10 July, 2016
As I said, I picked up a few metroidvanias from the recent Steam sale. As I love that genre of games, enough to list it as one of my favorites, I figured I’d take apart a few things I think make for a good metroidvania.
The name “metroidvania” comes from the games Metroid and Castlevania, specifically the games after Symphony of the Night. The games tend to focus on exploration of a large space with progression. That progression is often tied to getting access to more areas of the map to explore. I’ll pull references from these games as examples. Other games might have done different things better, but these games are well-known enough that examples shouldn’t require a ton of explanation.
A big map to explore
Symphony of the Night set the standard here. Not only did you have a huge map with a wide variety of locations, but you also had the “twist” of having the reversed castle. Even if you explored 100% of the game, you needed to be completionist enough to find a few special items to get the “real ending” and reveal the second castle so you could explore up to 200% of the game. (And even beyond that if you exploited a few glitches!) The map tickles the exploration desire some of us have.
The player is often expected to go through areas multiple times. As you get new abilities, you might need to backtrack to reach some location you couldn’t reach before. And, in the original Metroid, each of the two minibosses was down a different path from the start and defeating one required you to backtrack back through the main area to get to the other boss.
Of course, having a large map has a few design consequences. The first is that it shouldn’t be a hassle to go through the areas repeatedly. Getting a new ability should make it fun to go back through the old areas. Finding shortcuts and defeating previously untouchable enemies should feel enjoyable. Also, it’s nice if there’s a way to get around the map quickly. If you want to go through a certain area again with a new ability, it’s better if the game allows you to get to that area easily without having to travel all the way back.
Finally, I appreciate a good in-game map. Being able to see where you’ve been in the larger picture is nice. The original Metroid didn’t have a built-in minimap, but the whole map is pretty simple when you look at it in its entirety. Plus, the larger Super Metroid did have a map. A map helps when you’re looking for where to go next, or where to look for those last remaining items you really need to find to get that 100% if that’s what you want.
Obstacles and puzzles
Any game needs obstacles to overcome, and in metroidvanias these take specific forms. Obstacles can range from the simple jumps and leaps to enemies and massive bosses you have to defeat. Part of moving around the map is overcoming these obstacles and enemies. Something stands your way of simply walking through the entire game.
Common obstacles generally include places that are unreachable when you first encounter them. A tall ledge, a locked door, or a particularly tough enemy might be a sign that you need to come back later once you progress a bit more. (We’ll get to progression in a moment.) A new tool or technique might be exactly what you need to get past that previously inaccessible part.
Good obstacles are obvious and immediate. You shouldn’t have to fight through a tough area of monsters just to reach a locked door you can’t open yet; this frustrates the player by wasting their time. An obvious obstacle also should be hint at what you need in order to overcome the obstacle: a tall ledge needs something that allows you to jump higher, a tough enemy needs something to do more damage or something to exploit a weakness, etc. The player should have an “ah ha!” moment when they get a new ability, remembering that obstacle from before and being eager to go back and conquer it.
You can also have puzzles in the game. These can range from simple puzzles where you have to kill all enemies in an area to unlock something, to more complex puzzles where you have to visit a certain location at a certain time to get an item used as a key somewhere else. The way to unlock the hidden reversed castle in Symphony of the Night is a good example of a pretty complex puzzle. In the day of online game walkthroughs, someone will figure out your fiendishly clever puzzle eventually.
A good puzzle should fit the game. If your game is straight-forward, then the puzzle should be as well. Trying to mix things up by making a puzzle super-obtuse doesn’t work in a metroidvania any more than it works in other games. In fact, it can be even more frustrating if the player is stuck on the puzzle and can’t progress. In general, I think obstacles work better than true puzzles in metroidvanias.
Your character needs to progress in some way. In metroidvanias you frequently find new abilities that open new routes to take. In Metroid, this was accomplished very simply with a few item: the Morph ball (or Maru Mari) to get through tight passages, the freeze beam to freeze enemies in place to jump on, the high jump to jump higher, etc. Each item gave you some power, but also let you get to places that were otherwise inaccessible.
When you get a new power, the game should show you how to use it without an obnoxious tutorial. For example, when you get the morph ball in the original Metroid, you run into a short tunnel right there where you have to use the morph ball to advance. This taught the player the simple use of such a power, and how to use it to get around. A great games gives you the tools, shows you how to use them, then lets you play around with them to figure out more advanced techniques.
Symphony of the Night also added RPG progression to the formula, years before it was cool to do that with other genres. You could gain experience and levels, and also gain better equipment that had better stats. This allowed you to withstand more punishment in harder areas and do more damage against advanced enemies. This also added an incentive to kill enemies in the game, whereas in Metroid it was often more efficient to ignore the enemies if you could. In fact, killing enemies might be counter-productive if you needed to freeze them and use them as stepping stones.
Pacing is important with progression. When giving out abilities, the player shouldn’t get too many abilities at once and feel overwhelmed, just like any other game. On the other hand, going too long without an upgrade can make the game feel a bit stale. Having the right pacing is important to keep the player interested but not overwhelmed.
Once again, this progression should make the game more fun. In the original Metroid, the screw attack ability was nice because it let you move through areas faster as you could attack most enemies while jumping. (Of course, it did add potential frustration if you accidentally attacked that frozen enemy, destroying your stepping stone to the higher areas!) A new ability or higher level should ideally let the player bypass old, stale challenges in order to find the new, exciting ones.
So, let me evaluate the two metroidvanias I picked up during the Steam sale using these criteria.
As I said in my brief review of Castle in the Darkness, one thing that frustrated me was the “instadeath” spikes in the game, as I felt it weakened the progression part of the game. I couldn’t use in-game methods to avoid the spikes, I would just die if could not perform the jump or I had forgotten about a trap. In theory I could get better at platforming and memorize positions of traps as tackled the same place again, this felt less satisfying than figuring out some in-game way to conquer the obstacle. I also felt the lack of a map and the limited number of weapons particularly since some weapons were much better to fight certain enemies; it was a bit too old-school even for my tastes. As for the map and exploration, it felt perhaps a bit too linear for my tastes. There were very few things to go back and discover with new abilities; although upgrades did make it a lot more fun to go back and kick the ass of things that were slapping you around before.
Valdis Story: Abyssal City does better. As I said, the map was huge and lots of places to explore. There were plenty of things that were tantalizingly out of reach the first time you went through an area. It also had a good flow to it so that you rarely felt lost, although the guidance you got from the story did get more vague as you went along. This was fine, as it was pretty fun to hop around and explore. Obstacles were great, with different enemies to threaten the player. Eventually you’d outlevel the enemies and you could take care of them easily. You’d also get abilities that let you skip past some of the harder ones. The advancement was more of the RPG sort from Symphony of the Night, where you’d kill beasties to get levels in addition to finding gear and items you could trade in for gear. A lot of the upgrades come from collecting a bunch of items needed to upgrade. Overall, I liked it a lot more as a metroidvania. (Although I’ll admit that I did get distracted by playing Lords of Xulima….)
So, what do you think? Are there other major features of metroidvanias that you think are essential? How do you evaluate metroidvanias? Which ones do you think are the best?