Depending on where you live, you’ve probably encountered cryptic icons on video game boxes and descriptions. In North America, they indicate the ESRB rating necessary for tailoring a game’s content to its future users.

The Entertainment Software Rating Board works hard to ensure specific video games display a rating indicating for what age their content is appropriate. Their icons start with Everyone and end with Adults Only 18.

It’s easy to guess that the latter is the most controversial. But why exactly? And do age restrictions make sense at all? So far, only 27 titles received an AO rating, so today, we’ll check what’s inside the best adult games!

The Controversial Beginnings

The 1990s delivered a noticeably improved quality of audiovisuals in video games, which soon became one of the reasons for hearings on video game violence in 1992. It was also the time of three controversial releases: Doom, Night Trap, and Mortal Kombat. As a result, the latter experienced censorship on the Super NES while remaining almost intact on Sega’s consoles.

ESRB rating

Only a year later, the UK made Night Trap unavailable to kids under 15. Game developers, chased by legal regulations, established an organization ensuring that information about the recommended age of the recipient was visible to everyone interested – and this is how the ESRB came to life.

Understanding Age Ratings

Today, the ESRB rating uses widely known icons indicating who can play the game.

  • E – Everyone – suitable for all ages, may contain mild violence presented in a cartoon or fantasy format;
  • E 10 – Everyone 10 – great for children aged ten or more, may contain mild violence, minimal suggestive themes, and mild language;
  • T – Teen – appropriate for kids at 13 or older, may contain infrequent use of strong language, realistic scenes of violence, crude humor, and minimal blood;
  • M – Mature 17 – suitable for kids aged 17 and more, contains sexual content, gore, intense violence, blood, and drug abuse;
  • AO – Adults Only 18 – suitable for players over 18 years of age, may contain explicit violence, graphic sexual content, motiveless killings, drug glorification, and gambling.

How can we distinguish the last two ratings if, at first glance, they look almost the same? Let’s start with the fundamental difference – M stands for intense violence and sexual content. In the case of AO, these terms can describe something much more graphic – pornography and brutal violence without any restrictions. The second difference is you won’t find AO video games in every store, while M titles appear at Walmart.

Unsurprisingly, this leads to lower sales of AO-rated games. Also, any form of advertising is significantly limited, as even M-rated titles are not allowed on TV programs where children represent the majority of viewers.

All this, however, does not necessarily translate into reality. Stores need to make money, so they often advertise games with violent content or don’t follow ESRB sales restriction guidelines.

Ultimately, it’s a parent’s job to enforce what their kid plays and the ESRB rating’s function is to help make that choice. After all, less than 30 games have an AO rating, so that’s not much. But if you are interested in their history, continue to the next part of this article.

Riana Rouge

Release date:1997-12-31
Genre:Adventure
Developer:Black Dragon Productions

This 1997 classic features Playboy star — Gillian Bonner — as the main character of an incredible action-adventure tale. The game sold about 100,000 copies and didn’t receive overly enthusiastic reception.

Play as Riana, an ordinary secretary interrupting her boss’s sexual assault on a female co-worker. Thrown out of a window, she awakens as a mighty warrior in another dimension to confront real-life enemies in a genuinely epic setting.

Key features
  • A Playboy star as the leading character
  • Action-adventure experience defined by the character’s emotions
  • Tons of suggestive content
  • One of the few 90s classics rated AO

Thrill Kill

Release date:Cancelled
Genre:Fighting
Developer:Midway Studios Los Angeles

This brutal fighting game from Paradox Development never saw an official release but found its place on piracy websites.

Thrill Kill is one of two games in the AO collection that received a rating purely for graphic violence. Imagine a hell where one of the bored gods launches fighting tournaments for nine damned souls. They are all murderers with extremely naughty backgrounds, and it literally shows in the arena. Fan fact – the original game code still exists in Activision’s Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style!

Key features
  • Nine characters with a horror backstory and a disturbing appearance
  • Engaging combat, including unique attacks
  • Sinister setting and brutal finishers
  • Single and multiplayer gameplay

GTA: San Andreas

Release date:2005-06-06
Genre:Action & Shooter
Developer:Rockstar North

Play as Carl Johnson returning to Los Santos to experience the gangster world of violence and omnipresent drugs. The game is all about the 90s vibe in the flawless style of this phenomenal action series!

Like in other GTA installations, players freely explore the massive city, completing tasks and enjoying the action-fueled gameplay. But the most significant controversy regarding this title started with the Hot Coffee mod created by Patrick Wildenborg. The additional content introduced graphic erotic scenes that met with massive criticism from the ESRB, Hillary Clinton, and younger players’ parents.

As it turned out, Hot Coffee was not Patrick W’s work but already existed in the original game code. GTA: San Andreas received an AO rating and became one of the few games rated R in Australia. In 2005, Rockstar Games released a revised version on Xbox, PS3 and other consoles. However, the Hot Coffee incident still contributed to the loss of over $20 million during that time.

Key features
  • A massive city to explore
  • A deep story set in a disturbing gangster reality
  • Better NPC AI
  • The iconic controversy surrounding the game’s release

The Punisher

Release date:2004 -04-12
Genre:Action
Developer:Volition

Discover the dramatic story of a man taking revenge for his entire family’s death. His name is Frank Castle, and this is some pretty brutal gameplay set in the Marvel universe!

The Punisher is famous for its accurate character portrayal and exceptionally graphic scenes of violence. Although the game initially got AO, it now falls into the M rating. That, however, does not mean it is any less brutal, as most of the tweaks concern its graphics.

Key features
  • Fascinating story about a man driven solely by revenge
  • A massive arsenal of weapons to try out
  • Sixteen challenging levels
  • Mighty bosses to defeat

Manhunt 2

Release date:2007-10-29
Genre:Action
Developer:Rockstar Toronto

Developed by Rockstar Games, Manhunt 2 tells the story of two men escaping a bizarre prison. One of them is a scientist, and the other a psychopath. Which one will survive this trial?

Manhunt 2 was initially supposed to appear on PCs and consoles. But thanks to its extremely violent content, the game received an AO rating and an international sales ban. However, Rockstar decided to censor the game by blurring executions and disregarding the scoring system rewarding the most brutal murders. Surprisingly, this barbarous part of the gameplay received the most praise!

Key features
  • Classic stealth game about men escaping prison
  • Various tools for creative assassination
  • Adrenaline-fueled experience with stealth features
  • Rated M on consoles

Hatred

Release date:2015-06-01
Genre:Action & Shooter
Developer:Destructive Creations

Some games just want to watch the world burn, and this title definitely falls into that category. Because, unlike others on our list, that one intentionally wanted to have an AO rating.

Destructive Creations craved to make something disobeying all trends, so they produced Hatred. This straightforward story involves a man suffering from unbridled hate towards the world and people. So he goes to the local town streets and slaughters everyone in sight. It’s not hard to guess that Hatred became one of three games with this rating for graphic violence.

Key features
  • A violent story about a man loathing the whole world
  • Seven levels of engaging slaying
  • One of several games created to achieve an AO rating

Agony

Release date:2018-05-29
Genre:Adventure
Developer:Madmind Studio

Welcome to Hell! Your task is to escape this hideous place, discover your identity, and solve the mystery hidden by the Red Goddess. Easy, right?

Agony came to life as the work of co-creators of games like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Tom Clancy’s The Division, and Sniper: Ghost Warrior 2, with the help of a Kickstarter fundraiser planned for $66,666.

The project gathered much more but didn’t receive rave reviews for its repetitive gameplay. Instead, it got the AO rating changed to M after making a few adjustments. Soon, the creators also released a completely uncensored version available as Agony Unrated.

Key features
  • A challenging campaign about a man trying to escape hell
  • Created in cooperation with experienced developers
  • A unique setting with a mysterious vibe

Fahrenheit: Indigo Prophecy

Release date:2005-09-16
Genre:Adventure
Developer:Quantic Dream

This 2005 recommendation presents an alternative world where ordinary New Yorkers commit unimaginably hideous murders of other citizens.

Fahrenheit offers puzzles, mystery, violence, nudity, and drug use. Inspired by movies like Seven and Fight Club, the game focuses on mental health issues aimed at a more mature audience. Fahrenheit: Indigo Prophecy got its name in North America to distinguish itself from the Fahrenheit 9/11 movie and doesn’t feature sex scenes. They are, however, included in the PC and PS4 versions known as Fahrenheit: Indigo Prophecy Remastered.

Key features
  • An engaging story from two different points of view
  • A disturbing setting of omnipresent danger
  • Cases of unexplained murders to be solved
  • Fantastic reviews and multiple awards won

Outlast 2

Release date:2017-04-25
Genre:Adventure
Developer:Red Barrels

Prepare for a game where you are the prey, and everything around you may as well be a cruel joke. Can you solve the mystery of a lonely, pregnant woman’s death?

Outlast 2 is a survival horror filled with visions, suspicions, and a sense of danger. So strong that the Australian Classification Board refused to give it an R18 rating, only to change its mind a few days later and let it sell. Due to the massive feedback, the developers provided an additional Story Mode, reducing the number of brutal scenes for better immersion. For that, Outlast 2 ultimately gained an M rating.

Key features
  • The story of a lonely man trying to save his wife in the middle of nowhere
  • A dangerous cult expecting the end of the world
  • A unique combination of fear, desperation, and unpredictable visions
  • Cut content for M rating in Story Mode

The Curious Case of Digital Releases

As observed, only a prominent PC gaming platform permits the unaltered versions of x-rated video games. Console platforms, with their dedication to maintaining a more family-friendly image—particularly one well-known for its focus on such policies—tend to avoid these ratings. As a result, developers are inclined to target PC for creating games with an Adults Only rating.

While the PC platform in question has opted to grant users the freedom to choose their content, it’s important to note that these mature ratings are not automatically featured in the store or recommended lists. Users interested in such content must actively seek it out.

Conclusion

The Adults Only rating is the gaming industry’s black sheep. Nobody wants to sell it, 18 games don’t appear in stores, and it’s unlikely that consoles will ever include them in their offers.

No wonder developers are doing their best to get at least an M rating. There are, however, a few exceptions — like Hatred — which chose artistic freedom by targeting this specific, unwanted category. And guess what?

These creators are happy with this situation.

As the designer of Peach Princess states: ‘We actually love being able to be in a business where the restrictive policies of Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, and Apple don’t affect us — the good old PC software market. Source

That means these developers are well aware of their situation and realize the success of their title depends entirely on its quality. They will do their thing while the ever-evolving digital video game market grows to realize their potential.