2017 and 2018 have been huge years for AAA games, with consoles being pushed to the limit by sprawling adventures like Horizon Zero Dawn, God of War, Marvel’s Spider-Man, and Red Dead Redemption 2. But third-person action games that think they’re high fiction aren’t the only forms experiencing a renaissance in gaming this generation. We’ve also seen an explosion in a genre that once struggled, that was once a thing of myth more than substance, or volume. I’m talking about those games that see players get lost on purpose, the kind that involve running into countless dead ends until the right item or weapon is found, so one path to more dead ends can be opened. I’m talking about metroidvanias. In the past few years, more and more of these games have not only released through various channels, but have also seen massive (relatively speaking) success. But why now? It’s a perfect mixture of value, inherent appeal, and a little boost from the passage of time.
The past five years alone have been rife with metroidvania activity. Even when it was a little more quiet a few years ago, we had gems and hits such as Rogue Legacy, Strider, and Ori and the Blind Forest. Guacamelee added some real flavor to the mix, and SteamWorld Dig proved that indies can make enough of an impact to become franchises too. Today, it’s been back to back metroidvania hits, with Hollow Knight, Dead Cells, and even the return of the OGs of the genre, Metroid and Castl- er, Bloodstained. There’s plenty more I’m not mentioning here but you get the point. For every big, AAA “narrative experience” there’s two metroidvania titles that are blowing up social media platforms and making stars of upcoming developers.
In our current era of “service” model games, I think the inherent appeal of the metroidvania design cannot be understated. The most appealing kinds of games in RPG or RPG-adjacent spaces are the ones that disguise the “carrot dangling” design conceits in ways that are truly fun. While many games today opt for sprawling worlds and exciting loot to achieve that goal, metroidvanias opt for hiding the carrot being the joy of discovery. All you’re doing, really, is uncovering a map, and making your stats go up so you can survive the next, big encounter. In some cases like Rogue Legacy and Dead Cells, there’s a lot of procedural generation going on, but in many other of these kinds of games, the map design doesn’t change. Each little corridor is placed deliberately, to motivate the player’s flow of movement in one direction or another, and to make those little discoveries as satisfying as possible. It’s always hard, from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, to Axiom Verge, to not fall into that “one more save point” trap.
We’re also living in a time in which gamers are able to buy more games than they have in the past, but they’re also much choosier in what they buy. Individuals are always on the hunt for value, and the same goes to developers, who want to maximize the benefit they get from risks they take. With metroidvania games, you can make games that feel big, but are designed with 2D assets, and maps that fit on one screen. Ori and the Blind Forest isn’t nearly as big as Far Cry 4 or Skyrim, but it can certainly feel like it is. You can pick one of these games up for, maybe $40 at the most if you’re buying a physical edition for Nintendo Switch, but often as low as $14.99 or less during a sale. There’s so much to find and do, and so little risk to the wallet, that now is a better time than ever to make and buy a metroidvania game.
Also, it’s important to recognize the power of nostalgia in stuff like this. The people who grew up playing Super Metroid, and the people in the generation or two after that who grew up playing Iga’s Castlevania series on Game Boy Advance and DS are making games now. And of course, game development is more accessible than it’s ever been. Making a metroidvania, despite the design aspect being uniquely difficult, is easier than ever. It’s back to that risk proposition, which makes taking on the task and revisiting your favorite, previously underrepresented genre more feasible. Things like Kickstarter help a lot too, and the visibility of the few games that tried it earlier and succeeded. A lot of puzzle pieces fell into place all around the same time, and the genre’s fanbase is reaping the rewards.
Sure, metroidvania never really died, with a few good examples popping up every now and then last generation. But things have really blown up in the past few years, and even the originators of the genre have emerged from obscurity. I’d argue it’s because of a combination of things, largely timing, both economic and generational, mixed with what audiences want out of games. You see the DNA of the genre assimilated into larger games all the time, but sometimes the pure experience is not only easier on your income, but also the sweet spot in terms of content volume, aesthetic appeal, and design depth. Metroidvanias are cool, is what I’m trying to say.