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A Brief - But Comprehensive - History of the Action/Adventure Genre
The Adventure Gamers New Dilemma - Use Your Brains or Blow Them Out


February 8, 2005

Everyone who has never heard of Adventure, the first adventure game ever written, raise your hands. Hmm, I see a few hands, but not that many. Now everyone who doesn’t know of Adventure the Atari 2600 graphical adaptation, raise your hands. Aaaaaah, more hands now! So, what exactly was this Atari 2600 graphical adaptation of Adventure?

Adventure screenshot - click to enlargeIn 1978, Atari programmer Warren Robinett was assigned the task of transferring the original text adventure to the Atari 2600 machines. This time, the player not only needed to explore the areas (in the form of mazes, using a joystick), find the keys etc, but was also involved in combat, using a sword that looked like a blocky arrow! The first Action/Adventure game was thus born.

So, how do you define an Action/Adventure game? A very simple explanation would be “An Action/Adventure game is a game that has enough action in it not to be called an Adventure game, but not enough action to be called an Action game.” Action/Adventures are very hard to define, since they are the gray area between Adventure and Action games. It would be safe to say that if you have a game with 2/3 action and 1/3 puzzle solving, in any form that requires thinking rather than reflexes, you got yourself an Action/Adventure game.

Pyjamarama screenshot - click to enlargeAction/Adventure is actually a very old gaming genre. Back in the 8-bit days (ZX Spectrum, Amstrad, Commodore etc) Action/Adventure games were mainly pretty simple, using, of course, 2D graphics, and looking more or less like platform games. One of the biggest representatives of that era was Mikrogen, who released the great Wally games: Pyjamarama, Everyone is a Wally and Three Weeks in Paradise. In those games, the player was required to not only perform regular platform routines (walking and jumping around, avoiding enemies etc), but also solve several puzzles that involved inventory and item manipulation. Pure reflexes and no thinking would get you nowhere, but poor reflexes wouldn’t promote much progress either, regardless how great a puzzle-solver you were.

Around that time, the first pseudo-3D Action/Adventures also appeared. Games like Fairlight, Head over Heels and the excellent Knight Lore (where the player took control of a werewolf, which shape-shifted according to whether it’s day or night!) gave a 3D perspective, using 2D graphics, with the player being able to walk towards all directions, not just left and right. Those could be considered a precursor of things to come.

Flashback screenshot - click to enlargeWhen the 16-bit days arrived (Amiga, Atari etc), Action/Adventures were still mainly 2D, playing in the regular platform fashion, but soon became bigger and more colorful. Some of the more well-known representatives of that era were Broderbund, who released the widely know Prince of Persia (which led to a series that is still around today!) and Delphine, who released the brilliant, Another World (aka Out of this World) and Flashback. Those games had a good amount of action, but one’s brain needed to get to work every now and then – just plain running around, jumping and shooting would result in staying on the first level forever!

Alone in the Dark screenshot - click to enlargeAs PC technology advanced, it was only a matter of time before Action/Adventures acquired a real third dimension! Alone in the Dark was among the first (if not the first) title that brought the genre into the world of real 3D. A move that helped a lot as it presented numerous new possibilities for both developers and gamers. Then, in 1996, two Action/Adventures that would change both the genre and the whole gaming world forever burst onto the gaming scene: Tomb Raider and Resident Evil.

The phenomenal success of these two games translated into huge sales and, of course, scads of copycat games. Lucasarts decided to turn their big Adventure series, Indiana Jones, into a Tomb Raider-esque Action/Adventure – Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine. Resident Evil is responsible for creating a entire new sub-genre of games (even though it was not the first horror Action/Adventure), known as “Survival Horror”, with several worthy representatives (Silent Hill, Fatal Frame).

System Shock 2 screenshot - click to enlargeAt the same time, the monster success of Doom - which single-handily boosted First Person Shooting games (FPSs) to the forefront of mainstream gaming - also had repercussions on the Action/Adventure genre as some excellent FPSs were released that surprisingly featured adventure elements. If one were to stretch definitions a bit, they could even label them as FPS/Adventures! Three excellent examples would be System Shock 1 & 2 and Deus Ex, which appealed to many gamers who usually only played adventure games.

Tomb Raider screenshot - click to enlargeAs this upheaval was occurring in the gaming world, very few adventure gamers were aware of the Action/Adventure genre, and if they were, a good percentage of them failed to see it as something appealing and related to the Adventure genre – instead they were mostly considered platform games. The fact that PC gaming was beginning to become more mainstream led to heavier marketing and an increased awareness on the part of gamers. Tomb Raider and, especially, Resident Evil were viewed by some adventure gamers as a new and appealing genre - especially by those who wanted their adventuring with an adrenalin rush – and this led to a misconception that these games were an entirely new genre that had branched off from Adventure.

As more and more new gamers appeared, to them, both genres were new, and the similarities, as well as the way the games were promoted by certain magazines or Internet sites, created the misconception that it was the same genre, just with different elements.

Resident Evil screenshot - click to enlargeSo why is genre labeling important? Couldn’t we all survive with just ‘Games’? If I like it, I’ll play it – if I don’t, I won’t. Well, that would be easy, if all games were free. But when the gamer is asked to drop $20-$50 for a game, they want to be reassured that their money will not be wasted. Resident Evil is an Action/Adventure game – it is comprised mostly of action sequences with a few puzzles thrown into the mix. If it’s mislabeled as ‘Adventure’ (as happens with many console sites and magazines), then someone who liked it and may crave something similar might be encouraged to buy Myst IV next - also labeled as Adventure - and then spend the remainder of eternity exploring its worlds in search of hidden zombies. Of course the opposite may occur with someone who had played Myst IV and then wandered about Resident Evil searching for levers that will make the zombies disappear!