What’s a Metroidvania?

If you have a kiddo or kiddos way into games, you may have heard them talk about Metroidvania games.  They’re pretty popular for a game type with a completely nonsensical name.  As a genre or game type, you tend to find them in smaller indie games. However, nowadays, even large blockbuster games use the core mechanics of the genre.

What's a Metroidvania Game?

So, what are these games?  What is a Metroidvania game? Why is it called that? What’s this all about?  In this entry, we explore all that and give everything you, as a parent, need to know.  

What’s a Metroidvania?

A Metroidvania game is a game with a large focus on exploration.  It gets its unusual name from combing the titles of two of biggest and most successful games in the genre:  Metroid and Castlevania – Symphony of the Night.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

Metroid came out on the old NES system in the 80’s.  It, along with its sequel, Super Metroid were the main pioneers of the genre.  Then, later, in the late 90’s, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night came out on the original PlayStation. It took the formula the Metroid series pioneered and perfected it.

To give context to scope and popularity of Metroidvania games, Castlevania – Symphony of the Night is the second best selling game of all time on the original PlayStation.  The game’s formula, controls, and exploration mechanics – all  “next steps” from those pioneered in Metroid – garnered millions of fans across the world.

So, now that you have a high-level understanding of a Metroidvania game’s roots – let’s take a deeper dive into the mechanics that make a game part of the genre.

Core Metroidvania Mechanics

We touched on it above, but there are a few key mechanics that define Metroidvania games. Don’t let the word mechanics scare you.  You can think of it as dribbling, passing, and shooting in basketball – individual actions that make up the game.

As we go over these mechanics, keep in mind that you’ll find many of them in other games too.  This makes sense, as they’re fun and proven,  the difference is a “real” Metroidvania game uses these as their focus for the game.

With that in mind, let’s take a deeper look at each of these mechanics.

Exploration

Exploration is key.  You’ll often see games in this genre will swap out other mechanics like RPG tropes and other methods of progression – What they all have in common is a sense of exploration at their heart.  Now, typically, the game confines the exploration to defined space (like a space station or a giant sprawling castle).  This style of exploration is different from open world games (like Skyrim, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, or Horizon: Zero Dawn).

Super Metroid World Map
Super Metroid World Map

The key difference, and it’s subtle, is that in open world games, exploration is a thing you can do — you may even be encouraged to do it.  In a Metroidvania game, it’s required.  It’s part of the game itself.  We’ll get to ‘why’ that is as we talk about the other key mechanics of the genre.

Tools As Keys

The second biggest element in the Metroidvania genre is the idea of tools as being keys. 

“Keys to what?” you may ask.

To more exploration.  A good way to see this is to imagine that you wake up in a huge house you’ve never been in before.  You, naturally not wanting to be in a strange house that – clearly, absolutely, 100% guaranteed is filled with serial killers – probably dressed as clowns – want to get out of the said house, and back to your own, clown dressed serial killer-free home.

Need a New Key
Hmm… Looks like I need something to get through there.

So, you go exploring a bit. You look for the way out.  After some work, you manage to get out of the room and down the hall.   You even manage to find a bathroom, all without encountering a single serial killer clown.  Eventually, though, you get to the end of the corridor and find a door there. It’s clearly a door. It even has a “to exit – totally not a trap” sign on it.  Unfortunately, the door is sealed and someone has jammed the lock. A key wouldn’t work, even if you had one. So, you go back a few rooms, open a door, and find a hammer.

Ball Pick Uo
Hey… What’s this?

Ah ha!

Hammer in hand, you run back to the sealed exit door and bang on it until it’s falling apart.  Once you’ve got the door down, you’re then able to continue along your sort-of-merry way.

New Ability
It was a new ability – I can roll now! Off to new areas.

Always vigilant for the serial killer clowns.

A Closer Look At Tools as Keys

In the example above, the hammer is much like what you’d find in a Metroidvania game.  Though, in the game, instead of a hammer it might be a freeze ray, or the ability to turn into mist, or any number of cool things.  

The important takeaway of this is that the player gets tools – things that can be used for multiple purposes (like combat, for example) – instead of just a key. Taking a step beyond that, in most Metroidvania style games, when a tool lets you enter a new section or area of the game, that new section requires you to use that new tool in all sorts of ways.

Equipping Tools in Castlevania
Equipping Tools in Castlevania

For example,  in a game like this, you may come across a door that covered in flames.  You need the above-mentioned freeze-ray to freeze the flames (because… video games) and then can walk through that door to a whole new section of the game.  In that new section, you might find poison gas vents that can only pass by freezing them — with the spiffy new freeze ray, you just got…. Or, you might face off against a brand new enemy that just so happens to have a real weakness to… you guessed it… cold.

In the end, for a Metroidvania game, figuring out interesting ways to use the tools they provide is as much a part of the exploration as the actual running around.

Re-Traversal

The above mechanics (Exploration and Tools as Keys) are important to understanding the third mechanic – The idea of Re-Traversal ties all of the above together.

So, we’ve already talked about how exploration is a huge factor in these kinds of games, but the exploration is not linear.  You don’t explore around an area just getting from Point A to Point B. In these kinds of games, there’s a lot of re-traversal, meaning going back over areas you’ve previously explored.

This makes more sense when you think about the “Tools as Keys” mechanic.  Continuing our made up example from above, a player with the freeze ray enters the new area they opened up by freezing the flame door.  In that new area, they see another door that’s covered in green slime.  The player, of course, tries their awesome freeze ray on the gross slime door.  Nothing happens. They can’t get past it. Still stuck.  So what now?  Well, they need another Tool.  With that in mind, the player continues exploring that area and eventually comes across a rocket launcher.

Speaking of Rocket Launchers...
Speaking of Rocket Launchers…

Ah ha! The player thinks.

They take the rocket launcher and make their way back to the slime door.  They set up their new rocket launcher and fire it at the door, thinking it will open (again, because… video games).

Re-Traversal In Action

Here’s where it gets interesting.  The rocket launcher won’t open that door.  It does, however, open a different door which unlocks an entirely new area.  The player then explores this totally new area, using both their freeze ray and the rocket launcher with gleeful abandon.

Then, as the player is exploring this brand new section of the game, they find another tool (there’s a lot of them in games like this).  This one is a flamethrower… because flamethrowers are awesome.

The Player picks this up and, trying it out, sees it affect some slime covered barrels (because all games everywhere for all time need barrels).  Seeing this interaction makes the player remember the slime-covered door.

Now, the player gets to backtrack (re-traverse) all through that area, and the previous area, until they get all the way back to the slime door.  This time, they fire up the flamethrower and shoot it at the door and…

This time the door opens.

Re-traversal
Back on my ship — Re-traversing to explore a new area now that I can roll

All this is a far too detailed way of saying that, as the players explore areas, they’ll find things that clearly they’re meant to interact with or use in some fashion, but they won’t be able to until much later (sometimes hours).  It adds mystery and intrigue “What is that? How does it work? How do I open it?” and later – after Players can get past it – a sense of mastery and progress.

Alucard from Castlevania: Symphony of The Night
Alucard from Castlevania: Symphony of The Night

Why Gamers Love Metroidvania Games

Like most games, the key components are just fun.  What Metroidvania games give players that other games don’t, is a sense of mastery over their environment.  In most all of these games there’s combat elements too, and sometimes some puzzle mechanics, and as Metroidvania elements continue to be added to other genres, it’s just going to get more complicated.

Stripped down though, at its core, it’s about that exploration and mastery over the environment – to eventually be able to go anywhere in the game – no door barred to you.

Examples In The Genre

So, what are some major games in this genre your kiddos have either played or know about?  Here’s a list of some (but not all) of the major titles in the genre.

  • Metroid Series: Metroid, Super Metroid, Metroid Zero,  Metroid Fusion, Metroid Prime (1,2,3)
  • Many (not all) games in the Castlevania Series (Symphony of the Night, Aria, Dawn of Sorrow)
  • Iconoclasts
  • Cave Story
  • Guacamelee
  • Shadow Complex
  • Ori and the Blind Forest
  • Axiom Verge
  • Batman: Arkham Asylum
  • Owlboy
  • Strider
  • ReCore

Talking To Your Kiddos About Metroidvania Games

While Metroidvania games have the key elements of gameplay described here, they can also feature a number of other elements that can make them very different.  Some are fantasy, some are sci-fi, and others are military themed, and more.

With that in mind, a great way to talk to your kiddos about their Metroidvania game is to engage talking about the theme and story – it’ll give you some context about the game itself – then you can talk with them about the mechanics.  You can ask where they’ve been stuck. Another idea is to ask about the area they’re exploring now, and about the area they’re looking to explore next. You can ask about the most challenging spot, and even ask them about their favorite tool, ability or weapon (this depends a bit on the game, so it’s always good to get context – it’ll help lower the number of eye rolls you get).

Wrapping Up

In the list above, you can see just a few of the Metroidvania type games available, there are many many more, and more coming every year.  On top of that, we’re seeing more and more games pull in the key mechanics of Metroidvania games, even if they’re not directly in the genre. These types of games are, undoubtedly, very important to your kiddos hobby.  If your kiddo has had a great (or challenging) experience with a Metroidvania game or even if you just have questions, leave a comment below!

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