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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Naming the 2D Zelda Genre

I’m already in the planning stages for my next two video game reviews (no idea how long those will take, unfortunately), but they both have a commonality that I wanted to address. Something that I thought that I could discuss in an aside, as it’s a topic that I’ve mentioned before, but which kept ballooning in length, to the point where it seemed like it might just be for the best to spin it out into its own piece. And that topic is their genre.

Some of my favorite games growing up were the 2D Zelda games, and that’s something that’s persisted throughout my life. Although you might have already known that. After all, I’ve covered plenty of games of that style as well: Lenna’s InceptionCadence of HyruleBlossom TalesKamikoReverie, Sparklite, Moonlighter, arguably Ms. Director and Princess Remedy… The point is, this is a genre that means a lot to me, and I play a lot of games like it.

I also have no idea what to call it. For some reason, there just wasn’t ever a standardized name for it that cropped up in game discussion circles, so every time I want to write about it, I have to take a long time spelling out what I have in mind, and it kind of bugs me. So let’s try and fix that; sure, it might not catch on in wide use or anything, but at least in the future, I’ll be able to just drop the name and link to this article as an explanation.

But getting a name that’s just right is difficult. So let’s run through some ideas to see if any could work, and what they might leave out:


There’s some precedent for this one, as there are other genres that have come about this way (see: Roguelike, Metroidvania). I’m not a huge fan of naming genres after specific games, though, as I think it can sometimes limit the types of games in that style. For example, it sometimes feels like a few too many indie Metroidvanias lift Castlevania’s monster-filled gothic castles or Metroid’s quiet, isolated, and hostile alien planets for settings, and I wonder how much of that is the genre name drawing attention to the major influences.

But there’s another problem here, namely that Zelda has simultaneously gone in a different direction. The 3D Zelda games are kind of their own, distinct thing at this point, complete with their own bevy of homages and imitators. That might be a point of confusion.

2D Zeldalike?

This name at least somewhat clears up one confusion of the last one. It still has the problem of maybe tying the genre too closely to one game/series, as well as suddenly becoming a bit more of a mouthful (this will become a recurring issue). And another problem in naming a genre after a series is that it might fail to get across what factors you’re actually using to connect the games, since all games have a lot of different elements? Like, I’ve seen some (slightly misguided) people in the past compare some 2D Hack-and-Slash games to Zelda games, apparently because they both have top-down views and involve sword fighting monsters? And that’s... not really what I’m looking for; the exploration and puzzle solving is a key aspect of the games I’m describing here, and the name should hopefully directly indicate that in some capacity.

Also, I suppose it might be unclear in this name what the “2D” in this name is modifying? Like, you could in theory have a 3D “2D Zeldalike”, since the 2D is specifically referring to the style of Zelda games that serve as the inspiration for the genre, and that might not come across in this term. But that concern might be just overthinking things.

2D Action-Adventure?

This is the “formal” definition for the genre that I’ve probably seen the most often (to the point where it was the tag I used on this site when writing about these games), so it has at least a little bit of inertia I suppose? Zelda is listed as a prominent example of the Action-Adventure genre, so it’s basically a more general version of “2D Zeldalike”. And it certainly is a technically accurate name; these games are 2D games, and they definitely have action and adventure elements.

The first problem is that it’s even wordier than “2D Zeldalike”; being long isn’t a death sentence or anything, but being pithier can help. The second problem is that I don’t really think it’s specific enough to work as a genre? To my knowledge, the origin of the name is combining “Action Games” and “Adventure Games” as genres, Action Games being the broad umbrella for anything involving reflexes or hand-eye coordination, and adventure being anything involving exploring. So, technically, Metroidvanias would also fit this description? Presumably other things as well.

Also, while I said it’s the name I’ve seen the most in the past, it’s still not that well known overall; it doesn’t have a tag on Steam, for example. So while there’s definitely some momentum behind it, it’s also not like it’s a household term or anything.

Top-Down Adventure?

Okay, so the last name wasn’t perfect, but it’s also not completely off-base, either. So what about a twist on it, something that hits the same feeling but also deals a little more in the specifics of the style? Since my main contention with “2D Action Adventure” was that it didn’t rule out Metroidvania games, why not focus on one of the major differences between the two styles? And the most immediate difference to me seems to be the viewpoint; that is, Metroidvanias usually take a side-on view of the game, while games in the vein of 2D Zeldas are viewed from the top down.

So Top-Down Action-Adventure, I guess, which still runs into the problem of being really wordy. I guess if we really think that’s a big problem, there are workarounds. We could abbreviate the Action-Adventure part to A-A; I’ve seen that in some places in the past, although it hasn’t reached the level of ubiquity of acronyms like FPS or RPG. But theoretically, using it more could help inspire other people to use it, right?

Another solution could just be to just drop the Action part. Exploration is the much bigger focus of these types of games, after all, and cutting out a whole word helps focus it a little. Also, I’m not the only one who’s had that thought; actually has a tag for Top Down Adventure games, so there’s a little bit of precedent here (it might also be worth noting that, despite having the Top Down Adventure tag, they also lack a single tag for “2D Action-Adventure”). If there’s a downside, it’s that this tag winds up including some games that are further afield from what we’re looking to describe, like RPGs. And sure, I’ve noted the similarities between 2D Zelda games and things like Pokémon in the past, so I’m not totally against that, but if I started asking for games like A Link to the Past and everyone started recommending me Pokémon games, I might get a little annoyed.

Something else?

Something like “Top Down A-A” games is probably the best bet for now (or maybe even “TDA-A”, if the full name becomes more well-known? Again, see FPS or JRPG as reference points.), but I wouldn’t really end the search for potential names, either. Something that gets all of those ideas across while being pithier is really the bar to clear here. Of course, that’s a lot of information to get across in a little bit of time, so I’m not exactly going to hold my breath for someone to coin something in the next week or anything.
In the meantime, I’ll be using Top-Down Action-Adventure or Top-Down A-A around Out of Left Field, including modifying the old “2D Action-Adventure Games” tag. And as I mentioned back at the start, look for a few more pieces on games from this subgenre coming soon!

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