2018: The Year of the Metroidvania - ArticleEvan Norris , posted on 09 January 2019 / 1,470 Views
I love a good Metroidvania. There's something innately satisfying about the genre's incremental progression, grid-based exploration, and omnipresent, motivational feeling of discovery. I'm unsure if there's another game type on the market that produces more incentives to reach 100 percent completion, or inspires greater feelings of failure when that 100 percent threshold is unattained. Metroidvania is essentially Dopamine: The Genre, and I adore it.
There have been a lot of great Metroidvania games over the years, but many have been isolated from one another. Super Metroid arrived in 1994; its heir apparent Castlevania: Symphony of the Night three years later in 1997; Shadow Complex in 2009; a suite of GBA and DS Castlevania titles peppered across 2001-2008; and so on.
Only in the last four years, when independent game developers focused on the genre in earnest, has the industry observed some dense concentrations of great or near-great Metroidvania games in a single calendar year. 2015 saw Ori and the Blind Forest and Axiom Verge, among others; 2016 gave us Song of the Deep and The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human, to name a couple; and 2017 witnessed the long-awaited return of Samus in Metroid: Samus Returns, plus titles like Hollow Knight and Sundered.
None of these recent years quite compare to 2018, however. I would argue it's the single best year for Metroidvania adventures, in terms of quantity, quality, and variety. To make my case, I will revisit seven special games released over the last 12 months, each of which made a notable contribution to the genre.
About the Genre
For those wondering about the parameters of a Metroidvania, here's a quick primer. A portmanteau of Metroid and Castlevania, Metroidvania refers most commonly to a group of 2D side-scrolling action-adventure games where certain roadblocks—locked doors, pools of deadly lava, bottomless pits, etc.—prevent immediate advancement. Only by searching elsewhere and discovering powerful items, weapons, and abilities can players revisit and ultimately bypass those obstacles. Progress is often charted on a sprawling grid-based interconnected map and in a handy percentage meter, which displays exactly how close you are to visiting every room, beating every boss, and finding every concealed power-up.
Not every game in this article conforms neatly with that definition, but each one finds a way to earn the -vania suffix.
The Linear Metroidvania
Developers didn't waste any time in 2018; the first notable Metroidvania game, Iconoclasts, launched on January 23. While it might not comply perfectly with all the standards listed above—its more linear, story-drive campaign makes back-tracking less essential—it certainly provides plenty of 2D exploration, lots of clever puzzles, and arguably the greatest collection of boss battles of all the Metroidvania-type games last year. Some of the best include a showdown with a hulking, burrowing robotic worm, where heroine Robin must use electrified rails to keep ahead of the mechanical menace, and a partner-swapping fight against a generator run amok.
Iconoclasts' greatest contribution to the genre, however, might just be its surprisingly nuanced, symbolic story. Touching on issues of fascism, religious zealotry, and environmentalism, the dystopian narrative follows several flawed, troubled, selfish characters who never fall neatly into buckets of "good" and "bad."
The Darkest Metroidvania
No, Guacamelee! 2 isn't the darkest thematically of the bunch (it's actually one of the funniest), rather it takes place in the "darkest timeline," a parallel dimension where the events of its predecessor happened in a very different way. Indie developer DrinkBox has a lot of fun with its dimension-hopping hero Juan, sending him to a timeline filled exclusively with dank memes and another that resembles a famous street fighting series. Overall, the game is as riotous as the first Guacamelee!—one of the very best of the genre—and just as balanced.
That balance comes from a trifecta of gameplay types: non-linear exploration, 2D brawling, and acrobatic platforming. Exploration is exciting and rewarding. Brawling is deeper and more tactical than ever, thanks to new enemy types and a brand new "trainer" upgrade framework. Finally, platforming is sinisterly-clever and demanding.
The Surprise Metroidvania
Of all the great or almost-great Metroidvania games of 2018, The Messenger is the most accomplished. Yet, surprisingly, for its first few hours, it's not a Metroidvania at all. For about one-fifth of its running time, the game performs like a traditional 8-bit action-platformer (think Ninja Gaiden), with linear gameplay and end-of-stage bosses. Around the three-hour mark, though, things change dramatically. The game world opens up; new environments, NPCs, and challenges emerge; and backtracking and exploration become just as important as real-time combat and perfectly-timed jumps.
With its outstanding action-adventure mechanics, tricky platforming, heady sci-fi story, interesting NPCs and side-quests, beautiful sprite work, and stellar soundtrack, The Messenger isn't just the best of Metroidvania of the year; it's one of the best 2018 games period.
The Cursed Metroidvania
Giving The Messenger a run for its money is Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom, an action-adventure game that, due to its December release, probably didn't get the visibility in 2018 that it deserved. A spiritual successor to Sega's Wonder Boy series, Monster Boy replaces the items, tools, and power-ups of a traditional Metroidvania with an allotment of animal transformations. Do you need to explore underwater? Transform into a frog. There's a wall of stone blocking the way forward? Nothing that the lion's charge attack can't break through.
The game is filled with exploration opportunities that make clever use of each animal's unique gifts, plus lots of "a-ha!" moments when you as the player figure out exactly how to collect that unreachable armor piece or that unattainable music sheet. Its hand-drawn animation is something special, too.
The Rogue Metroidvania
More of a rogue-vania than anything, Dead Cells deserves a place on this list for its 2D action-platforming, compartmentalized maps, and secrets. Rogue-lite features like permadeath and permanent upgrades make the game more about restarting and replaying, sure, but its interconnected world, non-linear progression, and hidden passages and chambers make it a cousin of series like Metroid and Castlevania.
Really, the game is a rewarding experience for many types of fans. Risk-and-reward combat speaks to fans of Dark Souls. Permadeath and the pursuit of the perfect run make it ideal for followers of Rogue Legacy and its ilk. Open-ended exploration and 2D action-adventure gameplay honor those who grew up worshipping Super Metroid and Symphony of the Night.
The RPG Metroidvania
Super Daryl Deluxe, the self-described RPG-vania, is another cousin of the genre. Essentially, it shares the 2D exploration and backtracking of a Metroidvania with the quest and upgrade framework of a role-playing game. Featuring a wacky high school setting—think Napolean Dynamite by way of Terry Gilliam—a steady drip of upgrades, and dozens of fascinating characters and quests, it's both a worthy RPG and a terrific Metroidvania. Its hand-drawn art and flexible skill-based combat only add to the fun.
In a year dominated by amazing -vania experiences, Super Daryl Deluxe is probably the wildest, weirdest, most substantial (expect to log between 20 and 30 hours) and most subversive of the bunch.
The Pinball Metroidvania
The most inventive of the bunch, though, might just be Yoku's Island Express. This gorgeous, cheerful game is a hybrid between Metroidvania and—wait for it—pinball. I'm unsure who asked for an open-ended pinball adventure on a tropical island starring a happy beetle, but I'm thankful for the request.
The game features all the elements typical of the genre, including unlockable abilities, seamless exploration, and a vast 2D map with lots of secret passages and hidden collectibles, but replaces the traditional fighting and platforming with flippers, bumpers, and pinball physics. It's a delightful, refreshing change of pace.
With so many Metroidvania titles—many pushing the formula in new, unexpected places and a few among the best ever made—2018 stands, right now, as the best single year for the genre. We saw nuanced characters, interesting storylines, challenging platforming, deep fighting mechanics, gorgeous graphics, imaginative worlds, gripping boss battles, rewarding exploration, and many, many ingenious interpretations of traditional gameplay systems and structures. Across the board there was amazing depth, variety, and creativity.
2018 will be a tough act to follow.