Okay, first of all, I don't like the term "Metroidvania," simply because the style is directly from Metroid. Castlevania copied it. Blatantly. With no shame. So I don't think it should get to be half of the genre's name. But anyway...
I've just in the last week completed two of the most renowned titles in this genre over the past year: Ori & The Blind Forest and Axiom Verge. (It was probably dumb to play them at the same time; I did have a few moments of confusion from time to time, before realising I was thinking about the other game)
Both games have received glowing reviews, and I wholeheartedly agree that they have great merits. But I don't believe either of them are anywhere near the best in the genre. I'm going to try and figure out why.
First of all, it has to be said, Ori is a STUNNING looking game. Apart from the fact that most of the characters are titchy-tiny (especially Ori himself) the art direction is some of the most beautiful ever seen in a video game.
Axiom Verge on the other hand... Well, there's no getting around it. I find this game particularly ugly. I think that's kind of its appeal. It's blatantly trying to emote the feeling of the original Metroid game, and while I loves me a good retro throwback, I really don't think the style does this game any favours.
One issue I have with both games is that they have significantly ramped up the challenge from Metroid games they take inspiration from. Like, in stupidly frustrating ways. Generally, the progress with Ori goes something like this...
It compensates for this by allowing you to plant save points wherever you want (thank goodness!) but it feels like a game that WANTS to punish you. It WANTS to you fail. Over and over again.
Axiom Verge is actually similar, although its save system works a bit differently. The only punishment you get from dying is being sent back to the last save point, but your progress remains intact. That's nice, at least. But man, this game is brutal. I was only playing on "Normal" difficulty and I died many times on the way to the ending. (37, according to the game's final tally...)
I understand that the concept of "Old-School" is often that back-in-the-day, every game was crushingly difficult, but that wasn't the case at all. Certainly, there were the Contras and Castlevanias that would make the pope swear with their difficulty, but I certainly never felt that from a Metroid game. I think I died once in my first playthrough of Super Metroid. (I can remember thinking how cool the death animation looked, and kinda wishing I'd died more...) Did the fact that I wasn't failing all the time diminish my enjoyment of the game? No way! In fact, it was the opposite. I'm the kind of person who gets frustrated really easily when games tell me that I'm failing over and over again. So I'm not sure why the creators of Ori and Axiom Verge felt the need to make their games so hard.
You know what else was amazing about Super Metroid, Metroid Fusion and Zero Mission? Their simplicity. Samus received upgrades to her suit, but it was always accessible. I feel like both Ori and Axiom Verge try too hard to complicate the type of game that is better when it's simple. Ori introduces experience points, turning the game into a quasi-R.P.G. where you can unlock abilities based on how many enemies you've defeated and orbs you've collected.
Whereas Axiom Verge throws an absolutely insane amount of weapons at you (many of which are hidden collectables) but never really requires you to use any of them. Some people might love that there's lots of choice for your play style, but I think most people will probably pick one weapon and stick with it, making the rest of them useless. I know I sure did.
Both games have stories that feel far too in-depth for games of this type, especially Axiom Verge. Characters would be yapping away about something or other, and I honestly had no idea what they were talking about, nor did I care. Remember when Super Metroid told its story without a single word of dialogue after the intro...?
I feel a bit bad, because I've done nothing but complain about these games, and that's not really fair. They are good games, and I am so pleased that people are still making 2D games in this style! But I just feel that in trying to replicate the feeling of a Metroid game, they've somehow missed something that made those games as awesome as they were. There are two games that I played LAST year, that I'm going to point out now. I actually think these games are much more enjoyable and manage to capture that "Metroid-ish" feeling a lot better. The first is Guacamelee...
I was a bit late coming to this game's party, but I'm so glad I did! It too is probably a bit more difficult than it needs to be, but I absolutely loved it! Gameplay is tight, exploration is accessible but challenging, and the humour is spot-on. (So many cheeky references to other games!) I'd actually like to play this one again one day. The other game that I recently loved...
... was Shantae & The Pirate's Curse. It actually took me a while to get into this one. I downloaded it on to my WiiU, played a bit, then got a bit stuck and lost interest. Didn't play for months after that. But when I did pick it up and play again, it hooked me straight in. Like Guacamelee, it's got a great sense of humour. And while it is a bit yappy (some characters just go on and on...) the writing is entertaining and nothing is taken too seriously. Also, it's got really fantastic sprite work! I'm a bit sad that the upcoming sequel is rendered in 3D. I will definitely be getting it though, because I had such a great time with this one!
(I'm still unsure whether or not I should go back and play the first two on GameBoy Color and DSiWare... I dunno, they look a bit clunky...)
So that's that. All four of these games are worth playing, but if you're after real old-school charm, I much preferred Guacamelee and Shantae over Ori and Axiom Verge.