(Metroidvania Marathon is an on-going series of articles examining the two series which give the sub-genre its name; Castlevania and Metroid. The series will go on to examine other series and games which have taken on the formula, as well as Metroid and Castlevania games which have shunned it in favour of… something else)
The molten liquid behind me spits and boils, as I eye the door in front of me. Besides it’s appearance of a giant blue semi-sphere poking out of the wall, it is unremarkable, as I have opened hundreds of doors like it previously. I shoot the door with my standard weapon, as is routine, and make my way through, only to fall two-hundred feet to a platform below. The room is dark, except for some more of the boiling liquid below. I look up to see a diamond shaped object gleaming in the pitch black. Somehow, I get the feeling that this is a diamond unlikely to bring much fortune; a prediction that is proven right when the lights go up and the diamond is shown to be the eye of the giant pterodactyl form of my nemesis Ridley, with whom my last encounter did not go well. I tap the Select button twice to equip Super Missiles, and cross my fingers.
Thus begins the penultimate boss encounter in Super Metroid; a game which many of today’s gaming enthusiasts would point to as a classic. Originally released in 1994, the game cemented Samus as a staple of Nintendo’s colourful cast of franchise leads. Samus Aran herself could be claimed to be the first real female protagonist of a video game (sorry Ms Pac-Man) and her surprise reveal of her gender being one of the most surprising (if not slightly tacky by today’s standards) moments in video games.
However, these days, many will tie Samus’s story to another long-running franchise which finds its roots in the original Nintendo Entertainment System, to the point where the two are merged to refer to an entire sub-genre. I speak of course, of Castlevania, and the recently coined “Metroidvania” subgenre.
Metroidvania – Loosely defined, “Metroidvania” is supposed to be a 2D video game style in which the gameplay is focused on considerably non-linear exploration, item retrieval and proper usage of these items in order to fulfil the game’s primary objective and achieve the desired outcome.
A combination of “Metroid” & “Castlevania” coined after “Symphony of the Night” (Castlevania game) because of the exploration aspect of the game.
Until recently, my familiarity with these two series was practically nil. In fact, I completed my first Castlevania and Metroid games in the last month. Aside from Castlevania: Lords of Shadow- Mirror of Fate, I have also managed to track down a PC compilation of the first three Castlevania games (Castlevania, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest and Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse), the first of which I have also managed to struggle through. More recently, Super Metroid was discounted on the Nintendo Wii U eShop. My hope is to track down as many of the Metroid and Castlevania games as I can, in order to ascertain what it exactly it is about these two series which defined a genre. So without further ado, let’s get to the games:
My opinion on Mirror of Fate has already been documented on this very site. What I find interesting, however, is how the game relates to its predecessor’s only in a very minor way. It retains the 2D exploration theme, along with the combat style many will refer to as “God-of-War-vania” or “GOWvania“. However, the 2D exploration is minimal when compared to something like Super Metroid or my current on-going play through of Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow for the original DS. For the most part, the option to go back and explore previous areas with new abilities is just that; optional. Perhaps it is this that made the game feel somewhat linear, despite its token nod to the Castlevania’s of old.
Super Metroid, on the other hand, is pretty much the embodiment of the term “Metroidvania“, along with the game that gave birth to the term, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Super Metroid picks up after the events of Metroid on the NES and Metroid II: Return of Samus on the Nintendo Game Boy, as Samus seeks out the Metroid larva that grew an attachment to her, after it is stolen by series antagonist Ridley (aforementioned giant pterodactyl monster who appears to maintain some form of intelligence). In gameplay terms, Super Metroid is best described as a cross between the platforming of Super Mario crossed with the exploration themes of the Legend of Zelda series up to that point. Unlike Mario and Zelda, however, Samus has a varied arsenal of different powered missiles, bombs and abilities that allow her to traverse the often treacherous environment. Even by today’s standards, the game offers a superb balance of challenge and abilities which can turn the most hair-pulling-out rooms into cakewalks as soon as you can do what I took to calling the Sonic Spin Jump (actually called the Screw Attack, which has a whole website named after it!), along with various suits which can turn previous hazards into no concern whatsoever, allowing further exploration, and it is here that the term “Metroidvania” comes into play.
For those who already know this, you’re probably going to feel I’m insulting your intelligence with this explanation, but bear with me whilst I explain it to everyone else. As far as I can understand, the very thing that defines Metroidvania is the following example; You’re exploring a level, descending deeper and deeper until you come across two doors. One door is blue, and you have a gun which opens it when you shoot it. The other door is red, and your bullets have no effect. Therefore, you go through the blue door, and continue exploring down there. Eventually, you will find a new type of ammo (Missiles in Super Metroid’s case). So you continue exploring until you find a green door. Again, neither your old bullets or new missiles have any effect. Therefore, you must travel back through the level to the red door, which will now yield to your missiles. Further exploration down this route might lead you to a new type of missile (say, Super Missiles). With these, you can now open that green door from before, but now you have discovered many other routes and doors as you travelled here, be they blue, red or green. It is here that the non-linear, open-ended gameplay of a nineteen year old game becomes apparent, and where the idea of player choice is fully explored, and why Metroid and later Castlevania entries are regarded with such enthusiasm.
Speaking of Castlevania, I previously mentioned that I had played the original Castlevania for NES. I’ll cut right to the chase and say there are no “Metroidvania” elements within, although the game is horribly fun. It’s linear, and balls-out frustratingly difficult, and is instead an exercise in timing of jumps and attacks, sticking closer to the Mario side of things, whilst completely disregarding the Zelda elements (which is fair enough, considering the term “Metroidvania” and the expectation for it to conform to this didn’t even exist for another decade). Whilst the game was great fun, and one of my most satisfactory gaming victories in recent months upon completion, it offers little help in defining Metroidvania aside from showing the starting point for the later half of the sub-genres namesake. It’s available on the Nintendo 3DS eShop, and is well worth checking out if you’re a gaming masochist.
In conclusion, there is much more to these two series that I want to see before I conclude anything of significance. I will be working my way through the earlier Castlevania’s up to and including Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and possibly throwing in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow and the three Nintendo DS games for good measure (which, from my small amount of experience of them, conform very much to the Metroidvania formula). Meanwhile, on the Metroid side, as well as Metroid and Metroid II, there are two further GBA games to be played (one being a retelling of the first game) as well as the Metroid Prime trilogy (which brought the series into 3D) and Metroid: Other M (a game looked down upon by most fans for its poor use of the character). I hope to bring another entry in this blog series about these two series soon, but for now, here is a list of the games I aim to complete by the end of this examination.
Castlevania (NES/PC) Castevania II: Simon’s Quest (NES/PC) Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (NES/PC) Super Castlevania IV (SNES) Castlevania: Rondo of Blood (PSP, as Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles) Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PSOne, PSN) Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (GBA) Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (DS) Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin (DS) Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (DS) Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (PS3/X360) Castlevania: Lords of Shadow- Mirror of Fate (3DS) Metroid (NES) Metroid II: Return of Samus (Gameboy) Super Metroid (SNES, Wii U eShop) Metroid: Fusion (GBA) Metroid Prime (Gamecube) Metroid Prime 2: Echoes (Gamecube) Metroid Prime 3: Corruption (Wii) Metroid: Other M (Wii) …and for good measure, Metroid Prime Pinball (DS)
(Super Metroid is available on the Nintendo Wii U eshop for $0.30/£0.30. I highly recommened you give it a go, considering it costs less than half a Mars bar!)
Sources: Urban Dictionary