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You might think that nothing is easier than figuring out the secret formula that holds all the great games of this popular genre together – the name is key! You have to be just like Metroid, with all the shootings and the aliens and the science fiction and the silent loneliness that goes with it, and they have to be just like that Castlevania, with its incredibly similar range of … um, swords. And whips. And, uh, magical upside down locks. Oh and his penchant for long cutscenes that could feature characters that once, a decade ago, featured unlockable playable characters and supernaturally handsome men with gorgeous hair to their knees. Just mix the two together and sell what comes out on the other end – it’s easy!
At least that’s the theory. In reality, the genre is a maddening jumble of contradictions that modern day action followers of The Mummy Demastered to be just as authentic “Metroidvania” as Blasphemous‘gothic religious theme or Guacamelee! 2‘s lively style. A “real” Metroidvania can make you control ninjas, vampire hunters, whatever Dead cells flaming leading role is … you don’t even have to be a hero (or a reluctant antihero) – Carrion‘s playable “character” is a relentless mass of flesh and teeth, a violent thing that eagerly devours anyone who gets in its way, sliming corridors and squeezing through incredibly small crevices.
So if it’s not their looks or even their game that determine the legitimacy of a Metroidvania, then perhaps it is the level of challenge that brings this diverse genre together, with the very best examples being relatively simple, like the legendary Symphony of the night or … really hard, just like Hollow knight. No? To make matters worse, huge amounts of accepted and even welcomed Metroidvania designs contradict anything that is attributed to us as a good game in another genre; Progress blocked by doors that only open to missiles we may currently have run out of, or relying on new skills waiting for us behind an intimidating full-screen monster in an unrelated part of the map that we didn’t know about. We assume we’re left directionless and alone as other games cover the screen with markers, compasses, and loading screen cues. In the meantime, backtracking, the critic of countless other titles, is just an expected part of the Metroidvania experience.
So if they can be set where they want, as easy or hard as they want, and often doing the exact opposite of anything we’re told, a traditional game is fun, then what makes a metroidvania a good one? What is it really about?
Or rather, how you personally relate to and interact with the environment presented in these games. Everything else that surrounds this almost immaterial and extremely open core of interpretation can be what it wants, as long as the game in question always remembers that it is really only about the player and how he interacts with the virtual playground that was given to him .
And just when it looks like we’re going to achieve something, we realize that that one truth can manifest itself in at least a dozen different ways. It’s an area designer who purposely puts something in sight but just out of reach, both you and you know that with time, effort, or a new skill – maybe all three together – whatever the promised price will eventually claim becoming another part of your ever-growing inventory and expanding your skills. It’s the thrill of blowing away enemies that once had to be approached with caution with a single shot of opportunity. The strength of your character and your personal skills only grow with every enemy you defeat. To see a distant exit to unknown places enticingly placed on top of a vertical surface is lightness.
These are the incomparable moments when you rhythmically jump off smooth walls, where you would have had to turn back and look for another place before, or plunge fearlessly into lava that would have been fatal an hour earlier. Rough alien worlds, long-forgotten paths full of monsters and large stairs that lead to climax fights with the lords of darkness, transform one room after the other from the dangerous and the unknown into the familiar and safe, your own knowledge and self-confidence are also part of your characters as an ammunition counter or defense statistics.
It doesn’t even have to be about getting tougher, better, faster, or stronger; Who hasn’t smiled while casually reaching for one of the ninety-nine potions that await in their extensive endgame inventory during an otherwise difficult encounter? Or maybe spend time enjoying the quiet pleasure of “cleaning up” a map of the area, exploring those high ceilings and other “pointless” nooks and crannies thanks to the levitation powers a recently acquired specialty item grants just to fill in the last square ? Who wouldn’t want to fill out a game’s bestiary or collect as many trinkets as possible for no other reason than the satisfaction it brings?
That’s what a metroidvania is all about. It has nothing to do with the perspective you use, the type or amount of skills you acquire, the characters you play as, the enemies you defeat, or any “environmental stories” drawn from easily overlooked background details or breastfeeding NPC animations can arise. It also has shockingly little to do with any of the genre’s famous namesakes. Good Metroidvanias are a feeling – maybe even a promise – that the strange new world that extends before you is only for you; Somewhere you will slowly but surely conquer, every step forward is iron evidence of your growing knowledge of its secret hiding spots, arcane abilities and menagerie of monsters.
Do you agree? What do you think makes a Metroidvania a Metroidvania? What do you like about them