The Metroidvania is by far the most esoterically named genre of video games. A portmanteau of Metroid and Castlevania, it pretty much boils down to: non-linear platform games with ability-gated exploration. Or, you know, you explore until you reach a point that requires a skill you’ve yet to pick up.
There’s possibly an argument to be made that the genre name doesn’t best describe the majority of games that tend to fall under it, given the bias toward the Metroid series’ nature, far more-so than Castlevania’s more RPG-leaning approach. But there’s still plenty of overlap, and it’s one of those genres where you just kinda know if a game fits.
So it is that we’ve picked 11 games that just fit, that can all be easily picked up and played today on modern machines (without third-party emulation).
And yeah, incredibly, that does rule out some seemingly obvious games like the Metroid Prime series, which bewilderingly hasn’t seen a re-release since 2009. However, that doesn’t leave us short of entries. If you’re thinking, “Hey, you bastards! You didn’t include…” then yeah, so are we! We whittled this list down from 21 entries that all felt essential, using merciless techniques like, “Actually this is more of a 2D Soulslike,” or, “Hmmm, I’d call this maybe a rogue-lite,” and, “Isn’t this really more of a straight platformer despite everyone calling it a Metroidvania?” Scientific stuff like that.
Right, here we go, and in no particular order:
While Axiom Verge saw a sequel in 2021, the 2015 original still stands out as the superior game. And what a game. Too many Metroid-likes make the serious mistake of attempting to directly emulate Nintendo’s classic series, and die by comparison. Axiom Verge boldly decides to be extraordinarily similar, and then shines by the comparison.
Trace Eschenbrenner is a scientist who finds himself, after a Hadron-like device goes rather wrong, on the alien planet Sudra. He’s tasked with trying to re-power a giant metal head called Elsenova, which involves — as you might expect — exploring in multiple directions at great length, gathering new exploratory abilities along the way.
Its 16-bit aesthetics and familiar gloomy passageways hide an enormous amount of smartness going on here, where the emulation is all part of the narrative, complete with glitching screens that must be “debugged” to make progress. Also, you get a grappling hook, which automatically makes it a great game.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
We led with a very Metroid game, so it only makes sense to go straight to something far more Castlevania. And you can’t get much more Castlevania than a game made by that franchise’s former producer, Koji Igarashi.
Igarashi left Konami in 2014, but he packed his ideas with him on the way out. That inspired a squillion people to give him $US5.5 ($8) million on Kickstarter to make a new Castlevania-like, and the widely-loved Bloodstained was the result.
Based on the totally true story of the 18th century Industrial Revolution as it actually happened, Bloodstained tells the tale of how the Alchemy Guild at the time would infuse humans with demonic powers, creating Shardbinders. We play as Miriam, one of two surviving Shardbinders, battling against the other — Gebel — to save England from his vengeful quest.
There are surprisingly few successful 3D interpretations of the Metroidvania format, and that’s even despite those astonishingly good 3D Metroid Prime games. You might think this is because such an endeavour would require an enormous team and vast resources to successfully deliver. I certainly would have. Until I played Supraland.
This enormous, gorgeous first-person action adventure, taking place in the miniature world of a backyard filled with toys (a literal sandbox game), was created by just one person, almost single-handedly putting the rest of the games industry to shame.
Two warring races of plastic figures — red and blue — have territory across a huge garden. The reds, of whom you are a member, discover their water supply is cut off, and you’re tasked with venturing into the contested territory to find out why, bringing you into a Metroidvania-focused world of puzzles and combat.
As you progress, you gain new weapons, powers, abilities and so on, that allow you to explore previously unreachable areas, but this time all from the perspective of an FPS. The result is bright, cheerful, and extremely funny, and I contend the best game of 2019.
Last year saw a similarly brilliant sequel, Supraland: Six Inches Under, with an even larger, full-team follow-up to come called Supraworld.
Ori And The Blind Forest
Why Ori and the Blind Forest rather than Ori and the Will of the Wisps? I don’t have a strong argument for picking one over the other, both being all-time favourite games of mine, but since learning the conditions in which Will of the Wisps was created it’s hard to wave a flag for it.
Both Ori games are absolutely astonishing achievements (not least given the crap employees were putting up with), spellbindingly beautiful pieces of art, that also happen to be exceptionally good Metroidvania platform games too.
In both, you play as the fox-ish Ori, whose sublime movement makes every moment of both games such a pleasure to play. Combat is…wistful? Is that a way to describe combat? It feels right. And while the game offers a strong challenge, it has difficulty levels that can be lowered to a point where you can just breeze through and appreciate the animation and story if that’s your focus. Or cranked up if you want a more Hollow Knightly challenge.
These are astounding games, emotive and beautiful, and thankfully don’t reflect the attitudes of the team in charge of making them.
Always the top of any Metroidvania list, we thought it would be interest to see if it cracks the very fabric of space-time to put it in the middle, given this one’s in no particular order. Hollow Knight is the Metroidvania darling, the game against which all other modern attempts at the genre are measured.
It’s also a bit too hard. Ooooh, we went there. That sound you just heard was the sucking of a billion teeth at the very suggestion.
Ahem. Personal agenda aside, Hollow Knight is unquestionably a stunning game, from its art to its monsters to its level design. It’s a game that’s deliberately difficult in a way that the Ori games are not, a sort of dark mirror version of its rival franchise. Combat requires talent, while the game makes you work for every bonus, every marker on a map, every new plop of health.
Its insectoid world has you playing as the mute Knight, a bug who explores the dangerous underground tunnels and chambers of Hallownest, ruined by The Infection. As you’d imagine, you’re aiming to undo all that damage.
Made in the shadow of the Dark Souls games, this is undeniably influenced by the ruthlessness of that series, asking players to be up for a challenge if they wanna get anywhere far into this one. And that certainly worked — the game has sold over three million copies.
Its sequel, Hollow Knight: Silksong, will be released in the year 2341.
The first thing you’ll notice about Owlboy (if you press play, and ignore that awful title card on the YouTube video above) is its art. Its pixel art is outstanding, reminiscent of the very best of the ‘90s, while far more intricate than anything ever seen back then. The next thing I think you’ll notice is the music, which is stunning throughout. All of which means that amongst the loveliness of the trailer, you may not even pick up on the game’s best feature: the way your Owlboy character, Otus, carries different people with his talons to take advantage of their differing skills.
Robot pirates are invading Otus’s homeland, and despite being sidelined by his peers, the brave young winged creature teams up with other outcasts to fight back, which involves solving environmental puzzles, lots of exploration, and some twin-stick combat using the abilities of whichever chum is currently in yours claws.
Ten years in development, by a team of five, the result is an absolutely exquisite game, with such an engaging storyline. It’s filled with remarkable twists, and dialogue that’ll remind you of the wonderful writing and timing in the Mario & Luigi games (despite just how different a game this is). Also, the flying — your main means of movement — is divine.
It’d perhaps be a bit silly not to include a Metroid game in the list, right? But thankfully this isn’t out of obligation, but rather relieved delight that Nintendo can still deliver on the classic franchise. And, tying things neatly together, this time with a team — MercurySteam — who have previously worked extensively on Castlevania games.
The first truly new 2D Metroid game in over ten years, 2021’s Metroid Dread was therefore met with trepidation: Would there be too much ambition to alter the formula? Would it manage to recapture the previous magic? The answers were no, then yes, and weirdly, almost to the game’s detriment.
Metroid Dread proves a superb rendition of the very familiar format of Samus Aran visiting a planet that just happens to have been extraordinarily well designed for her, whether stood up or in morph ball mode, to wipe out an infectious species. This time she’s also trying to run away from some awful robots called EMMI that provide extra challenge, alongside all the locked doors and suit upgrades you’d expect.
It’s probably not the best Metroid game, but rather crucially it’s the only one available on modern devices (if you don’t count Nintendo Online’s retro offerings). But damn, it’s still good to be playing more Metroid in the 2020s.
There’s no point in a list like this if it doesn’t offer at least one game you’ve never heard of before. Then to double-down, let’s have it be 11 years old (although on PC, so still perfectly functional), and almost entirely in black-and-white. But oh wow, this is the Metroidvania game you didn’t know you were missing.
A huge number of interlinked rooms exist in darkness, until you show up. By exploring, you light up a tiled room’s walls, floors, doorways, weird one-way passages, and most importantly, the light tiles that get lit when you touch them. That’s the base concept, but it gets so fantastically elaborate and challenging.
The more lights that are lit in a room, the higher you can jump, which makes every screen into its own micro-Metroidvania. But it also operates on a larger scale, with new abilities gathered as you play, offering the genre-essential requirement to return to previous rooms to reach previously inaccessible exits.
This is a game I was so desperate to convince people to play in 2012 that I cosplayed it, and I remain just as convicted that it deserves your attention in 2023. It’s so clever, so delightfully presented, and it’ll make you feel so damn smart as you solve its increasingly tricksy levels.
Haiku The Robot
OK, so I made a deal with you, but you weren’t listening. We agreed that if I accepted you already know about the La-Mulana games, then I could include Haiku the Robot instead. Good.
This ludicrously lovely Metroidvania somehow slipped under way too many radars when it was released on both PC and Switch last year, despite being one of the best examples of the form in recent times. It’s adorable, it puts an emphasis on being accessible, and it embraces the core elements of Metroid that everyone loves.
As is obligatory for the genre, a corruption has infected all the other robots of Haiku’s world, and he must jump, chop and puzzle his way to eradicate the problem. But being a robot, he can do this by adding chips to himself that provide new abilities. However, in a subtle but important twist, you can swap different abilities in and out that change how you approach the game’s challenges. You might make it so when you jump in a spinny ball mode, saw blades spin out of you, or perhaps instead boost your health, or maybe increase the length of your crude sword?
The other stand-out feature of Haiku is just how splendid its exploration proves to be. Rather than just endlessly bumping up against dead ends and having to retrace your steps, here the game shows you where you can’t go yet, but always seems to have an alternative route that is accessible. It relaxes the experience, as does the far lower difficult of the boss fights than most games in this genre offer. It’s absolutely lovely, and a perfect fit for the Switch.
Yoku’s Island Express
Yeah, we were sceptical about this game too. A pinball game about a postal worker dung beetle, but you’re claiming it’s a Metroidvania? Um, that sounds unlikely. And yet, it’s totally brill.
Its pinball-based movement doesn’t restrict the game in ways you might imagine, as it’s not restrained to a table, but rather baked into an enormous world replete with flippers. These ping our dung beetle all over, gathering fruit and pick-ups, and as you progress, new abilities that allow you to reach new areas. Yeah, it’s the Metroidvania format, but with pinball.
It’s very cheerful, in a way that never reminds you that you’re essentially flinging a ball of poo around the entire time you’re playing, all presented with some delightful, colourful art.
If you’ve played Axiom Verge to death, and are looking for something else that scratches that same Metroidvania itch, do we have the game for you. Failing to garner the widespread attention it deserved, Outbuddies is a PC and Switch retro-platformer that matches Axiom Verge for level design and imagination.
Bahlam is an underground, sometimes underwater, realm beneath the Atlantic ocean. There, you play as Nikolay Bernstein, a shipwrecked maritime archaeologist who’s accompanied by a robot buddy, Buddy. Together you find a race called the Wozan, who are — remarkably for this genre — friendly. However, nothing else is, and you’re tasked with finding the missing Wozan in an ever-expanding world.
While in many ways Outbuddies is very influenced by Metroid, what’s rather special here are the ways it adds to the format, rather than simply emulating it. There’s another universe where this game made it big, and Nintendo noticed, and stole ideas back for it, giving us a far more exciting Metroid future. Ideas like how you can control Buddy too, in a slice of single-player co-op, with the robo-pal able to explore a room, move platforms with its telekinetic abilities, and even “hack” enemies.
This is another one-person team somehow creating a vast, fully-fledged Metroidvania, but even more astonishing given its developer — Julian Laufer — is also a full-time doctor! Its map sucks, which is a real shame, and there’s too much retreading of locations, but then again, a full-time doctor made a complete Metroid clone in his spare time. Gives a kind of perspective, that.
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