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Metroidvanias Are Having a Moment

STARTING SCREEN | Hollow Knight leads a fantastically strong crop of recent metroidvanias.

Feature by Kat Bailey, .

A friend of mine was telling me last night about how she had just wrapped up Hollow Knight on the Nintendo Switch. She struggled with some of the tougher bosses, but she ultimately pushed through. "I loved it," she said.

With Hollow Knight wrapped up, she's now moved on to Axiom Verge, with Owlboy waiting in the wings (heh). I told her that she also needs to check out Dead Cells, which incorprates elements of the roguelike and metroidvania genres. She doesn't have a great PC, but if she did, I'd also suggest Guacamelee 2, which is out later this month.

It seems that metroidvanias are once again having a moment. Initially a rather niche genre, the growth of metroidvanias has roughly coincided with that of indie gaming as a whole, as solo developers have turned to reimagining the games they loved growing up. Metroidvanias and so-called "roguelites" like Spelunky have arguably been the biggest beneficiaries of the indie boom.

Metroidvanias have been released at a steady rate for more than five years now, but this period has been particularly notable for a few reasons:

1. Hollow Knight is Just Really Good: Much like Fortnite, Hollow Knight was released in 2017, but didn't truly explode into the public consciousness until 2018. Its massive world, gorgeous art, and dark storytelling has captivated fans and earned it universal acclaim from critics. It in turn has driven interest in the aforementioned metroidvanias like Axiom Verge, which are tremendous in their own right. Many of these games have benefited from the rise of one platform in particular.

2. The Switch is the Perfect Platform for Metroidvanias: It feels appropriate that the Switch should be the single best platform for metroidvanias right now. The Switch has rapidly evolved into a beast of an indie console, with everything from Stardew Valley to Thimbleweed Park experiencing outsized success on the system. Indies are arguably the single biggest driver of the Switch's success, effectively filling the gap between big Nintendo releases by bringing hit Steam games to mass audiences.

Metroidvanias have been particularly successful on the Switch because they tend to have outstanding art, allowing them to shine on the platform's handheld screen. Additionally, metroidvanias are a skill-focused genre, which means they don't easily translate to mobile. Retro-style genres will always have a ready home on Switch owing to the system's emphasis on portability over graphics, but metroidvanias in particular feel tailormade for Switch.

3. Metroidvanias Are Extremely Flexible: The metroidvania formula can be combined with many different genres to great effect. They can be beat-'em-ups, puzzle-platformers, shooters, and even roguelites. The only real overarching requirement is that they feature a steadily expanding dungeon that can be explored in a non-linear fashion.

This is most evident in the two games that comprise the genre's namesake: Metroid and Castlevania. Metroid is by its nature a puzzle-platformer with a heavy emphasis on combat and exploration. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night borrows many of its elements from the RPG space (amusing, designer Koji Igarashi was emulating Zelda 2 rather than Metroid when designing SOTN), which heavily influences its progression. These two fundamentally similar but ultimately wildly different games are the basis for a diverse and fascinating genre that has yet to become stale.

I've written in the past that we're in a post-graphics age—an era exemplified by games like Hollow Knight and Guacamelee. With their timeless mechanics, high-quality art, and ability to seamlessly incorporate new ideas, metroidvanias are uniquely suited for this particular period. And with the rise of the Switch, it's easier than ever for a great indie on Steam to make the leap to a large audience on console.

Happily, the founders of the genre are getting back in on the action as well. Metroid: Samus Returns enjoyed a positive reception on 3DS last year, and Metroid Prime 4 is likely to be released in 2019. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is likewise expected to arrive in the next year or so (hopefully).

As little as a decade ago, it was hard to imagine any metroidvania having the sort of cachet that Hollow Knight has today. Sure, we had Shadow Complex, but both Castlevania and Metroid were notably on the decline thank to half-baked releases like Metroid: Other M and Portrait of Ruin (admittedly, I liked Portrait of Ruin more than most). The genre's rise in the years since has very much been an indie success story.

With Hollow Knight being one of the most popular games of 2018 and the likes of Dead Cells and Guacamelee 2 set to follow, metroidvanias are more popular than ever. And with the Switch proving its staying power, they're unlikely to lose their hard-won momentum anytime soon.

Looking Ahead to the Rest of the Week

  • Dead Cells (Switch, PC, PS4, Xbox One) [August 7]: After a period of early access testing, Dead Cells is ready for a full release. I mentioned it up above, but it bears repeating that this combination of metroidvania and roguelite elements is really, really good.
  • Overcooked 2 (Switch, PC, PS4, Xbox One) [August 7]: A sequel to another indie darling arrives on all major platforms this week. The original was a phenomenal couch co-op game in which you worked together with friends to efficiently make meals. It also had the capacity to end friendships. Expect many arguments when it releases tomorrow.
  • Monster Hunter: World (PC) [August 9]: Monster Hunter: World finally arrives on PC on Thursday. The initial release is currently my Game of the Year, so I guess you could say that I recommend it. Look for a full breakdown of how it improves on the console version in the next couple days.
  • Okami HD (Switch) [August 9]: Zelda has few peers, but Okami might be one of them. When it first launched back in 2006, many argued that it was superior than Twilight Princess. It's certainly held up better over the years than its more popular counterpart.
  • Madden 19 (Xbox One, PS4, PC) [August 10]: Do you hear that? The games are coming. The release of Madden invariably heralds the wave of fall releases. It's almost time. I was a bit more down on this year's version than some, but for what it's worth, that animation is really nice. And it's reportedly sublime on PC.
  • We Happy Few (Xbox One, PS4, PC) [August 10]: Compulsion's quirky survival game hits full release on Friday. Set in an alternate 1960s, it has a psychedelic look to it that should at least be interesting. This should be Compulsion's last multi-console release, as it was gobbled up by Microsoft Game Studios earlier this year. We Happy Few may be an indicator of what's to come.

Nadia's Note Block Beat Box: A Curious Happening (Secret of Mana)

It's Secret of Mana's 25th anniversary! This ambitious (and sometimes messed-up) RPG means a lot to me for a number of reasons. Reason one: Its soundtrack slaps. Reason two: Though it may be surprising to consider nowadays, some of Secret of Mana's story elements were unusual for the time. "A Curious Happening" is a great little piece of music that highlights the strength of Mana's soundtrack while also reminding me of how different the game felt from other RPGs when I first played it.

"A Curious Happening" is the tune that accompanies you when you visit a town in Secret of Mana that's ruled over by the Empire. As a kid, I was used to occupied towns being busted-up, run-down hellholes. In Secret of Mana though, said towns are clean and orderly, if not nerve-wracking (the soldiers in the streets who search constantly for the Resistance are all you need to remind you you're not in friendly territory). "A Curious Happening" is folksy, but something about it makes me nervous too. Might be that build-up and fall at the 0:44 mark. Or the hapless citizens who've had their souls drained and then set loose to just mingle with the regular population like it ain't no thang.

Caty’s AltGame Corner

I remember the first time I saw and played World of Horror's demo from my old gig, where I basically just surfed through itch.io to write about any oddities that crossed my path. I was in awe of its Junji Ito-inspired eerie-ness, its early Macintosh 1-bit aesthetic, its interesting twist on the detective-driven adventure genre. World of Horror is expanding beyond its 2016 demo though. Last week, it was confirmed for a full Steam, PS4, and Nintendo Switch for release in 2019, along with "turn-based combat" and roguelite sensibilities. I, for one, can't wait for it. In the meantime, you can download World of Horror's demo for free on itch.io.

This Week's News and Notes

  • H1Z1's Battle Pass is out tomorrow on PS4. Developers are very much out on loot boxes, but they seem perfectly happy to sell battle passes to gamers. How long before it's the new controversy du jour?
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 hit beta over the weekend, allowing players to try out the revamped specialists for the first time. Mostly, though, it was an opportunity to see its hilariously broken dogs in action.
  • It recently came out that the official pronounciation of "NES" is "Ness" rather than "N.E.S." Nadia tells me that this is the correct pronunciation.
  • I had some free time for the first time in a while over the weekend, and I intended to use it to play some more Earthbound (as well as another game I can't talk about yet). Instead I found myself once again being sucked inexorably into No Man's Sky, a game that is profoundly boring and yet somehow fascinating. I spent most of my time building my base, tending to my flock of dinosaurs, and skirting around annoying glitches. It wasn't the greatest use of my time, but I'll say this: It's an amazing podcast game.
  • Looking for an amusing YouTube channel to pass the time? TierZoo seamlessly marries Animal Planet-style education with competitive gaming commentary, pitching the animal kingdom as a vast ongoing metagame in which every organism is a character build. You can find one of my favorites above.
  • Axe of the Blood God: I'm joined by Shane Bettenhausen for number 19 in our Top 25 RPG countdown: Phantasy Star 4! Also, Nadia and I ponder why there aren't more space RPGs. Subscription info here!

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  • Avatar for link6616 #1 link6616 3 months ago
    2. The Switch is the Perfect Platform for Metroidvanias

    Is it though? I think it's a great platform for them, but the DS and 3DS metroidvania's with a constant map on the opposite screen make those seem like the ideal platform for them.

    I'm on board for every other point! And even see switch as a good platform for them, but I think dual screens will always suit them best.
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #2 SargeSmash 3 months ago
    I'll still stick up for Other M. I know it is cool to hate on it (and was even then), but I enjoyed it quite a bit. I think there may have been more backlash to the story bits than the gameplay itself, which is a shame.

    Love that all these non-linear exploratory platformers are proving to be popular. We're definitely swimming in our metaphorical McDuck Money Bin as of late.Edited August 2018 by SargeSmash
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #3 SatelliteOfLove 3 months ago
    Always down for Kikuta's Famed 3D Sound.
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  • Avatar for Godots17thCup #4 Godots17thCup 3 months ago
    Aww, I really like Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin. It doesn't shine quite as brightly as Order of Ecclesia or the Sorrow duology, admittedly, but it still had a bunch of neat things going for it.

    The character-switching mechanic was snappy and changed up the gameplay just enough from then-recent entries, entering new areas via portraits really helped to vary up the explorable environments beyond just Drac's castle, its story and cast directly followed up on what may be the most unsung classic in the entire series (Bloodlines), it had a wealth of fun unlockable extra modes like the other Castlevania games from that GBA/DS run - including campaigns for Richter Belmont, the Sisters and, of all things, the Axe Armor enemy - and the soundtrack was, like pretty much all Castlevania soundtracks, really, really good.

    I remember being somewhat lukewarm on PoR upon release, when we were still getting either a new 2D Castlevania or a new 2D Metroid just about every year, but I liked it a lot more when I replayed it outside of that context a couple of years ago. I still don't like the change from Ayami Kojima's gothic style to a much more generic anime look for the character art, but that's a trait it shares with Dawn of Sorrow.
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  • Avatar for link6616 #5 link6616 3 months ago
    @Godots17thCup Right? I actually like PoR more than OoE honestly. I've always felt it got the raw end of the deal perception wise.
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  • Avatar for Jonnyboy407 #6 Jonnyboy407 3 months ago
    I'm a bit lukewarm on hollow kight. It's fine but I'm not blown away

    Me and a buddy are playing through it together so we only play for a few hours every week or two.

    Probably the wrong way to play a game where it's easy to get lost...
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #7 NiceGuyNeon 3 months ago
    The Switch is the perfect platform for everything, but yes, it's perfect for Metroidvanias. You dock it and get amazing artwork in HD, you pick it up and continue it in bite-sized chunks. I cannot imagine playing video games any other way right now, but I'm not nearly as imaginative as I like to think.

    Hollow Knight is brilliant. I played it on Switch after a buddy of mine told me it was his second favorite game of 2017, and once the Switch port released I picked it up. Personally if I were to put it in 2017 rankings it would fall behind Breath of the Wild, Nier and Mario, but it would still sit pretty at #4. If we go by 2018 rankings it's up there with Into the Breach this year for my GotY. It's just brilliant.

    I was bored with Shadow Complex and Guacamelee. They were not that great. Dust: An Elysian Tale was fine but it wasn't some jaw-dropping game. Valdis Story was challenging and cool but never really took off. But then suddenly we got hit with some amazing Metroidvanias that were more than just games that tried to use the idea but became games that owned the idea. I'm pretty pumped for Dead Cells and just like Hollow Knight I'll be picking it up on my Switch. Sorry PC.

    Also, Twilight Princess is better than Okami, but only by the teensiest of margins. They both have really languid pacing, but Okami has a more wondrous world and art style, but I think TP's dungeons and level design is better than anything that released in 2006. I guess it comes down to what you prefer, but really they're really really really close and you should play both if you have the chance. Okami is especially easy to play since it's on everything now.Edited August 2018 by NiceGuyNeon
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #8 NiceGuyNeon 3 months ago
    @Jonnyboy407 I don't know how far into Hollow Knight you are, but my experience was that I thought it was OK at the start and as I kept playing I gradually played longer until I could not stop. I dropped over 40 hours into it before I finally walked away and I still haven't discovered every boss based on what I've read.
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  • Avatar for DogNozzle #9 DogNozzle 3 months ago
    @NiceGuyNeon Same here, it definitely took me a few hours to get to the point where I really decided I liked it. The gameplay felt a bit basic at the beginning, but eventually I was won over by just how well done every element of the game is, it's really polished and visually creative. I think maybe if I were to pick Hollow Knight up today I might be be a little disappointed because the hype has picked up and I'd be going in with higher expectations.
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #10 NiceGuyNeon 3 months ago
    @DogNozzle expectations are certainly higher but I think the quality justifies it. Even last year it was getting glowing reviews but it got lost in that insane year of releases. 2018 has been completely different because these smaller indie games are getting a lot more room to breathe.
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  • Avatar for hiptanaka #11 hiptanaka 3 months ago
    World of Horror looks ace.
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  • Avatar for Stepout #12 Stepout 3 months ago
    Currently playing Chasm and absolutely loving it. The Keep is one of my favorite video game levels in recent memory.
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  • Avatar for kidgorilla #13 kidgorilla 3 months ago
    God damn it, Dead Cells. Why did you have to come out when I have so much other stuff to do?

    I'm glad we're taking a moment to realize that we're in a metroidvania Renaissance. We need to enjoy it, because it will never be this good again
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  • Avatar for Marvelli #14 Marvelli 3 months ago
    I wonder if you ever played Outland? (Developed by Housemarque and published by Ubisoft.) It's available on PS3, Xbox 360 / One and Steam.
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