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Metroidvania: Rekindling a Love Affair with the Old and the New

By Jeremy Parish 2009-07-23 17:13:17.57

Tags: Commodore 64 Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PS1) Super Metroid (SNES) Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (SAT) Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (NintendoDS) Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (XBOX 360) Super Metroid (Wii) Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (NintendoDS) Metroid Other M (Wii)

You know, I really love non-linear action platformers. Maybe that's an understatement, actually. I love 2D non-linear platformers. Throw the third dimension into the mix and you end up with just about every game these days; back when bitmaps ruled the earth, though, things were different. Most developers were content to send gamers on a journey in a straight line from left to right, which made games that allowed players to backtrack in search of something more than a high score a welcome novelty. Such is my fondness for the niche that I even went and registered the domain name metroidvania.com, even though I kind of hate the term metroidvania! I'm just that obsessive.

Truth be told, though, I sort of burned myself out on the format a couple of year ago after dogmatically hunting down as many of them as I could find (and playing both Dawn of Sorrow and Portrait of Ruin to needless levels of completism). I haven't even played more than an hour of Order of Ecclesia yet, making it the only 2D Castlevania game I've never completed. (Except Legends, but Legends is poop.) Yet time heals all wounds and soothes all burns, so I'm not surprised that my urge to travel in non-linear paths and collect special items that allow me to double-jump (or whatever) is rising again. 

It's tragic: I'm easily influenced by the zeitgeist of gaming. Last year I was obsessed with roguelikes (thanks to Shiren and all its derivatives released in 2008), and the year before that it was first-person RPGs (thanks to Etrian Odyssey). Now the metroidvania thing seems to be coming back into vogue; Nintendo announced a new Metroid at E3. And then Epic was all, "Why wait for Metroid next year when you can have our Metroid carbon copy Shadow Complex this summer?" And both freeware sensations Cave Story and La Mulana are supposedly heading to WiiWare. It's a glorious time in which we live. So, I've been dipping my toe back into the waters of wide-open exploration once more. At the moment, I'm particularly interested in two games, one old and one merely pretending to be old.

The first is The Divide: Enemies Within, which was brought to my attention by a recent HG101 article. I don't know how many times I've looked at the box for The Divide and assumed it was just another of those interminable early PS1 games, a janky, boxy, third-person shooter... and while that impression isn't entirely off-base, what its boring-ass packaging doesn't reveal is that within its chunky, wobbly polygons beats the heart of a Metroid game. Unfortunately, I'm having a little trouble immersing myself in said heart, because... well, because it's trapped inside a janky, boxy, early PS1 game. The PlayStation seemed so amazing back in the day that it's always a little shocking to see just how much of an eyesore its graphics were. Shuddering framerates, terrible clipping, distorted perspectives, clumsy camera angles: The Divide has them in spades. It also integrates a limited amount of 3D movement into the action despite demonstrating a really awful sense of depth. In short, it is the sort of game you have to want to love. I won't write it off just yet, but I will be keeping an aspirin handy.

Far more satisfying is another metroidvania-style affair, this time for the Commodore 64. "Wow!" you exclaim. "A free-roaming action game for C64? How did I never know about this?" Fear not, you're not uninformed; the adventure in question, Knight 'N Grail, is a brand-new homebrew creation available through Binary Zone for the quite reasonable price of £1.99 (roughly three bucks). For the dedicated C64 enthusiast, the game's also available as both a standard and deluxe diskette release priced at £8.99 and £12.99, respectively. The £1.99 version is strictly a digital download, which offers near-instant gratification.

And it really is gratifying. While Knight 'N Grail is somewhat hampered by the limitations of the C64 -- you press up to jump, and you can hear either music or sound effects but not both at once -- what I've played has proven to be really quite good. While most modern games of this type aspire to be like Super Metroid, Knight 'N Grail clearly takes its cues from the Castlevania end of the spectrum. Not just aesthetically, either, but in terms of structure and equipment (most of which evolves around elemental affinity) as well. And it's a tough game, but forgiving: death doesn't end the game but rather sends you back to the entrance with no cash but all other progress and gear intact.

I'll offer a more complete review if I can ever get my C64 emulator to map my controller correctly, but really I don't think it's fully necessary. It's a respectable adventure-driven platformer that you can download for three dollars, giving you the satisfaction of legal emulation while also supporting the game's creator. Heck, I'd say you have a moral imperative to grab a copy. Something to tide you over 'til Shadow Complex, at least.

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Comments (6)

  • BlindsideDork
  • Bad name?

    Posted: userComment.createdDate by  BlindsideDork

    Correct me if I am wrong but wasn't the term "Metroidvania" used originally to describe how a Castlevania game plays with exploring and one giantconnected level?

    In other words...wouldn't this genre just be called just METROID? Adding the vania just doesn't make sense since it bares no resemblance to a Castlevania game. Am I right? If so, once again Nintendo's black sheep takes another hit and lack of credit.

  • jparish
  • uh...

    Posted: userComment.createdDate by  jparish

    Are you being facetious, or do you really see videogames as martyrs?

  • thunderfingers
  • HG101 and The Divide

    Posted: userComment.createdDate by  thunderfingers

    I too found out about The Divide on HG101. I just happened to stumble over a copy at my local Game Xchange for $10 and snatched it up thanks to that aticle. I haven't played much of it yet, but I'll chime in when I do.


    BTW Parish. Do you spend hours in Kurt's articles like I do. That site takes up all my time, and eventually all my money because I rush out and buy the stuff I never heard of until that site educated me. Like the original Breath of Fire. One of the best games I should've played when I was a teenager.

  • Warlock82
  • Interesting

    Posted: userComment.createdDate by  Warlock82

    This is maybe going a bit off topic, but that description of Knight N' Grail actually reminded me a bit of a different game - Zeliard for PC.  It could maybe be described as a metroidvania type game, though there is less emphesis on item-progression (there is *some*, such as gear that allows you to widthstand the heat of certain rooms, boots that let you walk up slopes, etc).  As the name might suggest, it does share some similarities to Zelda (mainly Zelda 2), but it's a free-form, open platformer (though actually the environment was mirrored in a Pac-man like fashion only from all four sides - sometimes the best way to get "down" was to actually go up Wink).  It also had elemental magic similar to what you described. 

    Now I have the sudden urge to play this game again.

  • chrisswiss
  • Haven't finished Ecclesia yet?

    Posted: userComment.createdDate by  chrisswiss

    If I told you that somehow Ecclesia made me feel like Iga combined together the things I love about Castlevania and some of the better ideas the Mega Man franchise had (as in, you switch spells for the same reason you switch weapons in Mega Mans 1-3 & 9), would that get you to finish it?

    Is Aquaria a Metroidvania, or does its lack of jumping lump it into a borderline case?

  • beanburritos
  • Free-roaming action game on C64

    Posted: userComment.createdDate by  beanburritos

    There was a classic free raoming action game on the C64, Impossible Mission. It had dozens of rooms linked together via a system of elevators that was less a hub, more a series of hubs that you could switch between by navigating rooms. The game gave you this big (for 64K) world and let you run with it. The objective would make 100% completionist happy, and the was a fairly generous time limit, although instead of lives, each death cut into your remaining time, allowing you to generate an unwinnable situation for yourself.

    I thought it was pretty well known, but I still recommend you give it a shot. I'm hoping the C64 version shows up on VC.

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