What's the Definition of An Action Game?

Super Mario 3D Land
Super Mario 3D Land is an action game for the Nintendo 3DS. Image © Nintendo

Video games in the "action" genre typically put emphasis on challenging the player's reflexes, hand-eye coordination, and reaction time. In fact, when you think about action games, you might immediately think of arcade classics like Pitfall, and other titles that involved a lot of virtual running and jumping. That's because even the earliest arcade cabinets were home to some of the best-known action games of all time.

Today's action games are typically more complex than those first offerings (but not always!), even though the genre's core mechanics--running, jumping, attacking--remain intact.

Many action games also share similar design mechanics, too. The player usually progresses from level to level while the game's challenge level creeps up at a steady rate. The terrain gradually becomes more treacherous to navigate, and the enemies become trickier to defeat. Most action games top off levels (or a group of levels) with a "boss fight," which involves going toe-to-toe with a particularly big bad guy that requires a little extra finesse and/or strength to beat. Some action games also plop a smaller boss mid-way through certain levels. These medium-level threats are often labeled "Minibosses," a term that still pops up in modern gaming jargon.

How Are Action Games Played?

Action games typically give the player multiple means of attack, though there's almost always a shared theme at work.

An action game that's based around shooting, for instance, might give the player a multitude of upgradable guns, while another action game that's based on a fantasy world will provide swords and magical powers.

As the player progresses through the game, he or she must remain mindful of the main character's health and lives.

The main character can usually take multiple hits, but if too much damage is incurred, the character dies, and a "life" is lost. If all the character's lives are wiped out, it's Game Over. The player can usually collect more lives and health on their journey.

Modern action games have found ways to play with the health-and-lives reward and punishment system, as some developers feel that it's an archaic hold-over from an age where people dropped quarters into arcade machines to keep on playing. In the independently-developed action game Braid, for instance, players can actually "rewind" the gameplay and correct the mistakes that led to the main character's death.

Given the popularity and longevity of the action game genre, developers have played around with the formula quite a bit. As a result, action games have branched out into several different sub-genres. Some of these sub-genres include:

Shooter Games: Action games that challenge the player to target and dispatch opponents. These opponents aren't always human in nature: very often, the player is in a vehicle that scrolls from left to right (or from the bottom of the screen to the top of the screen), and he or she must shoot down a seemingly endless barrage of enemy planes and robots.

Beat 'em Ups: Action games in which the player moves from left to right and brawls with enemies using close-range melee attacks. Many Beat 'em Ups are based around the martial arts. Good examples of this sub-genre are Double Dragon and Final Fight. Platforming Games: Arguably the most well-known action game sub-genre. Platform games challenge the player's reflexes with obstacle courses filled with floating platforms, enemies, and boss characters.

Super Mario 3D Land, Mutant Mudds, and Kirby's Adventure are all examples of great action games on the Nintendo DS and 3DS. VVVVVV is an action game that revolves around flipping gravity, and is, therefore, a good example of an action game that does something a little different with the tried-and-true formula.