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The Metroidvania genre, a type of game that is very close to my heart, is not dead, despite all reports of its passing. Dubbed for the gameplay style perfected in titles like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Super Metroid, Metroidvania titles can be hard to pin down, but there are a few constants that bind them together. Tight platforming, great level design, an expansive map and an ever-expanding suite of abilities that let you access more and more of the world; these are some of the tenants that make a good Metroidvania title.
Dust: An Elysian Tail
One of the most criminally overlooked titles of last year, those who did experience Dust were treated to one of the most gorgeous and responsive titles we’ve seen on Xbox Live Arcade. Designed and programmed entirely by Dean Dodrill, Dust takes the best aspects of a Metroidvania title and incorporates an incredible art style, meaningful RPG elements and a polished combat system into the mix. The story may not be winning any originality awards, but it serves it purpose, and a bevy of hidden content ensures that you won’t get bored with it anytime soon. Fighting is a joy for two reasons: the combat itself is an amazing whirlwind of awesome abilities and colorful moves, and each level you gain makes a huge impact on your character. Give it a try; you won’t be disappointed.
The oldest game on this list, Chair Entertainment’s love letter to the genre is also one of the best. Don’t be fooled by the quasi 3D graphics and gunplay, this is 2D platforming at its best. A number of traversal-based abilities make exploring the huge map a delight, and finding the myriad secrets the game has to offer is fun in its own right. Tight shooting and fun boss encounters are what draws you in, but its the heavy dose of voice actor Nolan North that keeps you coming back for more. Sure the story is ridiculous, but who cares? Shadow Complex brings the swagger with its gameplay, exploration and combat, and that is enough for me.
Reminiscent of 2001 shooter Ikaruga, Outland tasks players with mastering one particular mechanic: polarity. Early in the game, your mysterious protagonist gains the ability to swap between the light and dark universes. Stay in the former, and you are protected from blue enemies and environmental hazards. With the press of a button, you can swap to the dark universe and gain protection from red. Outland plays with this concept in devious ways, and before long you are rapid-fire swapping through intricate (and beautiful) traps of both colors. Again, story isn’t the game’s strong suit (kind of seems to be a theme here), but Outland is a terrific modern game with decidedly old school sensibilities.
One of the more esoteric titles around, Guacamelee…you know what, forget that. Guacamelee isn’t just esoteric, it is downright insane. You can get the full picture of this ridiculous game by reading Cassidee’sglowing review, but all you really need to know is that your protagonist is a man with a magical luchador mask out to defeat the undead lord of the Underworld. Where do I sign up? A surprisingly deep combat system and substantial exploration would ensure this game to be a blast anyway, but the clever writing and inventive boss fights push it to another level.
Released on XBLA’s Indie channel, Gateways wowed the gamers lucky enough to play it with its mind-bending puzzles and free-form(ish) world traversal. What starts off looking like a cheap Portal knock-off quickly evolves into one of the most brutal and rewarding puzzle games of this generation. A number of gadgets are picked up along the way that do crazy things like grow and shrink your protagonist, allow him to reflect lasers and even time travel. Tying it all together is the incremental way the world opens up via your inventory and huge map complete with fast travel locations. For less than five dollars, it is hard to find a more complete puzzle experience that also scratches that Metroidvania itch.