Fate’s Top 10 Metroidvanias

Usually these depth reviews are deep dives into something gaming that utilizes some of my doctorate in English and go in depth about a game. I do have one planned for Spiritfarer, but that game literally deals with death. I’m way too emotionally drained to work on that, so instead I’m putting this.

This is my personal list, though I’m gonna defend my choices and decisions here. This will only include games I have played to completion, which leaves off several of the Gameboy Advance Castlevanias, Metroid Fusion, Metroid Dread (which I want to play badly, but don’t want to pay $60 for) and, weirdly, Steamworld Dig 2 (which is on my Switch, but I played Carrion instead… I chose poorly). It is my opinion, but a defended one with reasoning. I think lists like these show a lot about a person’s tastes as a gamer, and it’s through lists like these that I’ve found stuff. Anyway, to the list!

10 Axiom Verge

This is a fairly well known indie darling put together by one man, which is incredible in and of itself. It’s also probably the best game I’ve played that leans on the Metroid part of the genre.

The story itself is utterly incredible and fantastic, involving a scientist who winds up on a dying world (dying worlds are pretty common in Metroidvanias). The game is incredibly atmospheric, really nailing the sensation of being somewhere alien and unreal. The story is bonker, off the wall, borderline nonsensical sci-fi stuff with some dashings of science fiction.

The soundtrack is also amazing.

But the game has way too many weapons (it’s in, like, the thirties?) most of which aren’t very well done. The exploration doesn’t give nearly as much reward as later games on this list, and there’s next to no reward for combat, which is a big issue for me (and why I’m not as much a fan of the more Metroid Leaning games).

9 The Messenger

I got to this one real late; as in I played it in the last couple of months. The game feels almost satirical, making fun of the cycle we’ve seen play out in video games: a hero goes on a quest to defeat an evil demon lord, gets power ups, fights evil, but evil always rises. The game’s humor made me laugh out loud at a few points, and it really feels like an homage to games of old.

It’s well known that the game starts as a side-scrolling platformer more in the style of Ninja Gaiden than Metroid. There’s a trick toward the end that opens up, and you discover that all those maps you ninja flipped your way to the right through have different paths, and you have to go back and figure stuff out. It’s incredibly clever.

The music is banging, the controls are tight, and there’s decent rewards for exploration in the form of fun little tokens and prizes.

I… technically never beat this game? I got through the main game and then got stuck on the totem pole boss in the DLC. I literally have a save right before it. The game just has some utterly ridiculous, unfair boss fights. You should not have a boss where you can get 75% through and die in one hit to an unlucky attack or missed jump. it’s cheap; it’s unfair; and I’d call it poor game design.

There’s a YouTuber who made this his favorite, and got very defensive. He should: it’s not that brilliant, but if you’re really into nostalgia, it’s still a very good game.

8 Shantae and the Seven Sirens

This game kinda stands in for the entire franchise to me. Shantae feels almost like a throwback to the fun loving Super Nintendo games. The plots are almost always a little silly; the main character is cute and also weirdly aware of her sex appeal in a kinda comedic, kinda unnerving way. The stories are always a fun time.

So for me, Shantae kinda eclipses the whole fun loving, animated version of Metroidvania games we see. It feels a little cheap using the most recent one, but I think it’s probably the most fun game in the series yet. Shantae’s introduced to various other genies who grant her powers, and has to fight various Sirens, which are mythical beings. She runs around hair-flipping and using various belly dancing based powers, and it’s all an extremely good time to be had by all.

The production feels great with this. It really feels like playing a cartoon, and there’s something joyous about that. Buuuut the game and its series aren’t very deep (they’re not trying to be), and there’s not a whole lot of really rewarding reasons to go exploring every nook and cranny. The music’s kinda forgettable, and there were some repeat bosses in this one that made me groan (I’m tempted to show my pics in a show of this, as I took one of every boss, and four in a row are engines).

7 Sundered

This… this is gonna be one of my most controversial picks, as many think this game is trash. First off, it’s a beautifully done game. It has that hand-drawn look, but while Shantae leaned toward family cartoons, this feels like a lost creation of Ralph Bakshi (adult animator from the 70s, famous for that animated Lord of the Rings; yes, that one).

The action is all kinds of fluid and fun. There’s a choice system involved here where you get to pick whether the main character taps further into eldritch powers in order to get what she wants, or whether she opts to destroy the power in order to break free of its mind altering influence. Better yet: this moral choice has real consequences. Using the powers increases your abilities, opting to destroy them gives you experience to use.

The game rewards you for exploring with new areas, power ups, and abilities. There’s an experience system in place that works well. And the story borrows Lovecraftian mythos and ideas while going in some slightly new places (though you do fight an eldritch god from that mythos; it’s not Cthulu).

Yes, the game has random areas. I, uh, didn’t notice for the longest time? But it does lead to some areas that feel a little less special, and it cuts back some on the exploration and the power feel you get from returning to an area. It is also another of those “hey we’re checking out a destroyed planet” situations, but… I think literally every game on this list has some variant of that? I don’t think the randomly generated pathways are enough to pull the game down, not with an intriguing psychological story, great gameplay, and fantastic portions.

The areas where the monsters swarm you out of no where are complete controller breaking nonsense though. Whoever came up with that idea can do some punishment detail or something.

6 Guacamelee 2

I would not have called this one ahead of time. I thought the first Guacamelee was… alright. It’s a standard Metroidvania that had three interesting ideas:

It’s set in the Mexiverse, which is based off Mexo-American folklore

You’re a luchador and your powers come from your luchador moves

You can switch between the land of the living and the land of the dead.

Those were fun mechanics and all, but pretty well every Metroidvania has some mechanics and the like. The story is all good fun, leaning on parody and clearly enjoying itself. But the requirements for the real ending there got to me, and it didn’t feel fleshed out.

Not so much with this sequel. It took everything I liked in the first game, and built on it. There’s rewards for exploring in the form of life, energy, and secrets. The story became even funnier but also more tragic, as it explores the idea of different realities, what it means to be a hero, and what the Chicken Illuminati are doing behind our backs. It’s a wild ride.

The platforming is great too. There were a few controller breaking moments: I did all the special, unlock the best ending stuff (I didn’t 100% this title; I haven’t with any of them up until this point). The game also sometimes gets its tone off: not every joke lands (meme land was groan worthy and felt like a petulant stab at people who didn’t like the humor of the first game), and there were times where it felt just a bit unfair.

It also involved you turning into a chicken to fight to the death against the forces of evil in an alternate dimension, so….

5 Timespinner

This game is very much a Vania Metroidvania, leaning more on the Castlevania aspects. You control Lunais as she’s sent back in time as a failsafe for her people. They always have someone who goes back before they’re discovered by the evil empire to warn the people to move and therefore not get discovered. That person then has to stay in the new timeline to ensure that there’s no paradoxes. Of course, something goes wrong.

This game plays with the whole other world shifting, much like the Messenger or Guacamelee, including the real time shifting mechanics. It has the experience system I dig, and rewards you with various upgrades and items.

What I also appreciate is that the narrative is nuanced: relationships become tangled in this wider plot, and Lunais has to make decisions based on both emotions and her ties. There’s at least one LGBT+ romance that’s relatively front and center; it’s well developed and makes sense, adding weight to the plot and decisions that come. That alone is gonna throw in some tilt factor.

But I loved the game’s look and its mechanics as well. However, it’s got some ideas that feel half-baked (the familiar system and it’s supposed two player capability), and it could have been fleshed out a bit more. We are hitting the point where I genuinely love these games.

4 Iconoclasts

So this was technically my third or fourth actual Metroidvania played, which may factor into things. It’s another that was put together by one dude, and it’s another that leans into the Metroid side of things (this is the highest ranked one, sorry those who were looking for more: I did warn you). The story involves Robin, who’s originally just a mechanics who wants to stay out of trouble and kind of avoid the Evil Empire that’s running about and ruining things.

The gameplay is solid, feeling like we remember Super Nintendo games to be (not how they often were: play the SNES emulator; they’re worse than you remember). It’s fluid, and the gameplay makes sense. The exploration is woefully underdeveloped though: you really only get these weird currency that can be used to selectively buy upgrades. Once you’ve got your loadout, there’s no reason to look more beyond your own enjoyment (I stopped looking at a little past the midpoint, to give an idea).

But the story is incredible. It’s arguably the best I’ve seen in a Metroidvania, possibly even topping some of the incredible stories that come up. It deals with loss, what we owe to the world, complex relationships (including, yes, another LGBT+ romance that comes into play), what it means to be human, and how we should live. It’s nuanced, with real stakes, real loss (characters on both sides die and are crippled). The bosses have emotional weight to them. It’s just an incredibly well told game.

I just wish that the gameplay lived up to it as much. I also wish the developer would make more.

3 Ori and the Will of the Wisps

The first Ori game is a beautiful game that made me all kinds of frustrated. I do not understand why more people don’t complain about how difficult it is: I died over 800 times in that game. I know: the game told me. The jumps are quite frequently lethal, and they have these great, cinematic chase scenes where one wrong move means you’re dead.

The sequel seemed to realize that, and took a lot of those cheap deaths out. Now you can survive hitting spikes or some things; you can slide a bit during the chase scenes and not instantly die. It probably helped that I played a few more Metroidvanias in between, but still.

The game is also absolutely gorgeous. It involves a lush, dying forest area that the main character Ori is bringing back to life. The world looks and feels alive. The story adds emotional weight by having Ori look for their lost friend, who is the child of the first game’s reoccurring evil bird.

And the narrative here has more nuance. Like in the first game, it’s another giant bird, albeit done differently. The bird has gone evil because of being teased and tormented, but the game makes it clear that the boss doesn’t want to be good. They only want to destroy those around them and make them hurt. That’s an important thing to put: not everyone can be saved, short of divine intervention, and we need to learn to let people go.

There’s a great tale of loss here that has me tearing up a little. The game also does what I love: rewarding you for exploring nooks and crannies with not just rewards, but with lore and a more fleshed out world. It’s incredibly well done.

Why isn’t it higher? Mostly emotional reasons, but I’d argue my number one (it’s exactly what you think it is), is a better game.

2 Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

So here’s another likely controversial pick of mine. This is the very Vania Metroidvania released by the guy responsible for adding that “vania” into the genre. It details the story of Miriam as she’s searching for an old friend that appears to have lost his mind and grow mad with power. The story is pure and utter Japanese cheese, with characters hamming it up and talking about the end of the world and craziness. It’s not the brilliance that was present in, well, pretty much every game on this list save for maybe Shantae.

So why am I putting it here? For one thing, it was my very real exposure to the Metroidvania genre on the whole. I technically played the first Castlevania GBA game when it was released, but I wasn’t all that into it (I’m not sure I ever beat it; yes, the collection is on my wish list on Nintendo). My best friend loved Super Metroid, but weirdly I never borrowed it from him to play. I got this game on a whim, as I’d heard the genre was interesting and it made me interested.

And I fell in love with it, playing it obsessively.

This game taught me the joys of this genre. How it can be fun to scour a map looking for little bits and pieces. Because here, it could be upgrades, equipment, recipes, new lore, or any sort of combination. The combat was constantly fun, as you always got experience, and there was a chance of the enemy dropping its shard, which would reward you with fun new powers. The world offered itself like a puzzle, as most of these games do, but does so in this perfectly polished way that shows what a master of this genre can manage.

It also has a unique-ish look, and some really cool music to go along with it.

I wouldn’t say the game is perfect, but it was at the top of my list for a while, going back and forth the number one. It’s got so much going for it, and it really hits a lot of emotional buttons for me, as well as being a well crafted example of the genre (and a great entry point if you like RPGs, as I obviously do).

1 Hollow Knight

I heard about this game and all the acclaim, but I initially didn’t wanna buy in. There’s a part of me that always wants to go the other way whenever something is stated to be popular, probably at least in part because the stuff I grew up liking wasn’t.

I got this game because it was cheap at Gamestop and I had traded in something else (I wanna say Dragon Quest XI, the most overrated game I’ve ever played). I figured it would just be fun. I started playing it, entering into the world of Hollownest and enjoying myself.

I kept playing it, exploring as I unlocked new abilities. I discovered about this strange, rich world, where the adorable and brilliantly animated bugs have been suffering. I unraveled the mysteries of how the bugs gained sentience by a wyrm who apparently stole it in some form from the light (it’s obscure).

I delved into the lost parts of the Nest. Found the creepy under belly that outright unnerved me as much as any survival horror game. I journeyed through the grass, following the cries of lost princess Hornet, the disgraced illegitimate child of the Wyrm King.

I got the hang of the crisp, easy to learn, hard to master combat. I became a nail swinging fiend who jumped around.

Then I looked at how long I’d played. I’d put over twenty hours into the game without thinking or looking. I’ve done that maybe five times in my entire life (Final Fantasy IX, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Final Fantasy VI, maybe a few others). The game had enthralled me.

The soundtrack is gorgeous. I bought it and use it regularly when doing activities like grading or DnD.

The designs are great. I have a t-shirt with the knight on it.

The map is fantastic. I asked for a cloth version and it’s on the wall beside me now.

Everything about this game is perfectly designed. It’s a masterpiece, and as much as I just sound like everyone else, it’s the best Metroidvania I’ve ever played.

Now, if only Cherrysong would release Silksong already…

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