I’ve been on a bit of a bender. I’ve been chipping through the latest batch of non-linear exploration platformers, or what is colloquially known as Metroidvanias. I somewhat dislike the term Metroidvania as it defines through reference and not through explanation. While great for short hand it often severs conversation on what makes exploration based platformers special or helps explain where they struggle. Often the analysis breaks down to how alike or dislike the game is to the specter of Metroidvanias.
And that’s bullshit
There have been countless iterations and additions in the genre that all say something specific about what makes non-linear exploration games great. Let’s break down what the genre even is. The first part of the phrase I like to use is non-linear. This means that the traditional structure of games, going from level 1 to level 2 is done away with. Instead we, typically, have a larger world that is gated off in various ways that open up over time as we progress through the game. Backtracking is a common concept. Then we have the word exploration. This is not just another way of saying secrets it also telegraphs that at any given time in the game will do the minimum to guide the player, leaving it up to them to figure out where to go next. Finally ‘platformers’ is a term that we all understand. Mechanically, you will be jumping… a lot.
So what’s the big deal with using the word Metroidvania? Am I shouting into the void? I dislike the tone of constantly discussing games via reference. It is useful to say ‘Hey, if you enjoy Metroid, you will probably like Axiom Verge.’ However, it does a disservice to Axiom Verge or whatever game you choose to reference because, while they look and move similar, they are very different games. There are many aspects in these games that get overvalued or undervalued depending on who is making it. In Axiom Verge there was added value to giving players a suite of weapons to play with. Environmental Station Alpha placed extra value on boss encounters. Ori and the Blind Forest, put it’s focus on platforming, movement, and chase sequences. Concepts like sequence breaking are valued in both ESA and Axiom Verge, but don’t seem to important to Ori.
These are all games doing interesting things, and it can be tiresome to here these games summed up as just another ‘Metroidvania.’ Ugh. Sure there are some universals between them all, secrets, boss fights, power-ups. But even decisions like having pick-ups drastically shape how the overall experience is designed. When I spoke to Avri Teikari about ESA, we discussed at length the reason for not having pick-ups and even making the small trash monsters that litter your way to and from boss fights take a minimal roll. Ultimately it reinforced his own appreciation of large more unique boss fights.
By applying this label of metroidvania it now becomes a standard in which it either succeeds in matching or fails in copying. There is rarely room to go over what has now become the gold standard of either Metroid or Castlevania. And dammit, that’s not right! It’s lazy! I want there to be discourse and discussion over games, but the constant explanation through reference does a disservice to individuals own ability to explain what makes something good or bad. It also discredits the effort put into creating the experience in the first place. I even dislike the term Rogue-like, but that at least makes more sense as it is comparing to a single game (Rogue) and how much it is like it. Metroid and Castlevania are both platformers, sure. But they are different by more than a few degrees when actually given a closer examination.
What are you thoughts? Is this just my internet version of ‘get off my lawn?’ What are some games that have been labeled as a ‘Metroidvania’ and have suffered due to the unfair comparison? What makes these kinds of games great? What makes them suffer? Also, what are some awesome non-linear exploration platformers that I should check out? Because I am scratching for a fix.