Feature Article: Defining Past and Present Game Genres

Bill Loguidice's picture


Why past and present?  Certain game types, while still alive through the efforts of thousands of active hobby programmers, are no longer available in mainstream retail outlets and thus don’t knowingly exist to large portions of the game playing public.  Therefore, described in alphabetical order is what has been and what is still available.  Keep in mind, however, that one of the beauties of gaming is that many games don’t fit neatly into one specific category.  When example software titles are listed, only the publisher or developer is noted in parentheses, along with one of the systems or platforms the game appeared on.


Action Adventure--The player goes on a type of quest that not only involves some puzzle solving and exploration, but also plenty of action.  This does not involve statistics or significant character building.  Includes Adventure (Atari, Atari Video Computer System (VCS)), Indiana Jones and The Emperor’s Tomb (LucasArts, Microsoft Xbox), Metroid Prime (Nintendo, Nintendo GameCube), Quest for Quintana Roo (Sunrise Software, Coleco ColecoVision), The Legend of Zelda (Nintendo, Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)) and Tomb Raider (Eidos, PC DOS).

 Action RPG--Role Playing (RPG) games that emphasize action over detailed statistics and character choices, but still involve player-character management and advancement, comprise this genre.  Includes Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance (Interplay, Xbox), Champions of Norrath (SCEA, Sony PlayStation 2 (PS2)), Diablo (Blizzard, Windows), Gateway to Apshai (Epyx, Atari 8-bit) and Gauntlet (Atari, Arcade).

Adventure--Either using a parser, point-and-click or real-time interface, the player usually directs an on-screen character in overcoming puzzles and other challenges as part of a larger story in a graphical environment.  Includes Full Throttle (LucasArts, Macintosh), King’s Quest (Sierra, IBM PCjr), Lifeline (Konami, PS2), Monkey Island (LucasArts, PC DOS), Myst (Cyan, Atari Jaguar) and Syberia (XS Games, Windows).

Board/Casino/Game Show--Either based on a real-world or original board or casino-style game or television game show, these embody what we classically think of when we think of this play concept.  Arcade elements often push a particular game into the Party/Mini-Game Collections genre.  Includes Caesar’s Palace 2000 (Interplay, Sega Dreamcast), The Chessmaster 2000 (Ubisoft, Apple II), Jeopardy (Sharedata, Commodore 64 (C-64)), Omar Sharif Bridge (Global Star Software, PC DOS), Pensate (Penguin, Apple II), Othello (Stack, Atari 8-bit), Trivial Pursuit: Unhinged (Atari, Xbox), Twisted: The Game Show (EA, 3DO Multiplayer), Wheel of Fortune (Gametek, Nintendo 64 (N64)) and Yahtzee (Milton Bradley, TI-99/4).

Educational/Edutainment--These games emphasize learning over all else, but still qualify as compelling games.  Includes Agent USA (Scholastic, C-64), Fraction Fever (Spinnaker, ColecoVision), Oregon Trail (MECC, Apple II) and Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? (Broderbund, Sega Master System (SMS)).

Fighting--These games feature either scrolling or single screen environments where two or more combatants face off with or without weapons.  Includes Double Dragon (Data East, Arcade), Jedi Arena (Parker Brothers, VCS), Joust (Namco, Arcade), Karate Champ (Data East, Arcade), Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance (Midway, PS2), Soul Calibur (Namco, GameCube), Street Fighter II (Capcom, Arcade), Streets of Rage (Sega, Sega Game Gear) and The Bilestoad (Datamost, Apple II).

Full-Motion Video (FMV)--These games allow a player varying degrees of interaction with pre-rendered video footage.  This is not the same as overlaying regular graphics on top of video or a game with a lot of cut scenes—interaction with the video is the whole game.  Includes A Fork in the Tale (Any River Entertainment, Windows), Cobra Command (Data East, Arcade), Dragon’s Lair (Cinemaware, Arcade), Quarterback Attack (Digital Pictures, 3DO Multiplayer) and Thayer’s Quest (RDI, RDI Halcyon).

 Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG)--These games are meant to be played almost exclusively online and can feature from hundreds to hundreds of thousands concurrent players.  Includes EverQuest Online Adventures (SCEA, PS2), Phantasy Star Online (Sega, Dreamcast), The Sims Online (EA, Windows), Ultima Online (EA, Windows) and World of Warcraft (Blizzard, Windows).

Maze/Chase--The player’s avatar collects or chases other objects, normally in a maze-like setting.  Includes Ant Eater (Romox, Atari 8-bit), Mouse Trap (Exidy, Arcade), Pac-Man (Namco, Arcade),  Radar Rat Race (Commodore, Commodore VIC 20 (Vic-20)), Serpentine (Broderbund, C-64) and Snake (Various, Cell Phone).

Party/Mini-Game Collections--These games feature a selection of mini-games usually inspired by other games.  Often a player competes against other opponents to reach a finish line or goal, such as making it all the way around a virtual game board.  These games are action-based in contrast to the Board/Casino/Game Show genre.  Includes Beach Head (Access, C-64), Fuzion Frenzy (Microsoft, Xbox), Mario Party (Nintendo, N64), The Three Stooges (Cinemaware, Commodore Amiga) and WarioWare, Inc.: Mega Party Game$ (Nintendo, GameCube).

Platform--These are running and jumping games that either have single-screen or scrolling environments.  Includes Conker’s Bad Fur Day (Rare, N64), Crash Bandicoot (Naughty Dog, Sony PlayStation (PS1)), Jumpman (Epyx, C-64), Megaman (Capcom, NES), Miner 2049’er (Big Five Software, Atari 5200), Pitfall (Activision, VCS), Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo, NES) and Rolling Thunder (Namco, Arcade).

Puzzle--These are pure problem solving games.  The games may or may not be action-based, but are always stand-alone and not smaller parts of other games in other genres.  Includes Bejeweled (PopCap Games, Windows), Bomberman (Hudson, NEC Turbo-Grafx 16), Bust A Move Pocket (SNK, SNK Neo Geo Pocket Color), Lemmings (Psygnosis, Amiga), Tetris (Spectrum Holobyte, PC DOS) and The Lost Vikings (Interplay, SNES).

Racing--The player’s avatar competes against other objects or time to reach a specific location as quickly as possible.  Includes Gran Turismo (SCEA, PS1), Mancopter (Datasoft, C-64), MotoGP (THQ, Xbox), Night Driver (Atari, VCS), OutRun (Sega, Arcade), Super Mario Kart (Nintendo, SNES) and Turbo (Sega, Arcade).

Real-time Strategy--Similar to Turn-based Strategy, the action does not stop to wait for the player to move.  These games may include simple action and puzzle elements.  Includes Command and Conquer (Westwood, PC DOS), Full Spectrum Warrior (Pandemic, Xbox), Pikmin (Nintendo, GameCube), Rescue Raiders (Sir-Tech, Apple II) and Warcraft (Blizzard, PC DOS).

Rhythm/Performance--The player has to respond in-time to either a musical beat or some type of on-screen prompt, often using a specialized controller.  Includes Dance Dance Revolution (Konami, Arcade), Donkey Konga (Nintendo, GameCube), Guitar Hero (RedOctane, PS2), J-Mat (XaviX, XaviX XaviXPORT), Karaoke Revolution (Konami, PS2), Space Channel 5 (Sega, Dreamcast), Typing of the Dead (Sega, Dreamcast) and Um Jammer Lammy (SCEA, PS1).

Role Playing (RPG)--The player directs one or more pre-made or created characters through a series of progressively more difficult challenges and situations towards an overall goal, all the time improving the character’s or characters’ in-game statistics and abilities.  Includes Dungeon Master (FTL, Atari ST), Final Fantasy (Square, NES), Phantasie (SSI, Apple II), Phantasy Star (Sega, SMS), Pool of Radiance (SSI, C-64), Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (Bioware, Xbox), Ultima (Origin, Apple II) and Wasteland (Interplay, Apple II).

Sandbox/Free Roaming--These games may be part of other genres, but let you interact with the game world fairly freely, either in addition to or in lieu of overcoming pre-set challenges and goals.  Includes Elite (Firebird, C-64), Freelancer (Microsoft, Windows), Grand Theft Auto III (Rockstar, PS2), The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (Bethesda Softworks, Microsoft Xbox 360), The Simpsons: Hit & Run (Vivendi Universal, GameCube) and Tony Hawk’s Underground (Activision, Xbox).

Shooter/Shooting--The player or the player’s avatar--usually visible on-screen--shoots at objects that may or may not shoot back.  These games vary from the very simple to the very complex, with different playing perspectives.  Includes Asteroids (Atari, Arcade), Berzerk (Stern, Arcade), Demon Attack (Imagic, Mattel Intellivision), Devil’s Crush (Naxat Soft, Turbo-Grafx 16), Doom 3 (id Software, Windows), Ghost Recon (Ubi Soft, Xbox), Gradius (Konami, NES), Ikaruga (Treasure, GameCube), Pooyan (Konami, Arcade), Space Invaders (Taito, Arcade), Space War (Steve Russell, PDP-1), Virtua Cop (Sega, Arcade) and Wolfenstein 3D (3D Realms, PC DOS).

Simulation--These games simulate a real-world or other worldly machine, activity or environment, often realistically.  The games may be purely statistic-based, incorporate physics, and/or have action elements.  Includes Computer Quarterback (SSI, C-64), Flight Simulator II (SubLogic, Atari XEGS), IndyCar Racing (Papyrus, PC DOS), MicroLeague Baseball (MicroLeague Software, Apple II), Pinball (Nintendo, NES), Seaman (Sega, Dreamcast) and The Sims (EA, Windows).

Sports--These games may include strategy elements, but always have a significant action component.  The games often mimic real-world sporting activities.  Includes Arkanoid (Taito, Arcade), Fight Night (Accolade, C-64), Hardball! (Accolade, Apple IIgs), John Madden Football (EA, Apple II), Pong (Atari, Arcade),  Speedball (Bitmap Brothers, Amiga), Ten Pin Alley (ASC Games, PS1), Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater (Activision, Dreamcast), Track and Field (Konami, Arcade),  Ultimate 8 Ball (THQ, Windows), Virtua Tennis (Sega, Dreamcast) and Wayne Gretzy Hockey (Bethesda, Amiga).

Text and/or Graphic Adventure--Sometimes referred to as Interactive Fiction (IF).  A type of game that places the player in a form of interactive book, usually requiring the input of two or more words (an action directed at a target) to advance the game’s story.  May be pure text or have multimedia elements.  Includes Amazon (Trillium, Apple II), Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur (Infocom, Amiga), Eric the Unready (Legend Entertainment, PC DOS), Pirate Adventure (Scott Adams, TI-994/A) and Zork (Infocom, CP/M).

Turn-based Strategy--Gameplay advances only in set phases or when a player makes a move.  These games are normally quite detailed and take place on a map of some type.  Includes Alpha Centauri (Firaxis, Windows), Caesar (Impressions, PC DOS), Civilization (Microprose, PC DOS), Colonial Conquest (SSI, Atari ST), Computer Ambush (SSI, C-64), Eastern Front (Atari, Atari 8-bit), Panzer General (SSI, 3DO Multiplayer), Six-Gun Shootout (SSI, Apple II), Sim City (Maxis, C-64), Starfleet Orion (Automate Simulations, Commodore PET) and Worms (Team 17, Amiga).


Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006
Bill Loguidice wrote:Keep in
Bill Loguidice wrote:

Keep in mind, however, that one of the beauties of gaming is that many games don’t fit neatly into one specific category.

No kidding! It seems rare these days that a game comes out that doesn't claim to have elements from dozens of genres.

I've often thought about genre in relation to videogames, but there's a whole subfield of literature called "genre studies." I found a nice introduction to the subject by Daniel Chandler that looks quite interesting. I think this quote from Robert Stam really asks the right questions:

Robert Stam wrote:

A number of perennial doubts plague genre theory. Are genres really 'out there' in the world, or are they merely the constructions of analysts? Is there a finite taxonomy of genres or are they in principle infinite? Are genres timeless Platonic essences or ephemeral, time-bound entities? Are genres culture-bound or transcultural?... Should genre analysis be descriptive or proscriptive?

I've tended to see genre as more essential for marketing purposes than critical analysis. It's nice to have a convenient label to group together similar games--that way, if you like Game X, you may also like Games Y and Z, which follow the same formula. It's also a nice way to get a bunch of information about a game rapidly. If we hear, "Oh, it's a platformer," we already know a great deal about it from our experience with other games of that description.

There seems to be a constant tug-of-war between originality and innovation regarding these genres. No developer wants to call his new game "just another first-person shooter." There always has to be some gimmick that distinguishes it from the competition. On the other hand, consumers always seem to want more of the same, since they don't want to take a big risk buying a game that doesn't meet their expectations. It's really interesting how each new game in a series will meet with varying degrees of enthusiasm and hostility among the fan base. Is it "true" to the series, or has it "ruined" it?

It's also intriguing to think that "genres" seem to be constructed by imitators rather than innovators. A popular new type of game comes out (say, Garriott's Akalabeth), and eventually dozens of imitators appear that mimic it, often making subtle improvements (or new mistakes). Eventually, for the sake of convenience, all of these imitative and derivative games are slapped with the same label.

At any rate, it's nice to ask the question, "Where are genres?" Are they in the minds of players, developers, critics, retailers, or some combination of all of these? At what point does a CRPG cease being a CRPG and become something else? What are the "essential elements" of each genre that simply must be present? Is it enough, for instance, for a game to have some kind of experience point/leveling up system to be classified as a CRPG? Does it matter whether the game's theme is sci-fi, fantasy, post-apocalyptic, or Western? Are fantasy based games perhaps "truer" to the genre than games like Fall Out and Wasteland? What about that Gauntlet series?

At some point, it seems that all attempts to classify games under discrete "genres" are doomed. There is just too much blending and merging going on for such a scheme ever to work. At best, they can help us see games from different perspectives. For example, looking at Tomb Raider as an adventure game yields one set of criteria, whereas looking at a 3D platform game yields another, and puzzle game yet another. Likewise, to what extent is any game NOT some form of "simulation?" Even Tetris might be a realistic simulation of some "otherworldly" machine, and arguably all arcade ports "simulate" the original arcade game. At worst, I think, such efforts can actually hurt our understanding and cause us to ignore or even condemn what we see as deviations. For instance, calling Cinemaware's Wings game a "flight simulator" really seems to conceal what the game is really about. I could point out many other instances, such as calling The Last Ninja a "fighter game." Sure, there's fighting, but is that really the most important part of the game? By the time we start having to use two or three labels to identify a game, I have to question the usefulness of any of them. Well, it's a sports/action/shooter/adventure/fighter/simulator.

That said, there is obviously something out there that answers to the name "shooter game," though I doubt we could never hammer out exactly what it is about a game that makes it the "perfect" example of such a game. What's closer to the ideal: Space Invaders, Galaxian, Galaga, Zaxxon, Hybris, Duck Hunt, Star Wars, Spy Hunter, Xenon?

Even with "platform" games, there seems to be some confusion with games like Green Beret, Rolling Thunder, RoboCop, and Walker. Are these shooters or platformers? Or somewhere in between? :-)

Nevertheless, I can't imagine trying to analyze games without recourse to such labels, simply because everyone knows to some extent what they mean. They provide us with a language, no matter how ambiguous, to talk about games.

Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
Joined: 12/31/1969
Great points, Matt. Labels

Great points, Matt. Labels are convenient only so everyone knows what you're talking about. When you did your "The History of Computer Role-Playing Games, Part I", you had a very specific set of parameters that you followed for game inclusion. Looking in the comments to your article, some people wanted to incorporate games like "Adventure" and other titles that simply didn't fall into the same category(ies) of the games you were covering. That's where categorizations best come into place, in formal discussions such as that. When I came up with the category designations in my piece, I tried to be very specific and clearly delineate between differences in very similar categories. Also, I like the idea of establishing criteria for categories because that then heads-off uninformed discussions about "firsts". It's hard to say, for instance, that "GTA III" was the first "sand-box" game when even in my examples a game like "Elite" (and games like it) far preceded it.

Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
(A PC Magazine Top 100 Website)


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