With Metroid and Castlevania drifting away from the genre that they themselves helped to create and define, is there any future left for the Metroidvania formula? Let’s take a tour through this, and why Dark Souls is the natural and spiritual successor to this distinctive genre…
Gamers use this term when we talk about games like the Metroid games, which have always been about freeform and open exploration which opens up new areas and abilities as you progress, and which was masterfully picked up on in the 32-bit era by Konami, who first wheeled out Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and then later it migrated, successfully, to the Game Boy Advance with a series of games, culminating in the quite excellent Aria of Sorrow.
Metroidvania is a concept – it’s at its heart an adventure game formula that rewards players for exploration, inquisitiveness and keeping an open mind. As you fell bosses, and your character grows in strength, the world starts to open up even more – instead of a linear progression path, Metroidvania is in principle about opening up a game and making it about the player, and not the game. That whilst some things are still required, you can – in most cases – tackle areas in any order you want.
The problem is the two games in that conceptual name – Metroid and Castlevania – have in recent years deviated from it and become a lot more linear. Metroid Prime 3 took its cues from Halo, and kept it very much as a one-road track towards the inevitable conclusion of the trilogy. It was a spectacle, and handled amazingly, but it was a far cry from Metroid Prime, which gave you a world begging to be explored and unravelled.
Similarly, Castlevania has been drifting away from it both in its 2D and 3D installments – for the 2D versions, Order of Ecclesia was able to maintain the illusion of an open adventure adding a world map, in turn giving it a more open world feel, but each area was small and rather self-contained, making it linear and restrictive compared to Dawn of Sorrow, which felt altogether larger and more interesting.
Likewise, Lords of Shadow was a bit of a 3D misstep, rather than trying to mould the Metroidvania concept in a new way, the game dispensed with it and took an approach similar to God of War – action sequences interrupted with an unhealthy obsession with exposition, dialogue and general linearity. There were “secrets”, of course, but these were mostly left for you to finish the game first before you came back for them – in most cases, we didn’t feel the need. It didn’t feel like a world worth exploring.
So, if Metroid and Castlevania – the two games which effectively mastered the design – have dispensed with the old Metroidvania concept, does it have a future? Are there any games out there now which marry the adventuring, exploratory whims of the concept with a budget and full 3D?
Well, as a matter of fact, yes. I present… Dark Souls.
Let us for a moment dispense with the realisation that Dark Souls (and Demon Souls) is at times a brutally challenging game. Because difficulty is something you do with controls and mechanics, not the concept itself. Take that away and take a good, long look at the design and conceptual ethos of From Software’s two successful games. It doesn’t take very long to realise why Dark Souls works – because it is the modern incarnation of the Metroidvania formula.
Dark Souls is very much like the earlier Metroid and mid-term Castlevania games, as it doesn’t really bog you down too much in the exposition, the text or direction. As you progress through Dark Souls and its breathtaking, 3D-rendered landscapes, you open up new areas. You get stronger. You get better equipment which better equips you for the next few areas. You are left to your own devices, to explore and poke around to your hearts content in a hostile world. From the cityscapes of Anor Lando, to the tranquil Ash Lake and the dizzying Great Hollow, from the dark and messy ruins of Blighttown to the lush greenery of Darkroot Basin. The variation in landscape and progression is there. You can tackle most of these areas in whatever order you please, often with multiple entrances and exits to these areas. Each area has items and secrets you can find, pick up and revel in. All held together by a strong stats-heavy RPG base, and a charming and magical storyline that becomes progressively grander and more important as you go along.
And even when you put the combat mechanics back in, Dark Souls is not as hard as people suggest it to be and heavily emphasises the Metroidvania concept sitting in its heart – it is a game that rewards carefully setting up the right attacks for the right enemies. You can snipe enemies from a distance, or run circles around some for a cheeky and heavy-hitting back attack. You can parry and riposte, or tank and spank. You can cast a range of magical spells, from AoE attacks to single-target bolts of all elemental and magical types. You are left to your devices, you can be anything. The game gives you the freedom not only to explore and enjoy the changing scenery, but to tailor your character to your preferred setup, be that a speedy rogue, a heavily-plated knight, a fiery pyromancer or a cheeky sorcerer. As you progress, you can blur the lines at your command – your thief can become an assassin, silencing their steps as they creep up for a brutal rear assault, or your plated Knight can start casting magical heals and wards to further bolster their defences.
The Metroidvania concept is about giving the player some freedom. It doesn’t tie us down and say “You must go along this set path!”, but rather says, “You need to open this door. There are a few ways to go about it… get explorin’!”. The player needs to feel that the game they are playing is a world, an open experience or the illusion of such despite the technical limitations that a game often brings. This is why Dark Souls is the modern progression of the formula – it’s open, honest and has plenty of secrets riddled throughout for players to find, and spend time finding.
Metroid and Castlevania may be moving from the formula now that handhelds can do full 3D, but the Metroidvania spirit is still alive – although not in the hands of those who made it such a successful concept. It is in the hands of a new generation of designers, developers and studios to take it and run with it. Even if Castlevania and Metroid never return to their once lush roots, they can be remembered at least for pioneering a novel and intriguing concept. And it will be up to games like Dark Souls, and the indie scene with A Valley Without Wind and Terraria, to keep the spirit alive.
I’m sure we’d all love Metroid and Castlevania to go back to the Metroidvania formula. But I’m kind of at peace that this may not happen. Dark Souls is for me the modern masterpiece that defines the Metroidvania concept for a new generation, and going forward, that’s a huge accomplishment for which From Software should be applauded and thanked.
Because it would be so easy to dismiss the formula as outdated. In reality, it’s just that the games haven’t taken advantage of modernising it. Dark Souls is a modernised Metroidvania, and long may it continue to frustrate, amuse and enthrall.