Metroidvania: Crack the whip again and explore a popular video game sub-genre’s twisted roots
“Metroidvania” probably didn’t come into wide use in video game conversations until after the release of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night in 1997 for Sony’s PlayStation. The portmanteau merges the open-world exploration and action of the original Metroid and its sequels with the arcade action of Castlevania. Eventually, this hybrid would take over the Castlevania series as it exists today, and spawn an entire sub-genre of action-adventure games that have flourished on consoles and PCs, up to today’s Hollow Knight and beyond.
Though the term wasn’t widely known, hints of what would come in the Metroidvania legacy were visible as early as Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System and Super Castlevania IV for the 16-bit Super NES.
I replayed both games recently with the release of the Castlevania Anniversary Collection on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC. And, I was struck by how very Metroid-y they were in relation to the games that both preceded and followed their release.
Simon’s Quest was the first Castlevania game to break with the one-directional progression of the original Castlevania, and you see a few more forays into this more exploratory style in Super Castlevania IV, with hidden cave areas filled with loot that break with the series’ linear nature. This can be considered the DNA of what would become a Metroidvania.
Super Castlevania IV diverged from the extra character/weapon options added to Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse to revert back to a Belmont-only player character with the standard whip and special weapon combo. The addition of the ability to swing your whip around in any direction and swing from hooks, though, definitely presaged the more diverse arsenal that would come later.
Dracula’s Curse, it should be noted, retained the linear original’s timed arcade format but mixed in a choice of characters and stage paths.
Another Castlevania Anniversary Collection game, the Sega Genesis’ Bloodlines, was the first U.S. Castlevania game to appear on a non-Nintendo system or arcade cabinet. Bloodlines expands on the legacy while breaking out of the Belmont mold for the first time with a dual character option offering a distinctive choice of the whip-wielding John Morris or the spear-jumping Eric Lecarde. The game also expands the series’ horizons beyond the traditional Romanian locale to encompass a wider setting of Europe on the eve of World War I — another huge jump for the series.
Like Super, Bloodlines dips its bony toes into the waters of of nonlinear play by offering several branching paths players can take, in the form of character choice that determines access to certain areas, and whip-swinging and spear-vaulting over gaps depending on the persona chosen. Bloodlines also ups the ante on its younger 16-bit Super NES cousin with visual effects that affect the gameplay environment and weren’t realized with 8-bit technology.
Many Castlevania games are available now as ports on newer platforms — this collection represents at least the fourth time I’ve purchased some of them, between original cartridges and Virtual Console releases on Nintendo’s Wii/Wii U and 3DS! — and although the Anniversary Collection doesn’t include a true “Metroidvania” such as Symphony or its later descendants, the roots are there … and there are other ways to get those later games, such as PS4 “Requiem” repackagings and Xbox One ports.
Perhaps if the new anniversary release is popular enough (along with its Arcade and Contra cousins from Konami), we’ll get another collection of the more advanced progeny of these proto-Metroidvania Castlevania games? Who wouldn’t buy a Metroidvania Dracula Collection?
What would you like to see included?