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From Friendly to Fragging: A Beginner’s Guide to Video Game Genres

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Genre mashing to create hybrid games is a strong trend in game design, making it hard to fit a single game neatly into a given category.

As an industry, gaming has grown in leaps and bounds from the 1980s onwards. This is largely because the hardware and software behind video games has evolved to points that could hardly be imagined when Mario was still jumping barrels thrown by Donkey Kong.

The evolution of gaming has also meant that it is possible for a game to be more than one thing. You can have role-playing elements in a first-person shooter or button-mashing action in a strategy game. This genre mixing can make it confusing even for hardcore gamers to classify games. In this article we’ll look at the traditional video game genres and how they’ve evolved along with the processing power behind them. (Learn more about why video games are so popular in 5 Psychological Tricks Video Games Use to Keep You Playing.)

Action/Adventure Games

Action/adventure is the broadest video game category around because it includes many of the original adventure video games, which were simply point-and-click or text-based, as well as the action-oriented games like platformers and beat ‘em ups. In an action/adventure game, the player progresses through the game by maximizing the specific abilities of the main character. These games also depend heavily on hand-eye coordination.

Platformer Games

Platformers are games in which the main character jumps from platform to platform or over obstacles to progress through a level. Famous platformers include the original “Mario” series, “Sonic the Hedgehog” and “Prince of Persia.”

Beat ‘Em Ups

Also referred to as hack-and-slash games, beat ‘em ups are video games where the gamer controls a character who fights through waves of standard enemies punctuated by more difficult level bosses. The main character may use a variety of weapons – or just his or her bare hands. Grrr! Some notable beat ’em ups include “Double Dragon,” “Golden Axe” and more modern games like the “God of War” series.

Survival-Horror and Action-Stealth Games

Survival-horror and action-stealth video games are adaptations of the original action/adventure concepts in which a brave hero defeats generic opponents. But the hero is not given the power or supplies to beat the game using brute force. Whether it’s endless hordes of zombies and too few bullets or paramilitary forces that will gang up if the player is discovered, these two genres put limitations on the main character that force the gamer to use unconventional strategies to beat the game. The “Metal Gear Solid” series and the “Resident Evil” series are both genre-defining games in this respect.


Fighting Games

Fighting games could almost be a category of their own, but these one-on-one combat games fall under the action/adventure umbrella due to their button-smashing qualities and progression gameplay. The “Street Fighter” series exemplifies this category. As one of the strongest franchises in any game genre, it also stands as a testament to the popularity of this type of game.

Shooter Games

Shooter games are centered around action that is created by shooting targets or enemies. There are different types of shooter games depending on perspective, such as top-down shooters and side-scrolling shooters like “Contra.” However, by far the most popular type of shooter is the first-person shooter (FPS). In this genre, the gamer sees through the character’s eyes and must gun his or her way through progressively harder levels of play.

The Simulation Category

Simulation games are a difficult category to define. Their goal is to create as real an experience as possible, so simulation games cut across some sub-genres that are very different from a gameplay perspective. These games often simulate construction management, sports or, as in one of the most popular games in this category, “The Sims,” simulation games may simulate real life.

Sports Games

Sports games could also be a category unto themselves, but they all center around recreating the experience of a professional sports franchise. This is not limited to playing as a particular pro athlete, as many of these games include franchise management, drafts and so on. EA Sports has several dominant franchises in this sub-genre, including “Madden NFL Football,” “FIFA” and “NHL.”

Driving Games

Much like sports games, driving simulations recreate the experience of controlling different vehicles. Racing games center on cars, but there is a range of flying, boating and even train driving simulators. The “Need for Speed” series is a racing simulator that is among the best-selling video game franchises of all time.

Music and Rhythm Games

Music and rhythm games combine music with button presses to create the experience of playing a guitar, taiko drums, dancing and so on. “Guitar Hero” is one of the most influential franchises for popularizing music games.

Role-Playing Games

Role-playing is used broadly to describe any video game where a character is on a quest for something in an imaginary world. A central device to role-playing games is that the character or group of characters can be upgraded through experience or finding new items and weapons. There are many sub-genres within RPGs, including two very significant ones:

  • Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG)
    MMORPGs are played over the internet and involve thousands of players occupying the same virtual world and advancing at different rates toward the same goal (the quest). MMORPGs have been multiplying, but “World of Warcraft” is one of the gold standards of the sub-genre.
  • Sandbox Games
    Sandbox games are hard to classify because one of the pioneers of the genre, “Grand Theft Auto III,” was part beat ‘em up with questing elements but no real improvement of the character’s original stat levels. However, the open concept of sandbox games quickly caught the attention of RPG developers, and many sandbox games are RPGs or have many of the traditional RPG elements, as seen in the “Fallout” series.

Strategy Games

Strategy games focus on the actual tactical decisions that must be made to win a battle or a war. Strategy games can be real-time strategy (RTS) games, where players race the clock to capture resources and build up forces, or turn-based strategy (TBS) games, where each move can be considered without time constraints.

Puzzle Games

Puzzle games are games in which players must complete progressively harder puzzles to advance through the game. These puzzles can be made more difficult by shorter time limits, more elements per puzzle or a step up in conceptual difficulty. “Minesweeper” and “Tetris” are two puzzle games that most everyone will be familiar with.

Mixing and Matching Genres

Video game technology has evolved to the point that a game doesn’t have to stick to one genre or another. In fact, games were breaking genre barriers in the platformer era with the platform shooters like “Contra” and platformers with RPG elements like “Castlevania.” Game producers now have more freedom to integrate elements of other genres and switch up gameplay as they please. As a result, there are many hybrid genres that have become established genres of their own, including:

  • Action RPG
  • Strategy RPGs
  • First-person shooter RPGs
  • Puzzle strategy games
  • Fighting RPGs
  • Racing RPGs
  • Flight simulator shooter games
  • Massively multiplayer online first-person shooter games (MMOFPS)

Genre mashing is likely to continue to the point that assigning a single genre to a video game becomes nearly impossible. That’s fine for gamers, because in the end, people don’t pay as much attention to the genre of a game as they do to whether it’s fun to play. (To learn more about the origin of video games, see New Technologies That Are Older Than You Think.)


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