I played through all four mainline Metroid titles leading up to Dread this past summer. What initially seemed like too much game for the allotted time ended up teaching me two important lessons. First off, you’re never really stuck. Usually the way forward is staring you in the face, just waiting for a stray blast or well placed bomb to reveal it. Secondly, these games aren’t all that long. A lot of their length in the ‘80s and ‘90s owed to having an unhelpful map or no map at all. But nothing else quite scratches that itch of moving forward to find a new ability that changes the way you move through the world, or doubles the number of locked doors you can open. Whatever I gained in picking up the homages and callbacks to previous Metroid games was coupled with the fear that this was the end of the line. Luckily, as it turns out, this world is full of game developers who played and learned those same lessons I did. Here are some more games that capture that Metroid feel.
Castelvania was my entry point to this particular videogame subgenre; in fact, Castlevania as a series is so closely tied to this kind of game that the style is commonly called by the awkward portmanteau “metroidvania.” Symphony of the Night and Aria of Sorrow were objects of childhood obsession for entire summer vacations in a time before I could reliably get my hands on a computer with an internet connection. Being stuck for a week until I could check Gamefaqs again sucked, but these are problems of a bygone age. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a love letter to those objects of obsession. Made in part by Koji Igurashi, the game is indebted to his earlier work in the Castlevania series. You work your way through an interconnected castle, hoping each slayed enemy drops their unique ability for you to use. Half the fun is learning the space, and the other is learning which weapons and ability kit work best for you. It’s pretty much a copy and paste job of those old games minus Dracula, but speaking as someone who loved most of those handheld Castlevanias, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Australian developer Team Cherry really stepped in it with this one, by making a game many consider a modern classic—so much so that every major videogame press event bears the not-so-silent hope that its follow up Hollow Knight: Silksong will be among the announcements. Hollow Knight arguably owes as much to Dark Souls as it does to Metroid and its kin, but fans of both will find something worthwhile. As a little skull guy, you use your tiny sword to cut your way through a ruined bug kingdom. The map is sprawling, the bosses demand precise pattern recognition and bits of lore are hidden around the world to find. The handful of characters you cross paths with are all exceptionally defined. Some are funny, some are mournful, a handful will make you audibly cheer when they show up at the last minute. Despite the scant dialogue, the game’s length still makes room for a couple of truly affecting moments that have stuck with me years after finishing the game.
The Shantae games have always seemed like an exercise in style and charm above all else. The two most recent installments have done away with the beautiful pixel art the series was known for, but the detailed character portraits and new vector based sprites are still impressive. This most recent entry in the series wears its love for Sega classic Wonderboy on its sleeve as much as it does for Metroid or Castlevania. Shantae and the Seven Sirens isn’t as challenging as some of the other games here, but the sharp chiptune soundtrack and gradual drip feed of abilities is as finely tuned as any of them. With a runtime of just a few hours, the game is particularly suited to be beaten in a single chill weekend, if that’s your thing.
Axiom Verge felt more in line with the tone of the original Metroid than any of the games that I’ve played like it. It seemed focused on capturing the NES look until a boss or dying enemy warbled and shook in a way no NES hardware could render. Axiom Verge 2 feels like a small retooling of that first game’s structure, but makes a point to include meaningful changes to your character and abilities to guarantee that it feels distinct. Like all the games on this list, it asks you to become intimately familiar with a space as you make your way through its unfriendly world. New abilities mean doubling back to dog-eared sections in earlier areas to find the stat boosts and items left just out of reach your first time through. Even though it’s the straightest spiritual successor to Metroid here, Axiom Verge 2 makes a ton of cool choices around accessibility that many of these games still leave out. The majority of the bosses are optional, and your defense and attack stats are adjustable sliders in the options menu if you need it. And that soundtrack… whew!
Dead Cells is kind of its own thing, but despite falling squarely into the rogue-like classification, it shares important trappings with Castlevania. You spend many of your early runs wondering what those green piles of stuff do, or why you can rub coffins for seemingly no reason. But once you progress far enough to start finding the abilities that let you interact with those objects, they become new ways forward. The game isn’t so much about committing one intricate map to memory, but there’s still plenty of stuff to learn across your multiple runs through. It plays the ability swapping differently than Castlevania, but the feeling of finding a good balance of weapons and combat abilities to play off each other is unmatched here. Dead Cells also employs the weird 3D models squished down to 2D sprites technique from Ghost Trick. The characters are slightly over-animated, and sometimes move in unnatural looking ways pixel art sprites just can’t. It’s a great look, and one that sets it apart from most games in this subgenre.
Yousif Kassab writes about games, music and manga on the internet. You can find him on Twitter at @Youuuusif (four U’s).