Fancy graphics are fine, but all gamers know in their hearts that nothing will ever top the drama of Final Fantasy VII or the pure physicality of Super Mario Bros. 3. Playboy’s Retro Gaming articles look at why we love the classics and give you your nostalgia fix.
Super Metroid is remembered fondly for many things, including the way the Super Nintendo game pulled a switcheroo on ‘90s gamers by tricking them into playing as Samus, a female bounty hunter (scandalous!) whose identity is hidden in a space suit throughout the game. But the 1994 game also spawned an entire genre, one that would come to be known as the “Metroidvania”—and it’s going strong even today.
Metroidvanias, named for the traits they share with the Metroid games and Konami’s Castlevania series, feature 2D labyrinths where powering up your character with new moves, equipment and abilities is essential and exploring the environment is the key to progressing. Super Metroid and 1997’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night cemented the style’s popularity, and today independent game developers are carrying its flickering torch, simply because they enjoy the genre’s mechanics.
“There was a bunch of us at the studio who love what many would call Metroidvania traits,” said Drinkbox Studios designer Chris McQuinn. Drinkbox’s game Guacamelee! references Metroid in countless ways, including a version of Super Metroid’s power-up-granting Chozo statues called “Choozo” statues. “We loved Castlevania, Metroid, but also newer titles like Cave Story and Shadow Complex,” McQuinn said.
Drinkbox is just one of the many developers that have adopted the core mechanics of Metroidvanias and made them their own, sparking a genre renaissance that gamers new and old are currently enjoying.
PLAYING WITH POWER
In the aughts, Nintendo and a Texas game developer called, appropriately, Retro Studios mixed many of the elements of a classic Metroidvania with a 3D world in the Metroid Prime games. Olle Håkansson, lead programmer of 2013’s Steamworld Dig, cites that series as a main inspiration. He and the other developers at studio Image & Form wanted to capture what he liked about the Prime games—where “you felt really badass with your final upgrades” and got to revisit old areas to discover new secrets—in Steamworld.
In fact, that’s one of the core tenets of the genre: being able to explore more and more of the world as you unlock new powers, like more powerful jumps and new weapons. Rusty, Steamworld’s Steambot hero, starts out so emaciated that he can only explore the upper crusts of his mine, and by the end of his journey he’s evolved into a formidable fighter with a slew of upgrades.
“The best Metroidvanias empower the player, even if their character is weak and limited in resources,” Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse director Tom Hulett told me. Shantae was released in 2014 by developer Wayforward Technologies. “The player gets the sense that they are uncovering new areas,” Hulett continued. “They get a real sense of growing in power and ability.”
Drinkbox’s Guacamelee!, a 2D brawling platformer with Mexican Day of the Dead aesthetics, has complex fighting gameplay where progression is highly dependent on player skill. The flashy Luchador-inspired combat is challenging, but it perfectly accentuates the game’s carefully crafted setting. McQuinn, like the rest of these developers, is simply “fascinated with open worlds [and] exploring.”
Modern video games are often criticized for “handholding”—that is, giving players too much help and not letting us experiment and discover things for ourselves, like retro games often did. Ole Ivar Rudi, an artist on a Metroidvania called Teslagrad, told me he can’t stand tutorials in games. That’s part of what got him interested in the Metroidvania genre: in Super Metroid, for example, there are no tutorials and hardly any explanations at all. You’re simply thrust into the world and expected to figure it out.
Metroidvania games like that Super Nintendo classic “feel more immediate and uninterrupted,” he said. Teslagrad has no dialogue at all, creating a real sense of loneliness.
"I like that sense of isolation,” Hulett, the Shantae game director, said of the genre. He said he likes to craft stark levels without many other characters in them besides the player.
James Petruzzi, game director at Chasm developer Discord Games, remembers the first time he played Super Metroid. He was in awe of a game experience that did away with the go-in-one-direction-to-win gameplay of traditional side-scrolling platformers, like Mario, and that awe has stuck with him to this day.
“It’s almost like you have to treat the environments as a character in themselves,” Petruzzi told me. “You get way more absorbed in the world of the game; you can really get lost in the world itself…It’s something intense that keeps you at the edge of your seat.”
DEVIL’S IN THE DETAILS
Matt Kap, developer of 2015 game Castle in the Darkness, remembers one tiny detail from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, one of the games that cemented the Metroidvania genre. “You could throw a 1-pixel peanut in the air, and it would only heal you a small amount if you position Alucard’s head under it,” he reminisced. “It’s that attention to detail that you usually only get in an exploration game, and I found that truly inspiring.”
Kap noticed how detailed these games could be well before even the original PlayStation in the mid-’90s. “Metroidvania games have always been a part of my life, even in the days of the [original Nintendo],” he said. “I loved games like Castlevania 2, Faxanadu, Battle of Olympus, and others. The plan for Castle in the Darkness was to make a game that a younger version of me would call his favorite game, so I took a lot of inspiration from my other favorite games at that time, and most of them just happened to be Metroidvania games.”
Castle in the Darkness emulates Kap’s favorite games by packing in plenty of secrets, such as breakable walls that lead to dangerous, branching paths. That level of detail is an important feature of the genre; for example, Petruzzi told me that if he could, he would dedicate hours of development time to creating bioluminescent fireflies to hover around Chasm’s mine level.
“I think that’s what we get the most pleasure out of… thinking of the details of the world,” Petruzzi explained. “All of those tiny details are what really sell the experience.”
Chasm is still full of detail even without the bugs (if Petruzzi injected all of his ideas the game may have never seen the light of day), giving players a world with abundant secrets, beautifully pixelated spell effects, and environments housing deadly traps at every turn. Each Metroidvania sports a host of these enriching details; it’s in the very DNA of the genre, and each fan-turned-developer is eager to add to that legacy.
Metroidvania fans are already reaping the rewards brought on by developers’ new takes on the resurging genre—and Samus’s entourage of peers is not only poised to become much larger, but more diverse.
“All these people are taking their influences from all the games they thought were the best and kind of doing their own spin on it,” Petruzzi said. “Everybody kind of goes for their own gameplay mechanics and their own story.”
Håkansson, the Steamworld Dig developer, concluded that the genre’s lasting appeal and current ubiquity are simply explained: “From a developer’s perspective it’s just a great recipe for a game…a recipe that works, and it lets you focus on making a great game from the start.”
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