November 18th, 2010
“Metroidvania” is a stupid word for a wonderful thing. It’s basically a really terrible neologism that describes a videogame genre which combines 2D side-scrolling action with free-roaming exploration and progressive skill and item collection to enable further, uh, progress. As in Metroid and Koji Igarashi-developed Castlevania games. Thus the name.
Metroid and Castlevania share a collection of remarkably similar mechanics and design elements which have lead to the term that I reference above, Metroidvania. The pair are similar games mechanically, but are covered in very different contextual wrappers. One franchise is a series of isolated space adventures, the other chronicles a family’s fight against the dark lord Dracula. There are many ramifications in the design that are born out of contextual necessity, leading into the core of these two games and driving a fork between them. Before we get to that though, let’s make a list of the basic properties at the heart of this pseudo genre.
- 2D platforming
- free-roaming nature (few restrictions on where to travel)
- emphasis on exploration
- a progressively expanding ability system tied to the exploration and combat
Castlevania tends to fluctuate iteration to iteration in regards to the ability and combat systems (Tactical Souls system, Glyph system etc.), but otherwise these elements remain fixed.
I’ve split the contextual differences into a range of key categories noting each game’s contextual obligation and then a summary of the differences in design that have arisen from it. As a clarification on what exactly I’m trying to get at, here is an excerpt of conversation that I recently had with blogging buddy Richard Terrell on the matter:
I don’t think that all of my examples have strong influences on the design (and you can tell as I didn’t back them up with examples). Rather I highlighted contextual constraints and then theorised a bit over what this means for the designing of the game. So, there’s not always a clear thread between what I say and what’s in the game, but instead there’s a connection between what I say and something the designers probably had to consider
(Subsections are the areas branching off the main map, ie castle gardens, Tourian, Norfair)
- subsections correspond with the rooms of a castle (entrance, gardens, kitchen)
- subsections correspond with alien worlds and the areas of inhabitants (elemental-themed areas, bases)
Outcome: Metroid games have a great deal of flexibility in the theme governing each subsection as the alien world context is quite broad. Nintendo do stick to a familiar elemental theme though as it’s a clean way to classify worlds and forms for interaction (lava crust platforms, destroying overgrowth).
In Castlevania there is relatively less freedom as the design of all subsections are limited to whatever constitutes a room in a castle. Players can therefore expect familiar room types to be present in every game, like the gardens, library and clock tower. Extending creativity beyond these constraints would only damage the credibility of the context. In order to avoid this inherent limitation, Portrait of Ruin introduced paintings that transport the player to different areas and Order of Ecclesia expanded the game out from Dracula’s castle to a fully realised world map system.
- the protagonist gains abilities through specialised items and transformations
- Samus gains abilities through her suit
Outcome: Samus has more abilities than her counterparts in the Castlevania series as there is only a finite number of upgrades that can be added to a human character before they essentially become less and less human. On the other hand, a powersuit exists inside the realm of science fiction which grants Samus a wide range of abilities from beams to morphballs and grapples.
If considered realistically, it’s quite strange that the protagonists in the Castlevania games can walk on water, float in mid-air and use their heads to bash through walls. There’s certainly an element of the supernatural appropriate to the horror context. The transformation mechanics, where the player takes the role of a various creatures, also draws on this part of the context.
(Stringing is how the games draw the player from one area to another).
- strings the player with keys to doors, physically unreachable areas and some environmental hazards
- strings the player with suit upgrades that assist in overcoming environmental hazards or unreachable areas
Outcome: Castlevania is varied in how it uses inventory and abilities to lead players to the next part of gameplay, however inventory items aren’t nearly as effective as new play mechanics when it comes to creating the “click” for players to follow. In Metroid, the player is only ever strung along by the interactions made possible through the powersuit. These interactions are embedded into the environment in the form of hazards and unreachable areas which make perfect sense given the volatile alien landscape. So, where Castlevania games often have a more limited primary ability set and thereby rely on more peripheral elements like inventory or character transformations to string players throughout the game world, all stringing in Metroid is accomplished through the interactivity granted by the powersuit. For the player it’s much easier to understand something through their own actions as opposed to static objects in a menu (keys and whatnot). This comparison is like comparing learning through reading a book as opposed to learning by doing.
- areas are locked from the player because they have been locked with a key, magical barrier or environmental conditions
- areas are locked from the player because of environmental conditions
Outcome: We can see again that Castlevania uses a series of devices (magical barriers and environmental conditions) which work against the interactivity of the primary mechanics. In Metroid, almost all measures holding the player back (environmental obstacles such as heat pressure, underwater mobility, damaged landscape, large chasms) can be cleared by using the primary mechanics. Because Castlevania games have so few of these (player abilities), other, less interactive, means stand in as substitutes.
- land formation in castle interiors is generally box-like, outside is variable
- all land formation is variable
Outcome: The majority of rooms in Castlevania games are fixed box shapes comprising the architecture of the castle. There are also common architectural elements in all Castlevania games, such as the staircase to the top of the castle and the clock towers. In Metroid, there are no geographic limitations to abide by besides a single room that has an open roof for Samus to lower her ship down into and save stations.
- all enemies are regarded as Dracula’s minions
- local flora and fauna compose part of the environment and enemy set
Outcome: Generally speaking, Metroid‘s enemies are more naturally suited to the landscapes because the creatures are contextually bound to the landscape. So, bats will live in caverns, creatures that live in firey areas can spit lava, obscure-looking enemies live in the dark world etc. The contextual connection in Castlevania isn’t as rigid. Enemies only need to abide by Dracula, mythology and horror contexts as well as the context of the respective room they’re situated in (evil dolls in a doll house, for example). This implication makes the enemies in Castlevania feel more like foreground elements, guests that have made their way into the castle and not regular members of it.
- the majority of Castlevania games feature different protagonists
- Samus is the one and only protagonist
Outcome: The Metroid games must figure out new and inexplicably less believable reasons to rob Samus of all her gear at the beginning of the game. While Castlevania games can start anew with each entry and significantly change elements of the context (time period, character’s gender, backstory etc). Castlevania‘s narrative is something of a family legacy, where the story of Samus is a legend.
The comparison above highlights the way context dictates game design. Also clearly build a case against some of Castlevania‘s design decisions. This I wanted to intentionally explicate on as these properties were a sticking point throughout my recent playthroughs of Harmony of Dissonance and Aria of Sorrow. As a critical player of these two franchises, it’s the differences which stand out to me more than anything else. That is, what Castlevania does to Super Metroid is more apparent than the fact that Koji Igarashi-developed Castlevania games are Super Metroid variants. While I do criticise the series here, I do thoroughly enjoy these games. It’s just that they’re markedly inferior to the Metroid games.
I can’t go without recommending Gametrailers’ excellent Castlevania retrospective. The folks at GT to a killer job with these features, with lots of background research and good production values. Also stay tuned as I have a stack of Castlevania games which I haven’t yet played in my collection, so expect more analysis on this series in the future.