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Replacing MetroidVania

I’m going to talk about one of the sillier plights affecting us - the persistence of the term ‘MetroidVania’.

Robert Green

January 18, 2024

4 Min Read
Stock photo courtesy of Pexels user Fauxel.

Intro

Of all the problems and challenges our industry faces, this one might be the smallest.

But I’m writing this on holiday and neither willing nor able to solve the bigger issues, so instead I’m going to talk about one of the sillier plights affecting us - the persistence of the term ‘MetroidVania’. Sometimes terms like this can serve as a useful placeholder - see for example the litany of titles branded “Doom Clones” until the term ‘First-Person Shooter’ was adopted - but this one has gone on for way too long.

Why has this clunky name stuck around so long?

It’s hard to know for sure, but my suspicion is that the term is still with us for in large part because it’s not entirely clear which aspects of the source material we’re referring to. ‘First-Person Shooter’ is a whole lot easier in this regard. Which parts of Doom does it refer to? The parts where you shoot things from a first-person persective. Simple. MetroidVania is not remotely this descriptive, as is to be expected from a portmanteau of portmanteaus. So first, let’s break down a few things that aren’t core to a MetroidVania.

RitualOfThePrime.jpg

“What kind of term could encompass both of these?”

What isn’t a MetroidVania?

Well lots of things aren’t, obviously. But more helpfully, there are several elements of Metroid and CastleVania that are not core to the definition, starting with the obvious…

  1. The setting is not important - the player need not be on a foreign planet or an ancient castle, as you probably guessed from how different these two settings already are.

  2. The nature of the combat is also completely optional. Again, the two inspirations demonstrate differing systems here, so unlike the FPS, these games can be primarily ranged combat, melee combat, a combination or something new.

  3. The perspective and dimensions aren’t crucial. The titular examples may be side-on 2D games, but there are top-down 2D and first-person 3D Metroidvanias. Again, this is unlike the FPS/’Doom Clones’, which had to be 3D (or pseudo-3D) and first-person by definition.

So what IS a MetroidVania then?

The previous section hints at something pretty important, but maybe non-obvious: I assert that MetroidVania is not a genre, it’s a framework - a way of structuring games and most specifically the worlds they take place in. What we mean when we designate a game a MetroidVania then is typically the following:

  1. The player starts with access to a small portion of the game’s world, the rest of which is inaccessible, but still visible. That is to say, they can see it, or at least how to get to it, but is effectively ‘locked’.

  2. At various points in the game, the player gains access to things (usually new abilities) that will open a specific set of these locks.

As such, the accessible area of the game grows over time - the world is not open to begin with, but it also isn’t a set of discrete chunks. It therefore sits in contrast to both linear and open-world games.

This realization that ‘MetroidVania’ is not a genre helps explain why a game like Batman: Arkham Asylum can be thought of as a MetroidVania where its sequels wouldn’t be, even though almost all aspects of the gameplay are very similar.

Batmen.jpg

“That only one of these is usually considered a MetroidVania tells us something important”

So what?

This suggests that any term that could replace the dreaded MetroidVania should focus primarily on this world structure rather than any underlying gameplay. And the simplest way I can think of to describe this structure is “Unlocking World”. This phrase can be substituted in anywhere we currently use the terms ‘linear’ or ‘open world’, and serves largely the same purpose - to inform the player what their experience with space will be in this game. The term also implies the existence of [conceptual but not necessarily literal] keys, and that the spaces unlocked are connected, or they wouldn’t constitute a ‘world’. Quite the opposite - an unlocking world, when the players job is done, typically becomes a fully-connected space where the player can freely navigate the entire map.

Perhaps you’ve heard the term ‘MetroidBrainia’...

One of the advantages of only using this term to describe the world structure is that it doesn’t put any limits on any of the things I deemed irrelevant earlie -. it doesn’t differentiate between 2D & 3D, ranged or melee, fantasy or sci-fi, etc. But crucially, it also doesn’t place any restrictions on the gameplay type. Metroid & Castlevania might be called unlocking-world action games, but there’s no obvious reason you can’t have an unlocking-world puzzle game or unlocking-world RPG or unlocking-world stealth game, or several other previously unidentified combinations.

Is it too vague?

Probably! But so are most videogame genres and descriptors. At least this one is fairly self-explanatory rather than relying on the conventions of a couple of decades-old titles that most current gamers likely haven’t played and aren’t planning to. By contrast, the current term is unnecessarily specific, as previously described.

Do I think this term is going to take off? Do I believe that gamers in 2024 are going to describe The Lost Crown as an unlocking-world take on the Prince of Persia franchise? Probably not, but I wanted to do more writing in 2024 and it’s too soon to start tackling anything bigger. At least I can say that I tried ;)

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