Top 10 Action-Adventure Games
31 January 2010

The action-adventure is one of those genres that's notoriously difficult to pin down. While Zelda-style overhead swordplay is one of the more common characteristics, you'll also find combat engines that borrow from many other genres. Metroid might appear at first glance to be a run 'n gun. Wonder Boy III and Popful Mail feature a heavy emphasis on platforming. There's even Legend of the Mystical Ninja's side-scrolling beat 'em up sections.

So how the hell does one define the action-adventure? Let's start with what makes it different from an RPG. Action-adventures don't feature experience points in the traditional sense, yet you can gain in strength and abilities through accumulating addition hearts or power tanks as well as new weapons. Furthermore, combat is strictly reaction-based, a test of your reflexes, there aren't any hidden mathematical formulas crunching in the background to determine how many hit points of damage you dish out. To put it another way, there's no such thing as a lucky critical hit to save you in action-adventures.

Like RPGs, though, you will find an emphasis on exploring large worlds, opening paths to new areas, and solving puzzles. Normally, the action-adventure pushes this puzzle-solving aspect a little harder. While the RPG may require particular items to gain access to new part of the game, in action-adventures you'll often need to pull switches in the correct order, choose the right turn in a maze so you don't have to start over again, or push blocks or stones to reveal a hidden entrance. The action-adventure is a wonderful and rich genre with many games that age as gracefully as fine wines.
The Legend of Zelda
Developer: Nintendo R&D4
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 1986 (FDS), 1987 (Cart)
That Shigeru Miyamoto's masterpiece is one of the most influential and timeless games ever made is rather obvious. Almost a quarter century later, Link's debut remains incredibly fun and playable. The epic overworld theme and beery dungeon music still sound great on the vintage NES hardware. Though the graphics are quite simple, they are elegantly functional, and the gameplay retains its crisp precision. Hyrule remains a large space to explore, especially when you consider the much more challenging second quest. Given such an incredible first appearance, it's no wonder that Zelda is widely considered Nintendo's best franchise in terms of game quality.
Super Metroid
Developer: Nintendo R&D1, Intelligent Systems
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 1994
Atmosphere makes this game stand out more than any other in this list. The lighting, level design, boss fights, and music work together so seamlessly. Being the best 2D Metroid game doesn't hurt either. After all, the mighty Gunpei Yokoi (creator of the Game Boy) helped design this. How tragic that he was killed in a car accident in 1997. If only he could see how respected this game remains, even 15+ years later. The Metroid Prime games are worthy successors, but are they really better? Apples vs. oranges? Perhaps it's one of those debates that never ends. What's certain is that this is one of the finest games ever created by a company that has produced many a fine game.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 1991

The addition of multilevel dungeons, new equipment, and even a parallel world improved upon the already excellent gameplay of the original Legend of Zelda. Not only did it sell over 4.6 million cartridges worldwide, it monopolized the #1 spot in Nintendo Power's list of top games for five years! So why isn't this #1 in this list? It very easily could be. Early titles that age so well score a few extra points, and such an unusually dark and unmatched 2D side-scroller bearing the mark of a brilliant mind no longer with us also gains a slight edge. Even with the extra power of today's consoles, Nintendo has to dig deep to produce a better Zelda experience than this.

ToeJam & Earl
Developer: Johnson-Voorsanger Productions
Publisher: Sega, TecToy (Brazil)
Released: 1992
Randomly-generated levels, two-player co-op, being able to fall from one level down to the previous one? This is far from your typical action-adventure game, and that's what makes it so fantastic. Look a little closer and all the expected elements are there, from the emphasis on exploration to collecting items (presents) and even puzzle-solving (i.e. using spring shoes to cross a gap). Your characters even grow in strength over time, yet you never score any actual experience points.
Wonder Boy III / The Dragon's Curse
Platform: SMS, TG-16, Virtual Console (SMS, TG-16)
Developer: WestOne, Sega / Hudson Soft
Publisher: Sega, TecToy (Brazil) / Hudson Soft
Released: 1989 / 1990

What you have here is the best side-scrolling fantasy action-adventure of the era: vibrant colors, catchy music, and clever level design—including seven side-quests! It's the variety in gameplay that really makes this title stand out, though. Over the course of your adventure, you will transform into many five different creatures, from Mouse-Man to Hawk-Man, Piranha-Man, and more, each with their own unique characteristics. While the TG-16 version looks and sounds better, the SMS one offers gameplay that's just as tight.

Popful Mail
Platform: Sega CD
Developer: Nihon Falcom (original), Sega (reprogramming)
Publisher: Working Designs (US), Nihon Falcom (Japan)
Released: 1994
Here is one of the best-kept secrets of the Sega CD. Like Wonder Boy III, we have platforming meets fantasy and multiple incarnations of the character you get to play—Mail, Tatt, and Gaw this time. Differentiating this title, though, you'll find excellent cut-scenes with the quality voice work for which Working Designs is known, along with a very healthy dose of humor. This is clearly the most light-hearted title in the list, and it represents an amazing package, overall, a reminder of how great the Sega CD could have been.
Flashback: The Quest for Identity
Platform: Genesis, SNES, Sega CD
Developer: Delphine Software
Publisher: U.S. Gold, Sunsoft (Japan)
Released: 1993, 1994 (Sega CD)
While some people call this a cinematic platformer, the non-linear levels and numerous puzzles beg to differ. Discovering the extensive science-fiction world and using your inventory smartly is essential to complete this title. The animated cut-scenes are the best in the pre-CD console universe. Another wonderful quality is the atmospheric sound clips and effects, though the Sega CD version does offer a full soundtrack—not necessarily an improvement. No matter what version you play, this remains a title well ahead of its time.
Developer: Nintendo IRD
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 1990
With a tropical island theme, an overworld and towns that resemble Dragon Warrior, Zelda-esque dungeons, the ability to jump, and a yo-yo as the starting weapon, this title definitely carves out its own niche. Though the game does lag a little bit in terms of music and sound effects, the fun story and excellent gameplay more than compensate. Interestingly, StarTropics was never released in Japan—one of the rare times than American and European gamers scored a victory in the ludicrous battle of market segmentation. There was a sequel, Zoda's Revenge: StarTropics II, released in 1994, but it feels rushed and cannot match the innovation and cleverness found in the original.
Legend of the Mystical Ninja
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Released: 1991
The first and only Goemon Ganbare game released outside of Japan during the 8- and 16-bit era is a delicious blend of beat 'em up, side-scrolling, collecting items, and even playing mini-games, including one that features the entire first level of Gradius. In addition to the standard close range attack, you can learn four different Judo abilities. Better still, a friend can get in on the action with simultaneous co-op play. With the feudal Japan setting, the humorous animated expressions of characters, and the light-hearted tone in general, this title is an absolute blast to play. There's nothing else quite like it out there, aside from all the Japan-only Goemon Ganbare titles—all well worth checking out.
Golvellius: Valley of Doom
Platform: SMS
Developer: Compile (original), Sega (reprogramming)
Publisher: Sega, TecToy (Brazil)
Released: 1988
Sega enhanced the graphics of the Compile original and created a totally different overworld along with new dungeon layouts. The overworld feels very Zelda, but side-scrolling and even vertically-scrolling dungeons give Golvellius a more unique feel—not to mention the protagonist's green hair! You'll also find an unusually excellent musical score throughout the game. Considering Golvellius's excellent debut its surprising that it never received a sequel.
Other Recommendations
Ai Senshi Nicol NES FDS Konami Overhead 1987
Battle of Olympus NES Infinity Side-scrolling 1988
Clash at Demonhead NES Vic Tokai Side-scrolling 1989
Dynastic Hero TG-CD Westone, Hudson Soft Side-scrolling 1994
Ecco the Dolphin Genesis Novotrade International Side-scrolling 1992
Ecco the Dolphin Sega CD Novotrade International Side-scrolling 1993
Ecco: The Tides of Time Genesis Novotrade International Side-scrolling 1994
Ecco: The Tides of Time Sega CD Novotrade International Side-scrolling 1995
Ganbare Goemon 3
SNES Konami Side-scrolling 1994
Ganbare Goemon! Karakuri Douchou
SNES Konami Side-scrolling 1986
Golden Axe Warrior SMS Sega Overhead 1990
Guardian Legend NES Compile Hybrid 1988
Heart of the Alien Sega CD Interplay Side-scrolling 1994
Hikari Shinwa: Palthena no Kagami NES FDS Nintendo Side-scrolling 1986
Kid Icarus NES Nintendo Side-scrolling 1987
Landstalker: The Trials of King Cole Genesis Climax Entertainment Isometric 1992
Legend of Zelda II: Link no Bouken NES FDS Nintendo Hybrid 1987
Meikyuu Jiin Dababa NES FDS Konami Overhead 1987
Metal Gear NES Konami Overhead 1987
Metroid NES Nintendo Side-scrolling 1986
Metroid NES FDS Nintendo Side-scrolling 1986
Monster World IV Genesis Westone Side-scrolling 1994
Nazo no Murasamejou NES FDS Nintendo EAD Overhead 1986
Neutopia TG-16 Hudson Soft Overhead 1989
Neutopia II TG-16 Hudson Soft Overhead 1991
Out of this World / Another World Genesis Delphine Software Side-scrolling 1991
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves NES Sculptured Software Hybrid 1991
Rygar NES Tecmo Side-scrolling 1987
Soul Blazer / Soul Blader SNES Quintet Overhead 1992
Ufouria NES SunSoft Side-scrolling 1991
Wonderboy in Monsterland SMS Sega Side-scrolling 1988
Wonderboy III: The Dragon's Trap SMS WestOne, Sega Side-scrolling 1989
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link NES Nintendo Hybrid 1987
Zillion SMS Sega Side-scrolling 1987