Time for something a little different this week. Instead of a review on something specific, I’ll offer a couple of my thoughts on game design in general. Today it’s on one of my favorite genres of games, the so-called “Metroidvania.” But what exactly is a metroidvania? The term evolved, as you may have guessed, from the Metroid and Castlevania series. Specifically Castlevania: Symphony of the Night for the PS1. Some of the qualities that make a game a metroidvania include (but are not limited to, or even necessary) depth in exploration, the slow gaining of new powers (allowing further exploration of previously traversed areas), and in the case of the “-vania” side of the games, a sort of RPG-esque leveling system. Altogether I think these factors make for an excellent gaming experience and in general good game design.
The first and most important aspect to a metroidvania game is the ability to explore in what is mostly a free-roaming environment. Generally you’ll be dropped into a big area with what may seem like many branching paths. However, due to your limited ability set early on, you’re actually forced into a somewhat linear path. This is one of the first aspects of good game design I’d like to confront. I understand when games have to handhold you, because games today (especially console games and games that have relatively few mechanics like platformers) are far, far more complicated than games of the past. That being said, there’s an unobtrusive yet still effective way to teach the player. A lot of it has to do with an easy and simple learning environment, and the slow introduction of new important mechanics. The metroidvania genre excels in this.
Generally in the beginning of one of these games you’re given a method of attack, and a jump, and not much else. As a result, while it may seem like there are a lot of places to explore in the beginning, there really aren’t. Most metroidvanias force you through somewhat linear paths in the beginning to acclimate you to the game and familiarize the player with the abilities of the main character. As you progress through the game, you’ll likely be given several new abilities. These abilities are introduced slowly to you, usually one at a time. Thus each new ability you get opens up a little more of the map for you to explore, and find the next ability.
The ability to double or high-jump, for example, or a new method of attack that can clear certain barriers. The abilities you’re actually given don’t particularly matter. What does is that through these abilities open up new parts of the map for you to explore. That feeling of exploration, which leaves the player feeling in control of the game, is another hallmark of good game design. It lets the player really feel like they’re controlling their own destiny and their own style of game.
Another important aspect of these games is that they’re usually rife with secrets. Of course, what’s the purpose behind creating a huge environment with many ways through move through it, if there’s no reward to exploration? In Super Metroid, you could find a myriad of goodies if you looked around enough. The ability to carry extra missiles, super missiles, or powerbombs. Even extra e-tanks so you have more health (which could be invaluable in many tough battles). Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was much the same. You could find valuable upgrades like health max or heart max increases, along with the finding new abilities or even new weaponry/armor. It doesn’t matter how the game developer does it, but putting incentives behind exploration is key to creating a successful metroidvania.
Moreover, it adds a lot of depth to the game. One thing I’ve never enjoyed in games is a large and open environment… That’s totally empty. Very little to do, and no real reason to explore. One particular offender of this are castles and palaces in a lot of old RPGs. Particularly older Final Fantasies, Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, etc. had some huge and actually impressive castle designs. Tons of areas that were somewhat populated, but for the most part, there was very little of interest in the castle. The design is great and all, but if there’s no reason to explore the area then it might as well be useless. Most metroidvania games skip out on this though, which is nice. There are little to no areas that serve no purpose. Everywhere is important for some reason, whether it be a challenging room, an area with a goodie (however hidden it may be!), or even a shortcut to a different area of the game. Another mark of good game design.
Of course, I don’t mean to generalize. There are certainly poor metroidvania games out there that don’t exemplify the qualities and characteristics of good game design as I’ve outlined them. Additionally, these aren’t hard and fast rules for a good game. Instead, I mean these as reasons why the general idea and design behind most metroidvania games are solid and fun to play.
Recommendations for fun Metroidvanias
- Super Metroid (really, any of the Metroid games barring other M, but Super Metroid is the quintissential Metroid game)
- Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
- Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, Harmony of Dissonance, Aria of Sorrow, Dawn of Sorrow, Portrait of Ruin, Order of Ecclesia (basically all the Castlevania games on GBA/DS)
- Kurovadis (a fun little PC game, warning not safe for work~)
- Cave Story, to a degree
- Shadow Complex
- Dark Souls