The indie game market is thoroughly packed with games that proudly mark themselves as ‘Metroidvania’. Titles such as Death’s Gambit, Gato Roboto, and Dark Devotion all use some variation of this formula, along with many, many others. What about this particular subgenre makes it so appealing to both gamers and developers?
The Metroidvania subgenre was established by Metroid and Super Metroid on the NES and SNES, respectively, and later codified by Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. These three titles formed the baseline for what is generally understood by the Metroidvania moniker, being platforming elements, exploration, upgrades, and backtracking.
One of the simplest explanations for the appeal of this subgenre to developers is that these types of games are simple and relatively cheap to make. The design means that assets can be re-used often, with perhaps a palette swap to signify a new area, but without negative impact on the story or progression, since upgrades can unlock new places, secrets, or story when re-visiting old areas.
The large, open maps also encourage exploration and tempt players towards finding the optimum path through the levels, paving the way for speedrunners. The use of hidden areas and secrets mean that players can spend a long time playing through, trying to discover what other goodies might be hidden away in some obscure corner of the levels. Both of these elements promote longevity, meaning players can expect more playtime for their money.
This playstyle does have its critics, as some players dislike the reliance on backtracking, decrying it as lazy, cheap design. Indeed, revisiting areas again and again can become tedious, but with good writing and game design, these problems can be overcome.
By contrast, one of the most praised aspects of the Metroidvania design philosophy is its emphasis on exploration, with massive maps that eschew the linearity of most retro games. The enemies may get tougher as the player ventures further and further away from where they began, but the rewards for doing so are usually worth the effort; such as Metroid and Super Metroid offering up missile upgrades or energy meter expansions, or Castlevania games letting players discover powerful weapons and items that are useful against certain bosses.
Open maps mean players can explore at their own pace, and discover the world that the game is set in. Those who want to uncover every bit of lore and history have the freedom to do so, while those who want to just play the game and skip the story are free to do the same. This lack of railroading was deeply refreshing in the 1980s when most games were very deeply linear; as such, the Metroidvania philosophy would appeal to game developers who want to aim for a retro feel without sacrificing the open-ended nature of many modern games.
The key to the success of Metroidvania is player agency. Metroidvania-style games leave the power to advance the story, to improve, and progress entirely in the hands of the player. When players then succeed in the game, they tend to have a palpable sense of accomplishment as their success is entirely theirs.
With the appetite among gamers for titles which offer a challenge, along with the rise of nostalgia-fuelled retro-styled games, the Metroidvania genre is not likely to be fading anytime soon. The indie game market, seeing unprecedented popularity, is all too happy to cater to this niche. So you can expect to see a lot more variations on this subgenre in the future which, probably, is not a bad thing.