One of the most treasured genres of gaming is the Metroidvania. Coined from the two most prominent series to popularise it (Metroid and Castlevania). It refers to games in which opening up new areas and secrets is not about simply walking through a door or pathway. But rather about having to move on and return later in the game when you have an item or ability that can unlock the way. It’s a system that makes backtracking meaningful and gives extra layers of depth to areas you’ve already explored. By making a game this way, it lets developers create environments with multiple functions and paths. As a result, some of the most intricately designed worlds in gaming, bursting with secrets, shortcuts, and replayability, come from Metroidvanias. While the two-game series to popularise it has taken a step out of the spotlight in recent years, there have been many new games to take up the mantle. The following games are what I consider to be the best Metroidvania’s of the generation.
Humour goes a long way towards making something likeable, and Guacamelee has it in spades. In its Mexican themed story, Guacamelee puts you in the shoes of a luchador on a mission to save his beloved from the underworld. What sets Guacamelee apart from other games on this list is its focus on combat. Beginning with a set of simple attacks and throws lets you ease into creating combos and changing up your strategies to fight different enemies. It’s not long after that you unlock more regular and special attacks. Creating an endless amount of combos for you to get creative with. And you will need to get creative in Guacamelee.
Foes become harder as the game progresses. Forcing you to make use of different special attacks to break through their defenses. Special attacks are also used in platforming, making you think about how to combine your moves to reach your goal. Guacamelee treats all of its systems this way. Letting you use your traversal skills and attacks in combat, platforming and exploration of it’s secret filed areas. Its combat-focused touch on the Metroidvania, as well as it’s forth wall breaking meta-humor, are things everyone should experience. Plus, it’s one of the few games that lets you turn into a chicken.
Ori and the Blind Forest
Few games are as beautiful to see and hear as Ori and the Blind Forest. Its mixture of hand-drawn 2D art and 3D layered backgrounds are expertly woven together. Creating detailed and expressive characters through its animation, and stunning backgrounds to navigate through. This, of course, helps with its story too. It’s easy to sympathize with Ori and Naru, despite the characters not having any spoken dialogue. The opening of the game sets up an easy to understand and emotionally powerful bond between our two main characters. Both through their actions and the help of the fantastically sombre soundtrack. After pulling at your heartstrings, Ori and the Blind Forest demonstrates some of the best Metroidvania gameplay in the genre.
Pinpoint precise platforming ensures that you always feel in control of Ori’s movements. This lets the game create some truly difficult and breath-taking scenarios such as various escape sequences that force you to react quickly, making use of everything you know. When it’s not challenging your platforming skills, Ori still makes you think about movement. Many enemies fire projectile attacks which can be deflected to propel you in the opposite direction. As your movement abilities increase, the previously inaccessible areas open up to reveal new dangers and rewards. And in an interesting risk vs reward twist, the game lets you save almost anywhere. But at the cost of the same energy, you use to fight enemies. As an indie game, Ori and the Blind Forest is an audio/visual package that few games can match. As a Metroidvania, it’s almost perfect.
Taking the traditional concepts of a Metroidvania and combining them with Dark Souls-esque mechanics sounds like it could be a risk. However, Hollow Knight proves that it’s one of the best ideas the genre has seen. Starting the game with very little, Hollow Knight forces you to step forward into the unknown. It’s beautiful and dark world full of anthropomorphic bugs can feel overwhelming at first. As you slowly explore each new and wondrous area, the game gradually lets you understand its monsters, difficulty, and story. It’s a game about constant decision making. Such as choosing which unknown area or boss to tackle, or using the energy gained from combat to either heal yourself or unleash special attacks.
This applies to combat too. Fights are often tense thanks to creative and challenging foes that each require different strategies to take down. In the heat of battle, choosing when to heal, run or use a special attack are all valid options to consider. Even when nothing seems to work, there is always something to be learned from failure. Making every encounter meaningful. Hollow Knight also dishes out tools at a slow pace that makes each ability feel earned and valuable. With each ability, previous locations open up even further to unveil entire areas you couldn’t access before. Letting you feel both the joy of discovery and the fear of the unknown. Combining this gameplay loop with its beautifully haunting art design and music makes Hollow Knight easily one of the best Metroidvania’s this generation.
Steamworld Dig 2
Sometimes great games can come from simple ideas executed well. The somewhat lesser-known Steamworld dig 2 is one such game. On a fundamental level, it feels easy and great to explore its intricately designed world as you dig your way towards your goals. Using digging for both traversal and finding upgrade materials lets you feel constantly rewarded. Whether you’re focusing on the story path or exploring for any reason, you’re always earning materials that can lead to money, weapons, items and more. As you continue, the game presents you with numerous chances to backtrack and use your new abilities to open up even more secrets. And thanks to the threat of surprise enemy attacks while mining, the game incentivizes you to explore. To gain as many tools as you can to fight the unknown enemies in your path. If this wasn’t enough, Steamworld Dig 2’s mixture of western and steampunk aesthetics is truly like few other games out there. Combining this with charming characters and some approximately themed music makes for a surprisingly relaxing 2D adventure.