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Best Atmosphere: Hollow Knight at Amazon
"Pairs the freedom of exploration seen in the best Metroidvania games along with an enthralling atmosphere of misery and despair."
Best Gameplay: SteamWorld Dig 2 at Amazon
"Small improvements make SteamWorld Dig 2 one of the most engrossing, addicting Metroidvania experiences out there."
Best Combat: Dead Cells at Amazon
"It fuses Metroidvania-type progression with randomly generated, rogue-like levels."
Most Nostalgic: The Messenger at Amazon
"If you've ever experienced Tecmo's classic franchise for yourself, the wistful memories will come rushing back."
Best Story: Owlboy at Amazon
"A journey through a gorgeous world featuring smart puzzle design, interactive exploration, and a consistently gripping plot."
Most creative: Yoku’s Island Express at Amazon
"Turns the genre on its head by introducing something entirely unique: pinball."
Courtesy of Amazon
Team Cherry’s Hollow Knight pairs the freedom of exploration seen in the best Metroidvania games along with an enthralling atmosphere of misery and despair. It’s a killer combination that makes for one of the most impactful Metroidvanias in recent years. Hollow Knight builds a world that begs you to explore its well-woven mystery. The world is in ruins, and it’s up to you to discover what happened to cause this era of misery. Each character you meet along the way only enhances the lore and world-building, and the constant sense of discovery will motivate you to keep playing.
Not that you need a reason to, as Hollow Knight’s gameplay and progression systems are so well thought out and satisfying, you’ll lose hours working to upgrade your character without even realizing how much time you’ve spent playing. Tack on smart, intense boss fights and a heavy helping of DLC content, and Hollow Knight becomes a can’t-miss Metroidvania.
Image & Form Games has built a handful of games in their SteamWorld universe, but SteamWorld Dig 2 might be its finest effort yet. Taking some core elements from Minecraft and infusing them with the structure of a Metroidvania was a winning formula for the first SteamWorld Dig in 2013. However, the sequel builds onto this success by creating an all-around better game.
SteamWorld Dig 2 has one of the best gameplay loops in recent memory, one that will grab hold of you and never let go. After entering the mine to gather materials, you must head back to the surface and upgrade your gear. Your new gear allows you to go even deeper into the mine where you’ll find even better material to craft higher quality gear. SteamWorld Dig 2 also makes traversal more entertaining with the inclusion of the hoverboard and the grappling hook.
Small improvements make SteamWorld Dig 2 one of the most engrossing, addicting Metroidvania experiences out there.
Dead Cells is unique from the rest of the games on this list because it fuses Metroidvania-type progression with randomly generated, rogue-like levels. The world of Dead Cells changes each time you play, so you’re always forced to be on your toes. It is unforgivingly difficult as well, so the tension is always high.
To "get good" at Dead Cells, you’ll have to learn how to react to the various enemy patterns in each dungeon, much like in the Dark Souls series. Many of your runs to the finish will probably end in failure, which can admittedly feel hopeless at times, but there's no feeling quite like finally conquering an area you’d been stuck on for ages.
Beautiful sprite work completes the package, as Dead Cells manages to pull off a gritty and pixelated, yet eye-pleasing art style. Though not for the faint of heart, Dead Cells is a rewarding experience nevertheless.
For the first few hours of The Messenger, you probably won’t even think of it as a Metroidvania. It initially presents itself as a Ninja Gaiden-inspired 2D platformer, and if you've ever experienced Tecmo's classic franchise for yourself, the wistful memories will come rushing back. Middleway through, however, The Messenger completely shifts, into a 16-bit Metroidvania adventure.
Despite its late focus on exploration, The Messenger still includes brutally difficult platforming challenges. Specifically, if you want to unlock the game’s secret bonus, you have to collect all 45 medallions in the game. To find each medallion, you first have to search the world to locate it. Then, to add the medallion to your collection, you'll complete a difficult platforming challenge. All in all, what makes The Messenger so unique is its comfortable balance between exploration and platforming.
Oftentimes, Metroidvania games tell their stories through atmosphere rather than character dialogues. One glaring exception is D-Pad Studio’s Owlboy. After an excruciatingly long development cycle, Owlboy finally released in 2016 to widespread critical acclaim, thanks to its intricate, detailed pixel art, and its surprisingly powerful narrative. You play as Otus, a mute owl who is often looked down upon by the other members of his town. Because of his social exile, Otus regularly deals with depression, and Owlboy’s narrative does a fantastic job handling a sensitive topic with great care.
In an effort to save his home from a bevy of pirates, Otus sets off on a grand adventure with his best friend, Geddy. What follows is a journey through a gorgeous world featuring smart puzzle design, interactive exploration, and a consistently gripping plot. The soundtrack is a beautiful complement to the art design and the story. So long as you're ready to deal with some heavy, somber themes, Owlboy will stick with you long after the credits roll.
Plenty of games try to spice up the Metroidvania genre with some sort of unique hook, but no game is quite like Yoku’s Island Express. In an ever-crowded landscape of Metroidvania titles, Yoku’s Island Express turns the genre on its head by introducing something entirely unique: pinball. Instead of traditionally controlling your character, the adorable bug named Yoku, you instead manipulate a pair of pinball paddles to move Yoku left and right. The paddles are activated with the shoulder buttons. So, in a strange way, it does feel like you're playing with a real pinball machine.
Even with its one-if-a-kind control scheme, Yoku’s Island Express manages to retain solid exploration elements that define the Metroidvania genre. But, the pinball is always front and center. If you manage to discover a bonus area, you’re rewarded with a challenge that often resembles a pinball table — complete with lanes, flashing lights, and more. Yoku’s Island Express takes risks that manage to pay off, and it’s the perfect choice if you’re craving something different.