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Why “Metroidvania” Is Not a Thing

April 21st, 2013 | Posted by Philip J Reed in video games

Metroidvania is not a thing.

It isn’t. Or, at least, it’s not a thing that should have that particular term appended to it.

“Metroidvania” is a classifying term gamers use to refer to video games, usually 2D, that restrict or grant progress based on the items you have. It typically takes place in a large world comprised of smaller sections. As you find items and upgrades for your character, you can explore more and more of that large world, and usually even find additional treasure and passages hidden in previous areas.

If it sounds like I’m describing Metroid here, that’s because I am. And if it doesn’t sound like I’m describing Castlevania here, that’s because I’m not.

The term “Metroidvania” is an obvious portmanteau of those two series. But there’s a problem, because Castlevania has fuckall to do with the formula.

See, when Metroid was released, this sort of gradual progression in all directions was a relatively new navigational approach for video games. Whenever a game was released afterward that followed a similar mechanic, it was usually classified as Metroid-like. Just as games that offered a stage select were often compared to Mega Man, and games that featured you jumping on enemies to kill them were compared to Super Mario Bros.

Castlevania began life as a simple — though very good — side scroller with a Hollywood-Gothic horror theme. The antagonist was typically Dracula, and the protagonist was a vampire hunter (typically of the Belmont lineage) who set out to destroy him. You fought with a whip or similar weapon through linear stages. Sub-weapons were temporary, there was no backtracking, little in the way of alternate paths, and no permanent upgrades of any kind.

In other words, it was nothing at all like Metroid.

Eventually however Konami struck rightful gold with Symphony of the Night, which was a lot like Metroid. The entire game takes place in Dracula’s castle, and you progress by collecting upgrades in the forms of items and abilities. It was, and is, a great game. And thus, “Metroidvania” was born.

Symphony of the Night — along with its similarly-themed quasi-sequels — is about the only time the term “Metroidvania” makes any sense to use. After all, it combined elements of Metroid and Castlevania.

Since then, however, the term has been thrown around to encompass anything even remotely Metroid-like, whether or not it incorporates any elements of Castlevania whatsoever. Somehow these two games — despite one being a series-wide approach and the other being a series exception — got hybridized in the cultural consciousness and had a genre of their own named after them.

But that doesn’t work. Or shouldn’t work. “Metroidvania” only makes sense if the game being described contains elements similar to each of those series, and, really, nearly always, that’s not the case. A game in which you explore a funhouse or something, throwing pies at clowns and gradually opening passages can be like Metroid. It doesn’t sound to me, though, like it could possibly be anything like Castlevania. So why would we call it a “Metroidvania?”

I find it interesting that one singular game could be looked at as Metroid‘s equivalent in defining the genre…and I also find it inaccurate. Symphony of the Night borrowed Metroid‘s approach. It added its own elements, yes, but those are not the elements that define most other games that have since fallen under the classification.

The fact that the term “Metroidvania” exists speaks volumes about how immediately important Symphony of the Night was to gaming. But nearly always, “Metroidvania” is a misnomer.

That game you’re playing where you’re seeking jump upgrades and better bombs to blast open new doors? It’s a lot like Metroid. It’s nothing like Castlevania. It is, I’ll grant you, a lot like Symphony of the Night. But Symphony of the Night was a lot like Metroid, so let’s not complicate things.

It’s Metroid-like. Unless it isn’t.

And it usually, unquestionably, is.

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12 Responses

  • Justin says:

    Yes. I never really understood how this term suddenly became ingrained in the lexicon, or when.

  • iskaminien says:

    Metroidvania doesn’t mean just the exploration and the map. That part is what Metroid added to this genre. The Castlevania part of it has to do with its RPG elements introduced in SotN. Leveling up, grinding, equiping items and armor, and not just finding energy tanks and missile units. Sure, it could have used the name of any rpg or action-rpg before that, , but Symphony of the Night blended it all together, so that’s the merit of the -vania in the genre name.

  • Reguzeeb says:

    Part of the problem with the word “Metroidvania” is that there’s no official definition of it. We’ve got someone in here saying that what differentiates it is the level up system, and we have others saying it’s exploration platforming. This is part of the reason as to why I think the word should simply not apart of our vernacular. There doesn’t seem to be an agreed upon usage of the definition. Let’s just call them exploration platforms. Sure…. it doesn’t sound “cool” but not everything has to. What matters more than anything is that the term actually makes sense.

  • yep says:

    If someone tells you Saints Row is a lot like GTA, do you immediately think “top down 2d crime spree game”? It’s not what made the GTA series popular, but it was the first. You may initially consider fond memories of playing Castlevania on Christmas day on your NES, but a lot of people also have fond memories of SOTN.

  • sarcose says:

    The entire handheld library of castlevanias GBA and on disagrees with your assessment that SOTN is a “series exception.”

  • Here’s my theory on how the term “Metroidvania” became firmly established: Symphony of the Night came out in that span of time when there was a lull in the Metroid series. Super Metroid had come out three or four years prior, and it’s future seemed uncertain at best (it would still be two more years before Super Smash Bros brought Samus back into the limelight), so with Symphony of the Night coming out and adopting that same formula, it seemed as if it was usurping the genre as a whole, and thus it became known as Metroidvania.
    I must disagree with the poster above who said the “-vania” part of the genre has to do with RPG elements, as I’ve seen a few titles, such as La-Mulana, that have no RPG elements at all (no more than Metroid did, at least).

  • Sindi says:

    Hmmmm. Well I have heard the term misused before, but I gotta admit it never really bothered me. To me “Metroidvania” is just a vague subgenre people use out of convenience to describe the gameplay of something new coming out that they are not too familiar with but are trying to explain to someone else.. In my brain when I hear “metroidvania” I immediately think Super Metroid + SONT / Aria of Sorrow but i don’t know what others necessarily think. :/

  • Cyberxion says:

    Like iskaminien, I always figured that the only thing that Castlevania: Symphony of the Night contributed to the “Metroidvania” mix was its light RPG elements. Besides that, the game was pretty much just a Metroid in Castlevania clothing. As such, I believe that a game only qualifies as a “Metroidvania” when it features both Metroid’s non-linear, exploration-based gameplay and SoTN’s RPG elements. If the game doesn’t have the latter, such as La Mulana for example, then it’s just “Metroidesque”.

    Looking around the ‘net that seems to be the most commonly agreed upon definition, so…yeah, “Metroidvania” is most certainly a thing, it’s just that most folks use the term wrong.

  • Kraas says:

    Posting in an old article…

    You overlooked Simon’s Quest (and to a lesser extent, Vampire Killer), which used a non-linear playstyle. Castlevania didn’t use this approach after Simon’s Quest until Symphony of the Night. So there is an earlier precedent than Symphony in the series, though Metroid did come up with the formula one year earlier.



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