The untold history of the Metroidvania genre.
Platform Adventure is a subgenre of Action Adventure and Platform games. The term possibly originated in the late '80s as a way to describe the first Metroid and is a portmanteau of Platform(er) and Action Adventure, although similar terms like Arcade Adventure were also in use at the time and other terms have been coined since. If you're a zoomer or millennial then you may have heard the term Metroidvania to describe these kinds of games, however that term seems to first have been used by a publication in this 2003 review of Aria of Sorrow. According to wikipedia, the first source is Scott Sharkey and he used it specifically to describe Castlevania games that played more liked Metroid games, but the Gamespy review is obviously older (this Dawn of Sorrow review by Parish seems to feature the second use of the term in a published review). If you have a look around, one site dedicated to the genre attributes the term to Jeremy Parish, and another one describes the genre as originating strictly from Japan. Personally, I've been using "Platform Adventure" since the '90s and prefer it since it's more consistent with other genre names, sounds better and doesn't bring specific games to mind which can cause some confusion and needless bickering about game X not having feature Y.
Anyway, this site isn't about trying to replace one term with another, but rather an attempt to succinctly document the early history and evolution of the genre, using a definition which is rooted first and foremost in game structure and mechanics that took shape back in the '80s. Think of it as a quick reference guide to older games in the genre. It is also something to help me focus on playing more of the kinds of games that I've always wanted to play. Below is a list of key features that I think almost everyone would agree with, along with a list of optional ones that I and others have picked up on, but which are more subtle, seem limited to fewer games and/or evolved later on in the genre's lifespan.
Defining features of Platform Adventure (aka Sidescrolling Action Adventure or Metroidvania) games:
*Platforming, traditionally in 2D. This is the main distinguishing trait when comparing these games to other Action Adventure and ARPG games, going by their traditional definitions (see for example Adventure, AD&D: Cloudy Mountain, Dragon Slayer 1, Hydlide 1-3, Elite, Zelda 1 & 3, Ys 1-2, Starflight 1-2, Metal Gear 1-2, Pirates!, Quest for Glory 1-4, Wibarm or Final Fantasy Adventure/Seiken Densetsu).
*Exploration of an (preferably seamlessly) interconnected game world with some degree of persistency. Historically there have been various alternatives here like a town or multiple towns with gates leading to "dungeon" areas (sometimes removing the travel distances between the town(s) and dungeons), a distinction between an overworld and dungeons/boss areas (sometimes with different perspectives, see Zelda II), and a hub map system where travel between locations is removed. Series like Metroid differ a bit here in that the line between the overworld/hub area and the dungeons/boss areas is blurred, but they still tend to have some dungeon areas such as Tourian or the ghost ship. When it comes to persistency, the degree to which changes to the game world caused by the player are permanent can vary but in general a game should keep track of unlocked doors, collected tools/abilities and beaten bosses while letting consumables and regular enemies respawn when exiting a room or sub area.
*(Persistent) ability or tool-based progression, preferably in a way that creates new platforming puzzle challenges and with some backtracking to previously visited areas. The best new abilities/tools can be used both for traversing the world, unlocking doors (whatever shape they may take) and/or for combat. I tend to refer to this as ability gating when talking about various games on the site.
*Partial or full non-linearity in the overarching structure of the game, preferably with subtle guiding of the player in the right direction. Partial can include games with branching paths between more linear areas, or optional exploration for upgrades or currency in an otherwise mostly linear game (this includes teases like a slightly too high platform or a locked door that you've passed by earlier) such as Cave Story. Most exploration should preferably be rewarding in a tangible way, with worthwhile rewards and challenges leading up to them, as well as a quick way to get back on the main path afterwards.
*RPG/AA-style character building in the form of stat and/or gear upgrades. Can use an experience point-based leveling system, an action-based system (Dungeon Master or FF2 for example), a power up/gear-based one (with or without shops), or a combo. As a result, you also tend to see respawning enemies in these games.
Optional but often associated with the genre:
*Focus on environmental storytelling over narration and/or NPC interaction. A classic example would be the beginning of Super Metroid after landing on the planet and the way it introduces the enemies here.
*A sense of loneliness, vulnerability, and/or dread. This can be done by using a minimal amount of narration and NPC interaction (or an unpredictable/untrustworthy narrator and/or NPCs), tight resource management, stripping the player of certain abilities at key points (see for example Wonder Boy III), an unskilled/clumsy player avatar (though this one is more associated with survival horror games nowadays) and of course with the audiovisuals, enemies and aforementioned environmental storytelling.
*A focus on creating what could be a real place should take precedence over creating a set of abstract platforming challenges á la Mario
*Sequence breaking - When you can go where you're "not supposed to go yet" with a tool or ability that isn't pointed out to you as being useful for that purpose. One example is bomb jumping in Metroid, where the main purpose of bombing is destroying certain walls but the knockback that occurs when near the blast can be used to ascend and reach new areas. Sequence breaking also includes abusing a glitch or seemingly unrelated mechanic (such as damage boosts or respawning after death) which wasn't actually intended by the developer to skip ahead in the game.
*Grinding and Collectathon elements - These are commonly associated with Metroidvanias in particular (as in the Platform Adventure/Metroid-style Castlevania games which the term originally described). The latter is common in for example the Dizzy series, and the style of 3D platformer popularized by Mario 64.
"Scott Sharkey, who had used the term to describe the games in the Castlevania series that had adopted some elements from the Metroid series." - Wikipedia
*One or more late game abilities or tools that make you feel powerful by greatly speeding up travel and/or combat with regular enemies. For example the screw attack and shinesparking in Super Metroid, or the downstab move in Zelda II.
*Bosses which trigger the next story event, reward you with an important ability/tool or unlock a new area when defeated.
*Save points or checkpoints. Platform Adventure-like games without these tend to either fall into the Rogue-like or Rogue-lite platformer subgenre and then also have some degree of randomized world generation, or be very short games (one example is Draconus for the C64).
*Teleporters or other means of quick travel. Some games change the way you backtrack through a previous segment instead, with new abilities, new enemies or changes in the level design that keep the experience fresh.
Ok that became a lot longer than I thought it would, but it's good to have these thoughts collected in one place. Just one last thing: In listing various features from these games that relate to the genre, some unique aspects are spoiled so if you want to go in blind, use the list format page and check video playthroughs or reviews instead. Now that we have that out of the way, please enjoy the rest of the site!