Metroidvania. It is a term for a sub-genre of exploration based 2D platformers set in a non-linear world. Key features of these sorts of games are player characters that whose abilities can be upgraded during the course of the game. These abilities are then used to backtrack and access areas of the map that were previously untraversable. Oddly enough, while games fitting this description have existed since the early to mid 80’s, the actual genre only came to be defined relatively recently. While I have been unable track down an exact origin for the term, which is an obvious portmanteau of two of the defining series within the genre (Metroid and Castlevania), its use became common place in the mid 00’s. The roots of the genre go back much further, though, further back even than the original Metroid on the NES.
While several games from the early 80’s contained elements of the Metroidvania formula, Brain Breaker, released in 1985 for the Sharp X1, was one of the first to really bring it all together. This game is often overlooked due releasing on a fairly obscure piece of hardware, but it’s plot and base mechanics are surprisingly similar to what you would find in many modern takes on the genre. You play as spaceship pilot who crash lands on a (relatively) large, open world. You find yourself without supplies, but during the course of your adventure, you collect items ranging from a jet pack to a laser rifle. Brain Breaker is an interesting footnote in the history of Metroidvania style games, coming out a year before Metroid on the NES, but the game itself did not have any far-reaching ramifications. It is not, however, the only Metroidvania to predate Metroid.
As opposed to Brain Breaker, the Xanadu series of games experienced quite a bit of success and is fondly remembered by many to this day. The series, itself a spinoff of Dragon Slayer, first found success on Japanese home computers and made waves with over 400,000 copies sold in the country in 1985. The Xanadu games are sometimes viewed as the first true Metroidvanias, and they incorporate something not made commonplace in the genre until years later: RPG elements. In concept, the game took the standard dungeon crawling formula popular at the time and re-envisioned it in a 2D perspective. What this lead to were games where characters would traverse nonlinear 2D maps while tracking down treasure and discovering new abilities. Being an RPG, your characters would also level and grow, and the towns were filled with NPC with which you could interact. These series of games most closely represents the Castlevania branch of the genre. Faxanadu, a spinoff of the series, appeared on the NES in 1987. Personally, it just might be my favorite Metroidvania on the system.
1986 was a big year for Nintendo, with games such as The Legend of Zelda and Kid Icarus seeing release. It is, of course, also the year that the world was introduced to Samus Aran and the world of Metroid. This game would spawn the most successful of all Metroidvanias, and the building blocks of later games in the series were very evident in this very first entry. Players would take control of Samus and explore the planet Zebes, a desolate, open-ended world filled with alien terrors. Samus herself would discover a series of power-ups during her exploration, and these abilities would allow her to venture ever deeper into the recesses of the planet. Wash, rinse, repeat. While it has been tweaked over the years, this basic formula is the essence of Metroid. Early Castlevania, on the other hand, did not have the Metroidvania elements one might expect. Released on the Famicom in 1986, it was a straightforward level-based action platformer. While Vampire Killer, released on the MSX2 the same year, and Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest, released one year later, would include an explorable world and upgrade systems, the Castlevania series as a whole would largely lean towards action for years to come.
The genre had many interesting entries in 8 and 16-bit years, ranging from Wonder Boy in Monster World to Super Adventure Island II, but it would come to be largely defined by one title: Super Metroid. This game was a refinement of the groundwork laid by Metroid 8 years earlier. The in-game map (first introduced in Metroid II: Return of Samus on the Gameboy) and the sheer variety of items, as well as the atmospheric music and locals, all made this game an instant classic. Castlevania, meanwhile, would finally cement itself as one of the most important of Metroidvania series in 1997 with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. This game took inspiration from both Zelda and Metroid in an attempt to create what was then thought of as a Castlevania spinoff. It was through this game that RPG elements such as leveling and inventory management, which appeared at various times since the dawn of the genre, would become one of its standards (at least for the”Castle” side of the equation).
The genre would live on largely through handheld Castlevania titles for years. Something wondrous would happen for fans of the genre in the mid 00’s, though: the rise of indie gaming. Released in 2004 on PC as a self-published title, Cave Story was an utterly charming Metroidvania title that rekindled interest in the genre. Since then, we have seen dozens of games, from Axiom Verge to Guacamelee to Shadow Complex that have aped the formula. Now, while we enjoy the fruits of a golden age for exploration based platformers, let us never forget all the interesting experiments that got us here.