Looking at the Metroidvania Formula

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Looking at the Metroidvania Formula

#1 Post by Ketzal »

(In case anyone doesn't know what the hell I'm talking about, a Metroidvania game is a game that's usually characterized by a sprawling, directly connected game world where areas are locked off until you acquire certain items or abilities to progress through, and sometimes has RPG elements like stats)

I felt like making an article about this because right now I'm kind of on a Metroidvania kick. I spent a weekend playing through most of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and since then have been trying to find other Castlevania games to play to sate my hunger for moar of that kind of gameplay.

The next game I ended up playing was Circle of the Moon for the Gameboy Advance, and it seemed promising from what I read about it. RPG stats that allow a little customization? check. Sprawling game world with paths unlocking as I collect abilities and equipment? check. Card system that allows me to use a bunch of different magical effects to bolster my character? Didn't see that one coming, but hell, why not!

...It was disappointing. MAN, was it disappointing.

Boring enemies, boring settings, boring power-ups, even the card system was less substantial than I thought it would be. The only interesting part was the bosses, but those just ended up being frustrating because the rest of the game was such a chore to go through, and losing to those bosses just meant trudging through more of the crappy parts of the game to be prepared enough to beat them. I didn't get it, it was using the EXACT same formula that Symphony of the Night used (it even tried doing new things with the inclusion of the card system), but it just felt BORING in comparison. Why?

The answer came to me when I started thinking back on a video that was made by a guy called Egoraptor in a series he dubbed Sequelitis. In the video in question, the guy analyzes the differences between Castlevania 1 and 2 for the NES. I know, why am I thinking of a video about NES Castlevania games when I'm talking about more modern ones with completely different gameplay styles?

Well, because between the two older games, Castlevania 2 actually has a some key similarities with the Metroidvania games: it had a sprawling overworld that you could explore through, but some areas were blocked off until you acquired certain items or abilities, just like in Symphony of the Night. However, Egoraptor spends most of the video criticizing Castlevania 2 for boring enemy placement, bad color pallettes and frustrating or pointless gameplay elements like farming up the game's currency for items, among other things.

And then near the end of the video, he has this to say:
Egoraptor wrote:Castlevania Two's cheap lastability is easily identifiable because it falls flat in so many areas (AKA IT SUCKS), but the more recent Castlevanias have been using the exact same tactics that I've been complaining about: you do a lot of running around, you level up your strength, you have to get items in order to move forward, but these games get unreal praise. Why is that?

It would be because they use design choices that complement all the [censored] boringness: leveling up feels good because of all those sparkly sounds and colors, it feels good to hit enemies, running around is fast and jumping around is fun, you get a lot of power-ups that change how you play the game a little bit at a time. You get small rewards frequently, it's just very fast-paced and feels very conducive to mindlessley running around, because you weren't constantly hindered by this (Castlevania Two's) choppy platforming and slow whipping. But are you getting anything more out of it than when you're playing Simon's Quest with like a walkthrough? Do you feel like you're legitimately beating a hard boss or an enemy by grinding for a while and getting the best sword and then wailing on him until he falls? Are you getting any sense of genuine satisfaction from having to run back and forth through places you've already been in order to get something that allows you to move forward more easily? Or do you still feel the most satisfied when you use your wicked cunning to get around these super-perilous obstacles? (Castlevania 1)
I found this interesting because he was basically saying that the Metroidvania formula at its core was based around padding game time by adding grinding and roadblocks to the classic Castlevania standard. And to a point, he's right: some of the bosses I encountered in SotN and Circle of the Moon were difficult more because I just wasn't doing enough damage and had to spend a little more time exploring and gearing up before fighting them, and some of the abilities in Circle of the Moon felt like blatant excuses to make it take longer to progress through the game while adding nothing extra to how you fought or explored otherwise.

But then there's that part about design choices: the feel of combat, of leveling up, of running around the areas. All of that felt awesome in Symphony of the Night because the areas were detailed, the enemies were widely varied and morbidly interesting, and as you progressed you acquired abilities that not only allowed you better freedom of movement but even some that helped in combat situations or when you needed to retrace through certain parts of the castle. To me, Circle of the Moon had NONE of that, and this was after playing through 50% of the game according to the game itself.

TL;DR: After loving the hell out of one Metroidvania-style game and absolutely hating another, I wanted to analyze the formula for such a style of gameplay and look at what made the first one so fun. After looking at commentary from a popular youtuber and his video, I came to realize that it's part design, part dressing: the feel of the game and its tools that the player uses can really make or break the sprawling adventure that a Metroidvania can be. It was done fantastically in Symphony of the Night, but in terms of Circle of the Moon it made it feel more like a chore.

...The only thing is that Circle of the Moon definitely did bosses better. If SotN had those kinds of bosses, it'd be the best game ever in my book.

What do you guys think? What're your opinions on Metroidvania-style games?

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Re: Looking at the Metroidvania Formula

#2 Post by Razmoudah »

Well, I'm more partial to the Metroid take on them than the Castlevania take on them (there are two core game series that define the Metroidvania game style, and so far you've only talked about one of them). Although I do typically prefer games with an RPG-style leveling system to them I haven't really enjoyed many of the Castlevania ones, mostly because you have massive amounts of Power-Leveling to do before every boss with the regular enemies having little to no variation in how you fight them (and the rewards for fighting them very steadily, and even rapidly in later parts, falling behind the growth curve of the character). To me, if you want to see how the basic premise of Metroidvania works best first you need to play some Metroid, namely Metroid III: Super Metroid (SNES, available on the Wii's virtual console, or was that the Wii U's? I know it was one of them.), Metroid: Zero Mission (GBA, remake of the original Metroid with updated graphics and a few changes to the game play), and Metroid Fusion (GBA, some rather drastic changes to certain elements of the game play, and the bosses are a very mixed bag, only two of them felt like much of a challenge but it has some of the best normal enemy setups amongst the Metroid family in my opinion).

Now, for those of you who are interested in playing the newer ones you could try the Metroid Prime Trilogy (Prime I and II were NGC, while III was Wii, but the Prime Trilogy is all Wii, with updated controls for I and II that make them more playable that way in my opinion), it doesn't play much like the standard Metroid formula, and has some rather strange changes and alterations to the formula, but it's also when Metroid first went 3D. There's also Metroid Other M (Wii) which has received some very mixed reviews. Very different story telling in Other M, with some of the traditional power-ups working very differently and some new power-ups that have peculiar effects (although personally I like most of the new power-ups). Gameplay-wise Other M is much closer to the traditional Metroid, and really feels to me like how Metroid should've gone 3D in the first place. Still, both of the newer ones do a spectacular job of capturing the spirit of what is Metroid and the Metroidvania game style in my opinion. This is from enemy placements, enemy strength differences, how different enemies have to be fought (until you have the most [censored]-kicking abilities), as well as the degree of back tracking needed for power-ups to keep handling the bosses.

Overall the worst example of a Metroidvania game in the Metroid arsenal is probably Metroid Prime III, and yet it still manages to capture most of the spirit of Metroid. Also, the only Metroid game where it is possible to get so over-powered bosses aren't valid challenges is Metroid Fusion, though it still has a couple of bosses with special quirks that keep them valid challenges, but it requires massive amounts of back-tracking through areas to collect optional power-ups that you'll probably be going through right after that boss on the way to the next progression power-up (which usually has a boss guarding it).
Hmmm......about what I expected when almost half of the questions I'd want to select a few of the answers not a specific one.


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