The action-adventure gameplay revolves around mechanics found in the Metroid series, and the Castlevania series. An emphasis placed on exploration and platforming excellence set the two legendary series’ apart from everything else. The usual 2D gameplay, solid action sequences, and the truly awarding ‘I beat it!’ feeling always welcomed players back for another run through the madness.
The genre really came into its own when Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was released in 1997. The perfect blend of Metroid style 2D mapping, and Castlevania type platforming allowed the player to fight back the hordes of Dracula’s castle with a marriage of mechanics from two of gaming’s best action-adventure series. This led to many follow-up titles featuring this addictive brand of gameplay.
The culmination of RPG like mechanics and the staple ‘find an upgrade to backtrack and progress further’ type gameplay, gave the genre tried and true mechanics that most Metroidvanias have found as commonplace. The following list is a culmination of the best Metroidvania-type titles I have played, that don’t feature the Castlevania or Metroid branding. While clearly inspired by these predecessors, they come into their own with unique concepts and killer design, giving any action-adventure seeking fan another title to dive headfirst into.
This is slightly cheating as two titles are listed, but the game mechanics are so similar I threw them together. The series has Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse DNA all over it, and was produced by Koji Igarashi, the producer of many Metroidvania titles, including Symphony of the Night. The player can swap characters at a whim and can choose different routes that alter the ending for the main character. Both titles feature the demon-slaying Zangetsu – not the sword of Ichigo from Bleach – who adventures toward, and through, a castle littered with demons, culminating in epic boss fights and challenging platforming.
Although the plot is a simple one of revenge against demons who cursed him, Zangetsu controls well and can obtain some serious upgrades that make the game easier or can recruit companions in both titles, and is well worth the play for a seasoned fan.
The previous game on this list was only originally planned as a companion to this spiritual successor to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. This 2.5D standalone title that exceeded its goal on Kickstarter by fans featured the characters from Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon in gorgeous graphics with a vastly expanded game map.
The plot is much different, Miriam, a former companion from the retro styled Curse of the Moon, is now the protagonist, and while Zangetsu returns — this time fully voiced by David Hayter — and the rest of the Curse of the Moon cast, Gebel your former ally, summons the demon castle. Featuring a stunning map to explore, truly epic boss fights, and the amazing musical score Metroidvanias are known for, litters this amazing title, with some cool Easter eggs Castlevania fans will instantly recognize. This is a must-play for action-adventure fans.
3. Axiom Verge
An ambitious Super Metroid love letter that plays as well as its slick retro-styled graphics allow, Axiom Verge was developed by one man, Tom Happ. The gameplay hearkens players back to their first adventure through Planet Zebes as Samus, considering the gameplay is heavily reminiscent of the bounty hunter’s escapades. There was a great 2D Metroid draught after the release of Metroid: Zero Mission back in 2004, and Happ aimed to right the ship.
Our Review states “it doesn’t rely solely on nostalgia to bolster itself. It has its own distinct, ominous identity that takes it to a bit darker of a place than Nintendo’s classics ever did,”, adding that it is its own game. The sheer amount of weaponry in the game is staggering as well, with its very own engaging storyline. The success of the original title spawned a sequel with Axiom Verge 2, a worthwhile follow-up. An epic must-play action-adventure, indeed.
This is an extraordinarily beautiful Metroidvania title that drips with style, musical prowess, and traditional 2D action-adventure goodness. Although there are technically two protagonists, Lily and the Umbral Knight, they work in unison perfectly.
Lily borrows the Umbral Knight’s powers each time she throws out attacks, the design of which is incredible to behold. The dark landscape, and detailed character sprites make this a feast for the eyes, and the masterfully penned narrative will grip the player from beginning to end. Oh, there are also strategic boss fights, and all the adventuring goodness the genre is known for, making this title well worth a look.
While Curse of the Moon is inspired by Castlevania III, Infernax gets most of its inspiration from the middle child of the original Castlevania NES offerings, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. The title has a compelling storyline that is based on a rare mechanic for this game type – choice. Each playthrough can allow Duke Alcedor to make decisive choices that weigh heavily on the narrative, making four possible endings occur, adding to the depth of gameplay, with of course, rewarding boss encounters, and a dynamite music score.
Infernax has Easter eggs for fans of Castlevania which will delight Metroidvania enthusiasts, and, somehow, Contra fans. Cheat codes allow the duke to be outfitted with more advanced weaponry, making the already solid game more of a fun gag, imagine jetpacks during the Crusades. The gameplay is smooth and rewarding for the player, and the classic mode restores some of the old school difficulty to the genre. If fans own an Xbox with Game Pass, grabbing this game is a no-brainer as it’s provided to the platform.
The sheer depth of the subterranean Hallownest is a sprawling metropolis, and just like most other titles, features a unique art style that can simply be described as ‘that looks like Hollow Knight.’ This title ticks all of the boxes of a Metroidvania, while also making itself a massive quest that involves pinpoint accuracy platforming and map exploration.
Combat is simple and addictive, with MANY boss encounters, simple but solid combat mechanics, and the art style and compelling storyline can keep the player returning to Hallownest for dozens of HOURS. Power ups provide the titular character with abilities to further explore the expanses of the game map. Even smaller characters drip with personality, breathing life into Hallownest. This is a must-play action adventure, for any gamer.
7. Dead Cells
For the last title on this list, Dead Cells adds more to the traditional action-adventure brand of gameplay from most Metroidvanias and throws in a helping of the rogue-lite genre. Starting in a prison — traditional RPG beginnings — the unnamed protagonist has to make it through a series of biomes that increase in difficulty as gameplay wears on. In typical rogue-lite fashion, death means the loss of all equipment and level progress, but certain key items and abilities remain for the player to utilize on subsequent runs, for larger exploration of the game world.
What sets Dead Cells apart is the random dungeon generator, adding more replayability, which makes no two runs the same, a staple of the rogue-lite genre. The 2D action-based adventure also features abilities that allow the player to make further progress, and, of course, huge boss fights to engage the player in kill or be killed—and start over—gameplay. This addictive title makes ‘one more run’ a lie, as it definitely can eat countless hours in new attempts to make it to the cryptic King antagonist. A great way to lose countless hours with deep gameplay.
This brings us to the end of the Metroidvania list. There are plenty of titles that aren’t included on this list such as the Ori Collection or Blasphemous. The inclusions are titles I have personally played recently, so casting shade on specific titles was not intended, nor was this meant to rank these games. The list is definitely random.
Each of these titles adds something new to the tried and true Metroidvania gameplay, while some of them also pay tribute in the form of Easter eggs and collectibles that hearken the player back to their inspiration. With the relatively new release of the Castlevania Advance Collection and Metroid Dread—after over a decade of dormancy—this genre appears to have no signs of slowing down.
If readers have Metroidvania titles that I missed and would recommend, please list them in the comments below. As a huge fan of this genre, there are never enough Metroidvanias to jump into.