10. Shadow Complex
Hitting Xbox Live Arcade back in 2009, Shadow Complex was the right game at the right time to reinvigorate the Metroidvania genre. An excellent blend of sci-fi action with a compelling story, satisfying progression, and its 2.5-D perspective offered some of the best graphics we’d seen in the genre to date. It was a refreshing update to a beloved style of game that, at least in 2009, seemed to have fallen out of favor with developers and the public at large. It would go on to be one of the highest-selling Xbox Live Arcade games of all time, and a remastered version hit PC in 2015 and consoles the next year.
Blasphemous introduces you to the sprawling and hauntingly beautiful Cvstodia, a 16-bit world teeming with secrets in every corner. Despite its beauty, it is also a world overrun by truly horrific and difficult bosses blocking your path. And to make matters more trying – and ultimately more rewarding– Blasphemous tantalizes players with items and upgrades often dangling just out of reach. These are almost always accompanied by an inactive piece of the environment that becomes instantly recognizable, goading you into a search for a way to turn bundles of roots into bridges, or blood trails into platforms. The quest to uncover these environment-transforming relics are almost as enthralling as progressing through the main story of Blasphemous, ensuring that you’ll rarely want to leave any stone unturned as you explore one of the most memorable lands in the genre.
8. Yoku’s Island Express
Much like olive oil and ice cream are somehow a bizarrely complimentary duo, Yoku’s Island Express combines two wildly different flavors of game to create something totally unique that leaves me yearning for more after its delightful adventure. Yoku take’s the complexity of a Metroidvania and applies it to the rigid structure of pinball. It forces players to rethink everything they know about “platforming,” with movement being a combo of familiar 2D navigation and pinball flourishes, like paddles that send you flying around on your collectible quest. It makes that surprising mix work like a charm while simultaneously drip-feeding teases of upgrades to come through inaccessible areas that whiz by while you’re rocketing off a bumper.
The cherry on top of this strange concoction of unusual genres is the setup: you are the brand new mail bug of a small tropical island and, primarily, you’re there to deliver mail. The handpainted art style, witty writing, and cheerful tunes keep you smiling all while pulling off careful skillshots to progress through Yoku’s unexpected but memorable world.
7. Cave Story
Cave Story was created by a single developer, Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya. That in and of itself is worth bringing up only because Cave Story is a massive achievement, with a sprawling world, fleshed-out lore, and beloved characters.. From the unique weapons, to an overworld that’s filled to the brim with creativity, every part of Cave Story feels lovingly hand-crafted. But don’t let the cuddly cast fool you, Cave Story will break your heart and mend it back together by the time the journey ends. Decades later, and Cave Story still feels like a treasure. And as one of the most famous freeware games, it’s easy to download and play today, and at an unbeatable price to play a piece of gaming history.
It’s no wonder fans have been waiting so excitedly for Axiom Verge 2, given how expertly Axiom Verge serves as a love-letter to Metroidvanias of the past. The one-man designed adventure from developer Thomas Happ provides players with an inventive arsenal of weapons and abilities. But this throwback never feels dated as you drill, teleport, and pixel-nuke throughout your adventure on the alien world of Sudra. Combine that with a fantastic sense of progression that makes backtracking and uncovering new areas a consistent joy, and an intriguing and mysterious plot that will keep you guessing, and Axiom Verge is easily one of the best Metroidvanias around. It may be inspired by games released years prior, but it can sit among the best of that, or any, era.
5. Steamworld Dig 2
Steamworld Dig 2 isn’t the only Metroidvania on this list that sends you exploring underground, but it is the one that requires you to dig your way through its sprawling world. That digging gameplay loop is by no means a chore, though. It’s a total blast: bore as far down as you can, return to town to harvest resources, upgrade your gear, and you’re off to (happily) do it all again. It’s so satisfying that it’s easy to fall into the mindset of “Just one more run” turing into four or five. And with about a 10-hour run time, it never outstays its welcome. Upgrades are plentiful enough to be a near-constant reward system, and the various upgrade paths allow for some welcome customization in how you build out your robotic heroine. It also helps that the finely-tuned controls make maneuvering around its caverns as smooth and enjoyable as the act of actually mining in-game. Add in some optional puzzle rooms that reward you with bonus upgrade items and Steamworld Dig 2 is a “dig down” Metroidvania you won’t want to put down.
4. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is the closest we come to cheating the ‘no Castlevania” rule, but it’s too good an experience to ignore. Koji Igarashi, a father of the genre, set out to make a new game in the vein of the best-loved Castlevania, and by Dracula he did it. This kickstarter success story takes elements of all the great Castlevania games and combines them into one, wall-meaty package. It uses the equipment system of Symphony of the Night with quality of life changes – meaning the menu isn’t totally ugly – the shard system that lets you assume the magical abilities of enemies a la Aria/Dawn of Sorrow, and more. Add on top of that the option to play as a completely different character after completing it, tons of hidden content, and a slew of other intriguing inclusions — Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night taps into that special late 90s/early 2000s era of Castlevania that is beloved by so many to create something thrilling in its own right.
3. Guacamelee 2
Guacamelee 2 punches up nearly every aspect of the original, expanding on what worked with new skills, a new, ludicrous and meta story, and one damn charming Metroidvania from beginning to end.At the heart of what makes Guacamelee 2 so clever is its combination of level design and its platforming fundamentals. Essentially all of your actions – from uppercuts that boost you upward to sideways lunges – work twofold: the combination of the right attacks against certain enemies is essential to racking up combos and surviving combat sections. But all of those moves are also necessary to pull off the increasingly complex platforming sections. And while you’re exploring Guacamelee 2’s world, uncovering more of its map as either Juan the luchador or Juan the chicken, don’t ignore the optional side challenges you’ll come across – they’re some of Guacamelee 2’s most difficult but purest platforming sections, and they’re some of the most rewarding to pull off.
Throw in a new hookshot ability, unlockable skill trees that encourage you to explore more of its wonderful, vibrant world, and some genuinely hilarious stories, and Guacamelee 2 may have you crying from laughter as much as it may make you tear up from its most challenging levels.
2. Ori and the Will of the Wisps
Either Ori game could have comfortably landed on the list, but the sequel, Will of the Wisps, takes an already stunning game and makes it even more robust. No other series looks or sounds quite like Ori does, with a gorgeous world full of vibrant landscapes and strange creatures complemented by some of the best game music around. Flowing through those areas with its diverse suite of movement abilities can almost become a zen practice, hopping between grab points and whipping dangerously close to death as you do.
Will of the Wisps elevates all of the aspects that made the first game great as well, partly by borrowing some ideas from the number one game on this list. The introduction of equippable items to enhance your preferred playstyle and an adorable little town for you to grow full of friendly faces adds more layer and nuance to the world and your character. Its combat is also more fleshed out, coupled with a story even more grand and ambitious than the original’s. Ori sticks out from what most people usually picture when they think of a Metroidvania thanks to its warm, inviting look, but it’s that unique take on a well explored genre that makes it stand so tall above the rest. Well, except for one.
1. Hollow Knight
Even when compared against actual Castlevania and Metroid games, Hollow Knight would probably still be pretty close to the top of a list like this. It’s a Metroidvania that takes influence and inspiration from plenty of clear places, but combines those concepts with countless fresh ideas of its own to make something truly incredible. And it’s the combination of all those individual parts that makes the whole so much more impressive: its charming hand-drawn art style, its haunting soundtrack, its flexible combat systems, its satisfying movement mechanics, and the mysterious catacombs… the list goes on and on, as all those aspects and more are packed in to work in beautiful tandem.
Hollow Knight is filled to the brim with interesting decisions to make the whole way through, too – from choosing to go left or right first, to deciding whether or not to challenge an imposing optional boss, or to figuring out which of its deluge of Charms you should use to modify your playstyle. As a result, its exploration and unlocks feel personal, providing a natural sense of progression to its meticulously laid out halls. And don’t let the appearance of its tiny bugs fool you – Hollow Knight’s world is a sprawling subterranean maze that gives you enough paths to chase down and creative enemies to fight to keep you exploring for dozens of hours. Hollow Knight is without a doubt, a modern classic.