doujin takes cues from shoot 'em ups with its adaptive gunplay that punishes the careless, in the same way as upgrade-based shmups that strip all power-ups upon death. Its involved story and branching narrative is also highly regarded.

  • (Konami, 2005-08-25)

    A sequel to Aria, its only real innovation is a perhaps unnecessary stylus-based glyph-tracing feature used to defeat bosses. It's still a great game though, and an early champion of the DS during a time (so odd to consider after the fact) when the fledging system was having trouble drawing in the skeptical GBA fanbase.

  • (Konami, 2005-11-01)

    There's a few positive traits I could mention for Curse of Darkness, between Hector's minions, some of whom provide necessary traversal abilities, or the way the game builds its level design from both inside and outside Dracula's castle for a bit more variety. Honestly, though, the most notable thing about Curse is that most of its additions to the Castlevania lore have found themselves recycled for that Castlevania anime show.

  • (Orbital Media, 2006-10-31)

    Very deliberately a Metroid homage, with a female bounty hunter as its lead and some very Fusion-esque shapeshifting alien parasites as the antagonists, Scurge is also the rare (if not unique) example of an isometric explormer.

  • (Konami, 2006-11-16)

    While multiple protagonists are common enough to explormers, few let you switch instantaneously for combos and the like. Jonathan and Charlotte have different strengths - one's a demon hunter, the other's a witch - which lets the player vary their approach for bosses and other major challenges. I also like the game's stage-based structure, where every portrait transports the duo to a separate map.

  • (Nintendo/Retro, 2007-08-27)

    The first Metroid game with multiple planets to explore, the game takes advantage of this by limiting progress on one until you've explored more of the others, building a larger plot around the Phazon conflict and introducing some once-friendly rival bounty hunters as corrupted antagonists. I really liked the level design of this one, from the Bespin Cloud City-like gas giant to the creepy derelict freighter.

  • (Bit Blot, 2007-12-07)

    This aquatic explormer ditched the platforming for free-form swimming, but still persisted with the usual progress barriers and exploration aspects of the genre. The swimming presented its own challenges too, as players had to weave around hazards and enemy fire as well as master fast-flowing currents and the darkness of the deep.

  • (Matt Makes Games, 2007)

    One of the first freeware explormers I'd ever come across, the eventual developer of Celeste and TowerFall lovingly put together this graphically crude but surprisingly in-depth and challenging explormer which can still be downloaded for free off their site.

  • (Konami, 2008-10-21)

    The last of the official IGAvanias, Ecclesia adapts Soma's soul system as tattoos for its sober heroine Shanoa to wear and revisits a stage-based format with an emphasis on NPC support: you rescue many during the game's action areas, and each offers their services back in a hub village area.

  • (Chair, 2009-08-19)

    Chair's secret society thriller had this really neat idea where you'd get into gunfights with enemies in the background, using foreground objects as cover until it was safe to continue. Most of the level design is a bit more stealthy, taking advantage of ventilation ducts and hiding behind crates as you uncover the terrorist organization's conspiracy plot.

  • (Nifflas, 2010-03-16)

    The Swedish developer Nifflas (real name Nicklas Nygren) lends a strong sense of atmosphere in his works, and most of his explormers tend to be light on combat and heavier on puzzles, ambience and visuals. Saira, currently free on Steam, is a contemplative trek through a beautiful if curiously empty galaxy.

  • (Terry Cavanagh, 2010-01-11)

    Cavanagh's ode to 8-bit computer platformers became an enduring hit between its challenging gravity-switching platforming and wonderful soundtrack.

  • (Nintendo/Team Ninja, 2010-08-31)

    Team Ninja's spin on a semi-3D Metroid game had its faults (mostly story related) but the gameplay core was adequate. It had this unusual if slightly awkward system where the player could point the Wii remote at the screen to switch to first-person for more accurate shooting. Problems aside, it does have one of the best 100% completion rewards I've encountered.

  • (WayForward, 2010-10-04)

    Though not the first Shantae game - that would be the 2002 GBC game, which struggles with a tiny resolution - Risky's Revenge is a confident reboot that elevated the franchise to become WayForward's flagship series. A magic shapeshifting mechanic is used as a substitute for the usual traversal upgrades.

  • (Housemarque, 2011-04-27)

    Along with the typical neon stylishness that is Housemarque's brand, Outland actually has two significant deviations from the explormer norm: a polarity-switching mechanic that would later find its way into other Indie explormers, notably Guacamelee, and a focus on bullet hell mechanics that made exploration and boss fights all the more tense.

  • (Shadow Planet, 2011-08-03)

    Like Aquaria, ITSP forgoes platforming for free-form movement through the air, still creating obstacles and barriers to overcome with the right gear. While I dig the game's look - a lot of creepy silhouettes that establishes a chilling atmosphere - I'd say its most notable aspect is the chaotic, co-operative "Lantern Run" mode.

  • (Francisco Téllez de Meneses, 2011-09-30)

    I didn't care much for the humor of UnEpic, but I did like its combination of dungeon-crawling mechanics with the usual explormer business, at least right up until the obnoxious tower defense finale. Like other dungeon-crawlers, there's a strong emphasis on finding treasure and secrets and circuitous multi-floor level design.

  • (Tiger Style, 2012-02-29)

    Another rare pacifist example, Waking Mars is less about combat and treasure and more about developing ecosystems by planting and removing various flora across a massive subterranean cave network on the titular red planet. Thoughtful but still occasionally reflex-intensive, and another demonstration of how this format could be taken in any number of new directions.

  • (Polytron, 2012-04-13)

    It feels like players are split on whether they more enjoyed Fez's flighty first half where it fully explores its world shifting gimmick as a nice breezy platformer, or the second half when they start uncovering its deeper secrets with frenzied note-taking and experimentation. Eight years later and there's still very few games like it.

  • (Dean Dodrill, 2012-08-15)

    I guess this one's more significant for the circumstances around its developer - Dodrill created the game on his own after several years with zero prior experience - than anything in-game, but it does have a semi-rare focus on combo/juggle-heavy combat and that twirly sword move was kinda cool.

  • (Smudged Cat, 2012-09-13)

    You could call Gateways "Portal for the explormer crowd," but it might be a little reductive given how imaginatively its portal tech is used to create solutions to the usual barricades in these games. It's really not as easy as it looks (and it doesn't look easy) to make an effective Portal-like game.

  • (Arkedo, 2012-09-25)

    A broadly silly explormer about a demonic rabbit, Hell Yeah!'s central mechanic of finding and "punishing" those who have fallen out of favor of the anti-hero protagonist makes for a series of smaller navigation challenges. Some of the best shop music in a game too.

  • (Nifflas, 2012-12-18)

    Another Nifflas game where combat is non-existent and the player instead takes in a huge underworld of picturesque scenes, slightly iffy dialogue, and no shortage of platforming puzzles often involving balls for whatever reason.

  • (Demruth, 2013-01-31)

    Antichamber is only marginally a game of this type, but there are things you steadily learn about this non-Euclidean world as you explore. You'll frequently have epiphanies that suddenly opens the game up further. There are so few games with explormer "upgrades" that are entirely about teaching the player new mechanics that were there from the start.

  • (Two Tribes, 2013-04-04)

    Like Antichamber, all progress in Toki Tori 2 can be made almost from the get go as there's only a couple of mechanics, but the game's puzzles are so insidious and demand such precision that most players simply won't have the wherewithal to figure them out until much later.

  • (DrinkBox, 2013-04-09)

    Guacamelee felt like too much of a mess at the time, but I'll admit that its expressive cursed luchador aesthetic is very striking and the world of the living/dead switching made for some great puzzles. I hope to check out the sequel someday to see if they've improved the combat.

  • (Endless Fluff, 2013-09-08)

    Another explormer with a heavy RPG bent, to the extent that there's an equipment system and a skill tree. I recall some annoyances with how it approached explormer mechanics (specifically, gating off areas that still had collectibles) but if you're looking for an Indie explormer with a SOTN RPG aspect, there aren't too many out there.

  • (Whole Hog, 2013-09-29)

    Like a few others here, Full Bore is less about gathering new upgrades to make progress but slowly learning how the game's puzzles work and employing that new knowledge in previous areas. A combination of digging and gravity will allow you to find everything in any given area - 100% completion is helpfully highlighted on its part of the world map by a gold border - but it'll be a while before you can master the game's brainteasers.

  • (Rain, 2013-12-13)

    Big focus on magnets here, and while it can mess up the level geometry a little (things don't neatly "click" into place, so you can accidentally create roadblocks sometimes) messing with polarities had all sorts of applications for the puzzle designer(s) to pursue.

  • (Capcom/Double Helix, 2014-02-18)

    Strider was always this hectic mix of cool ninja posturing and incomprehensible sci-fi plotting, and there was something compelling about that mix in pop culture (especially anime) back in the late-80s and early 90s. This reboot retains most of the arcade game's spectacle and speed and the NES port's non-linearity, making it a well-considered reboot by fans of the source material even if it wasn't quite the sum of its parts.

  • (Morgopolis, 2014-07-02)

    Not much to say about M&L, besides a noteworthy soundtrack that recalls some Amiga synth in a fun nostalgic sort of way. It does feature a trio of protagonists with their own strengths and abilities though, which makes you consider progression in three different terms.

  • (WayForward, 2014-10-23)

    Pirate Curse strips Shantae's animal forms for the sake of pirate gadgets that more or less perform the same roles. The Shantae games don't ever make significant changes, but at least you can always be assured of a great time.

  • (Renegade Kid, 2014-12-11)

    I suppose Xeodrifter's big deal is that its micro-sized adventure could theoretically work on a graphing calculator, but I found it a little too rudimentary. Might be a cute first step for those new and/or unsure about this genre?

  • (Alientrap, 2015-02-03)

    Gonna cheat here and say that Apotheon's most noteworthy aspect is the art direction, presenting its hero, the world, and its villains as silhouetted figures on bronze backgrounds that evoke the designs on Grecian urns or frescoes. The game itself isn't particularly amazing, but that style goes a long way.

  • (Matt Kap, 2015-02-05)

    CitD is charming but not particularly noteworthy throwback, borrowing largely from early Castlevanias but also little bits and pieces from various other sources (there's a very 16-bit Final Fantasy battle track, for one).

  • (Moon, 2015-03-11)

    Visually enchanting, Ori and the Blind Forest dazzles you with its painterly graphics but it's the timing-intensive and highly fluid platforming that is the real star of the show here. The pace and smoothness of its movement is almost N++ levels.

  • (Krobon Station, 2016-03-17)

    A doujin remaster of a solid, action-oriented explormer that has a huge amount of character customization, especially with its many "sub-weapons". It also has a deeply silly referential plot which feels part SOTN and part Metal Gear, only with an explorer bunny in the lead.

  • (Thomas Happ, 2015-03-31)

    Probably the most well-known example of an exceptional Indie homage to Metroid, Axiom Verge's big quirk is how it uses digital glitching as an aspect of its game/level design, with acquired abilities that involve "breaking the world" to some extent.

  • (Storybird/Look At My Game, 2015-04-02)

    Chronicles of Teddy has an intriguing feature that it brought over from its non-explormer predecessor in that the protagonist can slowly learn every phoneme in a musical tone-based language and use it to create words to communicate with NPCs, open doors to new areas, or command parts of the environment to let her pass.

  • (Hempuli Oy, 2015-04-22)

    Graphically simple but one of the purest Metroid homages out there in terms of nailing its mechanics and atmosphere alike, and blessed with a great soundtrack too. My favorite of its novelties is a small thing, but I liked how every upgrade had a small icon next to your HP bar on the HUD: not only was it a reminder of how far you'd come, but what you might've missed.

  • (CreSpirit/GemaYue, 2016-01-28)

    Seems a bit trite to say fetishistic bunny girls are the reason for the season in Rabi-Ribi, so instead I'll say that this game - like Outland - does a fine job merging platforming and bullet hell shmup mechanics. If you're looking for a challenge, this game does not pull its (rabbit) punches.

  • (Bombservice, 2016-03-04)

    This was my first Momodora game, though I'm aware there are several others. While I think it has some great visual chops (backgrounds and fluid animations) the most notable thing about it is the odd difficulty curve, where it starts incredibly tough and then calms down a bit. Worth sticking it out.

  • (Ska, 2016-03-15)

    The grim and gritty world of S&S is very Souls inspired, though the developers sort of made something halfway between that series of tough, deliberate action RPGs and a standard explormer. The combo mostly works, and the hard decisions you need to make about customizing its titular sanctuaries are what stand out most.

  • (Insomniac, 2016-06-12)

    A rare aquatic explormer, focusing more on maneuvering a submarine through choppy waters than jumping over perils. The most notable thing about this game is that the aggressive GameStop vendor that sold it to me sounded an awful lot like Ross Perot.

  • (Double Fine, 2016-06-26)

    I really liked this game's campy zeerust sci-fi aesthetic, which felt part 2001: A Space Odyssey, part Barbarella, and part Starcrash. Like with most Double Fine games, there's not a whole lot of substance behind the style, but I did appreciate its color-coded maps. Detailed map tech is often underappreciated in these games.

  • (Fiddlesticks, 2016-08-30)

    An explormer where every upgrade is a new color on the classic spectrum. Due to the color-shifting gimmick that solidified or removed platforms of specific hues, there was often a reason to revisit past areas with newly acquired tones. The game can be a bit verbose though.

  • (Swing Swing Submarine, 2016-09-02)

    Another pacifistic example, Seasons After Fall naturally has a lot of puzzles revolving around changing the time of year, opening new paths and platforms by moving from spring through to winter (not unlike that one Banjo-Kazooie level, in fact). It's got a bit of that Ori and the Blind Forest "watercolor Bob Ross painting" vibe to its art style also.

  • (Knuist & Perzik, 2016-09-26)

    One of the strangest games on this list, Wuppo is a shooter variant of an explormer but also has a huge amount of NPC interaction and worldbuilding around this society of tiny blob people. It was hard to predict where the game would take you next.

  • (WayForward, 2016-09-30)

    Shantae has her genie powers back, making this sequel feel more like a remake of Risky's Revenge. It's overall a little more in-depth than the previous games, with new services offered by the hub town and improved graphics, but otherwise very close to its predecessors.

  • (D-Pad, 2016-11-01)

    While visually astounding, Owlboy's got this odd system where you're ferrying the person doing all the shooting for you (there are a few NPCs that help this way, giving you some variation in firepower) which makes for a slightly awkward control scheme and an equally awkward tall hitbox to move around obstacles. Flawed, but incredible to look at.

  • (Elden Pixels, 2017-02-02)

    Alwa's has a strange twist that pre-empted another game further down this list, but is otherwise a familiar enough fantasy-themed explormer with an 8-bit NES aesthetic. It's very good at what it does, at least.

  • (Team Cherry, 2017-02-24)

    The second of the explicitly Souls-inspired explormers on this list, Hollow Knight has an exceptional presentation moored in an equally impressive fluid combat engine and character customization system. Odd ideas like the map system (you need to find the guy who sells them first, by following the sound of his singing) are easy enough to adjust to and end up being more facets of its quirky personality. It can be really tough though, so fair warning (and maybe avoid it if you have a thing about bugs...).

  • (Image & Form, 2017-09-21)

    The first SteamWorld Dig didn't have a whole lot in the way of non-linearity, but the sequel expands on that and then some. The game makes a huge shift when you reach the hookshot and the opportunities it unlocks.

  • (Joakim Sandberg, 2018-01-23)

    Building on the developers' "Noitu Love" Metal Slug-style shooters, Iconoclasts is a visually distinctive explormer couched in some great shooter action and an impressively dense story full of twists and memorable characters. It also borrows Cave Story's idea of power-ups that temporarily go away if you take damage, forcing you to keep on your toes.

  • (Long Hat House, 2018-02-06)

    Dandara's most unique aspect is also its most front and present: the way heroine Dandara moves around is by hopping to sections of walls, ceilings, and floors covered in a layer of salt, and combat is a combination of planting oneself, shooting, and quickly bouncing away to avoid retaliation. The game's more metaphysical approach to worldbuilding is also quite distinctive.

  • (Robit, 2018-02-07)

    The Wind Waker-inspired TAW has this unusual method of progression where you'll visit islands only to get stymied by some barrier, and must figure out the right order to visit places with the right gear. It requires a little bit of note-taking to get anywhere with it.

  • (Villa Gorilla, 2018-05-29)

    Yoku's is another explormer that is broadcasting its particular unique idea from the moment you start, with the dung beetle hero moving around the world like a pinball, and each level having its own selection of flippers, bumpers, and chutes. It's incredibly forgiving for the pinball neophytes out there, though you'll also need some practice to find all the secret nooks and crannies.

  • (Sabotage, 2018-08-30)

    Remarkable in that it doesn't start out as an explormer, but a mid-game switcheroo has you playing one unexpectedly (sorry for the spoiler, I guess?). I didn't care for the humor, but the fast Ninja Gaiden action platforming is a delight.

  • (Doinksoft, 2019-05-30)

    A cute, minimalist, monochromatic explormer about an adventurous cat in a suit of power armor. Gato has some Metroid Zero Mission allusions (the cat must occasionally leave the suit, and is very vulnerable when doing so) and Metroid Fusion (the "world" is an enormous research station with different themed sections), but nothing too distinct to call its own (besides the whole cat thing).

  • (ArtPlay, 2019-06-18)

    An exceptional modern interpretation of the IGAvanias of old, that happily allows the player to break the game's challenge level as badly as they wish between stat-increasing meals, a huge number of enemy powers to steal and use, and a very robust equipment upgrading system.

  • (Paul Helman/Sean Scaplehorn, 2019-07-18)

    Notable for only doing the explormer thing for one particular section of the game, though there's backtracking involved in its prior areas as well. Challenging and vertiginous, the game's worth playing through for the ambitious storytelling and frequent surprises.