In June of 2017, the Retronauts podcast released their first episode in a series on the evolution of the Metroidvania, a term used commonly used to describe platforming games with a heavy focus on exploration and expanding powers. Over the course of several episodes, the hosts established a historical through-line from the prototypes that laid the groundwork to the genre defining games Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
I’d never played any of the games they discussed, but setting the games within their historical context piqued my interest.
After Christmas, I ended up with an Amazon gift card, so bought one of those tiny, single-board computers and built a RetroPie. I decided that there would be no better way to christen my little box than to play through Super Metroid.
I don’t want to rehash what the Retronauts have already said about the game (this episode in 2017 and this episode in 2015)… but Super Metroid is a game about exploring an alien planet, not about defeating an enemy (though the planet is teeming with hostile lifeforms). Zebes is both your primary obstacle and your principal reward. All of the weapon upgrades and suit expansions are just a means of accessing new areas. The enemies just a challenge to prevent you from doing so. The conflict at the core of Super Metroid doesn’t boil down to good versus evil. It’s a struggle between woman and the cosmic frontier, a struggle from which she derives power in a literal way.
I believe that much of what makes Super Metroid a masterpiece comes down to pacing. The game gives you access to the tools you need just as you need them, but never outright. You’re always gently nudged in the right direction and left to figure it out on your own. After an impressive-for-the-time intro cinematic, the game doesn’t offer exposition of any kind. Its story is told entirely though interaction with the environment.
That is the lesson of Super Metroid. We seek to inhabit the edge between chaos and order. The power necessary to succeed is ever present, but we are never completely safe. It is here that we are forced to grow and find our strength.
A few months after the Super Metroid conversation, the Retronauts discussed the other half of the Metroidvania namesake (this episode), Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. They spoke about it as if it was the greatest game of all time.
So I did the needful.
I played Symphony of the Night.
Right away, the game distinguishes itself thematically from Super Metroid. The core conflict of this game consists entirely of a struggle between good and evil. Between Alucard and a castle that is the embodiment of evil. Furthermore, rather than becoming stronger simply by exploring, Symphony of the Night adds an RPG leveling system… and you become incrementally more powerful by fighting. In this way, all of the primary driving forces of the game are more readily apparent.
That’s not so say that Symphony of the Night isn’t still full of depth and surprises. The inclusion of different weapons, armor, and an inventory full of magical items makes for a much more malleable game. No doubt there are multiple styles of play that can see you through to your final confrontation with Dracula. By the way, this malevolent final boss is actually the protagonists father. That’s right. The hero is born of darkness, and makes a choice to fight the evil from which he came.
What an inspiring message for all of us.
I think the Metroidvania serves as a good metaphor for life. We can discover the best of who we can be if we step outside of our comfortable places and confront the unknown. We will find our strength when we move toward meaningful challenge. Perhaps that challenge may involve confronting the darkness. And maybe that darkness is our origin.
Be courageous and a do good.
What a time to be alive!