A staple genre of the gaming that was developed in the ’90s,‘Metroidvania’ games is a genre borne from two legendary series: Castlevania and Metroid. This genre has been one of the most enduring and beloved of all time, one that is packed with memorable characters and worlds. Much to this gamer’s joy, and many others, the genre has seen a resurgence in the last decade or so, with Indie developers leading the way.
Traditionally Metroidvania games, aside from being like the titular games, are essentially 2D sidescroller games where the player explores and interconnected world, acquires new abilities that allow them to backtrack and unlock new areas, platforming, and combat.
With such tough competition in this list, we have decided to judge on, we have established 5 criteria which are critical for a quality Metroidvania:
The Metroidvania Criteria:
• Atmosphere and soundtrack
• Abilities and Unlocks
10 Axiom Verge
|Initial Release Date||March 31, 2015|
|Platform||Playstation 4, Playstation Vita, Xbox One, Windows, macOS, Linux, Wii U & Nintendo Switch|
|Developer||Thomas Happ Games|
|Publisher||Thomas Happ Games|
Axiom Verge is a love letter to the Metroid series and it certainly does not try to hide its inspirations, but it certainly has the style that has made it a beloved title. The Player takes command of Trace, a scientist who finds himself trapped on a planet called Sudra after a lab accident.
One of the game’s strongest points is the vast array of weapons and tools available to Trace; each one feels unique and has some incredible gameplay usages. One example would be the ‘Address Disrupter’ that fires out waves of energy that can create new platforms to jump on or change the properties of enemies, like making the slower.
There is also the remote drone, which launches a little robot that can scout out dangerous or hard to reach areas; the variety of ways you can tackle an area or enemy is staggering.
The music is memorable that fits perfectly with the environments and makes you feel you are on an epic sci-fi journey of discovery. Talking of discovery, the exploration of the game is enjoyable and fresh, requiring you to utilize, tools, powerups, and school to unlock every area. The map is serviceable if somewhat confusing in its layout and clarity and some of the areas seem a bit drab and uninspired.
The bosses are interesting and with the variety of weapons at your disposal, there are plenty of ways to tackle each enemy. The gameplay is smooth and well animated, and it would be hard to fault the platforming, especially given the vast array of choices you have in the tools.
With a unique spin on the sci-fi side scroller, while paying homage to the classics, Axiom Verge has a lot to offer fans of the genre.
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9 Dust: An Elysian Tail
|Initial Release Date||August 15, 2012|
|Platform||Playstation 4, Xbox 360, Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows, Linux, macOS|
|Developer||Limited Run Games, Humble Hearts|
Dust: An Elysian Tail is a beautifully hand-drawn adventure that hides a lot of heart and emotion underneath the cartoony surface. The player suits up as the amnesiac warrior known only as Dust and with a talking sword and a flying fox called Fidget, you set out to reclaim your identity.
Right of the bat, the game is far more action-packed than many of the other games on this list; hordes of enemies will meet their end at the end of your blade, in a combat system that is fluid and beautifully animated.
While the combat is beautiful to watch and solid, it doesn’t evolve much beyond the first couple of hours of the game and can be in danger of getting repetitive.
However, the controls and platforming are extremely smooth which is augmented by a great map to explore, which encourages and rewards exploration with juicy loot. One of the most outstanding aspects of Dust is the incredible soundtrack, which complements the dynamic combat perfectly and makes for one epic adventure.
8 Cave Story+
|Initial Release Date||December 20, 2004|
|Platform||Nintendo Switch, Wii, Xbox, Linux, PSP & OS X|
Awaking with no memory in a cave and then realizing you are in fact on a floating island populated by talking bunny rabbits (Mimigas) that are being threatened by a mad scientist and a talking toaster, is quite the memorable opening for this cult classic.
Developed over 5 years by a solo developer, Daisuke Amaya, Cave Story is a hugely influential indie game that showcased the potential for solo developers and retro-style games.
The characters and animations may look cute, but the story is tragic and moving; the Doctor has been massacring the poor cute Mimigas until he finds a use for them. By poisoning them with red flowers the cute Mimigas become deranged and weaponized.
The world-building and lore in this game get you emotionally involved, especially when you had to kill deranged Mimigas; some of which are your friends.
The game doesn’t hold your hand. The gameplay rewards the skilled player who learns from their mistakes. Get hit too much? Your leveled weapons will revert to lower levels and so the punishment is hard but encourages you to get better. The weapons and combat feel great, and every boss’s victory gives a sense of achievement.
The music of the original game is top-notch and will stay in your head for days after you put the game down. The world-building is well done – every level and area is enjoyable and packed with detail.
Overall, the game is a classic in every respect, from story and art to gameplay and is well worthy of your time.
7 Dead Cells
|Initial Release Date||May 10, 2017|
|Platform||Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Playstation 4, Android [TBC 2019], iOS, Linux and Microsoft Windows|
Set on a nameless island, of a long-forgotten kingdom that has fallen to ruin, Dead Cells puts you in control of a unique protagonist; the ‘Prisoner’ a slime-like creature that inhabits and controls the bodies of the executed.
Whilst light on the story the gameplay loop is deeply enjoyable. The well detailed and randomized levels push you to explore each zone and find every item.
And oh boy, the items, weapon variety is one of the great strengths of ‘Dead Cells’. You’ll find yourself constantly cycling weapons to try out the newest frying pan that you’ve found. Taking your time to fully explore the maps and finding a new weapon you’ve never tried before is truly rewarding.
The robust weapon pool is supported by a straightforward but dynamic combat system. The pace of Dead Cells is much higher than most of the other games on this list, but this is one of the strengths of the game.
Hurtling through the levels and platforming at breakneck speed, whilst slinging off arrows and weapon combos feel empowering. The huge pool of weapons and items engenders multiple playstyles, tactics, and replayability.
The variety of level design, weapons, enemy placements and areas to explore makes Dead Cells a varied, if atmosphere light, a platformer that will give you plenty of reasons to play over and over again.
6 Ori and the Blind Forest
|Initial Release Date||March 11, 2015|
|Platform||Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and Microsoft Windows|
A stunning visual spectacle, Ori and the Blind Forest tell the story of Ori, a guardian spirit who embarks on a journey to restore the forest of Nibel. The game opens with heartbreak as Ori’s mother figure, Naru, dies of starvation and so begins an emotional and atmospheric journey to put things right.
As hinted at, Ori’s strongest attribute is its visual style which blows most of the rest of the entries on this list out of the water.
Aside from the bold and mesmerizing palate, the game’s backdrop feels alive by a constant environmental movement and animation. It makes the ‘levels’ feel real and the forest is a living and breathing place, instead of it just being an art asset that’s used as a backdrop for a level.
The combat is far from the greatest on the list; it is relatively one dimensional, never really evolving beyond just waiting for an opening and then hitting the enemy with a short-range homing and burst attack. However, in contrast to this weakness, the platforming is among the strongest on the list as the movement feels fluid and responsive.
As in keeping with the genre, Ori allows for backward exploring when you unlock new abilities and skills. The game holds dozens of secrets and plenty of places to explore, coupled with a mouth-watering backdrop, it is well worth your time.
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|Initial Release Date||September 10, 2019|
|Platform||Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Playstation 4 and Microsoft Windows|
|Developer||The Game Kitchen|
If I wasn’t being objective, then Blasphemous could top this list because I adore its oppressive world, setting, and combat. Rendered beautifully in handmade pixel art, the world of Cvstodia is a dark and dreary land, at the mercy of a being called ‘The Miracle’
This deity is both worshipped and feared by the people. As the Penitent One, the last survivor of a massacre, you will undertake a bloody pilgrimage to unveil the cause of the world’s ills.
Aside from the incredible setting and art, the game has some of the best combat that you’ll find in a Metroidvania game. The attacks feel weighty and responsive, with more combos and attacks unlockable later, such as the late game plunge attack which will emit a pillar of light from where you strike the ground.
The bosses, for the most part, are beautifully designed, fun to fight and dripping with lore and symbolism.
The platforming is mixed and probably the games’ weakest element. Don’t get me wrong, it is great in points but far too punishing in others. There are large chunks between checkpoints and the dreaded spikes are easily the largest cause of (perma)death in the game. Plus, the perspective sometimes being a bit difficult to read when making jumps.
The exploration is another strength of the game, the map is logical and easy to read and the game is packed with secrets and backtracking. The game operates like a 2D ‘Souls’ game when it comes to progress, with ‘Prieu Dieu’ being your ‘bonfire’ that refills your potion items and respawns the enemies of the world. The world of Cvstodia is a bleak, violent and brutal game that will leave you feeling wrung out and satisfied.
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4 Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
|Initial Release Date||March 20, 1997|
|Platform||Playstation, Playstation Portable, Xbox 360, Playstation 4, Playstation Vita|
|Developer||Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo|
As assistant director of Symphony of the Night, Koji Igarashi revamped the Castlevania series and in doing so helped established some of the pillars of the Metroidvania genre. Symphony of the Night follows the efforts of Alucard, a son of Dracula, to stop the evil plot of the priest known as Shaft, who wants to bring back Dracula from the dead.
One of the revamped features of Symphony of the Night was to include certain role-playing elements, such as attributes and ‘levelling’. Alucard can also wield magic, however, the inputs for these can be overcomplicated in the pressures of combat and often doesn’t work that well.
However, the introduction of weapon variety was a welcome change and is a foundation for rewarding exploration and backtracking.
As an early side-scroller, there are a few flaws in the formula, such as the rooms being very samey and unchallenging straight lines with some enemies interspersed. However, despite the odd squandered room, Dracula’s castle is an interconnected joy to explore. At the time, the discovery of a certain secret hidden area was mind-blowing and is still considered to be one of the best discoveries in gaming.
The art direction, music, and atmosphere are top-notch; the castle looks majestic and gothic and certainly doesn’t fail to deliver on the setting. Alucard’s design and portrait hold lend themselves to the setting and have aged shockingly well.
The boss fights in the game are part of what makes the game so memorable. Bombastic villains that are generally just a blast to beat on, even to this day.
There is a reason the original Playstation disc of this game is considered a collector’s item. It is a game that took risks that paid off and helped define a genre.
3 Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
|Initial Release Date||June 18, 2019|
|Platform||Microsoft Windows, Playstation 4, Xbox One & Nintendo Switch|
A revamped and fresh spiritual successor to Castlevania and also developed by Koji Igarashi, Bloodstained offers an updated take on the genre, with impressive graphical fidelity, soundtrack, and story.
Set during the industrial revolution, Bloodstained follows the character, Miriam, as she fights her way through a demon-infested castle and Hell itself.
One of the engrossing factors of the game is the story itself; Miriam is the survivor of a sacrificial ritual conducted by the ‘Alchemy Guild’, that bound humans to ‘demonically charged crystals’ to be used as a sacrifice for demonic invasion.
The other survivor is Gebel and driven mad by the trauma of his past treatment, has summoned a demonic castle to earth. The story is driven forward by entertaining dialogue and high tempo music which complements the gameplay perfectly.
Bloodstained offers a vast array of weapons, even in the first area of the infested ship, that allows you to try out pistols, claymores, and whips. Also, Miriam can utilize spells to fling a fireball or summon a mass of writhing tentacles that clear the screen. The combat and spells feel polished, with every weapon feeling weighty and useful. The boss battles can feel a little lackluster at times, but look visually stunning.
The exploration is very smooth and interactive. The map is clear and concise which reduces backtracking and getting lost. The exploration has a dynamic feel to it that is lacking in other Metroidvania games. Is there a wall in the way? Why not light a cannon with a fireball and blast through it?
The atmosphere is perfect, and the environments are filled with detail and dynamic backdrops, such as the blood moon in the castle, that bathes the environment in a haunting crimson glow.
Bloodstained is a must-play for those who love the Castlevania series, it delivers a positive, polished and interesting take on the setting that has very few faults.
2 Super Metroid
|Initial Release Date||March 19, 1994|
|Platform||Super Nintendo, Wii, Wii U, Nintendo 3DS|
|Developer||Nintendo, Intelligent Systems, Nintendo Research and Development|
One of the most iconic and nostalgic adventures of all time, Super Metroid is the peak of the Metroid series and is a major influence for many games on this list. Samus is once again called to arms when the Space Pirates return and steal the last Metroid from Ceres Space Station.
Super Metroid was the first in the series to add the auto-mapping feature, something that makes the exploration of Zebes far more enjoyable and time-efficient than prior games. Samus’ control feels tight and unrestrictive.
These controls allow for real exploration, with the wall jump allowing you to proceed to areas that you wouldn’t usually be able to on the ‘intended’ path of progression.
Zebres, as an environment, still holds up today with a good blend of environmental dangers, art assets, and fitting ambient music. This is complimented by the excellent bosses in the game.
Notable bosses include the Crocomire, which forces you to push this damage soak backwards into a pool of lava where it suffers a visceral melty death. Another neat boss is Draygon, who you can kill in a more inventive way by letting it grab you before connecting your grapple to a damaged gun turret and electrocuting it to death.
Progression and upgrades are really exciting in Super Metroid as they can all change the way you play, such as The speed boost upgrade give the player a real sense of power, being able to run and smash through everything and boost into the air and it feels dynamic.
There are just so many reasons why Super Metroid remains one of the best-loved games of all time, with very few faults and timeless appeal, it is a game every gamer needs to play.
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1 Hollow Knight
|Initial Release Date||February 24, 2017|
|Platform||Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4, Xbox One, Linux, Microsoft Windows, and macOS|
A shadow has swept over the land of Hallownest, an insect kingdom built by the great Pale king, as an ‘infection’ sweeps over the once-prosperous nation. Enter the ‘Knight’, a nomadic warrior who is the unlikely and unsettling protagonist of the game.
One of the first things the player will notice (and will be blown away by) is the beautiful hand-drawn art style, much like Ori the palette is sublime, and it feels like a living breathing world.
Unlike Ori, the colours are used differently, often creating muted scenes that make the player appreciate the dilapidation of this once mighty kingdom. The result is a world with such an intense atmosphere and detail, that it is almost impossible to single out a ‘weak’ region in the game.
The gameplay is up there with the best on this list; both the platforming and the combat feel robust and flawless. The usual jump, dodge and hit mechanics are in place and are very responsive, augmented by spells and abilities. The platforming is fair but challenging and you will often have to use unlocked abilities and environmental features to progress the game.
The Boss Fights are interesting and memorable. One of the first bosses you will likely face is the impressive False Knight, which is very well designed in terms of lore and gameplay.
What appears to be a hulking brute, is merely a Maggot possessing a mighty suit of armour. His cute little face will pop out when you stagger him and is just one of the many examples of the endearing animated characters in the game.
The setting may seem fun, with cute characters and fun animations, but it remains an emotional and impactful journey where your choices lead to different endings, lending weight to your actions. It should be clear that Hollow Knight hits all the core criteria and is the ideal that all Metroidvania games should aspire to be and so it rightfully takes the top spot on the list.
So there you have it, our top 10 of one of the greatest genres of all time. It was a difficult task, for the genre is packed with quality games. With so many wonderful worlds to explore, bosses, to defeat and secrets to unlock, there is no excuse not to dive in.
Of course, there are so many Metroidvania games that could have taken the top spot. Do you think we got it right? Let us know your favourite in the comments below and what your favourite side scroller is.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some insects to save.
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