Hollow Knight

You’d be forgiven for thinking that nothing could be simpler than working out the secret formula that binds all of the great games in this popular genre together — the clue’s in the name! They need to be just like Metroid, with all the shooting and the aliens and the sci-fi-ness and the quiet loneliness that entails, and they also need to be just like Castlevania, with its incredibly similar selection of… um, swords. And whips. And, uh, magic upside-down castles. Oh and its predilection for lengthy cutscenes that may feature characters who appeared once, a decade earlier, unlockable playable characters, and supernaturally beautiful men with gorgeous hair down to their knees too. Just mash the two of them together and sell whatever comes out the other end — easy!

That’s the theory, anyway. In reality the genre is a mad jumble of contradictions, the modern action leanings of The Mummy Demastered being just as authentically “Metroidvania” as Blasphemous’ gothic religious theme or Guacamelee! 2’s vivid style. A “real” Metroidvania can have you controlling ninjas, vampire hunters, whatever the heck Dead Cells flame-headed lead is… You don’t even have to be a hero (or a reluctant anti-hero) either — Carrion’s playable “character” is a remorseless mass of flesh and teeth, a violent thing eagerly consuming anyone that stands in its way, sliming down corridors and squeezing through impossibly small crevices.

Guacamelee! 2

So if it’s not the way they look or even how they play that determines a Metroidvania’s legitimacy, then perhaps it’s the level of challenge faced that unifies this disparate genre, all the very best examples being relatively easy, like the legendary Symphony of the Night, or... really hard, just like Hollow Knight. No? To make matters worse huge chunks of accepted and even welcomed Metroidvania design runs contrary to everything we’re told a good game in any other genre should be; progress blocked by doors that only open to missiles we may have currently run out of, or reliant on new abilities waiting for us behind an intimidating screen-high monster in an unrelated part of the map we didn’t know existed yet. We expect to be left directionless and alone while other games rush to cover the screen with markers, compasses and loading screen hints. Meanwhile backtracking, the review score killer of countless other titles, is just an expected part of the Metroidvania experience.

So if they can be set wherever they feel like it, be as easy or hard as they choose, and often do the exact opposite of everything we’re told makes a traditional game fun then what is it that makes a Metroidvania a good one? What is it that really makes them, well, them?

Castlevania Advance Collection

You do.

Or rather, how you personally relate to and interact with the environment presented within these games. Everything else surrounding this nigh-intangible and extremely open to interpretation core can be whatever it wants to be, so long as the game in question always remembers it’s really all about the player and how they interact with the virtual playground they’ve been given.

And just as it looks like we’re getting somewhere, we realise this one truth can manifest in at least a dozen different ways. It’s an area designer deliberately placing something in plain sight but just out of reach, both you and them knowing that with time, effort, or a new ability — maybe all three combined — whatever that promised prize is will eventually be claimed, another part of your constantly expanding inventory and broadening skillset. It’s the visceral thrill of blowing away enemies that once needed to be approached with caution with a single casual shot, your character’s strength and your personal prowess only growing with every defeated foe. It’s seeing a distant exit to places unknown tantalisingly placed at the top of a vertical surface ten apparently unreachable tiles high or far beyond an unavoidable floor bristling with deadly spikes and thinking “I know exactly what I need to do here” before reaching your goal with ease.

Super Metroid

These are those incomparable moments spent rhythmically jump-kicking off smooth walls where once you’d have been forced to turn back and search for somewhere else to go, or fearlessly plunging into lava that would have been deadly an hour earlier. Harsh alien worlds, long forgotten pathways teeming with monsters, and grand staircases leading to climactic battles with the lords of darkness transition one room at a time from the dangerous and unknown into the familiar and safe, your own knowledge and confidence just as much a part of your characters as any ammo count or defence statistic.

It doesn’t even have to be about becoming harder, better, faster, or stronger either; who hasn’t smiled while nonchalantly reaching for one of the ninety-nine potions waiting in their expansive end-game inventory during what might have otherwise been a tough encounter? Or perhaps spent time enjoying the quiet pleasure of “tidying up” an area map, exploring those high ceilings and other “pointless” nooks and crannies thanks to the levitational powers granted by a recently acquired special item, purely for the sake of filling out every last square? Who doesn’t want to fill out a game’s bestiary or collect as many trinkets as possible for no reason other than the sense of satisfaction it brings?

This is what defines a Metroidvania. It’s got nothing to do with the perspective used, the type or quantity of abilities you gain, the characters you play as, the enemies you defeat or any “environmental storytelling” that may emerge from easily-missed background details or silent NPC animations. It’s got shockingly little to do with either of the genre's famous namesakes either. Good Metroidvanias are a feeling — maybe even a promise — that the strange new world stretching out ahead is for you alone; somewhere you will slowly but surely conquer, every step forward ironclad proof of your developing knowledge of its secret stashes, arcane abilities, and menagerie of monsters.

Do you agree? What do you think makes a Metroidvania a Metroidvania? What do you like about them?