News: An Illuminated Glossary of Video Game Genres

An Illuminated Glossary of Video Game Genres

Like the press covering film and many other specialized fields, video game journalists use all sorts of jargon to convey to their knowledgable readers as much information about a game as quickly as possible. For non or newbie gamers, this can be extremely confusing. 

Those of you in the latter camp, despair not. I have complied below an illustrated glossary of the main terms used to classify games by genre. Most games are a combination of one or more items from each of the sections below. For example, Call of Duty: Black Ops is a first-person shooter and Civilization 5 an isometric turn-based strategy game. Without further adieu, an Illuminated Glossary of Video Game Genres:


  • Side-scrolling: These games depict the action in profile, with the player character usually moving from left to right to progress. Most common in platformer and shooter games. 
(1) Super Mario World, side-scrolling platformer. (2) Contra: Hard Corps, side-scrolling shooter. (3) Outland, side-scrolling Metroidvania platformer.
  • Top-down: The game world is viewed from directly above, and the player can usually maneuver in all four directions while progressing from bottom to top onscreen. Mostly used in strategy games and shooters, it has lost a lot of ground to the more 3D-friendly isometric perspective. 
(1) Ikargua, one of the best top-down shmups. (2) Warcraft 2, still my favorite top-down RTS game. (3) Smash TV, top-down shooter minus the spaceships.
  • Isometric: A 3/4 overhead view in between side-scrolling and top-down. This has become the standard for many genres of games as the 3D era has progressed, including strategy and RPG.
(1) Grandia 2, a Dreamcast JRPG with a 3D isometric perspective. Definition of JRPG below, read on. (2) Diablo 2, a Western RPG with a 2D isometric perspective. (3) Civilization 5, turn-based strategy from an isometric perspective.
  • First-Person: The player views the world through the eyes of their character. Most often used in shooters and RPGs.
(1) Halo: Reach is the current standard of first-person gameplay. (2) Doom brought the first-person to the masses and terrified parents everywhere in the 90's. (3) The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion is a wildly popular first-person Western RPG.
  • 3rd Person: The camera sits behind and above the player character for an over-the-shoulder view. This versatile view has become common in RPG, adventure, and shooter games.
(1) Enslaved: Odyssey To The West: 3rd person adventure at its finest. (2) Gears of War 2, the 3rd-person answer to Call of Duty and Halo. (3) Leeroy Jenkins and his fellow party members in World of Warcraft see their game world in third person.

Turn System

  • Real-time (RTS): All players play simultaneously; the most common format. Covers everything from Tetris to Battlefield: Bad Company 2.
  • Turn-based: Players take turns, like in a board game. Used to be common, but has faded in popularity. 
(1) Greed Corps is a rare modern example of a turn-based strategy game. (2) Note how the enemies in Master of Orion 2 don't respond to being attacked because it is not their turn.
  • Hybrid: Many RPGs use a hybrid of the two, with systems to restrict when players can perform certain actions but no outright turns. Even RPGs with purely turn-based combat could still be considered hybrids because their non-combat gameplay is usually in real-time, but they are not generally referred to as such.
(1) Chrono Trigger use the active-time battle system to slow combat down without adding turns. Notice how the player can only attack with each character when their action bar fills up. (2) Fallout 3's VATS system allows players to pause gameplay and plan attacks, another form of hybrid system more popular in modern Western RPG's.

Gameplay Type

  • Racing: Players race cars, trains, planes, or spaceships against one another.
(1) Gran Turismo 5 is a simulation racing game, meaing that it simulates real driving very closely. (2) Rock n' Roll Racing is a classic combat racing game with an isometric view.
  • Strategy: Games where a player controls multiple entities, usually with the goal of destroying a team of opposing entities.
(1) Dune: The Battle For Arrakis was among the first real-time strategy (RTS) games. (2) Tower defense is an offshoot of RTS. (3) Heroes of Might and Magic 3 is among the best turn-based strategy games.
  • Sports: Just like it sounds—players play sports.
(1) Mutant League Football for the Sega Genesis was a combat sports game, because it had even more combat than real sports. (2) Madden is one of the most popular series of games in the world, and is the epitome of a sim sports game because it strives so hard for realism. (3) The Tony Hawk Pro Skater series is an example of arcade sports games, where the player performs something close to real sports but with superhuman abilities.
  • Platformer: Players jump from one platform to another, usually battling enemies at the same time. Mario made this the most popular genre of gaming in the '80s and '90s, but they have since been surpassed by shooters, at least in America.
(1) Super Mario Galaxy 2 is the height of 3D platforming. (2) Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is partly the inspiration for the term Metroidvania game. The term refers to games like Castlevania and Metroid with platforming as well as heavy exploration, puzzle, and combat elements. It is also a good example of a 2D side-scrolling platformer. (3) Ratchet and Clank is a Sony-proudced 3D platforming series.
  • RPG: Role-playing games. The most plot-driven genre, typically featuring fantasy or sci-fi settings. RPGs usually feature slower combat than shooters or platformers, utilizing turn-based or hybrid turn systems. 
(1) The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is an action RPG that has been rated the best game of all time by various magazines. (2) Final Fantasy X is an RPG with turn-based combat. Games with turn-based combat, randomly occuring battles, and anime-style graphics and stories are popular in Japan and often referred to as Japanese RPGs (JPRG). (3) I would be remiss not to twice include the world's most fiscally successful video game, World of Warcraft. Players play this RPG with hundreds of other players online at once. Games like this are called Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG) or MMOs for short. (4) Many newer RPG's are made in the West and feature real-time combat and more Western themes. These are incresingly called Western RPG's (WRPG) to distinguish them from their Japanese counterparts.
  • Shooter: Players shoot things, usually each other nowadays.
(1) Call of Duty: Black Ops is the most popular first-person shooter, or FPS. (2) Gunstar Heroes is one of the all time great side-scrolling shooters. (3) Time Crisis 2 and other games where players hold fake guns are called light gun games, and are a type of shooter. (4) A shoot-'em-up, or shmup, is a shooter with an emphasis on dodging waves of enemy bullets. Trouble Witches NEO is a modern example.
  • Adventure: Games with strong characters, usually some puzzle-solving, and mostly third-person perspective.
(1) Games like Uncharted 2 are sometimes called character action games because of their strong emphasis on combat and story. (2) Curse of Monkey Island is typical of point-and-click adventure games. The least action-heavy adventure variant. (3) Shadow of the Colossus is an epic 3rd person adventure.
  • Puzzle: Players solve puzzles, oftentimes involving matching similarly shaped blocks.
(1) Tetris was the first and is arguably still the best puzzle game series. (2) Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes combines RPG and strategy elements with puzzle-based combat. (3) Stephen Spielberg helped created the Jenga-like puzzle game Boom Blox.
  • Fighting: Games where two or more, but ususally two, players battle each other in unarmed combat or with close-range weapons. 
(1) Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is a 2D fighting game, so characters can only move on a flat plane. Many modern 2D fighters overcome this limitation by requiring players to spend hours practicing incredibly elaborate combos that fill the screen with fire and light. (2) Street Fighter 2 was the first mainstream fighting game. It emphasized strategy since there were only about four special moves per character. This meant learning moves was much easier than it is now. (3) Soul Caliber III is a 3D weapon-based fighting game. Notice the swords and the characters moving into the background.
  • Beat-'em-up: Players wander levels, alone or in groups, beating the heck out of enemies. 
(1) God of War is the premier series of beat-'em-ups today, with elements from puzzle-platformers thrown in. (2) Scott Pilgrim vs. the World the Game was a very old-school beat-'em-up with light RPG elements. (3) Double Dragon was popular enough to inspire a terrible movie.
  • Sim: Another tough-to-define genre, sims are games that simulate aspects of normal life. These include dating games, flight simulators, The Sims, and other esoteric games that seek to mirror life realistically.
(1) The Sims is the best-selling PC game franchise ever. (2) Bloody Bride is typical of the Japanese dating sim genre. (3) Flight Simulator X is a very realistic flight simulator.

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What about Visual Novels? Those games make up for the majority of Japanese PC purchases.

Wikipedia has the visual novels under Adventure: . I would have had them pegged at being under RPG but maybe it lacks the RPG elements of a dating sim.

Other games are hard to qualify too, like Myst. It's a puzzle game, but it's also a graphical adventure too.

Ah visual novels! The fact that most English-speaking gamers (they being our core audience) will never see one in store, led alone buy one, led to their exclusion. I actually played and wrote about one a few weeks ago called Don't Take It Personally, Babe, It's Just Not Your Story. You can play it for free online and its pretty good.

Many games combine one or more of the genres, like strategy RPG's and puzzle-platformers. What I sought to do here was define the building-block genre terms that get reshuffled continuously into the names of newer more elaborate genres, rather can come up with one name for each game that will classify it exactly.

Myst, however, I would say is fairly easy to define as a point-and-click adventure, on the line with Monkey Island and King's Quest, as defined under adventure above. The graphics may be more elaborate, but the gameplay mechanics are very similar. Also, while it is certainly a puzzle game in that it has puzzles to solve, the terms puzzle game is usually reserved for games with falling blocks at this point. Perhaps not the best way to describe it, but that seems to be the standard.

An Announcement:

After reflecting on this glossary I had put together, (and JD astutely pointing out that my list was not as complete as I had originally thought) I realized that I had left off two of the oldest and most important genres of all. I have nothing against either, but coming up with everything to put in a complete list is challenging!

To whit, Fighting and Beat-'em-up have been added to the list.

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