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Metroidvania is a subgenre of the action-adventure video game with gameplay concepts similar to the Metroid series and the Castlevania series (specifically from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and onward). The genre name is a portmanteau of the two series' names. Other names include Castletroid, a similar portmanteau; Igavania, in reference to Koji Igarashi, a major developer of Symphony of the Night and many other Castlevania games and whose contributions have shaped the design of the subgenre; Metroid-style games, Metroid-like games, and other, similar formations invoking similarity to Metroid.
Metroidvania games generally feature a large interconnected world map the player can explore, though access to parts of the world is often limited by doors or other portals that can only be opened after the player has acquired special items, tools, weapons or abilities within the game. Acquiring such improvements can also aid the player in defeating more difficult enemies and locating shortcuts and secret areas, and often includes retracing one's steps across the map. Through this, Metroidvania games include tighter integration of story and level design, careful design of levels and character controls to encourage exploration and experimentation, and a means for the player to become more invested in their player character. Metroidvania games typically are two-dimensional platformers, but can also include other genre types. Though popularized during the early console generations, the genre has seen a resurgence since the 2000s due to critically praised, independently developed games.
While not the first game of its kind, Metroid (1986, Nintendo Entertainment System) is generally considered the most influential game in the Metroidvania genre. Nintendo's goal for the title was to create a non-linear adventure game to set it apart from other games at the time, requiring the player to retrace their steps while providing permanent power-ups in contrast to how other adventure games only offered power-ups with temporary effects. The series was popular, and future titles refined the exploration approach while adding more story elements to the title such as with Super Metroid (1994, Super Nintendo Entertainment System).
During this time, the gothic/horror-themed platformer series Castlevania was gaining popularity. The original Castlevania (1986, NES) featured discrete levels that the player completed in a sequential manner. It was followed by Vampire Killer (1986, MSX) and Castlevania II: Simon's Quest (1987, NES) which experimented with non-linear adventure gameplay, before the series returned to the more linear style of the original Castlevania. Series lead Koji Igarashi found that as they continued to produce sequels to cater to fans of the series, experienced players would race through the levels, while new players to the series would struggle with some stages. To try to make a title that would be more widely appreciated across play levels and extend the gameplay time of the title, Igarashi and others on his team looked toward the ideas used by The Legend of Zelda series into the development of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997, PlayStation); such ideas included a large open world to explore, the need to acquire key items to enter certain areas, and the ability to improve the player-character as one would in console role-playing games. The change proved popular with players, and subsequent games in the series would follow this formula. With the releases of Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, the formula these games presented would form the foundations of what are considered Metroidvanias today.
While both series continued to develop titles in this format, the concept of Metroidvanias started to gain more traction when other parties began to develop games in the same style. Cave Story (2004, Microsoft Windows) was independently developed by Daisuke Amaya as a homage to Metroid and other classic games; the game was critically praised showing the scope of what one person could do, and highlighted another take on the Castlevania and Metroid games, as well as vitalizing the 2D platformer genre as a viable indie game format. Shadow Complex (2009, Xbox 360) by Chair Entertainment was developed with acknowledging that Super Metroid was "the pinnacle of 2D game design". The game received highly positive reviews, and remains one of the best-selling downloadable titles on the Xbox 360 service. Due to games like these, the Metroidvania genre began to take off in both publisher-driven and independent games development.
While the word "Metroidvania" is commonly used presently to describe games in this genre, or games that have elements of this genre, the origins of the term are unclear; Igarashi notes that he did not coin the phrase, though grateful to be acknowledged as the one that established the basis of the genre. Igarashi noted that with Symphony of the Night the goal was to have exploration closer to the top-down Zelda approach, but with the side-scrolling nature, it was compared more to Metroid, and believes this is how the portmanteau came about. Igarashi himself and his fans use the word "igavania" to describe games in this style; Igarashi prefers the term as to avoid the connotation that Nintendo has direct involvement when using the term "Metroidvania". A similar portmanteau "Castletroid" is sometimes used as well for describing this genre.
A Metroidvania title is most often used to refer to a platforming game that features a single large, interconnected map generally with discrete rooms or sections. Not all areas of this map are available at the start, often requiring the player to obtain an item, such as a weapon, a key, or a new character ability, to remove the obstacle that is blocking the path forward. Often, this item is protected by a boss character, providing story-driven challenges throughout the game. Maps are non-linear, and often require the player to traverse the map multiple times during the course of the game. Weaker monsters will inhabit other parts of the level, respawning when the player revisits those rooms, and often can be defeated to gain health, ammunition, or experience points.
Larger games generally feature save points as well as the ability to transport the player quickly between certain rooms on far sides of the map, eliminating tedious retracking in the latter parts of the game. Access to new abilities can also open up shortcuts that reduce travel time, as well as discover secrets that help to improve the character's abilities. For example, gaining access to double jump or wall jump abilities can give players more manageability about the game's map, while obtaining the ability to transform into a smaller object can let the player slip through narrow corridors. As such, the genre focuses on exploration of a large world map, and advancement of the player-character abilities over time. Metroidvanias are sometimes referred to as "platform adventure games" due to this scope.
Metroidvania is a term generally associated with game levels/maps that are laid out as two-dimensional side scrollers, with the player character moving left, right, up and down through the level. These games typically are rendered using two-dimensional graphics, but can include 2.5D-rendered games using 3D graphics engines but limiting player movement to two dimensions, such as the aforementioned Shadow Complex. The exploration and character development concepts of Metroidvanias can be used in other genres, though these games typically are not categorized as Metroidvanias. For example, the Metroid Prime trilogy is a first-person shooter that builds on the same style of exploration play as Metroid. Dark Souls is a third-person action role-playing game loosely considered a Metroidvania featuring "soft locks" – obstacles in the form of boss characters that are difficult but not impossible to defeat when the player-character is starting out, and become much easier to defeat with increased experience and abilities.
Igarashi, who is credited with setting the core concepts of what makes a Metroidvania title, described what he believed were key elements that makes successful games in the genre. These include:
- Providing the player with a playable character that is fun and easy to control, so that the addition of new weapons, abilities, and tools will encourage the player to experiment with these new features and incorporate them into their gameplay.
- Designing maps that encourage exploration but which still guide the player on a main path through the game. This can be accomplished by using secret areas that require new abilities to access, and to quickly provide the player with new abilities and the opportunities to use these abilities in the early portion of the game as to encourage them to continue to improve the player-character.
- Providing means where the player can be aware of where they are in the game world at any time. This can be accomplished by graphical themes through the game's world, visually unique milestones at key game point, overall map and player status information screens, and the means of moving around the map quickly.
The popularity of the Metroidvania genre is stated to be tied to the ease with which platformer games can be learned and mastered, while giving the player a character that they can grow over the course of the game. Many developers of independent Metroidvania titles cited the exploration as a core element of the genre that draws in players, working off the natural human instincts to explore, and giving the players the sense of discovery and self-control during the game. Donald Mustard of Chair Entertainment, the creators of Shadow Complex, stated that a good Metroidvania helps the player come to epiphanies that enables them to progress in the game, describing an example of a ledge that initially too high to reach, and as the player acquires abilities, will discover how they can reach that ledge on their own.
From a developer's standpoint, the Metroidvania genre provides benefits to the developer. The genre encourages tight connection between level design and game story, and can give developers opportunities to create an immersive world for the player. Level design of such games can also be challenging as to make sure the challenge to the players of the game is fair and enjoyable, and achieving this goal can be seen as a sign of a success for a developer.
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