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Beat-em-up to RPG: Video Game Genres Broken Down

Posted on 4 Mar 09:45
By Jack England

The world of video games and arcade machines is wonderfully diverse. What started as a simple, pong-like game on a hulking computer in the 1950s has now evolved beyond all recognition as various gaming systems host many thousands and thousands of games across a dizzying range of genres. Visit any top games list on Steam or peruse the shelves of your local games store and you’ll find everything from cinematic, interactive survival horror to dating sims and retro looking platformers.

There’s no scarcity of types of games to play. However, the acronyms and definitions have created a categorisation system that can feel convoluted and confusing, even for seasoned gamers. Many games simply defy pigeonholing or merge established genres together (what the heck are the Lemmings games anyway?)

Below we explore and define the biggest and most popular video gaming genre we could find, from the very earliest days of the industry to fairly new innovations.

Battle Royale

One of the younger genres in the industry, Battle Royale takes its name from a book of the same title, whose plot revolves around students on an island trying to kill each other.

Popular games in the genre like Fortnite and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds follow along the same vein, with a few new mechanics tossed in. Up to a hundred players are dropped in an open-world map with equipment and weaponry scattered in randomised locations. The play area is constantly shrinking, virtually forcing encounters between players. The goal is to be the last one standing, which you can approach through a number of ways. You can either go guns ‘a blazin and actively hunt other players, or you can hunker down in a strategic spot and snipe enemies from afar. 

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Fortnite - one of the most popular games of all time
Source: Epic Games

Beat ‘Em Up

Back in the 80’s most beat ‘em ups were characterised by unending waves of enemies coming out of literally everywhere and punishingly difficult boss fights. The goal seemed to be to milk as many pennies from arcade players as possible, but we loved them just the same.

Players moved through the round by walking, running, and smashing through opponents. Characters typically only had their fists and an epic and gritty backstory to propel them through the chaos: you’re a vigilante fighting criminal gangs in Final Fight, or a beefy, shapeshifting Greek hero coming to save Zeus’ daughter in Altered Beast


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Altered Beast’s first boss and his weird raining heads attack
Source: Siliconera

Fighting games

Fighting games share many of the same characteristics as beat ‘em ups, but instead of hordes of enemies you typically fight against one or a two-three man team of opponents through a gauntlet of rounds. Battles are set inside a single arena, and characters come with their own skill sets, special moves, and play styles.

Some of the most iconic games today are fighting games. Tekken, Mortal Kombat, and Capcom’s Street Fighter are all franchises that have spawned numerous spin-offs and sequels, and even a handful of movies between the three of them.

video-game-genres-broken-down-fighting-games-03The insanely brutal Mortal Kombat continues to get even crazier--only now in HD
Source: Game Informer

First Person Shooter (FPS)

In FPS games, players aim and fire from a first-person perspective. The genre’s origins date as far back as 1973, to a game called Maze War. The title introduced many mechanics now that are now central to FPS, like maps depicting the player’s position, four-directional movement through 3D space, and network play between two computers. Today the most popular FPS titles are huge multiplayer games, such as Call of Duty, Overwatch and the bane of every parent - Fortnite. Of course they all owe their DNA to the first FPS to really break the mould - Doom.

Under this genre you also get rail shooters like Time Crisis, where players can only aim and fire and have no control over the path their avatars take. These games are best experienced in arcades with players aiming fake guns at a huge screen.

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Both lauded and controversial - Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
Source: Games Radar

Idle Games

The name of the genre is a bit misleading, as idle games are probably best for gamers who don’t have a lot of time to play. Games involve upgrading units using in-game currency, which you accumulate in real time, even when you’re away--hence the term “idle”.

Upgrades become exponentially more expensive over time--later stages in idle games can require an absurd amount of -illions to complete. Play is often fast during the beginning, but peters out over time. It’s not unusual to have to wait for days before moving up. It’s the digital equivalent to keeping a bonsai tree--you wait for it to grow and prune and customise until you end up with something impressive.

video-game-genres-broken-down-idle-games-05End up richer than a million Bill Gates combined in AdVenture Capitalist
Source: Business Insider

Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG)

Many confuse the triumvirate of MMORPG, MOBA, and MMOs but the truth is the first two are only types of Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games. MMO simply means that you play with--or against--other players simultaneously across the Internet.

MMORPGs are MMOs with Role-Playing Game (RPG) elements. The genre borrows a lot from its tabletop predecessors: rich character customisation, sprawling skill trees, and open-world exploration. In MMORPGs, that world gets expanded to host millions of people, not just you and your mates. World of Warcraft, possibly the most popular title in the genre, has over 5 million active players.

video-game-genres-broken-down-mmorpg-06WoW has been collectively played for around the same time humans have spent evolving--5.9 million years
Source: Tech Advisor

Metroidvania

The term “Metroidvania” is a portmanteau of two games: Metroid and Castlevania. The genre mixes the core mechanics pioneered by the games: massive maps with numerous interconnected rooms or areas, skill progression, and gathering quest items. Castlevania’s Symphony of the Night, a seminal title in the genre, has a total of 1890 rooms to discover and explore. The story is progressed by unlocking areas and zones, often with the use of items dropped by bosses or by unlocking skills that let you traverse previously inaccessible areas. Backtracking is a large part of play, and many games have fast travel features to make navigation faster.

video-game-genres-broken-down-metroidvania-07The game that spawned a thousand clones - Castlevania
Source: GameFAQS

Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA)

MOBAs head towards the other direction in terms of world size. There’s only one stage--the battle arena. The objective is to destroy the enemy’s keep or base, similar to RTS. But unlike RTS, there’s no growing rice or mining ores, just frantic skirmishes, pushing into enemy territory, or repelling a wave of attackers.

Players can choose from a multitude of characters, each with special skills and weaknesses. A balanced team composition is key, as well as in-game communication. The map is divided into areas or “lanes”. Which path you choose to push forward largely depends on your play style.

video-game-genres-broken-down-moba-08Lane mechanics for League of Legends, one of today’s biggest competitive MOBAs
Source: MOBA Champion

Platformers

Platformer games are one of the industry’s earliest genres, tracing back to Donkey Kong in 1981. The game was the first to introduce a character who had to jump between platforms to move. The mechanic baptised the genre with its name.

Nearly four decades later, platformers still enjoy widespread popularity, thanks to an appeal that transcends age and gender: jumping across gaps and obstacles is simple and hypnotisingly addictive. And there’s a limitless number of ways developers can reinvent, too. The genre has creatively gone a long way since the first barrel thrown down by Donkey Kong, birthing games like the futuristic Portal 2 and the beautiful indie smash hit Celeste.

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One of the most iconic games of all time - Donkey Kong
Source: Mental Floss

Real Time Strategy (RTS)

RTS is a three-decade old genre, created by developers as a change of pace from breathless brawlers and frantic platformers. These games are essentially management games and turn players into warlords plunging them into a world where the imperative is to build and defend your own base, whilst attacking and ultimately overrunning an enemy base or bases. Resource gathering is an integral part of play, as well as unit production.

Unlike your typical arcade games you don’t directly control one character, but rather a whole hive, with units having different skill sets to use to your advantage. Classic RTS examples include Command & Conquer, Starcraft, Battle Realms and the hugely popular World of Warcraft (which actually spawned a film). Starcraft is still incredibly popular in eSports circuits, with professional leagues of its own.

video-game-genres-broken-down-rts-10One of the most popular eSports games of all time - Starcraft
Source: The Verge

Rhythm Games

Rhythm games tap into your dexterity in a way no other games do--they’re one of the few that need players to use more than thumbs and trigger fingers. Notable titles include Dance Dance Revolution, which continues to bring the party to arcades today, and Rock Band, which makes use of unique, instrument-shaped controllers for play.

The genre has also found a perfect stage in mobile. Cytus, the rhythm sci-fi game by Taiwanese indie developers Rayark, has netted more than 5 million downloads on Google Play, an impressive feat for an indie paid game on the small screens.

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Dance Dance Revolution: Proving gamers have rhythm since 1998
Source: Polygon

Roguelike

Pinning down exactly what makes a game a “roguelike” can be confusing as it’s more a characteristic than a genre. The name comes from the 1980 game Rogue which was the very first dungeon crawler game.

The label has been tacked onto numerous games over the years, some of which look completely different from one another, like hybrid space sim Faster Than Light and turn based games like the card-based Slay Spire and the gothic dungeon crawler Darkest Dungeon. But if you were to strip the genre down to its core, you’ll find two defining elements: permadeath and randomly generated levels. These two key factors make games particularly unforgiving, yet that’s arguably an indispensable part of the genre’s appeal for fans.

video-game-genres-broken-down-roguelike-12Not for children - the macabre and punishing roguelike Binding of Isaac
Source: Trusted Reviews

Shoot ‘Em Up

Shoot ‘em ups share much of the same DNA with Beat ‘Em Ups, obviously with the exception of your weapon of choice. In addition to melee weapons like your own knuckles or knives, players are given an array of ranged weapons. A seemingly minor change in mechanics, but how weapons operate can make for a completely different playing experience and so as a result shoot em ups began to split away from beat em ups to form their own distinct genre (something that became more stark with the evolution of 3D first person games like Doom and Wolfenstein - more on these below).

Weapon choice is also a staple of shoot em ups. In Metal Slug there are over 10 types of weapons, each one with their own unique powers. Heavy Machine Guns rain metal hellfire fast and hard, while the Enemy Chaser compensates for less power with its honing abilities.

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The Explosion Filled Metal Slug 4
Source: Destructoid

Simulation

Under the world of simulation, you can be anything you want to be. It’s RPG with character customisation on steroids and sans combat. You can be a theme park tycoon, a bus driver, or a goat. Unlike most games, action typically isn’t at its core. Instead, the objective is to develop characters and manage ecosystems with limited resources.

The genre encompasses an incredibly diverse category of games, although life, sports, and business simulation games are the most prevalent. Under life simulation you get the largely popular, aptly named The Sims franchise, where players are free to live out the whole human experience from birth to death--and sometimes even after as a spiteful spectre--in the digital world.

video-game-genres-broken-down-simulation-14Death goes digital in the Sims 4
Source: Level Skip

Sports

Sports games have come a long way since Pong first pinged its way onto gaming cabinets. The genre is now a huge category that covers nearly all types of real life sports including racing, football, and MMA.

Games based on traditional sports like football and basketball evolve alongside the actual sports--that is to say, the mechanics don’t really change a lot. But alongside classics like the NBA 2Ks and FIFAs you also get entrants like football and four-wheeled mayhem hybrid Rocket League, who keep the genre from stagnating with fresh new ways to dunk on friends.

video-game-genres-broken-down-sports-15Rocket League: Football, but make it turbo charged
Source: CNet

Survival Games

Survival games are characterised by open-world exploration, crafting, and foraging. There’s often combat mixed in, but it’s avoidable--even preferable--to avoid enemies in order to preserve resources and health.

Core mechanics are generally the same across titles, but modern survival games have introduced elements that keep the genre exciting. For instance, in Don’t Starve, players need to keep the character physically and mentally healthy. When the sanity bar gets too low, monsters from the protagonist’s mind take corporeal form. Raft strands players in the middle of the ocean on a floating patch of debris, which players can grow whilst fending off vicious sharks.

video-game-genres-broken-down-survival-16The lush visuals of 2018’s survival epic Raft
Source: Steam

Survival Horror

Survival horror games typically have a deep narrative, which helps secure the emotional investment needed to scare the living daylight out of players. Ambient elements like sound and lighting take centre stage, being as much a part of the experience as combat--or the lack thereof. Stealth plays a crucial role, as well as the use of limited resources and breakable weapons. Games are typically single-player and from a first-person POV, but recent titles like Dead by Daylight prove that developers can still recreate the vibe and deliver nightmares on multiplayer.

All the mechanics work to painfully underscore the player’s relative helplessness against the things that slither in the dark. Despair against unstoppable creatures is a common motif. In Resident Evil 2, players are slowly stalked around maps by Mr. X, a hulking mutant that basically insta-kills you in every encounter. Players only hear his footsteps when he’s close. Oh, and he can open doors.

video-game-genres-broken-down-survival-horror-17We’re gonna need stronger locks, Claire
Source: Dual Shockers

Tower Defence

Tower defence games place players behind castle walls, taking the role of defender instead of the marauder. The goal is to repel wave after wave of enemies, each one typically introducing tougher or more complex opponents that require players to adjust strategies and upgrade their own units.

Pre-war prep is an essential stage in these games. Players are typically given time to arrange their units around the battlefield before each round. Control is more limited once the wave commences, but you can usually replace or repair damaged units.

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2009 Casual Game of the Year nominee Plants vs Zombies is a tower defence game with a lot of bite
Source: Origin

Turn Based Strategy (TBS)

TBS games are games where players take turns, taking the mechanic directly from tabletop board games. The approach to time is what separates TBS from RTS, and has a huge impact on a game’s pace. There are no pauses in RTS games, whereas in TBS players are given more breathing space to think about strategy. This makes TBS games more accessible to beginners. Whereas RTS’s take a more learn and adapt--or die, respawn, and try again--as you go approach, TBS gives players all the time they need to study each component and their functions before committing to a move (a bit like chess but with more firepower).

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Julian Gollop's seminal and genre defining X-Com
Source: Strategy Gamer

There you have it, all the gaming genres we could get our hands on. As ever more powerful hardware emerges to give developers more tools for creating and reinventing, the list is only destined to grow. Only time will tell. In the meantime, there’s a world of games out there to get lost in. It’s dangerous(-ly confusing) to go alone, take this guide!

*Lemmings games are games where you lead a bunch--typically a horde--of NPC units through levels, either to safety or for the purpose of zombifying the world.


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