Metroid-like exploration games in a nutshell

NOTE: First of all, there is going to be a few spoilers here and there on today’s post, so if you have never played any Metroid game (SHAME ON YOU) you may consider not to read forward. That, and I strongly suggest you leave anything you are doing immediately and get a copy of Super Metroid ASAP.


Still with me?, good. That means you have good taste and have made your homework. Let’s begin.

As you may know, exploration games have been a broad genre in gaming for quite some time, but if one formula has stuck with us for almost 30 years above all others it has to be the famous Metroid gameplay style.

This means having a huge world to explore without almost no clues about its structure from the beginning. A world where you face roadblocks in your way every now and then that force you to search for new gear that will help you progress. A world where you will face strange new enemies around every corner and that will sometimes deceive you into thinking you are making progress when in truth what you have to do is to just go back the way you came and try a different approach.

This is a formula that has been perfected and copied for quite a long time now, to the extent that this whole genre is what we now call “metroidvania” games.

I love this kind of games, and on top of that I’m a HUGE Metroid fan. I love this gameplay style so much that I’m currently working on a small exploration platformer myself. But enough of that already, I’m here to expose a few bits of game design that compose this kind of gameplay style in order to help people understand what makes this formula so addicting and entertaining. I’m just going to scratch the surface of the whole idea, but hopefully it will be of use to those lost people wondering where to start.

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When eagerness is not enough

Some days ago, while having an ice cream with some friends, one of them asked about how much a freelance may charge for some graphics assets, and if it’s viable to hire someone for a game that’s not created to earn money with without a low budget. Most of the time, an indie or a beginner game designer/developer has a huge amount of eagerness and a so much limited amount of resources, including money, time, workers, or even experience and knowledge in some cases, and eagerness is often not enough.

The one-man-band

As a beginner is normal to try to build a game alone, but even if someone is able to design, draw, animate, compose music and code each part of the game, it’s going to be a huge amount of work for our lonely developer and a hard test about how much he wants to end his project. Remember, the goal is always to end the game (as Sergio said once upon a time here…)

For those who still are brave enough to try alone with their project, I suggest them to try something before jumping on any other task:

  •  Think about how much time you want to spend in this project, and when do you think you are going to end it.
  • Create a list of specific tasks, like “creating main character sprite sheet” or “coding move inputs”.  Usually you should have between 50 and 100 different tasks or more.
  • For every task set the time in your opinion is needed to end it. If it’s your first time doing something, mark it with a plus symbol or anything else.
  • For each task, add a 10% to your time estimation, or if it’s your first time, add a 50%. It’s uncommon to get something working and fast enough at first try.

This last step shows how much time you will need to end your game, and usually is even more. If this estimation is much bigger than the time you want to spend, the risk of leaving the project before ending it is real. If not, or you still want to fight it alone, go for it as hard as you can and check some of our old posts if you are new to something like this, or this, or even this!

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Friends and game design


For some people, indie developers are some kind of geeks who spend their spare time hiding at home, in front of their computers writing code or designing strange things for a new videogame. They are right, that’s what’s we usually do!

But sometimes we hang out with friends too (yeah, we have friends too) or we spend some time with our girlfriend/boyfriend (I promise, indie developers may get engaged too!) to leave this crazy world of videogame crafting for a while. But what if both plans can be merged? how about introducing your beloved friends to the game design process?? Muahahah!

New game design tools

New game design tools!

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Building a difficult game: Do’s and don’ts

We all have memories from that specific game that made us throw the controller towards the screen a dozen times while crying out in anger. We hated it for making us fail again and again and yet, for some reason, we could not stop playing it. Its name might have been MegaMan, Castlevania or even Ninja Gaiden. It doesn’t matter. They all shared this common characteristic: they were hard as fuck.

But then, if they were so ruthless towards players, how come they are considered masterpieces of gaming?, why were they so fun?, how did they do it?, and more importantly, how can I, a wannabe game designer, can do it?

Well, I’m no expert, but I can give you a few tips on how to get on the right path in order to accomplish just that.


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Approaching game design: my two cents

Today I’m going to take a step back from the “techy” side of game development and I’m going to share with you a few tips about game design.

As always, I must remind that I’m no pro at all, I’m just a game developer wannabe that has just been making games for a little while. During this time I have come to realize a few things that I hope can help other fellow developers that are in a situation similar to mine.

With that said, and without further ado, let’s begin!


Decide on one core mechanic

Great games tend to look overly complicated, with lots of content, features and specific gameplay styles, all combined into one impressive masterpiece.

That’s all fine and dandy, but then we have even greater games, that take one simple core mechanic and exploit it to infinitum, making the best use out of it and develop the whole story and concept of the game around it.

With this, I’m trying to say that when you start designing your game you are probably already thinking on different play styles and situations that you want to have and explore in your game, but in truth you are better of stripping it all down to one simple but powerful idea.

It’s way better to do one powerful mechanic only than a whole lot of poorly executed ones.

Take VVVVVV  as an example. That game is an excellent platformer, with metroid-like exploration, sidequests, a neat story…, the whole lot. But deep down it all turns around the same core idea: you can’t jump, but you can change your own gravity. That’s it, that’s all there is to it.


VVVVVV is <3



Story and art are not that important

Yeah, yeah, I know what you are thinking. Story is a big part of some of your favorite games and without it they wouldn’t be the same at all. Same goes for great artistic designs and graphics.

Well, I agree, but what I’m trying to say is that probably those games are absolutely great and fun even without taking their story or looks into consideration.

Thing is, your are developing a game, and -as stupid as it may sound- a game has to be FUN. Not interesting or gorgeous (those are great additions to fun, but not the core of your game) but plain fun.

For this you have to focus your main effort on making your game fun and compelling to the player. The player has to find your game addicting, challenging and fun to play for a long period of time.

If you can find an idea that does all that then you can be sure your game will be entertaining, no matter what you add to it, the core will be there, and everything you add to it (story, graphics, music, etc) will just add to the experience.

On the other hand, a game that just fails to deliver fun can have all the fancy tech you want on top of it, but it will never appeal to the player.


Prototype fast and soon

Following these lines you would get to one conclusion: you need to test your ideas before you get to know if they work or if they are fun.

An idea might sound absolutely brilliant on paper, but it can turn out to be terrible when put in practice.

With this in mind I highly recommend to implement your basic ideas as fast as possible so you can test them and play with them in the same way the players would end up playing with your game.

This means that the sooner you get a playable prototype to try and test out your ideas the better your game will be.

Of course, in most cases (unless you hit the jackpot on your first try) your first concept would be no fun at all, or it may be completely broken.

Don’t panic, you just have to keep polishing it, tweaking it and testing it until you get it to work. Maybe after this process you find out that your idea wasn’t that good or that maybe it just isn’t fun, but I’m sure that by the time you are there you probably have already come up with at least 3 other ideas that you are completely eager to try and test out.

The key is to never give up and keep playing and tweaking. Keep in mind that no one got it absolutely right on the first try, and you are no different.


Be original

It is easier to say than done, but it really is absolutely true. Considering you are free to make your game anyway you want it and that you have almost no constraints I would encourage you to go and explore. Leave your confort zone and dare to try new things. Develop new concepts or play styles. Sometimes a silly idea turns out to be a great idea, or even more, it turns out to be a really fun idea.

If you stick to the basic genres you are already closing doors to yourself  right out from the start, without even having started designing or programming anything. Remember that all those genres where new and innovative at some point in history and that their developers risked it and tried to do something new without even knowing if it would be attractive to players.

I know it is unlikely that any of us creates a new genre by ourselves but I think it is important to keep and innovative approach in everything you do, instead of just trying to replicate other people’s success. You are not in this game developing thing just to make Super Mario Bros clones. (At least I know I’m not!).


Katamari Damacy is a great example of great new ideas beatufiully executed



As I said, these are just a few ideas right out from my head about how to approach (or maybe, how not to)  game design for a newbie on game development. I know they are pretty straightforward and mostly rely on simple common-sense, but I too have found myself too many times forgetting this kind of things, so I hope they will help somebody get their game developer act together and get back on track making awesome games for us all to have fun with.


Thanks for reading, more on game design soon, stay tuned!