How Can I Play It?: NES metroidvania games

The lowdown on how to play the games covered in this week's podcast on modern systems... when possible.

This week's podcast episode tackled the ever-popular (at least for me) topic of NES metroidvania games. You know: Non-linear, exploratory, action-RPG games with essential inventory systems and character-building mechanics. They're fun to map, too.

We figured you might be interested in trying out these games for yourself, and, as it happens, many of them are available for play on modern systems. Before you go digging for ROMs, why not consider playing an official release and supporting the people who made the games? Or the company that bought the licenses, I suppose.

(Many of these 30-year-old games aren't available on current platforms, of course. In the event of an abandoned product that will never be put up on offer again, like Pack-In Video's Rambo, well... avast, ye mateys.)

Nintendo, 1987

The game that helped give this subgenre its name doesn't lack for modern-day play options. Nintendo keeps it in circulation, as well they should — it's a classic. You can find it on all three iterations of Virtual Console:

  • Wii Virtual Console
  • Wii U Virtual Console
  • 3DS Virtual Console

The game also appears on the Classic NES Edition, should you somehow unexpectedly encounter one of those in the wild. On the other hand, you might just want to skip the NES game and go immediately to the immensely superior Game Boy Advance remake Zero Mission, which Nintendo has published on Wii U Virtual Console. 

Other options: You can also pick up Metroid (and Zero Mission) as standalone GBA carts. Zero Mission contains the original Metroid as an unlockable. Metroid also appeared as an unlockable in Metroid Prime for GameCube (though that feature was removed for the Metroid Prime Trilogy reissue on Wii) and in Animal Crossing for GameCube.

Castlevania II
Konami, 1987

The source of other half of the name "metroidvania" doesn't appear on quite as many platforms as Metroid, but you shouldn't have much trouble finding it:

  • Wii Virtual Console
  • Wii U Virtual Console
  • 3DS Virtual Console

Like Metroid, it also appears on the Classic NES Edition.

The Goonies II
Konami, 1987

It's original NES cartridge only on this interesting sequel to the Spielberg/Donner ’80s kids classic movie. Blame the license, one assumes.

Tecmo, 1987

Strangely, Tecmo has never reissued the NES version of Rygar; it's available as the original NES cartridge only. You can buy Rygar on PlayStation 4 and Wii Virtual Console (as well as the Tecmo classics compilation on the original Xbox), but all of those releases contain the linear arcade version — a totally different game than the exploratory NES version. 

Milon's Secret Castle
Hudson/Konami, 1988

This game kind of hates you and definitely demands to be played with a guide. (It's only straining at the meaning of "metroidvania," since it doesn't quite follow all the rules of the type). If you really want to beat your head against a wall, though, remember that Left + Start at the title screen activates the hidden continue feature. Find it here:

  • Wii Virtual Console
  • 3DS Virtual Console

Yeah, it skipped Wii U Virtual Console, strangely.

Zelda II
Nintendo, 1988

Another Nintendo creation, this has also been kept in circulation on the regular.

  • Wii Virtual Console
  • Wii U Virtual Console
  • 3DS Virtual Console

You can play it on Classic NES Edition, in theory. And for the old-school types, it did a receive a standalone Game Boy Advance release.

Legacy of the Wizard
Compile/Falcom/Brøderbund, 1989

This bewildering chapter of Falcom's Dragon Slayer franchise (which we'll be discussing at this week's live panel!) has only ever been issued on the original NES cartridge in the U.S.

Nintendo, 1989

Another Dragon Slayer-adjacent title, Faxanadu actually did see release once on Virtual Console, but it hasn't been reissued since:

  • Wii Virtual Console

Pack-In Video/Acclaim, 1989

A strangely ambitious adaptation of the Stallone movie, Rambo for NES has only ever been released on cartridge. It's almost worth tracking down just for the weird novelty of an open-ended Rambo action-RPG platformer.

The Battle of Olympus
Infinity/Brøderbund, 1989

Sadly, this excellent Zelda II clone can only be played on NES, unless you happen to stumble across the European-exclusive Game Boy port (which is, shall we say, not great).

Blaster Master
SunSoft, 1988

Surprise! The most prolifically reissued game on this list isn't from Nintendo, but rather SunSoft. Not only does Blaster Master show up on all three versions of Virtual Console, you can also choose from two remakes.

  • Wii Virtual Console
  • Wii U Virtual Console
  • 3DS Virtual Console 

3DS Virtual Console also features Blaster Master: Enemy Below, a pretty solid Game Boy Color adaptation of the NES game. And then of course you have Blaster Master Zero, developed by Inti Creates for both Switch and 3DS. (It's quite good.)

Bionic Commando
Capcom, 1988

Word of god is that this version of the game will never appear on Virtual Console, though I've never been able to determine the reason why that would be the case. (It's not the exploding Hitler head factor, surprisingly.) Capcom did reissue it once on Game Boy Advance's Capcom Classics Collection Mini Mix, but your best bet is to experience it by way of GRIN's exceptional 2.5D remake, Bionic Commando Rearmed for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

Capcom, 1990

The curious exploratory NES version of Strider hasn't shown up on Virtual Console, but you can find it on the same Capcom Classics Collection Mini Mix for GBA that contains Bionic Commando. Somewhat similar to Bionic Commando Rearmed, a spiritual successor (simply called "Strider") is available on PS4/Xbox One; it's an entirely new game, though, not a remake.

Clash at Demonhead
Vic Tokai, 1990

This loopy Vic Tokai adventure is only available on original NES hardware, I'm afraid.

Gargoyle's Quest II
Capcom, 1992

And finally, this semi-non-linear Ghosts ’N Goblins spin-off offers a rare example of a game that didn't appear on Wii Virtual Console but has shown up since (it usually works the opposite direction): 

  • Wii U Virtual Console
  • 3DS Virtual Console

Images courtesy of VG Museum and Hardcore Gaming 101