The art of getting lost: Why I love Metroidvanias

I should preface this post by saying that I’ve been on an insane Metroid binge this entire day, which, next to the many Metroid-related YouTube videos I’ve watched, sort of led to me being inspired to write this. I’ve actually also been meaning to write an opinion piece on Metroidvanias, seeing as it happens to be one of my favored game genres, so I figured now if ever is a good time.

As far as I recall, my introduction to Metroidvanias happened with Ori and the Blind Forest back in 2015. I may have dabbled in some obscure PC Metroidvanias prior to it, but Ori and the Blind Forest was the first game of that style that I ended up playing in its entirety. Next to its stellar presentation, I fell in love with the non-linear progression and heavily exploratory nature of the game. Eventually, it led to me hunting down games with a similar gameplay style, and with time, Metroidvanias became one of my favorite game genres.

Now, it’d be impossible for anyone actively looking for Metroidvanias to not stumble upon the Metroid series sooner or later – after all, the series (in particular 1994’s Super Metroid) essentially laid the foundation for the whole genre. Hell, you can’t even spell “Metroidvania” without “Metroid”! The Metroid series was something I’d been looking to dig into by the time I played Ori and the Blind Forest, and I’m happy that it did eventually happen.

But I digress. What exactly is it about Metroidvanias that I love so much?

Before I answer that question, I feel the need to share my interpretation of the term, as there seems to be some difference of opinion between select groups about it. When I think of a Metroidvania, I think of a game that features a vast, open world with several distinct areas and high levels of interconnectivity between them. I think of areas that seem unaccessible at first but open up to you when you gain the appropriate ability. I think of rewards gained through exploration and observing the environment. Most importantly, though, I think of a game that allows you to get lost.

Letting the player get lost – letting them discover new paths and rewards on their own – is something that I personally think a great Metroidvania game actively sets out to accomplish. A great Metroidvania doesn’t explicitly tell the player exactly how to progress to the next objective. While I’ve only played a select few Metroid games, I can tell even from my limited experience that letting the player get lost is one of the landmarks of the franchise. So has also been the case with most Metroidvanias I’ve played to date, perhaps with a select few exceptions.

With that said, however, I’m not against a Metroidvania providing hints as to where the next objective is located. The Shantae series, with most of its games being Metroidvania-like in their overall structure, I dare name as an example of this. In certain parts of dialogue, NPCs provide subtle hints regarding the location of the next objective. But the games never draw out a line for the player to follow – the player is still free to pick their route more or less freely, of course within the limitations of their current moveset. The Chozo statues in Metroid: Zero Mission serve a similar purpose, pointing the player to the general area that the next vital upgrade resides in. Arguably, Metroid: Zero Mission is less subtle than Shantae in this regard, but at any rate, the player is still left to their own devices when it comes to actually discovering the powerup and reaping its benefits.

As a counterpoint, games like Axiom Verge and, of course, most other Metroid games (to my knowledge), let the player get lost entirely on their own terms. The only hint you’re given as to where to go next is the environment itself. Does something look inaccessible with your current set of abilities? Chances are it is. If repeated attempts at bypassing the obstacle prove unsuccessful, you should eventually figure out that you need a specific ability in order to bypass it, and finding said ability becomes your next order of business. Both approaches have their benefits and drawbacks, but I’ll refrain from discussing those in detail.

Ignoring comparisons between games and how well (or not) they execute the task of letting the player get lost, I personally get the most enjoyment out of Metroidvanias when they let me utilize my abilities to discover stuff beyond the “beaten path”. There’s nothing I love more than wandering around in a meticulously crafted game world filled to the brim with secrets and extra items not necessarily required but highly beneficial. There may be a secret in the immediate starting area that’s unaccessible unless I use a powerup I don’t acquire until the halfway point – remembering that secret was there, finding my way back and utilizing that powerup to finally get what I couldn’t earlier is a feeling that defies description.

In conclusion, the thing I love the most about Metroidvanias is the sense of exploration that they provide. The non-linear progression and the gradual expansion of the world as you gain abilities and powerups, as well as the additional rewards gained through more thorough exploration, are the main reasons why the gameplay style pioneered by the series it was partly named after has grown to be one of my favorite game genres over the years. The art of getting lost, I feel, is a unique trait of the genre, and when executed well, it does a great job of immersing me in the world of whatever such game I happen to be playing.

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