Insomnia | Commentary

Fuck Metroidvanias

By Jason Love / September 6, 2008

I don't like metroidvanias much.

The basic metroidvania approach is to take the sequential stage progression of Super Mario Bros., cut it up into bits of varying lengths, and then hold it all together in hopes that it will coagulate into some sort of tumorous ball of interconnected randomness.

The apparent appeal of the metroidvania is twofold (other than the fact that it's really easy to do); first, it makes implementing something I'll call the "first law of Miyamoto" straightforward; second, it gives your game much more "organic" "structure". Both of these principles are on shining display in the single most prolific metroidvania-style game series to date: The Legend of Zelda.

The "first law of Miyamoto" is something I read about around the time Wind Waker was coming out. Someone (and I'm only assuming it was Miyamoto, here) said it was always important to show the player something he couldn't yet do as early as possible; it would make him look forward to the acquisition of the lacking ability more. It's supposed to give him a feeling of satisfaction when he finally finds the key to that particular lock. In practice, you're constantly butting up against the limits of your own abilities; you see treasures and mysteries and you're reminded of your inferiority. The pleasure of the first law is the same as the pleasure of hitting yourself with a hammer -- because it feels so much better when you stop.

The second reason metroidvanias keep popping up is because of their more "organic structure". The idea goes roughly that, since a gameworld is a model of space, the space is more realistic when the areas are contiguous, connected at multiple points. A real place has width as well as depth as well as breadth, so the player should be forced to travel in as many dimensions as the game will allow: east as well as north, in as well as up. This is a wonderful realization, and its only flaw is that this interconnected, nonlinear gameworld is married to a sequential, linear game design. The only locked doors that you will not pass through are optional cul-de-sacs containing unnecessary plunder; the only bosses you will not fight are end-game bonuses hidden in the outskirts of the world. The hideous offspring of this mismatched marriage is the devil-demon Back-tracking.

As a counter-example: Doukutsu Monogatari is not a metroidvania. It does not make a habit of showing you treasures you don't yet have the ability to acquire. It does not make you backtrack every time you want to move forward. It does contain a hub, but almost every area accessible from it is connected to the same spot. It does force you to revisit an earlier stage (twice!), but (in each time!) that stage has been so transformed between visits that it qualifies as a new location, while still retaining the emotional weight of recognition. The game is all the better for these qualities.

For all my invective, a good metroidvania's still a good game -- I just don't agree with the implication that the formula immediately makes an average game design better. There are ways to take the basic metroidvania design as it's usually employed and improve upon it:

Make better keys. Super Metroid's the best example of this, but Link's Awakening did it pretty well, too. The navigational aids you acquire are useful immediately for tasks other than navigating.

Make better locks. By which I mean they shouldn't look like locks until you get the key to them. Super Metroid's shining example is the Space Jump boots: once you get them, every area with an open ceiling transforms into a new avenue for exploration.

Make some of the locks unnecessary. The only game to do this that I'm aware of is Metroid Fusion. The basic idea is that the gameworld consists of interconnected, forking paths; some of the forks have locks on them. Of those locks, around half should lead to areas that are already accessible from other, unlocked forks. This makes the acquisition of keys more interesting: not only do you have access to new areas, but getting through old areas is now potentially easier.

Note that the concept of metroidvanias isn't well-defined. A metroidvania doesn't have to be 2D; just look at... Metroid Prime! Or some of the 3D Castlevania games! I would describe as a metroidvania a game having all of the following characteristics:

1. The number of moves and items available to the player increases over the course of the game

2. The use of those moves and items is necessary to traverse the entirety of the circuitous, interconnected gameworld

3. Despite the gameworld's emphasis on interconnectivity and circuitousness, a more-or-less linear progression is implied by the distribution of new moves and items and the locks overcome by them

By this standard, you should have a better idea of what I'd consider a metroidvania. Metroid Prime: of course. Super Mario Bros.: of course not. Knytt Stories: most of the stories are. Knytt: not at all. Iji: not really. La Mulana: hell yes. Four Swords Adventure: nope! Twilight Princess: pretty much.

Doukutsu Monogatari represents an interesting boundary case. Up to the waterway, it's a linear stage-based adventure with a little bit of a hub tossed in between stages. After the waterway, you return to the hub briefly (to find all the mimigas missing) and proceed to the first stage proper for the second time (to find it significantly changed). From that point to the end it's all new stages again. While you have the ability to turn around and go back at any point, there's almost no reason to. It's, like, 1/5 of a metroidvania, and 4/5 a traditional stage-based shooter.

"So you only dislike metroidvanias that suck!" Well, yeah. If the game is good, the game is good and the number of games that share the same basic formula is irrelevant. The problem is that many people feel like the metroidvania formula is cruise-control for excellence, and I don't agree. The design is mishandled so often (Hello, Castlevania. Hello, Knytt Stories.) that I just lack the patience to stick around and find the one or two excellent examples amongst the dozens of braindead copycats.

The title of this commentary is of course ironic. Jason Love is a true romantic -- he'll only fuck you if he loves you.