Welcome to our round-up of the best Metroidvania games. That slightly awkward portmanteau refers to a hybrid genre inspired by Metroid and Castlevania. They tend to be 2D platformers that have you exploring dungeons, defeating bosses, and picking up items that unlock new zones of the map. Within this simple format there is plenty of room for variation and, it turns out, lots of gorgeous art.
A few of the games on the list have been lovingly crafted by small teams and even individuals over the course of a decade or so. Others, like Dead Cells, experiment with fusing the metroidvania with other genres to create a powerful hybrid. Whichever games you pick, expect lots of 2D platforming and some tough boss fights.
Ori and the Blind Forest
Ori's warmly animated world and slightly tearful opener barely hint at the incredibly tricky platforming challenges that follow. PC Gamer's Philippa Warr has compared this to a teddy bear that wants to punch you in the face—it's a cute and beautiful-looking game, but damn tricky. The pleasant soundtrack puts you at ease while the game rarely does.
One of the very best modern examples of the form, Axiom Verge is set in a dark, Giger-esque alien world populated by mysterious giant mechanical beings and, of course, a slew of bullet hell boss monsters. New paths open up as you discover fresh alien gadgetry, like a trenchcoat that lets you phase through walls, and a device that lets you control a small alien bug to crawl into new cave systems.
Combat is simple—blast the alien things flapping around each level—but there are loads of weapons to discover, and plenty of secrets if you’re determined enough to glitch or blast your way through secret walls. It’s a sinister and slightly unnerving game with some genuinely dark moments, but that makes it a fitting tribute to the lonely hostile corridors of the original Metroid games.
This one takes a while to get going, but once you have a few upgrades it’s a spectacular hand-drawn metroidvania with a snappy melee combat system. Hollow Knight borrows its melancholy apocalyptic atmosphere from Dark Souls, and also its currency recovering system—if you make it back to the place you died you can reclaim your last life’s earnings.
Hollow Knight looks gorgeous, and it’s full of interesting bug characters that sell you new gear and give you extra quests. The bosses are challenging and the dodge-and-slash combat is a serious test of skill once you’ve unlocked a few moves and started running into the game’s more serious enemies. The world is beautifully put together, too, and you learn more about the fate of the city as you dash, skip, and double-jump into new zones.
You’ll notice that many of these games are set underground in endless cave systems. Owlboy is set in a floating cloud kingdom. As said Owlboy, Otus, you have to flap around the world in a slightly cumbersome manner befitting a character who is regarded as an idiot by his village. You can teleport friends into your claws as you fly around. Different pals come with different abilities; some will fend off nearby enemies with projectile attacks, others will help you to access new zones in true metroidvania fashion. It’s tricky to say much about Owlboy without spoiling the story, but suffice to say it’s an emotional ride depicted in lovingly detailed pixel art.
Shadow Complex Remastered
Blast your way through a military compound with machine guns in this futuristic Metroidvania. It’s billed as a “2.5D” game, which means you run and jump on a 2D plane, but can shoot into the background as soldiers and battle robots. You play as an ordinary man called Jason Fleming who gets lost on a hike and stumbles across a high-tech group bent on starting a civil war in the US. The game escalates from there you strap on their armour, raid their armoury and start blasting their mechs. The game was originally released on XBOX Live Arcade, but lives on Steam now as Shadow Complex Remastered.
Daisuke Amaya’s seminal indie metroidvania is available on PC as Cave Story+, which features the original 320x240 visuals and the updated version. You play an amnesiac boy who wakes up in a cave full of rabbit folk called Mimigas. They are being picked off by the malign creations of a mad scientist, who you need to chase across 15 levels. It’s a big game, especially considering it was made by one very dedicated creator with a clear love for the 16-bit era. An absolute classic and a must-play if you love metroidvanias.
From one solo creator to another. Joakim Sandberg spent many years painstakingly designing, animating and composing for Iconoclasts. The result is a cheery and colourful metroidvania starring a friendly mechanic called Robin. This is a relatively shooty one featuring more than 20 bosses, but the worlds are packed with chatty characters. It’s worth picking up to see what seven years of one guy’s life’s work looks like.
Steamworld Dig 2
Approachable, and not too difficult, the Steamworld Dig games deliver a gentle hit of Metroidvania action supplemented by lots of Terraria-style digging. You can pickaxe your way through the levels, but this isn’t a sandbox. You have to tunnel your way to new zones and grab new gadgets to upgrade your hero, a steam-powered cowboy robot in the first game and a blue woman in flying goggles in the second. The sequel has more varied environments and a bigger world to explore, so that’s the best place to start.
Dead Cells straddles the line between Metroidvania and roguelike, which makes it a warped child of Super Metroid, Castlevania and Rogue. You battle through randomised dungeons, starting from the beginning each time you die. As you chop up enemies in beautifully animated exchanges of sword-blows and bow attacks they drop cells that you can pour into your character.
This persistent element eventually gives your guy the sturdiness to reach new zones you haven’t seen before, fulfilling the typical metroidvania exploration pattern. Dead Cells is a game about blasting through dungeons as quickly and efficiently as possible. When you arrive in an area a timer starts on a hidden treasure door somewhere on the level, if you can find it before the timer expires, you get access to a room full of special items and sweet cash. Dead Cells is a high pressure game compared to others in this list (bar Ori and Hollow Knight), but if you like action and great pixel art Dead Cells is a good option, though it still has some time to mature in Early Access.