By Will Holden
Now, I know that Metroidvania games haven’t ever really gone away since Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night collectively coined the term in 1994, but I do feel like this style of game has had something of a resurgence in the last few years, much to my delight. And with Metroid: Dread soon to be released for Nintendo Switch, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on some of the best recent entries in the genre.
I’m going to keep this list to fairly up to date entries as I don’t think anyone needs to be told about the old classics, and truth be told, they can sometimes be hard to play these days. I am also excluding 3D games in this list that might otherwise contain Metroidvania elements. This is because I think the 2D experience is a hallmark of Metroidvania games, and it’s simply my preference.
So, without further ado, here are 5 of my favourite Metroidvania’s to play while waiting anxiously for the release of Dread. There are tonnes of great examples of these games on the market right now, so if your favourites aren’t in my list… well, go make your own list.
With the sequel to Axiom Verge having just been released, it seems a perfect time to experience the original. This game wears its Super Metroid influence on its sleeve, the sci-fi setting and familiar in-game assets, such as the airlock-like doorways and individual save rooms that you must discover, make you feel right at home if you’re familiar with the SNES classic. Where the game achieves its uniqueness is how it tells its story. Using well written dialogue and flipping the genre tropes to great effect, the games narrative keeps you on your toes and begs you to keep pushing on. Axiom Verge is also rife with the usual hidden areas, secrets and upgrades typical of the genre. The controls are tight and exploration is a dream.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
This entry in my list is for the Castlevania lovers out there. Where Axiom Verge owes its design style squarely at Nintendo’s door, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night takes its inspiration from Konami’s game series. This is a dark fantasy offering, giving a much different look and feel to some of the more sci-fi based entries typical of the genre. Still packed full of secrets and challenging combat but with the addition of a beautiful animation and art style. Combine all that with the fact that this game was made by Castlevania legend, Koji Igarashi, who was a programmer and co-director on Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, so you know it’s got pedigree. The movement and combat animations look superb and really sell the gothic/fantasy atmosphere.
Yoku’s Island Express
Yoku’s Island Express is a Metroidvania game which offers something quite different. This game combines classic 2D exploration with pinball. All of the areas of the map are packed full of bumpers and flippers which the player uses to launch Yoku around, and through the clever placement of various switches, you can open up new routes. The basic task of moving from area to area is an absolute joy and truly offers something different to the competition. I really love the cartoony art style, but I can imagine some Metroidvania fans may be put off by the whimsical nature of it. My recommendation would be to try this out before judging it, as the gameplay is its major selling point. It’s really worth trying this one if the otherwise fairly serious aesthetic of other Metroidvanias are not your cup of tea.
Guacamelee 1 & 2
I’ve grouped together both of these games as they are both available and both great. Guacamelee does share some similarities to Super Metroid, particularly in the main character’s ability to turn into a chicken being quite similar to Samus’ Morph Ball. That said, this game series has a really impressive and unique visual style, taking inspiration from Mexican history and luchador wrestling. The presentation is really vivid and colourful, and unlike some of the other games on this list, the focus is shifted towards platforming. Although the combat is also really well balanced in the tough-but-fair area of gaming, the power ups and various abilities acquired throughout the game assist as much with the combat sections as they do with jumping and dashing your way through high difficulty platforming sections. These games are also genuinely funny, something not very present in Metroidvania’s, and hard to pull off when the speech is delivered by text, but the combined art style and quality writing bring out the laughs.
And finally, in my opinion the greatest of the Metroidvania pretenders, an equal even, is the mighty Hollow Knight. This game ticks every box for a game of this genre, the art design is a beautiful hand drawn style, creating stunning areas to explore and simple but extremely charming enemies and NPCs. That’s not to even mention the the characters short vocal lines, delivered in a bug language gibberish. These little sound clips give the characters a hint of personality without the need for long text or exposition sections. My favourite example is the wife of the map seller whose exasperated utterances suggest a very put upon woman who is left to look after the shop as her husband explores the land. In the same vein, the map seller hums out a little ditty idly to himself, your heart will skip a beat when you hear his tune as it means a new map, and relative safety, is nearby. The combat and platforming is really tight and feels tough without ever feeling cheap, at first bosses seem impossible to tackle but you quickly get to grips with their movements and attacks. Combine all of this with an incredible soundtrack, superb exploration and secret areas and a long-awaited sequel on the horizon, Hollow Knight is a real masterpiece and there’s never been a better time to check it out.