What I Mean By Metroidvania
I thought about naming this “What is Metroidvania”, but figured that might sound a little pretentious, as if my view was the objectively correct one.
Regardless, this is a term I use fairly often without any further explanation, so I thought it was about time I made a footnote I can link to for those who are unfamiliar with or unsure of the term. (This page mostly refers to 2D Metroidvanias, but it can also work in 3D, it’s just harder to pull off.)
First off: The name. I have no idea who coined it, but it comes from mixing Metroid (obvious) and Castlevania (less obvious). It’s a concept that’s fairly easy once you get it, so I will try to explain. At its heart, I would say Metroidvania relies on two core ideas: A large, free-roaming level, and the collection of power-ups. While that could refer to a lot of games, Metroidvania is mostly used with regards to platformers.
The level: Or game area, or environment, or terrain, or whatever you want to call it. Typically the level should be completely open from the start (the “start” being whenever the game lets you start roaming freely, either after the intro cinematic, or an introductory sequence, or a tutorial), and the only reason you aren’t able to access certain areas is because you lack the skills/abilities to do so yet. Maybe you’ll need a stronger jump, or a climbing ability, or a special weapon/ability that lets you destroy certain parts of the terrain. Maybe if you’re clever/crafty/persistent you’ll be able to access areas the designers didn’t mean for you to reach until later. Being able to back-track freely to earlier areas to hunt for more pick-ups when you have more abilities is something I’d consider fairly essential to a Metroidvania.
The power-ups: These are typically divided into two types: The game-changers, and the boosts. The game-changers are the ones that grant you new powers/abilities/weapons that let you access more of the level. Maybe you get a double jump that lets you cover more height and distance. Maybe you get a wall-jump or climbing ability that lets you scale walls. Maybe you get a fire weapon that lets you melt ice barriers or burn down plant barriers. Maybe you get the ability to shrink/crawl/roll up to get through small gaps or doors. Maybe you get a way to see through walls and discover hidden areas.
The boosts are stuff like: Increasing your life total, gaining more ammo capacity, a larger energy reserve, straight-up stat boosts if that’s applicable. Typically stuff more geared towards helping you out in combat or to survive hazardous environments without the proper protection.
Other things that may or may not be part of a Metroidvania:
While I don’t see it as absolutely necessary, the vast majority of Metroidvanias contain enemies and the means to combat them. The game-changing power-ups often double as a way of helping out in combat. New weapons are obvious, but a double-jump or wall-scaling ability helps you get out of the way, or maybe that ground slam you got works against enemies as well as terrain, or your ability to slide/slip through small gaps can be used for dodging. It’s also not unusual for enemies that require a certain weapon or ability to be defeated to be introduced. How big of a part combat plays can vary greatly. For some it’s essential, and for others it’s more incidental.
Level-ups are also quite normal for Metroidvanias, though they come more from the Castlevania side than the Metroid side. Again the implementation can vary greatly. They can range from “your character is automatically stronger now” to “distribute your own stat points” to “you earn ability/skill points, and here’s an upgrade tree”. On the one hand, having level-ups provides a steady way for players to become gradually stronger, even without finding a game-changer or boost. On the other hand, this could result in players feeling they need to grind a few more levels before getting past a tricky part of the game, and that could lead to your game outstaying its welcome.
While level-ups seem to end up in most Metroidvanias, shops are more rare, and tend to focus on selling consumables. Healing items, ammunition, special weapons, etc. Shops selling a few extra boosts is also not uncommon. There are a few games that have gone with selling some game-changers in shops, but I see that as a risky choice, as it can again lead to players having to grind if they’ve been avoiding combat and pick-ups, or have just spent their money on consumables.
Another thing that is quite typical, but not exactly necessary, is dividing the level into fixed rooms. Either with doors or transition borders. I believe this was probably originally due to the limited RAM of earlier consoles which put a limit to how much of a level could be loaded at once, and having fixed doors/transition borders was an easy way of dividing that into manageable chunks. It can also make for an easier-to-read map, and give the option of doors that only open to a certain weapon/ability/skill. But it’s also possible to just make a single seamless level, especially these days.
I also believe that any good Metroidvania should give you a map screen to check freely.
A term you’re likely to encounter in discussions of Metroidvanias is “sequence-breaking”. This is when a player finds a way to reach an area/power-up before they were meant to. Most designers when setting up a Metroidvania will typically have an order in mind for when the player is supposed to go where and acquire which power-ups. That is the sequence, and if you manage to go out of that order to snag a power-up or access an area before you were supposed to, you have broken the sequence. Metroidvanias tend to be quite popular with speedrunners, and for them figuring out sequence-breaks can almost be a game in and of itself.
I rambled on quite a bit there, but hopefully this will help you get a better idea of what I mean when I use the term Metroidvania. There are more variants out there, as ultimately Metroidvania is more of a framework than any sort of fixed genre. If you need a short-hand, just remember: Platforming game with a free-roaming level, and game-changing power-ups.