Ever since the launch of Space Invaders (1978), Japanese video games have been taking the world by storm, but in addition to becoming hits, some of these games have also achieved the status of archetypes of styles or genres that have definitively affected to followers. A list of such games would include, among others, Super Mario Bros. (1985), Double Dragon (1987), Contra (1987), Raiden (1990), Street Fighter II (1991), and Final Fantasy VII (1997). Many of these Japanese archetypes, which occupy important places in the phylogenetic tree of video game evolution, were created in the 1980s and 1990s. In some cases, they were games that had already ceased to evolve or were neglected in their original homeland, but duting the expansion of the indie game market of 2000s and 2010s, they have been infused with new blood from overseas, and as a result they have developed in unique ways that their originators could never have imagined at the time. The aim of this series is to introduce these “descendants of Japanese games” that today are flourishing all over the world.
Supervision: TANAKA Haruhisa (hally)
Writing: Younasi, FURUSHIMA Takayuki, and CHIBA Yoshiki
From Ori and the Blind Forest
The formation process of Metroidvania
Metroidvania is one of the video game subgenres that has shown remarkable development in its own right overseas. The name Metroidvania blends the names of two early game series, namely Metroid (since 1986) and Castlevania (the international name of the Akumajo Dorakyura series; 1986 in Japan/1987 in the United States), which are considered to be the founding games of this subgenre. However, in terms of content, it is generally understood that Metroidvania games are side-view platformer action games that combine “RPG-like growth elements” and “a vast field of action with the emphasis on questing” (although since there is no strict definition, ideas about what counts as Metroidvania differ from person to person).
Side-view platformer action was a video game perspective that flourished during the heyday of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES; known as “Famicon” in Japan), which was symbolized by Nintendo’s hit platform game Super Mario Bros. At the time, various new approaches were being explored to make such games even more popular, with one of the most common being “combining RPG elements,” or, in other words, introducing elements such as character’s growth and puzzle solving. An early example of this was Nintendo’s Metroid (1986).
In this game, by collecting the power-up items scattered throughout the labyrinth, the player can expand the explorable area, and if they can obtain more items in the expanded area, the quest area will expand again. In the side view platformer action genre, which until that time had mainly consisted of stage clear based escape games, Metroid adopted a exploration-based style that allowed the player to go back and forth between the game’s stages. Metroid sold more than one million units in Japan and overseas in total and won a legion of fans. Despite this success, however, it could not become an archetype that would go on produce numerous “successor” games. A number of side-view platformer action games appeared subsequently, but only a handful of them, apart from the sequels to the original Metroid, could be said to be true descendants of Metroid—at least at that time.
However, about a decade after Metroid, a notable successor game appeared. This was Akumajo Dorakyura X Gekka no Yasokyoku (Castlevania X: Symphony of the Night) (1997), a PlayStation title from Konami. Castlevania was another long-lasting series of side-scrolling platformer action games, the first of which was launched in the same year as Metroid, but basically it has evolved along a different axis. This game represented a major change of orientation, turning into a quest-type game similar to Metroid. In fact, the influence of the Super Nintendo game Zelda no Densetsu: Kamigami no Triforce (The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past) (1991 in Japan/1992 in Europe and the United States) is said to have been greater than that of Metroid, so while it may not be considered a Metroid successor in the strict sense, the fact remains that many players at the time noted its similarities to Metroid.
It wasn’t only the Japanese who were concerned about these similarities. In 2001, the term Metroidvania was coined by someone in the Western player community to describe what the two games shared in common (*1). Initially, this term referred exclusively to the Castlevania series, but after a while, it came to be treated as a subgenre name and its interpretation was expanded to encompass all video games, both old and new and from all over the world, that shared certain similar elements. In the 2000s, the term Metroidvania was confined mainly to the realm of internet slang, and only rarely appeared in game media. But behind the scenes, the number of quest-type side-view platformer action games continued to increase little by little throughout the decade, and then in the 2010s, the number of such games skyrocketed as the indie game market expanded. As a result, Metroidvania became firmly established as the name of a subgenre.
Now that the word Metroidvania has been imported back into Japan, the originators of the subgenre are continuing to release new titles on the market, but the leadership is no longer in Japan and both the supporters and the players are global. Even today, various new Metroidvania games continue to be produced around the world, ranging from orthodox and conventional titles to bizarre and unconventional games that Japanese creators would never have thought of. The subgenre has gained the freedom that comes from no longer being in the hands of its originators. In the following sections, we will examine four historic Metroidvania games that are still playable today and review them as titles deserving special attention from the standpoint of their unique development which took place overseas.
Four featured Metroidvania games, each representing a unique and international take on ‘Made in Japan’
The latest game in a series still being cultivated by America’s first NES generation: Shantae and the Seven Sirens (2020)
From Shantae and the Seven Sirens
Shantae, a series of comical Metroidvania games in which a half-genie girl plays an active role in a fantasy world with steampunk elements, is the signature title of the California-based video game developer WayForward Technologies. Five games in the series have been released so far. The first, launched in 2002 for the Game Boy Color handheld game console and entitled simply Shantae, appeared before the term Metroidvania was coined, but it was clearly influenced by the systems of Metroid and Castlevania games. In that sense, it was worthy of being called the first ever third-party Metroidvania game, although like Castlevania X: Symphony of the Night, it actually owed more to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past than by Metroid.
Overall, the first Shantae game followed the grammar and taste of Japanese games decently, adopting an attitude that was extremely unusual for Western games at the time. A lot of makers tried to develop games like those from Japan by imitating existing games, but the results usually ended up being either overwhelming or else lacking in taste. The first Shantae game was clearly different in this respect, although it was still rather rough.
The reason why the almost unknown WayForward was able to create such a game is because Matt BOZON, who worked on Shantae, is a game designer of the NES generation. He is a member of the first generation of Americans to have grown up experiencing Japanese NES games. At the same time, he was also trained in Disney’s animation production style. The visual aspects of Shanti are a result of both of these types of know-how. I should add that it was also very unusual at the time to see an American-made game that incorporated Japanese anime patterns.
There were many things to see in this game, but it was released at the tail end of the Game Boy era. This was after the new Game Boy Advance model had already been introduced, and it was not a commercial success (it was released only in the United States, with sales of around 20,000 to 25,000). Nevertheless, Shantae succeeded in gaining some dedicated fans, and WayForward was eager to produce a sequel. In 2010 came the release of a second title, Shantae: Risky’s Revenge (Japan 2016), which had evolved to be more user-friendly, and in 2014, the third game in the series, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse (Japan 2015) appeared. The overall level of perfection of Shantae as a game reached its peak in this third incarnation. However, it is one of the most difficult games in the series to play, and the scenario situates it in the middle of what at the time was a trilogy, so it may be a little too challenging for first time players.
In terms of ease of accessibility, the fifth and latest game in the series, Shantae and the Seven Sirens, is probably the best. Players can enjoy WayForward’s definitive vivid and detailed character animation together with modern visuals, and above all, the level of difficulty is extremely low, making it easy for beginners. In the Metroidvania subgenre, which tends to be associated with high difficulty, this game can be recommended as an introduction to the subgenre itself. The game’s system has not been renewed unnecessarily and it fully inherits the fun aspect of the earlier titles. On the other hand, the design is fairly classical for a present-day Metroidvanias, but this is understandable when you consider that it is backed by the dignity and stability of WayForward, a company that has supported the subgenre for twenty years.
One unsatisfactory point is the noticeable lack of explanation about the story or the setting. This criticism is not limited to the latest title, but even though established knowledge and characters from the previous games appear here and there, no explanation of their presence is provided at all. Nevertheless, the scenario is independent of the rest of the series, so even if you don’t understand it, you won’t have any major problems playing it.... (By TANAKA Haruhisa (hally))
A brilliantly formed and absolutely fascinating take on another original Japanese video game subgenre—the Death Game: Salt and Sanctuary (2016)
From Salt and Sanctuary
Metroidvania is a video game subgenre that originated in Japan and later spread to the rest of the world, but Salt and Sanctuary, developed by Ska Studios of Seattle in the United States, added a “Death Game” element to this category of games. A Death Game is a single-player game that is extremely difficult and requires going through repeated “game overs” before the game can be completed. Naturally, there have been many of these Death Games over the long history of video games. However, a game by the Japanese creator King, Jinsei Owata no Daiboken (The Big Adventure of Owata’s Life) (2007), and Demon’s Souls (2009) followed by Dark Souls and its sequels (hereafter the Souls series), all developed by the major Japanese game developer FromSoftware, were the major triggers that led to the global awareness of Death Games as a category. The Souls series has become so popular that it has spawned such a multiplicity of successor games that a “Soul-like” game subgenre has been created. Salt and Sanctuary is an example of Soul-like Death Game Metroidvania in which players can probably sense a lot of Japanese influence.
After his ship is wrecked and the hero is thrown overboard, he finds himself adrift on a foggy beach. He is marooned on a cursed island infested with scary monsters. The only thing he can rely on is himself and the God he believes in. Salt and Sanctuary is a Metroidvania game that takes the player on an adventure through this dangerous world. The vast map includes areas such as castles, marshes, and ancient ruins, and each of these areas is filled with dangerous enemies and even more powerful bosses. The player is able to enhance a variety of skills by leveling up each of the professions (classes) that they initially select, and they can also choose equipment that matches their tactics when confronting difficult enemies.
The influence of the Souls series can be felt in many areas, including in the dark fantasy worldview, the recovery items that return to the player’s possession at checkpoints along the way, the system whereby items that have become experience points are lost when the player “dies” although they are given one chance to recover them, and the ability to leave messages for other players. Salt and Sanctuary combines the relatively new Death Game and Soul-like contexts with Metroidvania, which has been adored by fans ever since the retro era. As a video game subgenre, Metroidvania has always been a real challenge that demands a high degree of toughness from players and presents them with considerable difficulties. Salt and Sanctuary adds even more challenging elements for players who enjoy this kind of game.
Naturally, Salt and Sanctuary, which presents players with even greater challenges, boasts an extremely high degree of difficulty. While playing techniques are required, a knowledge of the weaknesses of each boss, the hidden locations of powerful items, and the development of characters that can make full use of these items are also vitally important. Whether the player relies on their own sense of style, explores the areas thoroughly, or gathers information, the range of these strategies is what makes the game such a challenging one. In addition, this breadth of strategy is one of the main attractions of Metroidvania, which marks a starting point, and the fact that I was able to extract and incorporate this into my own work is what made this game a hit.
Perhaps in response to the success of this game, a sequel called Salt and Sacrifice is currently under development (as of July 2021). If you’re curious, why not travel to this dangerous island and prepare for a further round of life-and-death battles? (By Younasi)
An example of Mexican physical Metroidvania: The Guacamelee! Series (2013–)
From Guacamelee! 2 (2018)
While the inaugural titles in this subgenre, whether science fiction or gothic, have a dark and serious atmosphere, the Guacamelee! series (known as Masked Warriors in Japan) is characterized by bright colors and comical touches. The main character is the masked El Luchador (“the wrestler”); his enemies are mainly skeletons like those associated with the traditional Mexican holiday, the Day of the Dead; and the music is also reminiscent of Mexican folk music, giving this game a very strong regional flavor. The title is also a play on the name of the Mexican dish guacamole. Surprisingly, this game was developed in Canada by the Tronto-based Drinkbox Studios, but the lead artist Augusto Quijano is from Mexico and his ideas provided the original inspiration for the series.
As a Metroidvania game, Guacamelee! is unique in placing a strong emphasis on combat, and in addition to the platform section where jumping is combined with other actions to move forward, the combat section where the hero is trapped in a room and defeats all his enemies is adeptly mixed. While there are growth elements and the enjoyment in common with the rest of the subgenre that allows players to gradually expand their reach by acquiring new abilities, as in modern Metroidvania games, tempo is emphasized more than exploration by showing the players where they are heading to some extent. So even if a player happens to lose their life, they can immediately take up the challenge again from the same point.
Since the main character is a wrestler, naturally he fights with punches, kicks, and throws, but the abilities he gains as the game progresses are centered on techniques such as jumping uppercuts and flying body presses. Not only are these powerful special moves, they are also tools to help the player traverse the map, and they can be used for climbing up to high places with a jumping uppercut or for destroying blocks on the ground with a flying body press. In addition, there are superhero actions, such as running up a cliff face. Many of these actions can be easily performed with combinations of the Up, Down, Left and Right buttons, and the source of the inspiration behind the successful integration of the combat and platforming actions was the Subspace Emissary mode in the Wii release of Super Smash Bros (2008) (*2).
From Guacamelee! 2
One thing that makes Guacamelee! unique among Metroidvania games is that there are many scenes in which the hero fights lots of different enemies at the same time, and the repeated “tear and throw” combat is reminiscent of belt-scrolling action games such as Final Fight (1989) and Nekketsu Koha Kunio-kun (Hot Blooded Tough Guy Kunio) (1986). The highlight of the game is the “throw,” where the player grabs an enemy that has been weakened with a blow and throws it at a group of enemies, killing them all in one fell swoop. In addition, the game allows the player to chase after enemies that have been blown into the air by jumping after them, and it also boasts some of the features found on the more stylish action games, such as displaying a series of attacks connected in succession in terms of the number of combos. Guacamelee! is also unique in this subgenre in that it supports drop-in co-operative play by up to four players.
Unfortunately, while a sequel, Guacamelee! 2, was released in 2018, only the original game, Guacamelee!, is available in a Japanese version. (By CHIBA Yoshiki)
On the artistic front, there is also the influence of Studio Ghibli: The Austrian fantasy Ori Series (2015–)
From Ori and the Blind Forest
Ori and the Blind Forest, developed by Moon Studios in Austria, is built around a heroic tale about a small white guardian spirit named Ori who fights to protect the Forest of Nibel with a partner named Sein. The player can explore the vast, beautifully and carefully depicted fields, learn new abilities such as double jumping and wall jumping, and expand the range of their exploration. Items that increase their HP and energy are hidden along the way, and by defeating enemies and collecting experience, they can unlock a variety of abilities.
The graphics are beautiful and the entire game is enjoyable and stress-free. With the PlayStation® 5/Xbox Series X|S generation, short load times have become even more essential, and this game is no exception, as it allows a vast field to be reproduced on the screen with virtually no loading.
An even bigger feature is the emphasis on movement as a fun aspect of gameplay. Attacks in this game are based on automatic lock-on targeting. If the target is in range, the player can hit the Attack button repeatedly to hit the target. This means there is less need to aim at the enemy and so the player can concentrate on evading enemy attacks.
From Ori and the Blind Forest
However, these things cannot be said to make Ori and the Blind Forest easy to play. Rather, this game falls into the “fairly hard” category. Nevertheless, the difficulty and fun of moving at high speed using double jumps, wall jumps, and “bashing,” where Ori flies off in the opposite direction after repelling enemies and various objects with a flick, is part of the reason why this game is such a masterpiece. The chase scenes using these elements are the highlights of the game, complete with a series of spectacular developments and breathless action sequences.
Amid the high level of attention that Ori and the Blind Forest received both before and after its release, countless media outlets have published interviews with its creators. One of the most important influences on this game in terms of its art style and storytelling was the work of Studio Ghibli. In interviews with media in Japan such as Famitsu (*3) and overseas such as VentureBeat (*4) and Gameinformer (*5), the game’s senior producer Daniel Smith and others have stated that they aimed at “attractive character modeling like that of Studio Ghibli” and “a hand-drawn art style like that of Studio Ghibli.”
The developers cited the influence of Kid Icarus - Light Mythology: Palutena’s Mirror (1986) on part of the stage designs, as well as the above-mentioned Metroid and Castlevania on the gameplay. I also thought it was a little unusual that the influence of Japanese games was mentioned with regard to this game’s art style.
From Ori and the Blind Forest
In 2020, the long-awaited sequel, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, was released. In this, Ori remains the main character, but the basic method of attack has been replaced with a melee attack known as a “Spirit Blade.” Also, long-range attacks have become “Spirit Arrows.” The biggest change is that for many of the attacks the player is now required to actively direct the direction of the attack and aim well. As for the story, the number of NPCs appearing in the game has increased substantially, and there are a lot more side quest. Regarding the addition of more RPG-like elements, Smith commented in an interview with Screen Rant (*6) that, “Blind Forest was much more, I’d say, Metroid-like. Whereas this game, to me, is much more Zelda-like.”
At this point, it goes without saying that the influence of Metroid and Castlevania is obvious, but this game also strongly reflects the influence of The Legend of Zelda series. I would also like to write about the impact of this.
In creating the sequel, the studio’s co-founder Thomas MAHLER gave the following answer in an interview with Freegame Tips (*7) concerning the influence of Japanese games on the overall design orientation of the sequel, “How will the next edition expand the game?”
He was referring to the approach taken by Nintendo in creating The Legend of Zelda (1986) and its sequel The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. While respecting the original The Legend of Zelda, the new title deepened the elements of the game in all aspects. There are more NPCs that can talk to the main character, Link, and a deeper history runs through the roots of the game. Every aspect has been polished and made more rounded. This was the direction in which MAHLER was aiming.
From Ori and the Blind Forest
Consequently, the world of Ori and the Will of the Wisps is populated by countless NPCs, who give Ori quests to perform. I’m sure many players were surprised by the bustling world in which this game unfolds, but at the root of it was the impact of The Legend of Zelda.
From the above-mentioned interviews with these creators, we can see that countless Japanese games have influenced the Ori series. (By FURUSHIMA Takayuki)
In closing, we would like to emphasize that the above is only a small part of the fertile Metroidvania subgenre, and that there are countless other masterpieces out there. Well-known examples include Dokutsu Monogatari (Cave Story) (2004) from Japan, which set a new standard during the rise of the subgenre, and more recently, Hollow Knight (2017) from Australia, and Ender LILIES: Quietus of the Knights (2021) from Japan, which made the Soul-like line more accessible. All these have been making their presence felt. The last title, in particular, is the newest hot property in the subgenre and, along with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, released in 2019 as a spiritual successor from the producers of the Castlevania series, represents the re-emergence of Japan. From now on, the Metroidvania subgenre will continue to develop by consciously absorbing the influences of a diversity of old and new games, while juxtaposing the “leading edge” with “learning from the past.”
On June 15, 2001, the newsgroup Useet (rec.games.video.nintendo) included a thread on the subject “Metroidvania is great...,” from Google’s archives.
Aaron R. BROWN, Aaron KALUSZKA, and Daan KOOPMAN. Guacamelee: Super Turbo Champion Edition — Interview with DrinkBox Studios. Nintendo World Report, March 28, 2014.
Editorial Dept./F. Interview with the Development Team of Ori and the Blind Forest: A Somewhat Soothing Game Developed with Japanese Influences [E3 2014]. Famitsu.com, June 14, 2014.
https://www.famitsu.com/news/201406/14055221.html (in Japanese)
Mike MINOTTI. Ori and the Blind Forest’s producer wants his beautiful Xbox One exclusive to play as good as it looks (interview). VentureBeat, June 18, 2014.
Ben REEVES. Ori and the Blind Forest: A Multinational Team Bands Together To Create Their Dream Project. Gameinformer, December 22, 2014.
Christopher J. TEUTON. Ori and the Will of the Wisps Developer Interview: Making Bambi A Metroidvania. Screen Rant, February 26, 2020.
Chris WATSON. Thomas MAHLER: “We tried an approach similar to that of Nintendo with A Link to the Past.” Freegame Tips, March 5, 2020.
Freelance writer. He writes mainly for Web media such as IGN Japan and Game*Spark. His dojin (coterie) activities led him to be scouted by a commercial writer, and he has been working as a writer ever since.
Video game buff and freelance writer. After experience as a field director and being unemployed and a backpacker, he turned to writing about video games. He mainly writes news for denfaminicogamer and reviews and feature articles for various media.
Editor writer. IGN Japan staff member. He writes game reviews and columns. His contributing articles for A Guide to Indie Games (P-Vine, 2021), SF Magazine (June 2018), among others.
*URL links were confirmed on July 16, 2021.