Over the last ten years, the Metroidvania sub-genre has become a staple of the indie gaming scene. As Konami shifted away from Symphony of the Night inspired Castlevania titles, a bevy of other developers began to fill the gulf. Although this style of game is still defined by open-ended exploration that hinges on finding upgrades to progress in previously explored areas, the multitudes of contemporary Metrdoidvanias have innovated on this formula in a number of ways. Some seek to deliver larger spaces to navigate, while others layer additional genres on top of open-ended world design to create new gameplay experiences. While there have have been many great examples of this style of game over the past decade, we will be narrowing things down to the top five examples of the genre in recent memory.
5. Axiom Verge
Axiom Verge is a game that wears its inspiration on its sleeve, a Metroid homage that is defined by its gorgeous pixel art and its expansive arsenal of discoverable tools. Its most immediate pleasure is its sense of ambiance deeply rooted in a particular brand of 16-bit nostalgia, its synthy chiptunes and alien backdrops transporting us into a mysterious foreign world. Its main point of iteration lies in how it incentivizes exploration with a large number of optional upgrades. While there are quite a few essential upgrades that gate story progression such as teleportation, a grappling hook, and a drone, there are far more optional weapons that have various benefits depending on the enemies you are currently fighting. There are flamethrowers, lasers that branch in fractal patterns, homing lighting, and many more variations which helps make the relatively derivative point and shoot combat feel diverse. While Axiom Verge is probably the “safest” adaptation of the Metroidvania formula on this list, its focus on optional upgrades and its emulation of the aesthetic trappings of a particular era of gaming make it worth playing in its own right.
Guacamelee! stands out amongst its peers thanks to its look and its design, a colorful romp inspired by Mexican culture that marries exploration with beat em’ up combat. Here open-ended traversal is bookended by frequent large scale brawls, as you must carefully crowd control unruly legions of the undead. Although the combat is relatively simple, there is enough complexity here that things don’t devolve into simply mashing the attack button. Aerial juggles and unlockable attacks allow you to string together punishing combos, weakening enemies so they can be grappled and hurled. There is a focus on defensive mechanics, as you must memorize enemy tells to safely roll past attacks and maintain your combo counter. Some enemies can only have their guard broken by specific moves, adding some essential complexity to the battles. While aerial juggles, grappling for crowd control, enemy-specific weaknesses and dodge mechanics are all fairly common in beat em’ ups and character action games, in this case, these systems combine to make the brawls feel dynamic and empowering. The tight platforming is similarly engaging, requiring the usage of your upgrades to clear gauntlets of teleportation portals, deadly contraptions, and other hazards. Although the draw here is mostly the beat em up’ mechanics and the stints of platforming, exploration adds a third dimension to the gameplay, breaking up the other elements of this well-paced adventure.
3. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
Where Axiom Verge is deeply inspired by one of the games that created this sub-genre, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night feels like a direct successor to the other. Helmed by Castlevania producer Koji Igarashi, Ritual of the Night essentially functions as an over-the-top sequel to the types of games Igarashi worked on at Konami. Its defining characteristic is that it applies layer after layer of RPG mechanics on top of exploration-based gameplay, integrating a litany of subsystems that instill a constant sense of progression. While at first, these progression systems feels familiar, the depth of content here becomes exceedingly apparent over the course of the game. There are tons of different weapons, unique abilities that can be unlocked through killing monsters, and items that boost stats or have unique effects. Crafting is essential to accessing this wide array of content, and attacks can be upgraded, food can be cooked to gain permanent stat boosts, and items can be forged. This satisfying ramp of unlockable content also applies to non-optional upgrades, and the movement tools that are gained along the way make traversal increasingly freeing. Ritual of the Night feels like a Kickstarter game in the best possible sense, its long list of mechanics a case of feature-creep gone right. On top of this, the world design is fantastic, featuring an expansive map that strikes the all-important balance of being vast without being overly confusing. Prodding the many corners of the world while carefully making mental notes of unexplored areas is a constant delight, and the all-important sense of discovery that permeates the genre is quite prominent here. The diverse biomes are united through the deliciously campy gothic horror aesthetic that is represented in both the art design and soundtrack. All things considered Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a worthy successor to its lofty legacy.
2. Ori and the Blind Forest
Ori and the Blind Forest is a sensory feast, its gorgeous art style and elegiac soundtrack conveying the beauty and danger of its fantastical setting. The lush chords of its orchestral soundtrack combine with this Ghibli-esque depiction of nature to completely whisk us away, urging us to explore the many alcoves of this doomed forest. Here the desire to explore is spurred on by the urge to uncover more of this space’s verdant pleasures. But the marvels of Ori and the Blind Forest aren’t purely visual, the platforming offers a consistently humbling challenge that convinces us of the hazardous nature of the forest in a mechanical sense. The movement abilities that we gain over the course of the adventure become essential ingredients in long stints of tricky maneuvering. Double jumps, wall jumps, glides, and aerial boosts combine into acrobatic crucibles that test reaction times and your ability to properly utilize the many tools. The smooth movement is aided by fluid animation work that creates a sense of momentum without robbing you of control, making for a rare platformer that is both exceedingly responsive and impressive to look at in motion. When it comes to fighting the hostile denizens of the forest, evading enemies is the primary concern, as your projectile attacks auto-lock onto enemies. This smartly ties into the game’s existing mechanical strength, that being the tight platforming. Additionally, the upgrade system further incentivizes exploration, and finding skill points helps progress in a three-pronged skill tree that improves Ori’s attributes and survivability. Ori and the Blind Forest successfully unifies exploration, challenging platforming, and breathtaking art design to deliver a truly unforgettable experience.
1. Hollow Knight
While the other games on this list have largely built on the Metroidvania formula by mixing in other styles of play or adding layers of complexity, Hollow Knight largely stands out through its masterful world design. The labyrinthine Hallownest is a subterranean maze that holds countless mysteries. Its grim halls are defined by an overriding sense of decay and melancholy, the blues and blacks that make up the color palette creating a macabre backdrop. More so than almost any other modern game in this style, the map design perfectly strikes the balance between being obtuse and linear. Paths branch frequently, each diversion delivering you to new captivating lairs with unique ecosystems and implied backstories. The overriding sense of ambiance and the branching paths constantly reignite a spark of curiosity, creating a perpetually enticing loop of spelunking. I almost always felt as though I was exploring in several different directions, very rarely hitting that dreaded wall where it felt as though there was no clear way to proceed. Exploration is given an extra layer of tension due to a Dark Souls inspired death mechanic, and thankfully the difficulty feels well-tuned to accommodate for this. The battles with the hostile denizens of Hallownest are quite memorable, the multitudes of different insects you encounter along your travels offering unique challenges. All things considered, Hollow Knight is a model example of the sub-genre, perfectly executing on the core tenets that define this style of game. It offers one of the best-designed overworlds in the medium, which is further bolstered by foreboding world-building and art design. While the previous entries on this list are all excellent in their own right, Hollow Knight manages the impressive task at evoking the same elusive sense of wonder and discovery that made games like Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night so groundbreaking in the first place.