In 1986, Nintendo published two games that heavily featured exploration: The Legend of Zelda and Metroid. They weren’t the only NES games that featured this new kind of game design, but they were the two that entered the mainstream gaming consciousness and made a widespread influence over game developers. The Legend of Zelda became the prototype for Open World games, a genre now associated with the big-budget AAA productions. Metroid, on the other hand, became the prototype for Metroidvanias, a genre now closely associated with small Indie studios.
Open World games are treated as the “pinnacle” of video games, the most ambitious project that a developer could undertake. Many franchises have attempted to adapt their formula to the Open World format, including Pokemon, Sonic, and Dark Souls, just from 2022 alone. Nintendo’s biggest blockbuster of this year is yet another entry in the genre: The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. And yet, I’ve noticed that several gamers are getting fatigued with Open World games. A quick search online will reward you with several essays listing the genre’s problems and shortcomings. As excited as I am for Tears of the Kingdom, I’m surprised to see that a noticeable number of fans don’t share my enthusiasm. It makes me wonder when Open World games will fall out of popularity, and what genre might replace them.
Might it be Metroidvanias?
Metroidvanias have been a common phenomenon in the Indie sphere for a few years now. Even some AAA games have loosely followed the genre’s formula, including Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and Dead Space. Both of these games have been praised by critics; and yet, the amount of AAA Metroidvanias are still few and far-between. The market potential is still largely untapped.
Today I’d like to compare both genres, closely examine their strengths and weaknesses, and see whether or not Metroidvanias could be a viable alternative for AAA studios.
Now before we get started, I’d like to note that in most debates, people like to create an “imaginary ideal” version of what they’re defending. We won’t be doing that. We will be taking examples from real games, examining what they do well and what they don’t. We need to see game design in practice, not in theory. Furthermore, I’ve played many Open World games as well as many Metroidvanias, but I obviously haven’t played them all. The following list are the games I’ve played from the respective genres, and so will be my primary examples:
Now let’s get started!
Open Worlds: True Freedom or Overhyped Mess?
I remember watching Breath of the Wild’s initial reveal back in 2014. Eiji Aonuma displayed an early build of the game showcasing the freedom that players would be able to experience. You could see Link riding a horse, overlooking lush open plains with mountains on the horizon. Aonuma said, “You can even reach those mountains in the distance, if you walk far enough.”
I stared at that video and blinked. I watched it again and again. It slowly dawned on me that this was the future – in the next Zelda game, I could go wherever I wanted; I could explore however I wanted. My excitement could not be contained.
I think most gamers have experienced a moment like this, where they see an Open World game for the first time and they realize how much freedom they have at their disposal. For them it might’ve happened in 2011 with Skyrim, or in 2012 with Far Cry 3, or in 2015 with The Witcher III. It feels like anything is possible. Here is a world where the only limitation is you. Go anywhere, do anything. It feels like the ultimate video game. It is by far the biggest strength that Open World games have. In those first few hours, secrets and wonders are behind every corner. Who knows what character you’ll meet next, what quest you’ll end up on, or what treasures you’ll find? In a best-case scenario, you explore entirely based on your curiosity. You see something interesting in the distance, you go to it, then you see something else in the distance, and the cycle continues for hundreds of hours.
The best Open World games offer you a multitude of ways to play. In Breath of the Wild, you have a dynamic physics and weather system that you can use to create unique solutions to any problem you encounter. And this toolset is going to expand exponentially in the upcoming sequel, Tears of the Kingdom. In Metal Gear Solid V and Death Stranding, you have a variety of tools to play with and enemy AI that reacts dynamically to your actions. In Skyrim and The Witcher III, you can customize your character to different fighting styles and role-playing becomes quite immersive.
Many Open World games leave the story open-ended as well. Xenoblade Chronicles 3, Skyrim, and The Witcher III have multiple sidequests that feel like they could be entire games on their own. There might be factions you can join, or societies you might become a part of. The optional content is abundant and rich. Every person’s playthrough is slightly different, and you end up with stories that someone else might not have even known about.
Open World games can be so big, they become in danger of collapsing under their own weight. From a development standpoint, creating a world that big, with that many NPCs and that many stories to partake in, makes for a long and overwhelming development cycle. Breath of the Wild was initially scheduled to release in 2015, but it ended up getting delayed for 2 years, making it one of the longest development cycles for the Zelda series (2011 to 2017, a total of 6 years). The sequel, Tears of the Kingdom, has taken Nintendo about the same amount of time (2017 to 2023, another 6 years). The same is holding true for many other developers. Cyberpunk 2077 had a famously long development cycle, and yet for all of that work, it was still released in a disastrous state, with bugs and glitches ruining the launch experience for many players. Even when I played Skyrim and The Witcher III on the Switch, years after their initial release dates, I still encountered immersion-breaking bugs that frequently made me re-load my save and loose progress. These games are so big, it’s impossible to create an experience that performs as well as games in other genres.
Even when the games don’t glitch out, size can still be a liability. It’s impossible to craft an open world where every corner of it has unique challenges and experiences. NPCs get recycled, enemy encounters get recycled, powerups get recycled. You have a long list of materials that you’ll need to gather and craft with, micro-sized dungeons copied and pasted all over the map, and long stretches of just… walking. These activities can be relaxing, but they can also become monotonous. At its worst, an open world can feel like a messy room, and it’s your job to just clean it up. It feels like doing chores. Even open-ended exploration might loose its luster. Sure you can travel in any direction, but at the same time, it can feel like it doesn’t matter what direction you pick.
It’s also difficult to balance an Open World game to accommodate for the player’s character becoming stronger and stronger with every passing hour. There are so many variables that developers can’t always account for. When the player fights this enemy, will it be on their 5th hour, or their 500th hour? The final boss battle of Breath of the Wild is notoriously disappointing to many players, simply because they explored so much and became overpowered. Some indie games like Sable or A Short Hike are too small for this problem to happen, while other games like Skyrim try to scale up enemies to match your growth, but this mechanic can also rob the player of feeling accomplished with all of the work that they put into their character. Challenging the player while also making their efforts feel worthwhile is a difficult task to manage in an Open World game.
Finally, the stories of Open World games can oftentimes clash with the game design. The Witcher III is notorious for this. In the main quest, you’re searching for Ciri, your adoptive daughter. Her life is in mortal danger as she is pursued by a band of supernatural knights… and yet you can do odd jobs for every passing villager you meet for days on end. It’s hard to make a happy marriage between linear stories and nonlinear gameplay.
What about Metroidvanias then? Are they really a viable alternative?
Metroidvanias: a Solution or a Source of Frustration?
I remember in Dark Souls when I was searching the Undead Parish, I stumbled upon an elevator. Cautiously, I pulled the lever and went down. I walked out and found myself back at Firelink Shrine, the starting point of the game. I was so jazzed. I felt like a master explorer. My work and effort had come full circle (literally) for a brief moment.
Fans of Metroidvanias know what I’m talking about. There’s something special about learning the layout of a world and returning to old spots, where new pathways open up to you. It’s especially satisfying to have those “eureka” moments where you get a powerup and you know exactly where you can use it.
Metroidvanias are more restrictive than Open World games. You don’t get that feeling of “endless possibilities” that Open Worlds offer. And yet, exploration in Metroidvanias still becomes engaging and meaningful. Metroidvanias block off certain areas until you acquire a key or an item that can allow you to access them. The rhythm of a Metroidvania is to feel slightly frustrated at your characters’ lack of abilities, followed by the payoff of finally being able to bypass the obstacle and more easily defeat the enemies. Because you can’t just go anywhere, you have to keep track of where you’ve been and what places you haven’t searched yet. Exploration is more deliberate, more methodical. The best Metroidvanias will also provide players with high-level skills or knowledge that on repeat playthroughs they can use to make shortcuts or even sequence break, making each playthrough slightly different than the last.
Speaking of sequence breaking and high-level skills, developers of Metroidvanias have the advantage of knowing more or less what a player has at their disposal when designing a boss or an enemy encounter. This allows the game to present challenging combat while also providing opportunities to feel more powerful over time. Your time spent in the game can feel rewarding without trivializing it entirely.
Furthermore, because Metroidvanias are more linear, they don’t often have the same ludonarrative dissonance that permeate so many Open World games. Most Metroidvanias try to make the world itself tell the story rather than the NPCs or a series of cutscenes. The story unravels organically, and the more closely you examine your surroundings, the more you realize what has happened. Some Open World games can achieve this, but their examples are more like isolated events or about the general world state. Metroidvanias, on the other hand, can tell a cleaner start-to-finish story with plenty of reveals and suspense through their environments.
Finally, Metroidvanias have a smaller scope, which allows developer teams of all sizes to realistically create an experience without becoming overwhelmed with repeating the same encounters or debugging thousands of possible scenarios. I may not be a game developer, but I’ve rarely encountered any bug or glitch in a Metroidvania, let alone one that would break my immersion and enjoyment the way bugs do in Open World games. My experience leads me to believe that, while it still may not be easy to make a Metroidvania, the workload is likely much more manageable than an Open World game.
However, Metroidvanias have their own series of issues.
For starters, the gated worlds in Metroidvanias create a lot more opportunities for players to get stuck or lost without an idea of where to go or what to do. During my most recent playthrough of Metroid: Zero Mission, I’d completely forgotten how to get the Power Bombs, the last key item in the game. I wandered around for an hour searching for the right crawlspace to the next area. I’ve finished this game many times, and even then I got stumped and slightly frustrated. If a Metroidvania hasn’t been clear with its clues and signals, then it can create the feeling like you’re just guessing for the “right answer,” making you feel stupid when you keep guessing wrong. No matter where you go in an Open World game, you rarely get stuck like this. If you’re stumped about progressing in one area, you can always leave and explore somewhere else.
Second, Metroidvanias live or die on their game design. You might be able to distract a player from poor design choices behind an Open World game, but in a Metroidvania, your design is on center stage. Your controls need to feel good to pull off — you can’t get away with just walking and fast-traveling. You need to create an interlocking labyrinth of corridors and rooms, complex enough to make you get lost, but not too big to make exploring feel overwhelming. In Hollow Knight‘s case, I love its controls, and I love its atmosphere, but the more I replay it, the more problems I have with its oversized world. The first 10 hours have excellent pacing, but I can’t say the same for the rest of the game. Throw in its high difficulty and Souls-like mechanics, and it becomes just as exhausting to play as an Open World game.
Additionally, not every powerup in a Metroidvania feels good to acquire. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night will set up elaborate challenges only to reward you with an item that offers little to no benefit.
Finally, I have to admit that while Metroidvanias have a dedicated audience, that audience is rather small compared to the mainstream success of Open World games. Open World games are massively popular. They build a lot of hype with their ambition and vision, however imperfect the end product actually is. The most celebrated Metroidvanias still only sell around 3 million copies, while some Open World games have sold up to 30 million or even 40 million copies. As much time and effort as it may take to create an Open World game, it’s likely going to be much more profitable than a Metroidvania. The tastes of gamers would have to change by a lot before most AAA studios consider making a new genre to gravitate towards.
Open World games and Metroidvanias are distinct genres, with their own strengths and weaknesses, that attempt slightly different player experiences. And yet, because of their similarities, I can’t help but imagine a world where these genres were more balanced in their popularity. Realistically, it seems like the video game industry is going to maintain its course of creating an assembly line of Open World games with similar mechanics and similar issues. There may be a growing list of players getting disillusioned with Open World games, but that doesn’t mean that it’s making any significant impact on the rest of the gamer audience, at least not yet. The video game industry will still change, though, and that allows us the opportunity to shape that change. Even though Metroidvanias come with their own sets of development challenges, I believe many studios would benefit from making more 2D or 3D Metroidvanias, with less filler, more meaningful exploration, and a more sensible structure for the narrative that they’re trying to tell.
I still love both Metroidvanias and Open World games myself, and I’m planning on playing through many more in the near future. However, if you’re finding yourself bored with Open World games but still want to satisfy that digital wanderlust, might I suggest Metroidvanias?