The 10 Greatest Metroidvania Games

Everyone's talking about "metroidvania" games these days, but which ones are best? We make our picks. How do your favorites stack up?

Article by USgamer Team, .

Long-time Castlevania series producer Koji Igarashi emerged from his crypt last week to announce his departure from Konami and discuss the development of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. In the process, he also legitimized the term "metroidvania," for better or worse, mainly as a matter of pragmatism.

Love the term or hate it, at the very least we can all admit it serves a very handy purpose in providing a loose definition for a subgenre: Games that, like Metroid and the latter-day Castlevanias, revolve around non-linear exploration, acquiring permanent power-ups, and advancing into the adventure with the help of the tool and weapon upgrades you collect along the way. It's definitely a more elegant term than "roguelikelike." As the premier works in the genre, Castlevania and Metroid set the standard for everything that followed. Perhaps not surprisingly, they dominate this list as well.

We informally polled the USgamer staff, contributors, and readers to name their favorite metroidvania-style games, and here are the results. While none of these entries should be terribly surprising – again, more than half of them are Metroid and Castlevania titles – they're a great starting point for venturing into this cult subgenre. A remarkable number of indie games pattern themselves in the metroidvania mold, and with Igarashi working on his own venture, that doesn't seem likely to change anytime soon.

1. Super Metroid

Nintendo | Super NES | 1994

No big surprise that Nintendo's Super Metroid came in on top – it basically created the template for this style of game in one exquisite swoop. Nearly every moment of this 16-bit adventure is pitch-perfect, from the moody opening to the explosive finale. Super Metroid draws you forward in subtle ways, revealing its secrets one at a time, gradually giving you more and more freedom as the world opens up, until you truly feel like you're lost in the depths of an alien world. Despite the game's massive sprawl, the designers thought carefully about the map's interlocking structure and took the time to fill the tunnels and caverns with tiny details and unique features that made each room feel like a distinct, living place. One of the greats.

2. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

Konami | PlayStation | 1997

Coming in just barely behind Super Metroid, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night brought Metroid-like structure and Zelda-inspired mechanics to the Castlevania universe. At once a bold reinvention of the series and a tender love letter to its past, Symphony dared remove the whip-wielding Belmont clan from the mix in order to present an adventure in which dhampir protagonist Alucard, son of Dracula, unraveled the chaotic innards of his father's castle by collecting magical relics, acquiring ever more impressive weaponry, and gaining experience levels. Loaded with detail and crammed with secrets, Symphony was at once a technological relic and a beloved masterpiece of game design.

3. Cave Story

Studio Pixel | PC | 2004

While it doesn't play exactly like Metroid or Castlevania, that's a major part of this legendary indie game's appeal. Cave Story incorporates the spirit of its inspirations – which encompass a number of classics – to become something at once new yet familiar. It's not only a great game, though. It also served as a demonstration of what one man could create with a little time and a lot of affection for video games. With its own unique systems and secrets, Cave Story dropped players into a massive interconnected world rendered in simple but charming graphics and left them to sort things out on their own. In doing so, it helped spark a revolution of independent game design.

4. Metroid: Zero Mission

Nintendo | Game Boy Advance | 2004

The original NES Metroid was quite a momentous creation... but it was also far more ambitious than the hardware, tech, and design of its era could properly handle. Zero Mission rectifies those shortcomings, revisiting the classic game and bringing it up to contemporary standards. Combining the design of Super Metroid, the mechanics of Metroid Fusion, and the brisk pace and overall structure of Metroid, this really does feel like the culmination of the series in many ways. It doesn't just lean on the past, though; Zero Mission introduces plenty of new elements, from bizarre outsized insects living in the caverns of Zebes to the mysteries of Chozodia. We may never see a true, classic Metroid sequel again, but there are worse swan songs for a franchise to go out on than this masterpiece of a remake.

5. Guacamelee

Drinkbox Studios | Various | 2013

Combining the design discipline of Super Metroid with Mesoamerican folklore and the elbow drops of Mexican luchadores, this stylish indie action game made quite an impression on players. Despite being less than a year old, it's already earned sufficient regard for players to place it on par with the established classics of metroidvania-style design. And why not? Its unique style and setting distinguish it from the usual video game clichés, and it livens up traditional genre mechanics like double jumps with unique wrestling-inspired moves and cooperative play. A fast-paced and frequently challenging adventure, Guacamelee serves as a welcome demonstration that not all metroidvania-type games have to be so literal about the Metroid and 'Vania elements.

6. Castlevania: Aria & Dawn of Sorrow

Konami | GBA | 2003
Konami | DS | 2005

As two parts of a whole, the adventures of Soma Cruz tweaked the Castlevania formula even more than Symphony of the Night. Casting players as the (spoilers!) reincarnated soul of Dracula determined to prevent his own return to chaotic evil alignment, the Sorrow titles set a new standard for nonlinear action on portable systems. And, of course, being designed for portable systems, they also embraced the trends of Nintendo's handhelds with lots of Pokémon-like collection. Rather than capturing monsters, though, Soma simply gathered their souls, extending his abilities as a warrior by gaining dominance over the creatures of Dracula's castle. With excellent level design, ridiculously deep and flexible play mechanics, and secrets aplenty, this pair of adventures gave gamers new respect for portable gaming.

7. Shadow Complex

Chair | Xbox 360 | 2009

Before Chair created Infinity Blade and discovered the breezy riches of iOS publishing, they brought the world this little gem of 2.5D game design. Shadow Complex took its overall design and structural clues from Super Metroid, but this was no tepid clone; perhaps because it ran on the trendy Unreal Engine 3, it incorporated similarly trendy features. Like, say, cover-based shooting and right-stick aiming. Shadow Complex's hybrid nature made for a comfortable yet occasionally surprising experience, with backtracking and skill-based map unlocks augmented by dramatic changes – the portion where you return to an area of the eponymous complex that's been flooded in the wake of a massive explosion feels eerie and seems more like something out of a Metal Gear game than a 2D platformer. Chair keeps promising a sequel; we can't wait.

8. La-Mulana

NIGORO | PC | 2005

Hearkening back to games in the really old 8-bit style, La-Mulana references Metroid less than it does obscure Japan-only games from the MSX computer platform. The original PC version of La-Mulana even looked like an MSX game! And much like those oldies, it's unrelentingly difficult and unapologetically obscure. Combining hardcore exploratory platforming action with complex puzzles, La-Mulana is easily the most demanding game on this list. You will take careful notes and connect seemingly unrelated dots for features linked across the span of the world map, or you will never get anywhere. Developer NIGORO seems to relish the reputation La-Mulana has earned and has promised the recently Kickstarted sequel will be even more lethal.

9. Metroid Fusion

Nintendo | Game Boy Advance | 2002

No follow-up to Super Metroid could ever have lived up to that classic's reputation and the nostalgia that had built up around it amidst nearly a decade of radical upheavals in game design, so Nintendo wisely didn't try out-Super-Metroid-ing Super Metroid with its sequel. Instead, they sidestepped it, introducing a stronger and more direct narrative that frequently exposed the man behind the curtain of the series' approach to design, as it were. Many fans reject the game's more explicit limitations and boundaries, but it makes for an interesting alternate take on the action: A more directed adventure with exploratory sequences built around smaller, self-contained regions. Add to that the menace of being stalked by Samus' super-powered clone and a sense of "breaking out" of the prescribed limitations of the world (a trick Portal would later use to equally excellent effect) and you have a controversial but still top-notch take on the Metroid concept.

10. Wonder Boy in Monster World

Westone/Sega | Genesis | 1991

Predating Super Metroid by a few years, Wonder Boy's fifth adventure instead took clues from 8-bit predecessors like Zelda II and, of course, its own predecessor, The Dragon's Trap. Set in a sprawling kingdom dotted with villages and dungeons, Wonder Boy in Monster World feels for all the world like a classic RPG hammered into the shape of a platform action game. Our hero enjoys the usual powers (melee weapons, magical spells) while also benefitting from the accompaniment of tagalong characters to help him along the way. Though you rarely hear the Wonder Boy series discussed much these days, excellent entries like Monster World make it ripe for rediscovery by fans of classic action games with a little extra substance to them.

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  • Avatar for Macstorm #1 Macstorm 4 years ago
    Great list. Reminds me that there are still so many I've not yet gotten around to. And that La-Mulana never did come to Vita, did it?
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  • Avatar for cscaskie #2 cscaskie 4 years ago
    I wish that Shadow Complex was available on Steam.

    Also, I highly recommend Valdis Story: Abyssal City, which you can get on Steam. Though perhaps not quite fit for this list, it's a charming, and very beautiful indie effort in this genre.Edited March 2014 by cscaskie
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  • Avatar for blacknitecrash #3 blacknitecrash 4 years ago
    I voted for the Wonder Boy game thinking it didn't really have a chance. It sure warms my heart to see it on this list! Hopefully others will go back and give it a try. It's probably one of the most joyous experiences I have ever had playing a game.
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  • Avatar for Funny_Colour_Blue #4 Funny_Colour_Blue 4 years ago
    Great list! I suddenly want to play Metroid Fusion again...Which also reminds me; I need to buy La Mulana off of wiiware before they do something kooky with nintendo's eshop!Edited March 2014 by Funny_Colour_Blue
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #5 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @Macstorm No, but NIGORO has talked about wanting to get it there. Hopefully Sony steps up and lends a hand.
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  • Avatar for renatocosta90 #6 renatocosta90 4 years ago
    La Mulana is an Excellent game, but boy, when it rears its head to try being obscure, oh boy, it really accomplishes it. That game absolutely requires a wiki to accomplish the ever increasing ammount of obscure steps to solve the later puzzles. Though it is a great game.

    Do we have Super Metroid, zero mission and Fusion on the 3ds e-shop yet?
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  • Avatar for transmet2033 #7 transmet2033 4 years ago
    Well, this looks like a list of my favourite games...
    There are only two that I have yet to play, Wonder Boy and La Mulana.
    As far as games not on the list. I have been enjoying Strider quite a bit and love SteamWorld Dig.
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  • Avatar for wegum #8 wegum 4 years ago
    Fun article! I'm kind of surprised that Shadow Complex made it on this list, I didn't think people were that impressed with it. I was annoyed with the limitations it put on the backtracking at points and how some places become points of no return. That's one of my pet peeves with any Metroidvania game.

    I wonder if I would feel differently about Fusion if it had just been released as part of a different franchise. I find it impossible to divorce it from the rest of the Metroid series, and as a result I just absolutely hate so many of the design choices it makes.
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  • Avatar for Hubertron #9 Hubertron 4 years ago
    I also really enjoyed Adventure Island 4 which I think would fall into this category. I have recently been playing through super metroid for only the second time and it is amazing (taking out quick sand and frustrating wall jumps....)
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  • Avatar for AxiomVerge #10 AxiomVerge 4 years ago
    Can Metroid Prime count?
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  • Avatar for Mad-Mage #11 Mad-Mage 4 years ago
    While I enjoyed it, Wonder Boy in Monster World is clearly dated and is only on this list because Parish wanted it to be included :P

    I know of two incredible obscure Metroid-style games which everyone should check out. They are for PC and are free.

    An Untitled Story

    Treasure Adventure
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  • Avatar for mappyland #12 mappyland 4 years ago
    Confession: I read through this list with my fingers crossed looking for Tomba u__u
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #13 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @wegum People (at least critics and active forum types) were pretty crazy about Shadow Complex. I was some sort of weird outlier for giving it a good-but-not-great score.
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  • Avatar for Voncaster #14 Voncaster 4 years ago
    I like Wonder Boy in Monster World. But it has a *brutal* last level and final boss.

    Which reminds me, I should play the other Wonder Boy game that Sega posted to PSN.

    I don't get the appeal of La Mulana at all. Are puzzles lost in translation or is it supposed to be indecipherable?
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  • Avatar for docexe #15 docexe 4 years ago
    Great list. Have to admit I haven’t played La-Mulana, Shadow Complex and Monster World. I’m not really interested in Wonder Boy (although correct me if I’m wrong: wasn’t one of the games from that series ported to the SNES as Super Adventure Island 2?), but I’m definitely curious about the other two.
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  • Avatar for Voncaster #16 Voncaster 4 years ago
    @docexe Wonder Boy and Adventure Island both spin off from the same developer - Westone.

    In a nut shell Sega games are Wonder Boy and Hudson games are Adventure Island. Wonder Boy 1 and Adventure Island 1 are trivially different. But the two series diverge quite a bit after that.

    I personally like the Wonder Boy games. As far back as Wonder Boy II on master system, I found them to be pretty good games.
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  • Avatar for sean697 #17 sean697 4 years ago
    @docexe The Wonder Boy here is not the same as any of the SNES games. If you stick with the Monster World series you can't go wrong. Monster land a great 8 bit old school action adventure game. Not real strong on the Metroid Vania. Can be had on various platforms. Wonder Boy 3, the Dragons Trap is probrably the best SMS game. Did the Metroid Vania before Castlevania did. Can also be had as Dragons Curse I believe on TG-16 virtual console. Wonder Boy in Monster World mentioned in the article. And Monster World 4 is also good. Both the previous 2 can be had on PSN and 360. I think the Monster Land game is on PSN game as well. But for Wonderboy 3 the PC or VC is the only way to get it.
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  • Avatar for Stealth20k #18 Stealth20k 4 years ago
    Did I help at all?
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  • Avatar for Critical_Hit #19 Critical_Hit 4 years ago
    Ah, screw Wonder BOY. Now, Monster World IV? THAT'S deserving of your praise! Asha's game is the best in the Wonder Boy series, by far. :)

    Great list though! Absolutely missing some Shantae titles though - you should expand this or lump some Metroids/Castlevanias together.Edited March 2014 by Critical_Hit
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  • Avatar for Windwhale #20 Windwhale 4 years ago
    Super Metroid, Fusion, Zero Mission, SOTN, Aria and a little love for Cave Story and the Monsterland series - very nice!
    Personally I would add Metroid 2, Todd's Adventure In Slime World (Lynx version) and Demon's Crest to the list.
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  • Avatar for kidgorilla #21 kidgorilla 4 years ago
    @cscaskie I'll take that recommendation. Your comments make me trust your judgment

    I agree with@Critical_Hit, too. Monster World IV is the superior gameEdited March 2014 by kidgorilla
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  • Avatar for DiscordInc #22 DiscordInc 4 years ago
    Nice list. Another good Metroidvania that's worth checking out in Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet. It has some interesting power ups and a very slick art style. Also, it looks like they ported it to PC so you don't even need to have a 360 for it now.
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  • Avatar for Mega_Matt #23 Mega_Matt 4 years ago
    Great list! 2 of my personal favorites are the homebrew NES games Battle Kid 1 and 2. They fit the "Metroidvania" structure but the focus is more on extremely difficult platforming and shooting than exploration and gathering powers. Battle kid 2 has the Metroid style map too! Man I love these games...
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  • Avatar for Banandango #24 Banandango 4 years ago
    Great list, but you guys should also consider doing a "Top Ten Metroidvanias that Aren't Metroids or Castlevanias" feature. The off-brand MVs need some more love. :)
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  • Avatar for bagori_nd #25 bagori_nd 4 years ago
    Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was not "crammed with secrets." What was the game? A GLORIOUS LITTLE PILE OF SECRETS.

    Seriously, USgamer Team. I can't believe you guys missed that one.
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  • Avatar for Bubblicious #26 Bubblicious 4 years ago
    Awesome list! I just finished Castlevania: Circle of the Moon again(one of my prized Game Boy Advance cartridges). There are certain games and gaming systems I will never part with, and my COTM and Castlevania Double Pack are just two of the many games I will never give up.Edited April 2014 by Bubblicious
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  • Avatar for michaelshulski43 #27 michaelshulski43 4 years ago
    Great list. Wonderboy definitely belongs here. Most people forget it.
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  • Avatar for michaelshulski43 #28 michaelshulski43 4 years ago
    Actually I think wonderboy should be higher.
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  • Avatar for michaelshulski43 #29 michaelshulski43 4 years ago
    Actually I think wonderboy should be higher.
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  • Avatar for JOH01 #30 JOH01 3 years ago
    I'm sorry Monster World IV is better than the first Wonder Boy. Re-update the list and put that on there.
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  • Avatar for daveleon90 #31 daveleon90 3 years ago
    This is probavbly the most useless list I've ever read. If I'm looking for Metroidvania games, I've obviously already played my share of Metroid and Castlevania.
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  • Avatar for cesarvicente42 #32 cesarvicente42 3 years ago
    This post has been totally worth reading, especially for the mention of Wonder boy in monster world. It was a masterpiece and I wish they had continued the series and brought it to other consoles...
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  • Avatar for mviars #33 mviars 3 years ago
    I have some new ones I like to suggest people play. The best Metroid type game I have seen since Super Metroid is Axiom Verge. This game is truly amazing and very faithful to the Metroid style. Also loved Dust: An elysium tale as well as Ori and the blind forest. I am playing Cave story now. Also while not quite as good Environmental Station Alpha on Steam is not bad either.
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  • Avatar for benheintz14 #34 benheintz14 2 years ago
    Aquaria, Axiom Verge, and Ori and the Blind Forest need to be on here.
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