The Metroidvania genre could be defined as a 2D platformer subgenre with some RPG elements and a gameplay loop of exploring. Additionally, obtaining new items, tools, and weapons enable you to access previously inaccessible areas, such as new levels, secrets, and more gear to boost your character. This genre has exploded in popularity in recent years, but what are the origins of the genre? Let me first say that many games at the time of the original Metroid and Castlevania had ‘Metroidvania’ elements, but it was these two franchises from which we get the ‘Metroidvania’ name (obviously). So, let’s jump in and look at the history behind the beloved Metroidvania genre!
The best place to start is to explain the origins of Metroidvania games, with the original Metroid and Castlevania. Both of these games appeared on the NES in the 1980s, and while Metroid had a similar gameplay loop to modern Metroidvanias (albeit with no map), Castlevania was much more of a hardcore platformer. In Castlevania, there was limited exploration. It was linear and the paths diverging from the main quest were very rare. Like loads of old games, it wanted you to learn enemy attack patterns and go through levels over and over again. This would continue until you got lucky enough to reach a checkpoint or finish the level. Some of the games in this time period didn’t even have a checkpoint, which made it extremely difficult on certain levels.
Metroid on the other hand, even originally, was about exploration. A product from the brain of Game Boy designer Gunpei Yokoi, Metroid took inspiration from the Alien film franchise and had a slightly scary, isolated feel to it. This feeling is very similar to the Metroid Prime games. Metroid laid the foundations for Metroidvania games with gameplay that enabled you to explore and find upgrades to access previously inaccessible areas. I think the original Metroid influenced the Metroidvania genre more than the original Castlevania. However, there is one Castlevania game that influenced the genre more than any other game in history. This title is coming up later on.
Super Metroid/16-Bit Castlevania games
Once we got to the 16-bit generation, both the Castlevania and Metroid series evolved and developed. Metroid returned in the form of Super Metroid, a visually-striking definitive Metroidvania that had more features and secrets than any before it. Additionally, it also had a more detailed story. Castlevania still hadn’t diversified its gameplay, despite titles like Castlevania: Bloodlines (Genesis/Megadrive) and Castlevania 4 (SNES) bringing excellent, better-looking games. These titles had tighter controls, which felt more flexible with the 16-bit systems. In terms of other games with Metroidvania elements, there were many. Tail’s Adventure (GameGear/3DS Eshop) is a good example of this. I think sometimes Metroid/Castlevania gets too much credit for spawning the genre. Even Zelda games and ‘Zelda-Likes’ have Metroidvania elements in them, such as gaining new items to open up previously blocked-off areas.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
It could be argued that the Metroidvania term basically emerged through the critical and commercial success of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (although it took a while to catch on). Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was a PlayStation and Sega Saturn release that brought Metroidvania gameplay to the Castlevania franchise. Symphony of the Night also refined the slick gameplay loop that was defined with Super Metroid.
Metroid had already been following the Metroidvania style since the NES days, but it was the critical and cultural impact of Symphony of the Night that lead to the creation of the term Metroidvania. Castlevania followed this style for three DS games that were also highly critically praised. Then, Konami decided to semi-reboot the franchise with Castlevania: Lords of Shadow for PS3 and Xbox 360, which used gameplay mechanics similar to Sony’s God of War games (PS2 & PS3 iterations). Castlevania still to this day hasn’t really returned to the greatness of its Metroidvania days. Konami can be unpredictable nowadays, so who knows if a return to that style is in the cards.
Metroid Fusion and Metroid Prime
In terms of Metroid, Metroid Fusion, a faithful GBA Metroidvania, was released in the early 2000s. Alongside this, Metroid Prime was released mere months later, which accurately adapted the Metroidvania genre into a first-person title. Prime was a 3D explorative and adventure game. Metroid Prime was critically very successful, though less so commercially. Since this article is mostly focused on 2D Metroidvania titles, we’ll leave this topic for next time.
Metroid Fusion was a classic and nostalgic hit for those who grew up with Super Metroid. It was released over ten years after Super Metroid, and since Metroid skipped the N64, it was highly anticipated. Its ending alluded to a sequel, which brought us into the Metroid Dread saga. Dread was originally rumored for the DS around 2007, but disappeared from the rumor mill soon after. Then in 2021, it was miraculously reborn on the Switch. Allegedly, it had been in development for DS but the hardware wasn’t capable of doing the game’s vision justice. In the following years, no development team was found until MercurySteam was offered the chance to develop it for Switch.
Interestingly, MercurySteam also worked on Castlevania Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate, which was a 3DS platformer with some Metroidvania elements. It seems cool that this developer has worked on both franchises and is still probably developing Metroidvania games to this day.
With the release of Dread, we don’t know where the 2D Metroid line of games will go from here. The Prime games can be regarded as a separate series. No doubt there will be another 2D Metroidvania Metroid game, but nothing has been announced at this point. In terms of Castlevania, Konami has recently said that they have multiple ongoing projects, so there is hopeful news that something Castlevania related is in the works. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night has never been released on a Nintendo platform, and it would be great to have it on Switch.
There are some great recent games that have taken influence from recent Metroid and Castlevania titles. Chasm is a charming pixel-art Metroidvania that was released on almost every modern platform (even Vita) in 2018. I really found its art style, music, combat, and light RPG elements really appealing. It’s also procedurally generated, so every playthrough is unique. Overall, it’s a really great game that I’d highly recommend.
Timespinner is another great Metroidvania that was released in 2018. Similarly to Chasm, it has a great art style, and I’d say its vibe is quite unique. It feels otherworldly, in that the technology and environments almost look Neolithic, but the game involves interstellar travel. It really has an unusual premise, which is something I quite appreciate. The combat is tight and upgrades really feel like they make an impact on fights, especially boss battles.
Overall, the Castlevania and Metroid series have had a massive impact on the video game medium. The Metroidvania genre that has been spawned by them continues to produce satisfying, exciting experiences on a variety of platforms. The hype for titles like Hollow Knight 2 and Blasphemous 2 is a testament to this. Let’s hope Castlevania can come back in the form everyone wants. Also, hopefully, we’re not too far away from a Metroid Dread sequel.