Monday, February 10, 2014

Debating the definition of Metroidvania

"What is a Metroidvania? A miserable little pile of secrets."

JOHN: Hey, Jake, I was thinking for our next blog post that we should do a “Best of” for Metroidvania games where we give each other a list of games the other hasn’t played, do our best to play them, and then do an overall ranking. I’d be interested to see how different our lists end up being. I don't think Super Metroid would be in my top 5, but Castlevania: Symphony of the Night probably would be. What do you think?

JAKE: That would be a pretty limited list, wouldn't it? Aside from the Metroid and Castlevania games, there'd only be a handful of others. Guacamelee! and Shadow Complex. Maybe Cave Story. But none of those come anywhere close to making my personal top 5. Also: Super Metroid doesn't even crack a Metroidvania top 5 for you? The game that defined the entire genre?! Are you insane?

JOHN: Limited list? Are you nuts? I can think of three classic (one modern classic) series right now that fit into the Metroidvania mold. Mega Man Legends 1 and 2 (and incidentally Mega Man 64), Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, and Resident Evil (well, 1, anyway). Those are exactly Metroidvania-type games and are all much better than all of the rest of the proper Metroid or Castlevania games, except perhaps the aforementioned Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. 

JAKE: The exploration elements of the games you mentioned are similar to the genre, but it's not enough for me to call Demon's Souls or Resident Evil a Metroidvania. The original Metroid was envisioned by Nintendo as a cross between the exploration of The Legend of Zelda and the platforming of Super Mario Bros. The games you mentioned have the exploration part, but platforming is just as integral to the Metroidvania formula. Every single mainline Metroid and Castlevania game emphasizes platforming. Without the platforming, Metroidvania is almost just Zelda. Demon's Souls has much more in common with Zelda than it does with Metroid.

JOHN: But it's more than jumping that makes Metroidvania games what they are, though. In every "classic" Metroidvania, there is a fixed map to explore and items to collect that make new areas of said map newly accessible, and lots of enemies to fight. "Jumping" makes the 2D Metroidvania possible, but it doesn't change a 3D one into The Legend of Zelda if you remove it. It doesn't need literal platforming to be the same type of game. Dark Souls is exactly this: it's a fixed (though much larger) map that you explore and open up as you progress with lots of enemies to fight and weapons to collect and upgrade. But there's no jumping. There's a limited amount of dropping, though, I suppose.

Resident Evil is exactly the same. It's a fixed map (hell, it's even a haunted house, just like Dracula's castle or Zebes) that opens up with the more keys you collect, with lots of zombies to fight and upgradeable weapons (well, gun > shotgun > grenade launcher > magnum > rocket launcher, anyway). The exterior is different, but it comes from the same stock as any Metroidvania. Much more so than Zelda.

JAKE: So then what's the difference between Zelda and Metroidvania to you? Does that make Zelda a Metroidvania? That would be pretty strange, considering Zelda predates both Metroid and Castlevania. But Zelda also has a world you explore by yourself, acquiring new items to access new areas, full of creepy dungeons just like Metroid's creepy alien caverns. Zelda's lack of platforming is the biggest thing that sets it apart from Metroidvania.

JOHN: The biggest difference to me is the world, itself. In the 3D Zeldas, Hyrule is an entire (teeny) country with separate, distinct areas to explore, joined by a common area, i.e. the field or, in The Wind Waker, the sea. Just like Demon's Souls... Hmm. Okay, maybe I'll concede that one to you. It doesn't use a single map: it's several distinct areas joined together by the central Nexus. And it has levels! 1-1, 1-2, 1-3, and 1-4 in the first area, alone. In that sense, it's actually more like the classic Castlevania than Zelda. But not like Metroid.

But the "haunted house" aspect of Dark SoulsResident Evil, Super Metroid, and Symphony of the Night is the biggest difference. Are you really saying that, without jumping, Metroid is Zelda? I can't agree with that. Zelda's too light-hearted, too inconsequential. Opening up new doors (and, thus, new areas) in the big 4 are important events while in Zelda, outside of dungeons, it largely doesn't matter. Now, if an entire Zelda took place in a dungeon, say a massive Hyrule Castle, then I might agree with you.

And here's another thing about Zelda - the 3D ones, anyway - as soon as you get the hookshot, it effectively allows Link to platform. He's not "jumping," but he's ascending from level to level to kick ass and take names. Just like Samus. But I still wouldn't say that Zelda is Metroid, would you?

JAKE: "Enclosed gameworld" isn't a requirement of the genre. All the Metroid games span entire (small) planets, with Samus entering various caverns connected by many open areas--the original Metroid and Metroid II are the only ones to take place entirely underground. And many Castlevania titles, including all the more recent entries, feature areas to explore outside the castle.

The dark tone is an integral part of the individual Metroid and Castlevania series, but I don't think it's necessary to the Metroidvania formula. Guacamelee! has a lighthearted comedic tone, yet neither of us question its Metroidvania credentials. You know a big part of what keeps it true to the genre? PLATFORMING!

JOHN: You're talking "requirements" and I'm talking "aspects" of what makes a Metroidvania a Metroidvania. I'm essentially saying this: if it looks, feels, and sounds like a Metroidvania, then it's a duck. I think there's enough evidence to suggest that Mega Man Legends, Dark Souls, and Resident Evil, proper platforming present or not, offer experiences much closer to classic Metroidvanias than they do to Zelda. I can understand if you don't want to classify them as pure Metroidvanias, though, so maybe a new sub-category should be created for them, like "Bubblevania" or "Semi-troid," where they're maybe not quite Metroidvania, but not close enough to the Princess, either. But in terms of game-type, they should absolutely be considered alongside Metroidvanias in any list ranking them.

JAKE: I can get on board with Mega Man Legends being called Metroidvania since the Mega Man series is partially based on, ya know... platforming. Not so much the others. Maybe I'm a traditionalist, but we'll have to agree to disagree on the definition of the genre. If I were to make a top 10 list of Metroidvania games, it would pretty much all be Metroid and Castlevania games. With your slightly more liberal definition of the genre, what games would you put on the list?

JOHN: I'll be honest: I wanted to open up the definition in the first place because, outside of the few obvious classics, I wasn't sure I could come up with a top 10. I'm not the Metroid fanatic you are, but I do love Metroidvanias. After some consideration, here's my list, in no particular order:

  • Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PS)
  • Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (DS)
  • Mega Man Legends (PS)
  • Mega Man Legends 2 (PS)
  • Dark Souls (PS3)
  • Shadow Complex (XBL)
  • Resident Evil (GC)
  • Super Metroid (SNES)
  • Guacamelee! (PSN/PC)
  • Metroid Prime (GC)
I just barely made it to 10, and I couldn't come up with any other titles that I'd played for more than 10 or 15 minutes (such as Metroid Prime 3: Corruption), for various reasons. Perhaps you can enlighten me to a treasure trove of hitherto unknown (to me) Metroidvania treasures. Or perhaps just one: if you had to recommend a single Metroidvania not already on my list, any platform, what would it be?

JAKE: I touched on this in my ranking of Metroid games last year, but Metroid Prime 2: Echoes is by far the most underrated Metroidvania. In that article, I described it as "a Metroid connoisseur's Metroid." People are turned off by Echoes' dark color palette and its extreme difficulty. The first Prime is more easily enjoyable, but Echoes builds on its predecessor's ideas and features even deeper and more cerebral puzzles and worlds to explore.

Devious Spider Ball puzzles in Sanctuary Fortress

While the first Prime stuck to a more traditional approach and standard videogame "fire world/ice world/forest area/etc" tropes, Echoes explores more unique places like the futuristic Sanctuary Fortress, perhaps my favorite location in any Metroid game. Echoes was so tough that when it was re-released as part of Metroid Prime Trilogy on Wii, they dialed back the difficulty. But it's the Crime and Punishment of Metroid: dense and hard to get through, but super meaty when you put in the effort.

No comments:

Post a Comment