The game that had no genre

2010-08-26

Back when videogames were still new, there was no such thing as game genres; the very concept of a videogame was still taking shape. But we humans love putting labels on things, and once certain types of game mechanics proved popular, it wasn't long before the market settled on a few easily identifiable genres which it exploited. Sure, new kinds of games continued to appear all along the 1980es and 1990es, but they were all promptly milked to death by an increasingly risk-averse gaming industry.

Luckily, nowadays the situation has been reversed again. Not only are indie game developers churning out an impressive array of innovative titles, but even established genres are going right back into the blender. RPGs are borrowing from shooters (Fallout 3, Mass Efect). Shooters are borrowing from strategy games (Team Fortress 2, Tremulous). And strategy games have had RPG elements since at least Heroes of Might and Magic 3 (for a modern example, see Battle for Wesnoth).

But even in the intervening years there were games that dared to break the mold and combine two existing kinds of gameplay into a coherent whole, or even do something entirely unique.

Nowadays it seems natural for space trading games to combine two very different types of gameplay, but when Elite! was published, real time 3D graphics were still in their infancy (the Spectrum version was limited to wireframe!) and Space Trader was purely an economic simulation with a text-based interface and about 10 star systems for a playground. Elite! was a pioneer in that it seamlessly blended the two into one such that they complemented each other, and the vivacity of EVE Online is evidence that the formula still works.

At the other end of the spectrum (pun not intended) lies The Sentinel. It's hard to describe. Let's call it a minimalist first person 3D strategy, set in an abstract mountainous landscape, in which the objective is to reach the highest point on the map and defeat the eponymous sentinel. If there is another game like it, I've never been able to find it.

Wait, did I say "first person strategy"? Yes I did, and it wasn't the only such game back then. One of the most ambitious titles ever released for the aforementioned British micro, Lords of Midnight, would be a pretty conventional (if simplified) turn based strategy, except you're seeing the battlefield through the eyes of your commanders, switching between them as needed. Oh, and it's a huge map. Interestingly, LoM also has a dash of adventure, as there is one way to win that doesn't involve maneuvering armies into battle.

Turns out, this kind of hybrid can go much further.

In the 1992 videogame adaptation of Dune, you can't even begin to take control of the planet and beat up Harkonnen troops on the map until you unlock certain abilities and pieces of equipment by going around in first person, uncovering various places and characters. However, I've been told that it's possible to skip much of the story if you just want to make a speedrun. That's definitely not possible in the next title, namely...

Alien Legacy, a 1994 PC-only release in which you have to settle another star system, starting from the sublight colony ship in which you arrived. But where are the people who preceded you here, and what about the alien activity in the system? Alien Legacy makes it so that failing at economy leaves you without a power base, and failing at investigation leaves you unable to progress. It also has one of the most gripping stories I've seen in a computer game. Perhaps the least interesting parts are the combat sequences, inspired from a less-known 8-bit gem called Star Raiders II.

Looking back, none of these games are likely to make it on a "greatest ever" list. Nevertheless, I remember them fondly, and I think they're a great source of inspiration for game developers trying to stand out from the crowd by giving their players a truly special experience.

P.S. In a not-quite-related note, this article from Kotaku makes a special mention of the good old hybrid videogames. Yay!

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