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The 12 best indie metroidvania games

October 10,2018 18:18

The latter-day Castlevania games, of course, were the “true” metroidvanias — that is to say, Castlevania games that borrowed liberally from Metroid's style. Shockingly enough, it's been 10 years since the release of the last of these, 2008's ...


The metroidvania genre has been having quite a moment of late. “Metroidvania” may be an irritating word that sends many people into paroxysms of rage, but that doesn’t make it any less useful a word. When someone says “metroidvania,” you know exactly what they mean: A 2D platformer based around exploration and character progression, built in the style of Metroid and the latter-day Castlevania games.
The latter-day Castlevania games, of course, were the “true” metroidvanias — that is to say, Castlevania games that borrowed liberally from Metroid’s style. Shockingly enough, it’s been 10 years since the release of the last of these, 2008’s Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia. The lead creative mind behind the metroidvania line, Koji Igarashi, will be delivering a spiritual follow-up next year in the form of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night ... but let’s be honest, a decade and change is a long time to go between fixes.
Thankfully, we’ve had no shortage of indie developers eager to jump in and fill the double-jump-boot-shaped hole in our hearts. Metroidvania-inspired platformers rank up there with roguelike (or roguelike-like) procedural games as some of the most popular among aspiring indies. And some of them have been extraordinary — as good as, if not better than, many of the games that inspired them. But which one is best? Let’s make it official.
The ground rules for this list: Indie-published two-dimensional platformers published after Order of Ecclesia (e.g. since Oct. 2008).

Shantae and the Pirate’s CurseWayForward
12. Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse
(3DS/PS4/Steam/Switch/Wii U/Xbox One, 2014)
The Shantae series began life on Game Boy Color as a lighthearted platformer in the vein of Wonder Boy III, exuberant but undeniably flawed. Each of its sequels has progressively ironed out those flaws, though some of the original’s reckless glee has been lost along the way. The third entry — Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, which debuted on Nintendo 3DS before trickling out to other platforms — strikes an ideal balance of those two traits. It’s less of a pure metroidvania than its predecessors, but it’s also marvelously refined.
The third Shantae ditches the interconnected world in favor of a series of individual stages linked by an overworld map. That said, each of the standalone areas involves a great deal of exploration, backtracking and discovery, so it undeniably has a metroidvania feel about it. In particular, hunting for the myriad hidden secrets scattered about the world involves a considerable deal of wandering around and scouring old haunts.
As with Shantae’s other adventures, Pirate’s Curse has a brisk, light-hearted feel. The eponymous heroine destroys bad guys with her mighty ponytail and earns new skills. Unlike in the other games, she doesn’t have access to her magical genie powers here; instead of making use of enchanting dances and animal transformations, Shantae instead makes use of pirate tools — which is to say, weapons. The action revolves around guns, swords and even her own disused genie lamp, which gives the game a pleasantly familiar vibe for anyone who’s spent much time dabbling in the metroidvania genre. It makes for a solid take on the genre (that’s a bit heavy on sleazy fanservice at times), and a pretty decent introduction to the basic concepts that underscore the metroidvania genre.

Toki Tori 2Two Tribes
11. Toki Tori 2
(PS3/Steam/Switch/Wii U, 2013)
The original Toki Tori was a Game Boy Color platformer that debuted alongside the original Shantae. The two games couldn’t have been more different, though, as Toki Tori was designed in the style of single-screen Game Boy puzzlers. However, when the sequel arrived more than a decade later, developer Two Tribes decided to mix things up and go open world.
What makes Toki Tori 2 interesting is that, despite its grand scale, it’s still very much a puzzle platformer in the traditional spirit of things. Where most metroidvania games hinge on empowering the player, Toki Tori doesn’t worry about dealing with nonsense like “inventory” or “upgrades” or any of that; you begin the game with the ability to jump (well, more like hop), stomp and whistle, and that’s all you can ever really do through the very end.
Incredibly, everything in the game world can be manipulated through your tiny bird’s meager abilities. For example: You can stomp to cause a critter to drop from the ceiling; it’s eaten by a larger creature; you can lure the sated monster to a specific point by whistling, then use it as a stepping stone to reach a high platform. The entirety of Toki Tori 2 consists of complex scenes that seem almost completely impossible to solve. But you can! With your lumpy little bird’s tiny selection of abilities! That’s the magic of Toki Tori 2 — it’s deceptively sophisticated. And because it’s an open-ended, exploratory adventure, you can wander off and work on some other challenge when a particular puzzle wrecks your brain.

The Mummy DemasteredWayForward
10. The Mummy Demastered
(PS4/Steam/Switch/Xbox One, 2017)
Did you know that Universal made a Mummy movie last year? And that it featured Tom Cruise? And that it was meant to be the cornerstone of a Marvel-like cinematic universe? It’s OK if you’ve forgotten. It wasn’t very good.
But you know what was good? The game WayForward created as a tie-in. Although The Mummy Demastered was a bit shaky at launch due to some clever-on-paper game mechanics that didn’t quite work in practice, WayForward has since patched and polished the game into a real gem. It’s the one game on this list designed most overtly in the spirit of Castlevania, but that only seems fair given that Castlevania has long lifted from monster movie franchises in the vein of The Mummy. Everything from bone-chucking skeletons to swooping bats maraud through Demastered’s sprawling underground passages (and, of course, the inevitable cathedral clock tower ascent). That said, Demastered’s designers like to refer to it as a “Controidvania” given the emphasis on gunplay, so it’s not all deja vu.
What really sets Demastered apart is its death mechanic — or maybe better to say its undeath mechanic. Players control a member of a paramilitary team, and when one agent falls, another rappels in to the nearest checkpoint to take the lost fighter’s place.
Meanwhile, the evil magic that permeates Demastered’s gloomy haunted rendition of modern London resurrects the dead agent as a zombie that patrols the area in which it was defeated until the player can take it out, thereby reclaiming all the cool gear the zombie was carrying. This adds a remarkable amount of stress and difficulty to a genre that tends to fall on the quick and breezy side, and best of all, it’s wholly consistent with the entire concept of the property. You know, that movie? The one with Tom Cruise?

The MessengerSabotage Studio
9. The Messenger
(Steam/Switch, 2018)
At first glance, The Messenger doesn’t look like a metroidvania game. Instead, it gives every indication of being a modern-day homage to Ninja Gaiden — and a darned good one at that. It manages to capture the kinetic action of Tecmo’s legendary NES series, all the way down to the crazy difficulty spikes, while at the same time adding fresh new elements like the sword-slashing double-jump and a handy air recovery feature.
It’s only once you make your way to the end of the quest that it reveals its true nature. Spoiler: It absolutely is a metroidvania game. The Messenger’s expansive second chapter completely recontextualizes the preceding hours of 8-bit action by giving everything a 16-bit overhaul and reworking the level designs. You can also switch back to the 8-bit version of the world in order to solve puzzles, slip past barriers or otherwise explore the nooks and crannies the game’s creators cleverly built into the stages.
Creating a game that works as both a white-knuckle NES-style action romp and a more exploratory Super NES-looking metroidvania is surely no easy task, and The Messenger doesn’t always pull it off perfectly. The backtracking can become a bit tiresome, and certain areas of the game work better in one direction than the other. Still, it’s an impressive high-concept feat of game design, made all the better by the fact that it controls so perfectly.

IconoclastsJoakim Sandberg
8. Iconoclasts
(PS4/Steam/Switch/Vita/Xbox One, 2018)
Most indie metroidvania games look to Nintendo’s Super Metroid for inspiration. Iconoclasts, as its title suggests, dares to be different. Instead, it draws its inspiration from that game’s little-loved sequel, Metroid Fusion. As such, Iconoclasts feels rather light on the exploratory elements that define so many of these games. The entire game world links together into one sprawling and cohesive whole, and it certainly allows for plenty of opportunities to backtrack as you acquire new abilities, but for the most part there’s rarely any doubt about where to go next.
Instead, the question at any given moment in Iconoclasts amounts to how to get to where you need to go next. What it lacks in ambiguity regarding destinations it more than makes up for with mind-bending environmental puzzles. Every single area of the world consists of complex, interlocking passages and switches that demand more mental dexterity than twitch reflexes (though the bosses certainly require plenty of the latter).
Iconoclasts does a lot with protagonist Robin’s limited skill set, which consists of gigantic versatile wrench and a bomb-tossing stun gun. Each area tends to cluster its puzzles around common themes — flood gates, box-pushing, elevators and so forth — expertly building complexity within a set of challenges before incorporating those skills into all-new challenges. At its most intricate (arguably, in the tower stage), Iconoclasts seems almost impossibly dense, with subtle solutions and stage components that’ll leave you wracking your brain for solutions right up until the moment you figure it out and slap yourself for not seeing such an obvious answer sooner. It helps that the reward for your efforts is inevitably some kind of screen-filling boss battle or cryptic narrative set piece, which keeps the motivation level high.

La-Mulana 2Nigoro
7. La-Mulana 2
(Steam, 2018)
Only one metroidvania would dare to make the intricate puzzle design of Iconoclasts look like Highlights magazine. And that metroidvania is La-Mulana 2.
As with the original La-Mulana, developer Nigoro drew inspiration not from the standard metroidvania fare (you know, Metroid and Castlevania) but rather from more primal sources — single-screen exploratory action-platformers for 8-bit computers. Obscurities like Konami’s Maze of Galious, which never made its way outside of Japan. Games designed in an era before it ever occurred to developers not to be relentlessly cruel to their fans. Back when game directors compensated for necessarily tiny game worlds by filling those worlds with arcane secrets and grueling bosses.
La-Mulana 2 imitates the form of those games, with tiny characters running around compact environments: Single-screen mini-labyrinths, all interconnected, all packed with monsters and mysteries. What sets this modern work apart from its 8-bit forebears, besides obvious things like superior graphical and musical fidelity, is the way it takes advantage of current technology to make its regimented environments far more interconnected and puzzling than even the classical 8-bit masters managed.
Two features truly define La-Mulana 2: Puzzles and traps. Often, these things appear to be one and the same. Think you’ve solved a puzzle? Oh, you did it wrong and now you’re dead. Don’t assume this is a game about wanton cruelty, though; no, the cruelty you’ll find here is extraordinarily deliberate and polished to a deadly razor’s edge. La-Mulana 2 hurts you, but only because it loves you and wants you to be better.
Ultimately, the adventure that exists within La-Mulana 2 centers around observation and discovery. Yes, all metroidvania games ostensibly emphasize discovery, but the La-Mulana series feels unique in its application of that discipline. This is not a series where you figure out where to go next by bringing up the auto-map and checking for an incomplete room or highlighted item icon. You advance in La-Mulana through the sometimes painful task of unraveling the mysteries you witness as you play. What does this enigmatic text mean? Is there some significance to the placement of these statues in the background? How do these out-of-place elements fit together? Is there some way to keep from dying horribly when I press this one switch?
La-Mulana 2 has many enemies to fight, including some downright terrifying bosses. Really, though, the deadliest foe here is the sheer inadequacy of your brain. Most metroidvanias you beat. La-Mulana 2 you decrypt.

ChasmBit Kid
6. Chasm
(PS4/Steam/Switch/Vita, 2018)
No other metroidvania imitator has managed to recapture the feel of playing the real Castlevania games quite like Chasm. Its hero runs, jumps and attacks with a grace and fluidity that would make Alucard himself proud. The moment-to-moment feel of the latter-day Castlevanias had a lot to do with the appeal of those games, yet few developers make an effort to recapture the joy of Symphony of the Night’s movement.
Chasm, however, gets right down to it. Where it does dare to stray from Symphony’s design, however, is in giving players this exquisite sense of control in an adventure whose difficulty hasn’t been set to Symphony’s “cakewalk” level. Chasm has teeth. Fangs, maybe. Bad guys hit hard, and the protagonist’s level-up boosts and gear upgrades have been balanced in a way that makes every single stat point count. One of the biggest shortcomings in many of the more RPG-influenced metroidvania games has been the way they allow the player to ramp up their stats in a hurry and blast through the adventure with just a bit of grinding or a lucky loot drop. Chasm doesn’t do that, and you’ll find yourself agonizing over every piece of equipment you collect. Is a +3 boost to intelligence worth the tradeoff if it means you suffer -5 to strength? Is it worth halving your defensive stats in favor of a massive luck boost?
To keep players on their toes even more, Chasm also makes clever use of procedural generation. It’s not a fully randomized, roguelike style adventure, but every time you start a new game the dungeon layout is shuffled. Key progression points and the overall relative location of different dungeon zones always remain consistent, but the routes you take and the mix of enemies you face along the way varies with each new playthrough. In short, the feel of the game makes it a joy to play (even when the going gets tough), while the baked-in variety makes it a pleasure to replay.

Yoku’s Island ExpressVilla Gorilla
5. Yoku’s Island Express
(PS4/Steam/Switch/Xbox One, 2018)
Developers love to smash together disparate genres and hope for the best. Video pinball has been involved in a fair few of those collisions, though it would be hard to say something like Pinball Quest (pinball + RPG!) lived up to high hopes. Even Odama (pinball + strategy game + voice activation!?) turned out to be, shall we say, an acquired taste. But now, all these years later, someone’s finally done it. They’ve turned pinball into another genre altogether, and it’s brilliant.
Yoku’s Island Express somehow takes that venerable pre-video pastime of pinball and combines it with the intrinsically video game-y metroidvania genre, creating an exploratory puzzle platformer that incorporates pinball mechanics at a basic level. A big part of what makes Yoku’s Island Express work is that you don’t simply whack a ball around the game’s big, expansive world. Instead, you control a small bug-man tasked with transporting an egg to its hatching ground. The egg takes the place of the pinball, but the use of a little insectoid avatar means you have more control over the action than simply batting a ball through hatches and ramps; most of the time, you’re maneuvering the bug-and-egg combo to your next destination.
By making the “ball” a critical but non-exclusive element of the game, the team at Villa Gorilla has more gracefully justified the inclusion of metroidvania power-ups. By the end of the quest, you can smash barriers, swing from grapple points and dive below water for extended periods. For a bug, your tiny hero seems quite capable.
Meanwhile, when you do come to the pinball portions of the game, where you fling the egg and its hapless attendant (attend-ant?) around, they’re an absolute delight to play. This isn’t an expert-level pinball sim, so hardcore fans of the silver ball may come away disappointed, but that’s not really the point. Instead, you need to make use of proper flipper technique to open pathways, unlock secrets and rack up currency (fruit, in this case). Yoku’s Island Express tends to be fairly forgiving in general, downplaying combat in favor of exploration and pinball-platforming, but at the same time it also rewards those who have a strong handle on the mechanics and physics of pinball.
By far the most unconventional title on this list, Yoku’s Island Express demonstrates the versatility and broad appeal of the metroidvania concept. And with its unique gameplay, generous design and colorful world, it’s one of the few metroidvania games that’s truly suited for players of all ages.

GuacamoleDrinkbox Studios
4. Guacamelee
(PlayStation 3/PlayStation 4/Steam/Vita/Xbox 360/Xbox One/Wii U, 2013)
Few games adhere to the design mechanics of Super Metroid quite so faithfully as Guacamelee; it practically borders on dogmatic at times. DrinkBox Studios clearly took careful notes from Nintendo’s 16-bit classic. This generally works in the game’s favor, as you’d expect — after all, if you trace over a masterpiece, you’re going to end up with a pretty nice (if unoriginal) result. Everything from the use of color-coded doors to the need to make immediate use of each newly acquired skill to move along carries over here from Super Metroid, and the result is perfectly satisfying.
However, if Guacamelee simply ripped off what was, at the time, a 20-year-old game, it would be a pleasant yet ultimately forgettable experience. DrinkBox may have begun with Super Metroid as its foundation, but you’d certainly never write off Guacamelee as a Metroid clone. The inspiration drawn from Super Metroid informs the broad strokes of the game: The world structure, the interlocking power-ups and mechanics, the fundamental design discipline. Everything else? All original.
From its first appearance, Guacamelee sets itself apart from retro-pixel platformers with a stylish, colorful animated appearance influenced by classical Meso-American art. The overall theme of the game carries forward the vibe of that artwork by taking place in a world based on the Mexican Day of the Dead, featuring characters who fight with luchador moves.
The emphasis on grappling and wrestling goes a long way to distinguish Guacamelee from its peers. The action maintains a kinetic feel and never becomes bogged down with the distraction of combat, because combat plays an integral role in the flow of the adventure. You don’t open all those colored doors with Metroid-style missiles but rather with skills based on your heroes’ wrestling moves. It sounds fairly ridiculous in concept, but in action it works beautifully. Guacamelee is a delight to play at every moment, and the fact that its engrossing combat design complements the larger design of the adventure makes it even better. Oh, and to complete the wrestling theme, it even has co-op play! In a metroidvania! Will wonders never cease?
(The recently released sequel, Guacamelee 2, is arguably even better than the original even if it feels less like a revelation. Feel free to put it here in place of the original if you prefer.)

Hollow KnightTeam Cherry
3. Hollow Knight
(Steam/Switch, 2017)
Hollow Knight is special. A remarkable feat. A rare work. Why? Because it manages to be one of a tragically tiny group of games whose creators played Dark Souls and actually understood what made it good.
Most attempts to bring a “like Dark Souls, but ...” elevator pitch to life revolve around the premise that Dark Souls was cool and interesting because it was extremely difficult and forced players to come to terms with a taxing control setup. There’s a little of that in Hollow Knight; it can be incredibly challenging thanks in large part to the hero’s knockback effect upon taking damage, some of the most awkward jump mechanics this side of Cave Story and a frustrating habit of laying on the hit-effect splash graphics to the point that it becomes hard to keep track of the enemy you’re fighting.
The wicked difficulty isn’t really the point of Hollow Knight, though. What makes this journey so intriguing is how effectively it draws you into its mysterious world. You arrive, alone and poorly armed, in the ruins of what was clearly once a great civilization of insect people, but has fallen into gloom and conflict. Hollow Knight doesn’t send you into this decrepit underground burrow entirely alone — you meet plenty of friendly and helpful characters along the way — but neither does it take any pains to explain the history behind the ruins you roam. Developer Team Cherry clearly put a lot of thought into the world it created and how the play mechanics fit seamlessly into that universe (something that especially shines through in the game’s bosses), but it’s up to you to piece together all the little breadcrumbs you’re given into the full picture.
This narrative approach translates into some of the most engrossing exploratory gameplay you’ll ever encounter. Hollow Knight’s world draws you ever downward, with slowly evolving organic scenery prowled by increasingly deadly marauders. As you travel, you’ll find the game puts a fresh spin even on genre standards like mapping and warps, which follow the internal logic of the game world to feel at once enticing and thematically consistent.
Of course, you’ll also die a lot along the way.

SteamWorld Dig 2Image & Form
2. SteamWorld Dig 2
(3DS/PS4/Steam/Switch/Vita, 2017)
The original SteamWorld Dig attempted to do something a bit like what Chasm did better: Create an exploratory platform adventure featuring a heavy emphasis on procedurally generated content. The end result wasn’t quite perfect, but the bite-sized game didn’t overstay its welcome, so it left a good impression. This sequel, on the other hand, lives up to the original’s potential in every way.
It helps that SteamWorld Dig 2 ditches the procedural elements in favor of a hand-crafted underworld journey. It also gives players more to do besides simply dig down toward the center of the earth; the subterranean realm branches off into forgotten temples, the last hidden village of survivors from the mythical species known as “humans” and more. And that’s not to mention all the interesting self-contained challenge rooms, and the unexpected swerve into robo-chthonic horror towards the end ...
A big part of what makes Dig 2 so special among metroidvania games is right there in the title: Your primary traversal mechanism involves boring your way through destructible environments. This has nothing to do with coasting on the success of Minecraft, though; there’s no construction element, just hunting for optimal pathways into the depths while trying to avoid the horrible hateful creatures sleeping in the rocks. Dig 2 has the addictive gameplay loop of a great dungeon crawler: You make a little progress, return to town to sell loot and top off consumable resources (light and air), and return to the fray to venture a little further than the last time. It’s slow going at first, but by journey’s end your upgrades allow you to climb, swing, fly and blast your way through the world with impunity.
Dig 2’s central mission (burrow down into the ground as far as you can go!) gives it a clear sense of focus, but all the little excursions and storylines around the edges of the journey to the center of the earth keep it lively and surprising.

Axiom VergeThomas Happ
1. Axiom Verge
(PlayStation 4/Steam/Switch/Vita/Wii U/Xbox One, 2016)
Axiom Verge stands out for many reasons, but perhaps most of all because it recaptures the mystery and sense of overwhelming isolation that defined the earliest metroidvania games. Even Hollow Knight feels downright inviting compared to Axiom Verge and its cold, digital world. Everything here pulses and writhes in alien ways, made all the more jarring by the graphics’ mostly-faithful adherence to the limitations of the NES hardware. These primitive pixels shouldn’t be capable of such weird motion and behavior, right? Normally when you come across faux-8-bit visuals featuring embellishments that clearly break the rules of the hardware being imitated, it feels cheap or careless. Here, though, Axiom Verge’s visuals inconsistencies are deliberate. They’re meant to feel wrong. Like everything’s falling apart.
Axiom Verge draws heavily on the original Metroid for its overall design style — not Super Metroid, but the stark 8-bit original. Of course, that’s only a starting point; Axiom Verge offers a huge variety of weapons, power-ups and battles that could never have been squeezed into the NES hardware. It applies a great deal of creativity to traversal mechanics with odd and unique powers like short-range warping and the use of remote drones, and the huge arsenal of guns available to protagonist Trace affords players remarkable freedom to customize their combat style.
At the same time, Axiom Verge taps into the primal metagame that surrounded 8-bit games like Metroid: The drive to break down the games, to crack open the program code. The urge to discover which bits of strangeness were placed there deliberately by its creators, and which were simply glitched-out result of the programmers’ ambitions straining against the limitations of primitive hardware. Unintended quirks and defects have become a part of many classic games’ legacy, flaws discovered by fans then exploited and weaponized. Axiom Verge turns glitches into a core mechanic, echoing speedrunners and expert players who shatter world completion records by shattering the games themselves. Trace warps and distorts the rigid pixelated fabric of the environments around him in order to allow himself — and, by proxy, players — to “break” the world and do the impossible. Think The Matrix’s Neo, but with four-color sprites.
The game further builds on its enigmatic rules and rule-breaking with a mind-bending metaphysical story that questions the nature of reality and the self. It also contains hidden, randomized secret glitches that, like the broken code of 8-bit classics, never quite yield the same experience for different players. Oh, and on top of that, the exploratory action — which combines Metroid, Contra and a number of other beloved vintage classics — is pretty great, too. Axiom Verge stands apart from its peers because it attempts to work on many different levels and succeeds in every respect.

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