The action-adventure genre (or a genre hybrid, perhaps) is one of the most prevalent and popular ones on the market. What is its history, though? How did it come to be?
In this article we’ll take a look at the beginnings of these games and their evolution throughout the years and decades.
Let’s try to define the genre first. There are some that are easy to describe, others, however, pose certain problems when you try to define their features.
In general, action-adventure games are best described as a mix of any kind of action game with a major dose of puzzle solving and exploration, as well as a lot of pressure put on the story, inventory management, and so on.
Traditionally, typical adventure games are about slow-paced exploration, deduction, puzzle solving and item collecting, as well as talking to other characters in order to progress further. There’s little to no combat or sequences with any kind of time pressure and they’re usually confined to just a bunch of scenes or so (although it is possible to die in some adventure games due to making poor decisions, for example).
Action games, on the other hand, are mainly about shooting or slashing your enemies, usually with little to no puzzles involved, and so on.
As you can see, pinpointing the defining features of the action-adventure blend might be quite a daunting task. After all, many first-person shooters, for example, often included sequences where you need to figure out a solution to a puzzle or find a way to progress further, in addition to platforming elements quite often found in such games. The line can really blur at times.
Modern examples of action-adventure titles include series such as Uncharted, the Tomb Raider reboot trilogy, and The Legend of Zelda. Let’s take a look, however, at the beginnings of the genre and the first such games to see how things evolved over the decades.
|God Of War
|Santa Monica Studio
|Star Wars Jedi Fallen Order Deluxe Edition
|It Takes Two
|Marvels Guardians Of The Galaxy
|Action & Shooter
|Borderlands 2 GOTY
|Action & Shooter
|Borderlands 3 Super Deluxe Edition
|Action & Shooter
|Assassins Creed II Deluxe Edition
|Assassins Creed III Remastered
|Grand Theft Auto V
|The Elder Scrolls V Skyrim Special Edition
|Bethesda Game Studios
|Bioshock The Collection
|Dark Souls II Scholar Of The First Sin
|Red Dead Redemption 2
|Batman Arkham City Goty Edition
|Feral Interactive (Mac)
|Metal Gear Solid V The Phantom Pain
|Konami Digital Entertainment
|The Witcher 3 Wild Hunt Goty Edition
|CD PROJEKT RED
Superman to the rescue
Made based on a prototype of Adventure (an Atari classic known for one of the earliest and most famous Easter eggs in video games), 1979’s Superman has the titular character save the city of Metropolis once again. Lex Luthor, the primary antagonist, blew up the waterfront bridge. It is up to the player, as Superman, to rebuild it, apprehend Luthor and his lackeys, and return to the Daily Planet as Clark Kent, of course as soon as possible.
This is not an easy task, however, since there is a helicopter which moves the parts of the bridge around the map, as well as kryptonite satellites which cause Superman to lose his powers and turn to Clark Kent. Lois Lane can then bring out the super in him. It was a very unique game, praised by the reviewers at the time.
And then there was Adventure, released in 1980. Now seen as one of the greatest games of all time, it tasks the player – playing as a square avatar – with finding a magical chalice and bringing it to the golden castle. It’s guarded by three dragons and a bat which moves items around, and these items can really come in handy when overcoming various obstacles.
Now seen as one of the first examples of the action-adventure genre, the game is also famous for its Easter egg: a secret room where you can find the name of Warren Robinett, the designer of Adventure (Atari did not publicly give credit to programmers at the time). It wasn’t the first one, but it made such surprises popular.
And then there is Castle Wolfenstein, released in 1981. This World War II-themed game puts you in the shoes of an Allied POW who needs to escape from the titular castle and steal the Nazis’ secret plans.
Castle Wolfenstein blends various elements, such as combat, exploration, stealth, and procedurally generated levels and is now considered a pioneer in the stealth genre. Later on, the series was made into the super-famous first-person shooter by id Software, Wolfenstein 3D , and its subsequent sequels.
The Legend of Zelda: the genre defined
1986 saw the premiere of the first Zelda game, The Legend of Zelda. This was the defining release in the action-adventure genre, which also included some RPG elements.
The Legend of Zelda puts you in the shoes of Link, a brave elf-like boy who embarks on an epic quest to defeat Ganon and rescue princess Zelda. To do so, he must brave eight dungeons hiding the fragments of the Triforce of Wisdom, one of the most famous artifacts in the history of gaming.
This title, considered to be one of the best video games ever, has spawned a successful franchise active to this day. The latest installment is The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom , which you can grab on our marketplace for a really good price.
90s and beyond: the genre thrives
The 80s saw one more super important release: Jordan Mechner’s Prince of Persia. Considered to be the first cinematic platformer, it is an important piece of action-adventure history. Prince of Persia (1989) puts you in the shoes of an unnamed fella who’s tasked with escaping the dungeon, saving the princess, and defeating Jaffar and his lackeys. Expect lots of jumping, swashbuckling, and traps.
In addition to spawning a popular franchise which really thrived between 2003 and 2008, Prince of Persia served as an inspiration to another cinematic action-adventure game: Another World , released in 1992. Eric Chahi’s magnum opus, it tells the story of Lester Knight Chaykin, a brilliant scientist who is transported to an alien planet after his experiment goes awry.
This title is known for its minimalist storytelling (based on the “show, don’t tell” principle), bizarre visuals and its gameplay: a combination of puzzle solving and action sequences. While Another World looks like a platformer, it’s hardly one – there’s barely any platforming save for a couple of jumps that you have to make. In fact, it’s more of a predecessor of modern cinematic action-adventure games. The success of AW spawned a sequel and inspired more games, including 1993’s Flashback and 1998’s Heart of Darkness.
The latter is especially interesting, as it seems like a blueprint for modern action-adventure games. This cinematic platformers with Hollywoodian production values is known for its orchestral soundtrack by Bruce Broughton (it was supposed to be the first game with such music, but the delays prevented that), played by a real orchestra, wonderful animation and excellent CGI for its time, as well as a surprising amount of violence.
The game is about an imaginative boy named Andy whose dog gets kidnapped by the servants of a Dark Lord residing in the Darklands, so he goes there using his spaceship and proceeds to destroying the forces of evil in order to save Whiskey. It’s a wonderful adventure full of imaginative enemies, memorable landscapes and fantastic set pieces.
It’s also an actual platformer, since there is a lot of climbing, jumping, there are also some puzzles to solve along the way. If you look at Heart of Darkness, it’s hard not to think that modern action-adventure games owe a lot to it, including Jedi: Fallen Order and its sequel, Jedi: Survivor, the Uncharted series, the Tomb Raider reboot trilogy, and so on.
The 90s saw the rise of one more genre that directly stems from action-adventure games: survival horrors. The first one of these is most likely Alone in the Dark, released in 1992. In part it’s an adventure game with exploration and puzzle-solving, but there’s also quite a lot of combat. A later title, Resident Evil (1996), further defined the genre.
There was also another super important release in 1996: Tomb Raider. One of the most influential action-adventure/3D platformer games of all time, Lara Croft’s first adventure surely had a major impact on gaming as a whole. Modern titles owe this one, too.
The state of the genre these days
Today’s action-adventure franchises blend genres such as first-person/third-person shooters, platformers, slashers, even survival simulators, and are often very cinematic in their presentation. The Uncharted franchise is a great example of that. In part it’s a cover-based third-person shooter in the vein of Gears of War, but there are also plenty of puzzles to solve and a great deal of platforming sections, coupled with a “pulp movie, but it’s a video game” vibe.
Some argue that games don’t really work as cinematic experiences, because there’s a huge deal of repetition involved – fist fights that look the same and so on – and the presentation is subpar compared to movies, but action-adventure titles are undoubtedly fun to play, especially if you love something that isn’t a straight-out action fare.