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The ship careens through the atmosphere, as rain and thunder crash all around me. With a deep roar, all four thrusters turn towards the ground to slow my descent, letting the ship touch down softly on the surface of Tallon IV. The cockpit opens up and I’m lifted out through the top. Drops of rain speckle my visor, briefly obscuring my vision; my suit’s environmental shielding clears it away quickly. I take stock of my surroundings, noting three visible exits from the large grotto I’ve landed in, but only one that I’ll be able to reach with my current equipment. I open up the pause menu and turn the hint system off.

In most games, a hint system like the one in Metroid Prime would be a useful addition that prevents you from spending too much of your time wandering and getting lost. In Prime, however, it’s little more than an annoyance, precisely because it prevents that very same thing. A large part of the appeal of the Metroid franchise, and ideally the entire Metroidvania genre, is exploring and experimenting with the environment. A trail of glowing bread crumbs that takes you directly to your destination is not conducive to that end. However, traversing the same environments over and over would quickly get boring if not for the clever implementation of power-ups, equipment and abilities that change the way you move, engage and interact with the world.

Mechanical additions like the the Space Jump or the Grapple Beam (or Axiom Verge‘s Grapple Hook) are designed to alter how the player perceives and moves through the environment. Whereas more traditional platformers like Super Mario or Mega Man will present the player with new and varied levels to progress through in order to constantly provide new experiences, a well-designed Metroidvania can keep the environment the same but change the way player interacts with it. This changing perspective keeps backtracking–something the genre is both famous for and relies upon to function–from becoming tedious or repetitive.

Super Metroid‘s Ice Beam, for example, allows the player to freeze their enemies in place. This means that not only can the player incapacitate enemies much more quickly, allowing for quicker traversal of certain areas with particularly tough enemies that would otherwise be difficult to fight, but also that the player can use those enemies as platforms to jump on and reach higher areas. The Ice Beam isn’t just a weapon, it’s a tool for exploration and movement that gives the player access to all sorts of new areas and possibilities.

Like older Metroid or Castlevania titles, Guacamelee! has the player collect powerups and upgrades in order to access new areas and thus progress in the game. The difference comes in the implementation of said powerups. Unlike in Super Metroid, it is clearly communicated exactly when and where the player is supposed to use a particular ability. This is most obvious with the Rooster Uppercut, Olmec’s Headbutt, and Frog Slam abilities, which go so far as to be colour-coded for the player. Olmec’s Headbutt is yellow, and thus is used to break yellow blocks (and defeat glowing, yellow enemies). It has no other specific function, except for some mild usefulness in combat as a knockback attack. The Frog Slam is essentially the same thing, but for green blocks and enemies. The Rooster Uppercut, at least, allows the player a small amount of extra height on their jumps, but it’s still made clear by the game when the player is supposed to use the ability.

This is indicative of a subtle but important distinction in the way these games handle gating in relation to each other. In Super Metroid or Axiom Verge, it’s not always obvious how to get past a particular gate, or even that there is a gate at all. When the player comes across a one-block-wide wall in Axiom Verge, it seems like an impassable barrier; they will eventually find an item that lets them phase through it, but there’s no indication of this on the first encounter. When a player finds themselves at the bottom of a tall shaft in Super Metroid, it won’t immediately occur to them that they will later find a weapon that allows them to use the enemies in the room as platforms and climb back up. But, when the player sees a green block in Guacamelee!, it sends an immediate and clear message that there is nothing there for them yet, and they should just leave and come back later. The passage will even be marked on the map in the appropriate colour, so nobody has to waste their time with any of that pesky exploration or experimentation business. Instead, just follow the map marker to your next objective, and don’t come back to this room until we tell you to. Where Super Metroid’s items act as tools that fuel exploration, Guacamelee!‘s abilities act simply as keys to unlock doors.

As previously mentioned, revisiting old areas is a staple of the Metroidvania genre. Backtracking in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night after getting the Bat Form is exciting and interesting, partly because the change in the player’s power and movement make the environment feel significantly different, and partly because the added ability of flight opens up an endless world of possibilities for exploration. It probably doesn’t occur to them the first time around that all those high-ceilinged rooms would have a whole second half for them to explore later on when they can easily swoop up there, or that they would eventually be able to see what was underneath that lake they crossed several hours earlier.

In contrast, door gates in Metroid Prime 2 are clearly marked for players in black or white, so players know exactly what to expect when returning to old areas. Acquiring the Light Beam means that now the player needs to systematically go back to every little white square on their map and open up every door they were forced to walk past the first time. This kind of transparent gating takes the sense of discovery, curiosity and intrigue that make the genre shine, and reduces it to checking tasks off a list.

To truly highlight Super Metroid‘s focus on exploration and player agency through its well-utilised tool set, it’s important to note the first major boss is actually hidden behind a secret passage. The entrance to Kraid’s Lair is a two-block-tall hole opened up by a Super Missile, only discoverable by using your Morph Ball Bombs on a seemingly innocuous wall. Super Metroid requires the player to be diligent, curious and experimental from a very early point in the game in order to make progress. While it’s pretty common to hide extra items or power-ups in secret rooms across most genres, it’s very rarely required of the player to hunt down these little discoveries. There’s solid reasoning behind this: in most games, being expected to break down a random, unmarked wall somewhere in the game world in order to progress any farther would be extremely annoying. In Super Metroid, however, it enriches the experience by reinforcing in the player exactly what the game as a whole is trying to communicate. It’s about wonder and discovery, curiosity and experimentation. By letting the player discover this secret little route on their own, they feel smart and subversive. It feels less like they are playing a game, with a strict linear progression, and more like they are exploring a rich and organic world.

Metroidvania-type games are, at their core, about traversal, and their power-ups should reflect that. An object or power that changes the player’s relationship with the space around them, such as Metroid‘s Morph Ball or Symphony of the Night‘s Bat Form, change the player, and how they are able to move and engage with the game world, so that even revisiting old areas can feel fresh, new and exciting. Metroid Prime 2‘s Dark Beam and Light Beam  simply act as keys to open a specific set of doors. Abilities and environmental design should enhance player’s interactions with a game, and ignoring such concerns can reduce an adventure to a simple paint-by-numbers.


An elegance in emptiness

Dillon CoteDillon CoteAugust 19, 2023

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