A portmanteau of Metroid and Castlevania, the term Metroidvania describes games with left to right and up and down scrolling in a 2D world underpinned by role-playing game elements, platforming, exploration, and action and adventure.
While it isn’t clear who came up with the term, its roots in two classics of the NES era, Castlevania and Metroid, is not by accident. The mechanics on display in both Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night inspire many of the titles in this genre. In many ways, they established the rules for what this kind of game is, looks like, and plays.
Naturally, Konami did a great job of capitalizing on Castlevania’s newfound structure and released a slew of games for Nintendo’s portables that copied the Symphony of the Night script – and improved it – in titles for the Game Boy Advance and DS. Metroid, meanwhile, did its own thing but Super Metroid has remained a kind of touchstone and benchmark for the series.
In this article, we’re going to talk about the top 10 Metroidvania games in terms of legacy and impact. We’re also looking for variety in age and diversity in mechanics – unique and compelling wins the day here. The thing is, this genre is quite vast, and there are many modern entries that probably deserve a spot here. But we had to keep history in mind and, with that, here’s our top 10 Metroidvania games:
10. SteamWorld Dig 2
As Dorothy the robot miner, your job is to explore the vast mine at the heart of this game. Along the way you get various power ups like bombs and even an augment that lets you break through rocks with your fist. It combines the feel of a Zelda game with the mechanics of a Metroidvania for a title that also has elements of a Rogue-like without the difficulty. It follows the first game so there’s that aspect of it all which might be confusing for new players in terms of the story. As for that story, it is charming if a bit strange at times.
9. Rogue Legacy
This Cellar Door Games’ rogue-like is one of the best made in some time and we have to recommend it for fans of the uber-frustrating, but compelling genre of adventure games. Rogue Legacy is structured like a Metroidvania which might sound like a bad idea at first but really works the more you play. And that’s what you will be doing because you can prepare to die – a lot. In this way the game is reminiscent of the Souls’ games but without the graphical flare. One unique mechanic that makes this game innovative is that your heirs are determined by a kind of genetic lottery wherein the next player you control might be fast, but also color blind, and things along those lines. You get to choose from three heirs upon death (or six if you have an upgrade). Insanely addictive and loads of fun, Rogue Legacy does both the rogue-like and Metroidvania descriptors proud.
An action platforming game that uses the gameplay mechanics of a brawler in the guise of a Metroidvania title. Guacamelee is a story about how our hero Juan is thrust into a world beyond our own and has to overcome all kinds of threats, including the main antagonist Calaca. There is a knight rescues the princess mechanic at play here with multiple endings that are determined by your in-game actions. Trust us when we say this, the “true” ending is more than worth the trouble.
7. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
The newest kid on the block on this list, Bloodstained is everything you would want in a modern Castlevania title and that is a huge shock to all of us, least of all the backers who are thrilled with what they got out of their crowdfunding participation here. Beautifully structured with gameplay that is addictive and compelling, as well as sporting an atmosphere ripped straight from Castelvania’s playbook, Bloodstained might be the perfect successor to Konami’s storied but dormant series.
A whip wielding ruins exploration game that takes inspiration from Tomb Raider, the Indiana Jones films, and, of course, Castlevania and Metroid, La-Mulana only has one ending, unlike most games on this list, but a huge variety of ways to get there. Originally conceived as a tribute the MSX games of yesteryear, the original version uses a 16-bit color palette that is both authentically executed but modern at the same time. Another thing that might set it apart from many on this list is the fact that La-Mulana revels in being pretty darn difficult. Getting through this game is not so much a chore as it is a test and then demonstration of the mastery of its various systems.
5. Hollow Knight
Hollow Knight is a weapons and magic based Metroidvania game that puts a premium on replayability and exploration. Exploration, because the game is vast, and replayability in that the devs put weapons in the game that not only make the titular knight more powerful but also help the player unlock more challenging versions of the game’s bosses to face off against. The game also has an almost RPG-level of lore and information doled out by non-player characters which is a welcome thing when normally they are few and far between in this genre. Though the combat is often derided as being a little on the simple side for some tastes, it nonetheless engaging in the way that the old arcade games like Gauntlet was. It is really addicting in its core mechanics and that carries a lot of the weaker aspects of the game.
4. Super Metroid
The old SNES classic is still the best out there. Some might try to debate that statement, but they’ll be hard pressed to find hard evidence to back it up. Don’t get us wrong – we love the modern Metroid games – but there’s just something unerringly iconic about Super Metroid. It took a relatively obscure NES title and transformed it into a video game staple. Many of the mechanics that you see at work in sci-fi Metroidvanias take a huge dose of inspiration from this game. In fact, it is hard to escape comparisons to Super Metroid when you put the game in a sci-fi setting. And, like a good movie, it never gets old. You can play it time and time again, finding new things to enjoy each and every playthrough.
3. Axiom Verge
Probably the closest we are going to get to a Metroidvania in a gritty style, Axiom Verge came out of nowhere to snatch the 2D Metroidvania crown in the hearts of many. A decidedly Geiger-esque design coupled with a foreboding atmosphere and a vague as heck story, Axiom Verge is a convergence of art, style, and gameplay. It takes no prisoners and pushes multiple boundaries in terms of expectations but it never, ever forgets that it is a video game. In this way, Axiom Verge is kind of like a modern reinterpretation of a classic 8-bit game. Hard enough to keep you playing, interesting enough to explore, and weird enough to keep you searching for answers as to what is going on here. In a word, all of the elements of classic gaming with a modern coat of paint.
Some people might not expect to see this game on this list but Strider, in many ways, helped pioneer Metroidvania style gameplay. Featuring roughly the same mechanics absent the more modern RPG influences, Strider was about fighting, exploring environments, and figuring out what the point of it all was. You’ve got up and down scrolling as well as left to right scrolling. The fundamental elements are here even if the more complex aspects of a Metroidvania aren’t. And did we mention it is hard as heck? Depending on which version you play, this game can be a maddening experience – to say the least. Still, it’s probably one of the best games in this genre and really, really needs a modern revival if any of these do.
1. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
The game that kicked all of this off – depending on your perspective – Symphony of the Night takes all of your favorites Castlevania mechanics and cliches and puts them into one stellar game that has endless replay value as well as an almost timeless quality to its graphics and music. Exploration was central to SOTN, but so is figuring things out in terms of what to do next. Kill Richter Belmont and see what happens if you want to see what we mean. Not only does SOTN perfect and amplify many of the conventions we are familiar with when it comes to Castlevania but it also perfected them in a way that few titles have. Heck, the whole series basically coasted on this template for years – it is that good. It is also the perfect introduction to this genre of game and we recommend it to anyone who is curious to see what all of the fuss is about.