Adventure. That’s a term that encompasses a lot of ground. There are many forms of adventure, as many as there are people. Add action to it, and you have something that people want to hear, see and play.
As a genre, console action adventure games have always been about finding new ways to find your way around a vast map, spotting things you can’t just yet reach until you’ve done some more venturing and action. Without a doubt during that venturing you will face new spots that require you stray from your plan, because there may be something you want to check out or is required. It’s all part of the adventure.
Games like Contra, Mega Man or Castlevania are linear action games, there’s very little venturing done in them. Castlevania Lords of Shadow is in many ways just a direct 3D transition from the classic mould with little adventuring. Perhaps this linearity was that ultimately put people off. While one could argue that Mega Man Legends did the same, it is far more closer to Zelda’s Action RPG genre. The two are not interchangeable, but very close to each other to the extent people making assumptions that Zelda is an action adventure.
Action adventure as a term has been adapted to describe very different kind of games because people like to call their games as adventures. More often than not, the adventure part in this comes from the story they’ve written for the game, which of course is more or less incorrect and doubly so when it comes to console games. The PC adventure games have always been a genre that can easily be contrasted again console action adventures, where fighting is usually minimalistic or does not exist, but the emphasize is on scrounging the rooms and screens, solving puzzles and similar things that the genre is known for. If you’d add the action element there, you’d have a new kind of game, a game like The Legacy of the Wizard or Space Hunter.
The term Metroidvania has been coined by fans to describe two dimensional action adventure games, a term that needs to die out. It’s a term that describes nothing about the genre. In addition, this is largely used by the Western core gamers, who mostly have lost touch with the general public. Doomclone originally was used to describe games similar to Doom, but it soon became apparent that such naming is stupid and the term First Person Shooter, FPS for short, took its place. FPS is such a simple and effective name for a genre. It describes the very core of the gameplay idea, much like how survival horror does. What does a Metroidvania describe? Nothing. It’s a nonsense term from nonsense people.
Metroid was, and still is, one of the most influential action adventure games out there, but it wasn’t the only one developed at the time. While Space Hunter was released a year later, it was in development at the same time with Metroid, a reason why Metroid’s original title couldn’t be used. The original Mugen Senshi Valis was released in the same year as Metroid and while it was more linear than Metroid, it has an unmistakable adventure take on the stage build. Non-linearity is what separates action from action adventure at its core, and during the 80’s European platformers were known for their more non-linear approach than their Japanese and Western counterparts. While Metroid’s position as a game that made the genre a household name with the general public, the genre wasn’t born with it. When asked to describe what sort of game Metroid is, most people will drop the terms action and adventure in some form. Non-linear is another one, and while I personally would call them non-linear action adventure games, that is a bit mouthful to say, not to mention the amount of space it takes.
It’s rather amusing to note that Castlevania; Symphony of the Night was released in the US in 1997. The term Metroidvania was born only after this, and the first mentions of this term that I personally recall date to somewhere early 2000’s. For more than a decade the term action adventure had been used to describe a genre of certain kind of games this then new non-linear Castlevania games and Metroid belonged to. This is, in a way, a showcase of core gamers ignoring the history and rewriting it however they want. Remember how the PlayStation, Saturn and N64 era was called the Third Generation at one point? Both hardcore gamers and the gaming press acted like there existed no game industry before the NES. This is also reflected in people calling the late 90’s as the Golden Age of gaming, despite the term is already used for the era encompassing the from the late 1970’s after the first video game crash up until the second in 1983, when titles like Space Invaders and Pac-Man made immense impact not only on the gaming industry, but also on the culture at large. Atari became the biggest name in the home video game system market as well.
It may make me sound like an old grumpy guy when I’m saying that gamers need to stop for a moment and look at the past. Rewriting history with one’s own notions does not serve anybody. Just like in the sciences, historical accuracy is about speaking the true, not what we want to regard or find as true.
There has been little discussion how accurately video game genres should be noted. If we were to describe all genres as they are listed, then we’d have Shenmue games in the F.R.E.E. category and Mega Man Legends games belong in Free-Running RPG. These are of course nonsensical and should be largely ignored, much like the term Metroidvania should be. Genres in general encompass large scope of different kind of products, much like Horror movies have both comedies and exploitations under its banner, so does action adventure. Being unnecessarily nitpicky about how strictly we divide the genres will only lead to further division down the road, which will at some point end up in a game title becoming a genre. This has almost happened with Metroidvania, but it indeed already happened with Doomclone, from which we luckily got rid of.
Ultimately, genre is a descriptive way of categorising something, and as such we need to use descriptive names to tell customers what it is. To ignore this is nothing but stupidity.