Top Ten Tuesday 09

My Top Ten Metroidvania Games


Disclaimer: There are many top ten lists, but this one is mine. If you think a game is missing here, I either didn't play it, didn't have any interest in it, or I just hate you.


Pre-List Notes


Metroidvania is an interesting subgenre that fuses traditional 2D platforming with elements of action-adventure games (most specifically The Legend of Zelda) and sometimes role playing games. The genesis and popularity of the genre began with major gaming franchises Metroid and Castlevania, thus the genre has become widely known as a portmanteau of these two series.

A checklist of gameplay features can be utilized to determine if a game falls under the Metroidvania genre: Two dimensional side scrolling platform-adventure, Non-linear structure with items and powerups often determining your next path, emphasis on backtracking through areas once new items/powerups are obtained, heavy reliance on exploration to discover secrets, Large scale boss battles (some of which are secret and optional), typically an automapping feature, either one large area to explore (like Dracula's Castle) or multiple areas the player can travel to, and may or may not include role playing elements from random loot drops to leveling up and character attributes.

It's one of my favorite genres, and I've never played a Metroidvania game that I didn't enjoy. As a reminder for this list, I'm not including ANY 3D games, even if they exhibit many of the Metroidvania gameplay elements. A true game of the genre is only 2D!


Top Ten Metroidvania Games


10) Metroid: Fusion (Gameboy Advance, 2002)

Probably most famous as being the GBA tie-in with its much more famous Gamecube game Metroid: Prime, Fusion was still a solid game in its own right. While I enjoyed Samu's first foray into the 3rd dimension in Prime, Fusion was a return to the glorious days of 2D Super Metroid. While many GBA games were simple SNES ports (which wasn't all bad!), Nintendo decided to finally make a sequel to the seminal Super Metroid, and as far as I know, Fusion is still the latest game in the Metroid Timeline (darn prequels).

While Fusion is a little on the short and linear side, it makes up for it by having a much more cohesive and tense story than most Metroidvanias. Samus becomes infected with the X parasite, a dangerous organism that replicates its host before killing them. She's saved by extensive surgery and virtue of her encounter with the Metroid at the end of Super Metroid, but the parasites form a copy of her known as SA-X, complete with her suit and all her abilities, and the fearsome foe dogs her throughout the entire adventure. On several occasions the player must hide Samus and run from the SA-X whenever you encounter it until she can reacquire her abilities to fight it.

9) Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (Gameboy Advance, 2003)

Unlike most Castlevanias which take place between medieval times up through the 20th century (seriously, the series spans hundreds of years), Aria of Sorrow takes place in the future. In 2035 Dracula has long been defeated but it's prophesized that he will be reincarnated soon. Soma Cruz, a transfer student living in Japan, comes to realize he has the power to absorb the souls of defeated monsters, and sets out to explore Dracula's castle, which has just reappeared (the prophecy!) in search for answers.

Although it was the third Castlevania game released for the Gameboy Advance, it was the closest to its 2D progenitor, Symphony of the Night. While taking all the great things about that game, it also expanded the gameplay by adding a tactical soul system. Essentially foes would randomly drop their souls which would then become various abilities Soma could utilize. Projectiles, fireballs, summoning familiars, and new abilities like double-jumping and walking on water were all soul powers waiting to be unleashed. The story is also interesting as Soma resists Dracula's spirit in the fairly obvious twist that he is the destined vessel for the dark lord's return.

8) Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (Nintendo DS, 2008)

Order of Ecclesia is the third Castlevania game released on the Nintendo DS, and for some reason the only one I've played. Starring Shanoa, a tattooed spell user, the game takes place sometime after Symphony of the Night in the 1800s when the Belmont Clan is MIA, and Eccleisa is an order charged with preventing Dracula's always eventual resurrection. Through a few twists in the story, including a premature bad ending the player can achieve, Shanoa learns that her master is really a servant of the dark lord, and only by rescuing every member of a nearby village (all descendants of the Belmonts) does Dracula's Castle appear, and she must hunt him down using a piece of his own power - the Dominous glyph.

The gameplay is very similar to Soma's soul system. Basically replace souls with glyphs, only take away weapons all together. Everything Shanoa uses is a glyph that can be absorbed from certain foes, from swords and shields to lightning bolts and stone fists. The glyphs can be assigned to two buttons in any combination, and can be combined into powerful glyph unions. As mentioned in my brief story summary, Dracula's infamous castle only serves as the last 1/3 of the game, while the rest of the time the player is using an overworld map to enter various smaller areas that each have their own maps, secrets, and enemies. A Diablo-esque central town serves as a hub where the player can shop and rest, though a cheap item that allows Shanoa to instantly teleport back to the village cuts down on difficulty.


7) Shadow Complex (Xbox Live Arcade, 2009)

If there can be a single game that be described as an unabashed love of Metroidvania games, we're looking at you Shadow Complex. While looking like a 3D game, Shadow Complex plays exactly like a 2D sidescroller (known as 2.5D) with all the trappings of barriers, backtracking, and an impressive map that includes the underground military compound as well as the surrounding outdoor area. While the story is somewhat lacking, involving a secret government organization that wants to destroy a part of the world so that they can step up and be the saviors, your hero literally stumbles on their hidden compound and what starts as a damsel in distress evolves into gathering more advanced weaponry and tools to eventually take down the whole installation. Especially useful, and a tool I hope would be included in all future games of the genre is a flashlight that cleverly reveals secret areas, and how to bypass them. The modern theming and engine combined with classic Metroidvania gameplay elements amounts to one of the best games ever released for Xbox Live Arcade, and it was the first Arcade game I ever bought when I got my Xbox 360 for Christmas '09. Still waiting for a sequel!

6) Castlevania: Harmony of Despair (Xbox Live Arcade, 2010)

If you ever played a Castlevania game and thought how cool it would be to take this same great gameplay, but add in your friends with seamless multiplayer, then you've already played and loved Harmony of Despair. HoD shamelessly steals from many of the previous Castlevania incarnations of the last 10+ years by reusing enemies, set pieces, and bosses, but the real joy is the addition of multiplayer. Up to six players can choose from famous Castlevania heroes: Alucard (Symphony of the Night), Soma Cruz (Aria and Dawn of Sorrow), Jonathan and Charlotte (Portrait of Ruin), and Shanoa (Order of Ecclesia). Each character has their own signature moves that they utilized in their respective games, though many are restricted, such as Shanoa only using a handful of glyphs, and Alucard only using a few spells.

As a solo experience, HoD can easily be a disappointing affair. While the map system is still greatness, the six chapters/castles quickly get repetitive. A much more difficult Hard mode is included once you defeat Dracula the first time and random drops help add to replayability, but eventually trying to level up your souls and glyphs or trying to find one particular sword gets extremely tedious.

Still the ability to traverse the well made maps with your friends is an insanely cool experience, and the first time you try the seamless zoom out feature to see what everyone's doing is simply mind-blowing.

5) Demon's Crest (SNES, 1994)

Although I wasn't aware at the time I first played it, Demon's Crest is the third game in the Gargoyle's Quest trilogy, which is itself a spinoff of the Ghosts 'N Goblins series. Firebrand, the red demon enemy from GnG stars in his own series, and Demon's Crest takes place in a very gothic world that's instantly reminiscent of Castlevania. More importantly, the gameplay also borrows from that series by giving Firebrand a semi open overworld map filled with levels that he can explore. Not only was it badass to control a character that could breathe fire and hover-fly, but defeating certain bosses would reveal new elemental Crests that could transform Firebrand into all new demons with new abilities - the Earth demon lacked wings but gained a charge attack, the Water demon could breathe underwater with all new attacks, etc. Filled with secrets, tons of crazy bosses, collectibles, mini-games, and a true ending that could only be achieved by completing everything, Demon's Crest was a surprisingly robust Metroidvania that masqueraded as just another platformer. Levels could be repeated as many times as necessary to discover all the secrets, and the Firebrand flew to each area on his Mode 7 overworld map, which was amazingly spiffy at the time. I can't recommend this game enough, and when I got heavily into early console emulation in the late 90s, Demon's Crest was the game I played more than any other.

4) Aquaria (PC, 2007)

Even if you have only a passing interest in Castlevania or Metroid games (shame on you), you've probably at least heard of them. It's perfectly okay if you don't recognize Aquaria, but only if you immediately jump on Steam and purchase it. For $10 you can enjoy one of my favorite Metroidvania games and one of the greatest video game soundtracks ever made, but that's another Top Ten list.

Aquaria takes place almost entirely underwater, telling the mysterious story of Naija, an underwater-dwelling humanoid and the amnesiac last of her kind. Her excellent voice work provides narration for the player throughout the open world exploration. Like others of the genre, Aquaria includes several sub-areas including their own enemies and boss, and abilities come in the form of songs that Naija learns, many of which turn her into different forms with new combat abilities and traversal means. The story is incredibly somber and interesting as Naija discovers her past through ruined civilizations, and even a human diver that she chances upon and falls in love with. While the platforming is very limited (it's about 90% underwater) and the animations are basic (the whole game was made by two people) it remains one of my favorite Metroidvania games and the absolutely stunning soundtrack should not be missed by anyone ever.

3) Wonderboy in Monsterworld (Sega Genesis, 1992)

The oldest game on this list, but one that is dear to my heart. I became enraptured with Wonderboy at my best friend's house, and ended up renting it a dozen times in the early 90s. A brightly colored sidescrolling action platformer slowly revealed its interesting world and cleverly designed levels, many of which intertwined with each other at various points. It has most of the trappings of the genre minus the map feature (which wouldn't come until '94's Super Metroid), including many areas that could only be accessed after special items and abilities were acquired.

While it didn't have any strict RPG leveling systems, it did have various weapons the player could purchase that would attack with slightly different effects (including a spear you could twirl, creating a nice little death vortex in front of you) as well as magic spells. The initial areas started out fairly linear but the game opened up as you advanced and rewarded you for exploring. If there's one complaint I have, it's that the final boss was crazy difficult, with a rotating death room filled with spikes and lasers. I could only beat the damn game on an emulator using constant save states at the end, but it was worth it to finally finish one of my all time favorite games!

Note that you can play it on PC through Steam or recently released as part of a Sega Vintage Collection pack on Xbox Live Arcade!

2) Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (Playstation, 1997)

Although the Castlevania series features prominently on this list, and is a part of the genre's accepted nomenclature, most of the games were actually just standard side scrolling adventures featuring the whip wielding Belmonts versus Dracula and his many reincarnations. Symphony of the Night changed all that. While many games were approaching the wondrous realm of three dimensions, SotN simply gave us the best looking and most multi-layered side scrolling platform adventure of the time. Starring Alucard, the not-so-cleverly named son of Dracula, the castle became the centerpiece as the player was tasked in exploring every nook and cranny, often given multiple choices on where to go and what to do.

Symphony of the Night was hugely important for introducing RPG elements to the genre: the player had a full on customizable inventory bolstered by random drops and treasures discovered, as well as magic spells that could both aid in combat and help get past certain obstacles (Mist Form could get Alucard through grates, for example). Killing enemies would reward Experience points and Alucard could level up and receive statistical bonuses to his attributes such as his health and damage. Pretty basic stuff nowadays, but at the time it was an amazing amalgamation of everything I loved.

And the music. Symphony of the Night's name doesn't just stem from the fact that it sounds cool (it does) but it is widely recognized as having one of the best soundtracks in gaming, a feat that many Castlevania games continue to replicate with varying degrees of success.

Nearly every Castlevania game that came afterward (certainly all the others on this list) owe their existence to SotN. It is considered to be not only one of the greatest Playstation One games, but one of the greatest games of all time. Solid 2D action gameplay, amazing soundtrack, multiple bosses and outstanding level design keep this one among the top ranks. And who could forget, after beating the final boss the correct way, exploring the entire castle again upside down? The fact that everything could be flipped was mind blowing and added so much gameplay it was insane. To any gamer worth their salt, 200.6% means something.

1) Super Metroid (SNES, 1994)

If SotN is number two, number one can be only one game. The granddaddy of the entire subgenre of Metroidvania is the Super Nintendo masterpiece Super Metroid. The third game in the Metroid series (the first was on NES and the second on Gameboy) introduced all the classic gameplay elements that have since spawned so many great games. Non linear and interconnected levels, a gigantic automap (map that filled in as you explored), items that granted new abilities allowing the player to bypass previously impassable barriers, giant memorable boss battles, and a haunting soundtrack. Sidenote: What is it about Metroidvania games and killer soundtracks?

Super Metroid's story was pretty bare, but it did include one of the most memorable final boss battles in history against Mother Brain, which I touched on when I mentioned the baby Metroid in my Top Ten Animal Companions. Samus journeys to save the rare and powerful Metroid creature that she had bonded with, and the dark overtones pervade the atmosphere as her search grows more desperate.

Without Super Metroid, there is no 2D sidescrolling action-platformer genre. But being the genesis alone doesn't automatically net you first place in my list; Super Metroid's gameplay still holds up remarkably well nearly twenty years later. The 16-bit 2D era ages well in general, and it's still amazing that most Metroidvania's still use the tried and true gameplay mechanics first presented here, and they're all still incredibly fun.

Wrap Up

I could see #1 and #2 being interchangeable depending on which you played first and had a bigger impact (assuming you're a fan of  the genre in the first place), but in a list like this there can be no disputing that they are firmly in the first and second spots.

Despite the goofy name, Metroidvania, or 2D side scrolling action-platformer if you prefer, remains one of my favorite genres in gaming. If you haven't tried any games on this list, I wholeheartedly suggest making room in your schedule. The controls and layout are easily accessible, yet the games are complex and layered enough to keep your attention for hours. Plus, many of them can be bought for ridiculously cheap $5-$15 value. Just don't call them "Castleroids," because that's just dumb.