The title is an exaggeration, of course, but “way more video games should be Metroidvanias than are” isn’t as pithy.
Now I’m not saying that most games should have the Metroidvania style action-platforming gameplay. It’s good that lots of different genres exist covering lots of different gameplay. What I am saying is that most genres of video game could stand to have a Metroidvania-style interconnected explorable world (and I’m using a lenient definition here that includes 3D games with interconnected worlds like Dark Souls). The game that’s brought this on is Yoku’s Island Express, a game which asks “what if pinball was a Metroidvania?” and the answer is “it would be way better, obviously.”
And I think this applies to nearly any genre. While certain platformers in the vein of Celeste benefit from presenting themselves as a string of very specific, self-contained challenges, most platformers are best off as either Metroidvanias or at the very least a hub-and-levels setup like Spyro, the first Jak and Daxter, and the Mario collectathon games. These games are already about movement, so being able to explore in multiple directions is an obvious next step.
The linearity of the average shooter is painful and nearly all of them would benefit from being Metroidvania’d. You’d want to ease up on movement upgrades because first person platforming is bad and even third person shooters are usually unwise to try and split their focus between shooting and platforming even if the camera can handle it in theory, but you can still have larger, more open environments rather than a string of shooting galleries. I talked about how Star Wars: Bounty Hunter would’ve been better off as a series of building assaults rather than linear corridors connecting shooting arenas, and I think that’s true of most shooters. To really make it a Metroidvania you’d want things like restoring power to elevators opening up new areas or finding a keycard that can open locked doors up to security clearance X or whatever, but you can get 80% of the benefit just by making the game more about completing a more open, interconnected level rather than having every four minute firefight be totally self-contained. A lot of older shooters were built more like this than their hyper-linear descendants, and newer shooters that wish they were movies are poorer for it. Shooters should’ve used the increased power of modern computers to get more open, not more linear.
Some genres, like stealth and survival games, are basically non-functional if they don’t feature large, interconnected worlds, although the amount of impasable terrain in survival games is sparse enough that it’s probably better described as “open world” rather than “Metroidvania.” I think saying that Yoku’s Island Express is a pinball Metroidvania is going to be acceptable to anyone who isn’t being pedantic, because it has that format of a bunch of different rooms connected by specific corridors, but most people would probably be confused if you referred to Subnautica as a Metroidvania. It’s clearly an exploration-focused game, but the fact that walls are the exception rather than the rule means people do not recognize it as a Metroidvania. This seems like a weird distinction to make, and maybe I’m just totally guessing wrong how people would react to these definitions, but my guess is that “game where you explore an interconnected world with lots of rooms and corridors” would be recognized as “Metroidvania” but not “open world” and “game where you explore an interconnected world with lots of open space” would be recognized as “open world” and not “Metroidvania.” And there are genres that work better as open world instead of Metroidvania (like survival games), so my pithy title is getting less accurate all the time, but the point still stands.
I’ve mostly gone over the easy genres so far, but I’m holding some surprising ones in reserve. Fighting games? While the minimum viable product of a fighting game must include only the basic mode where you pick characters and a stage and then fight, and a fighting game that’s strapped for time or money would be justified in making their campaign mode just be picking a character and then fighting every other character in sequence, capped off with some kind of final boss, if you’re going to have a singleplayer campaign that’s more than that, a Metroidvania is the way to go. Get all your different fighting arenas in one big building, connect them with some corridors with (metaphorical or literal) locked doors, and have the game grab your camera and pull you into fighting game position any time you run into someone who wants to throw down. You can have long gaps that require a character with a spin-kick that gives them more airtime to cross, cracked walls that can be broken down with a turbo-punch, that sort of thing. Connect the unlocking of new metaphorical keys for the game world’s metaphorical locks to unlocking new characters in the game, thus emphasizing the wacky and expansive character rosters the genre is known for (eight different playable characters is considered a small roster in this genre!), and you can hide secret battles that unlock secret arenas and/or secret characters behind optional paths. Having all the different arenas and characters be in a single interconnected world certainly isn’t necessary, but it would be super cool.
Racing games? This one would be better off as open world rather than Metroidvania, but it would absolutely be cool to have a sandbox mode where you can drive around a map that connects all the different tracks, able to go off-course and drive in reverse and just explore the tracks and the terrain connecting them, with a couple of points in the overworld where you can initiate a race, which snaps you to the starting line and spawns in a bunch of other racers. You probably wouldn’t have any locked doors (you could, you could have walls dividing the open world and gates that will only let you through if you’ve beaten X races or unlocked a blue car or whatever, but it probably wouldn’t be a good idea), but you could have different regions of the game have different difficulties, so that the Green Hill Zone has mostly easier races with a couple of harder ones sprinkled in, while Lethal Lava Land is full of difficult races.
The concept does eventually hit its limits. I think JRPGs should strive to be more open, but in the way that WRPGs are, not the way that Metroidvanias and open world games are. And while we’re on the subject, I don’t think JRPGs should be as open as WRPGs are, because their linear, character-driven stories are a major selling point for them and you can only get so open before that falls apart. JRPGs could still stand to have more optional content (like side quests) and more player choice in the order content is tackled. Why do you have to do the Gold Saucer, Cosmo Canyon, Nibelheim, and Rocket Town in exactly that order? For that matter, are any of those besides Nibelheim actually necessary to the game’s main plot? You still want to make sure the beats of the story of Cloud and Sephiroth are told in order and that defeating Sephiroth is the game’s climax, and a lot of the roleplaying choices we expect from WRPGs would be absent because you are playing the specific character of Cloud Strife who has a specific character arc about identity and failed dreams, but the Witcher games had all that and were still very open compared to FFVII (which isn’t even a particularly linear example of the genre – FFXIII was godawful).
Strategy games are another limit. 4X games in particular don’t work as strategy games because they only have one “level,” so it doesn’t make sense to ask how different stages of the game should be linked together. Strategy games generally have the problem that their scale makes anything recognizable as a Metroidvania or open world hard to manage. In a Metroidvania, you are traveling through “rooms” connected by “doors” which are sometimes locked and require “keys” to get through, and while those scare quotes give you some flexibility, at that point where the room is so big that you can have an entire RTS battle in it, you should probably scrap the ability to transition between rooms seamlessly and just have a map. This is doubly true because the barrier between RTS stages needs to be fairly firm, it’s very important that you can’t continue using your endgame base and units from the previous stage in a new one, which means the “doors” need to prevent units from moving from one “room” to another, and also each “room” needs to have a separate resource pool. It’s much easier to gloss over this if you’re looking at a Risk-style territory map between stages, rather than your vespene gas suddenly draining to nothing when you mouse over a level boundary.
Even squad-based tactical games like XCOM, which can fit their battles into small enough spaces that you could theoretically put them all in one interconnected world and don’t rely so much on stockpiling resources to the point where being able to bring your victorious army from one battle to the next would ruin the game, would still have to contrive why enemies in adjacent arenas never seem to notice or care that your squad is killing all their friends just down the block. I’ll note that XCOM massively benefits from having a campaign structure that connects all its different battles together rather than just presenting each battle to you one after the other with nothing but cut scenes and loading screens in between, but it’s not really exploratory at all.
This whole post has kind of meandered around a general vibe rather than having a specific point to make, but I’m not getting three posts a week out if I stop to revise this one until it’s more focused. And I guess now my conclusion is about how I don’t really have these thoughts boiled down to a thesis statement to conclude on.