Whether you’re designing, developing, or playing, there are dozens of different video game genres to choose from nowadays.
Bored on the bus? Kill time with an idle game.
Looking to explore a fantasy world? Lose yourself in a role-playing game.
Fancy flying a plane without spending 1,500 hours earning your pilot’s license? A flight simulator will have you in the air by lunchtime.
If you’re planning on making your own 2D game, here’s a comprehensive guide to the most popular 2D game genres going today.
This article covers:
- What is a video game genre?
- What are the most popular 2D game genres?
- What other types of 2D games are there?
What is a video game genre?
Video game genres are categories of games that share similar characteristics.
Puzzle games put your brain to work, shooters require you to fire bullets and projectiles, and driving simulators are designed to bring the stress and chaos of a roaring highway to your otherwise peaceful living room.
A lot of modern games don’t just belong to one game genre, and often feature gameplay elements from multiple genres at once. That’s how you end up with one person calling Stardew Valley a management sim, and another calling it an RPG.
The Legend of Zelda, developed by Nintendo
What are the most popular 2D game genres?
Nearly any video game genre can work in 2D, but there are plenty that work better in two dimensions than three.
Consider this first entry a three-for-one deal, because action-adventure games are - wait for it - a combination of both action games and adventure games:
- Action games focus on physical challenges that require hand-eye coordination or motor skills
- Adventure games tend to be a little more relaxed, with a greater emphasis on puzzle-solving and interacting with the environment
- Action-adventure games combine the best of both worlds
Shigeru Miyamoto’s NES classic The Legend of Zelda is one of the most popular action-adventure games of all time, although Adventure on the Atari 2600 is generally considered the first-ever action-adventure game.
You can make your own adventure game in just 30 minutes with GameMaker’s Hero’s Trail tutorial.
Beat 'em ups
While fighting games tend to focus on one-on-one combat against a second player, beat ‘em ups are all about punching your way through swathes of enemies until you reach a checkpoint or get taken out yourself.
Games with a crime-fighting or revenge plot regularly use the beat ‘em up formula: they tend to be set in city streets, or chart the hero’s righteous rampage from the outer walls of a tyrannical kingdom to the big evil’s headquarters.
Streets of Rage, River City Ransom, and Double Dragon are all classics of the beat ‘em up genre.
The words “bullet hell” can paint a very bloody picture in your mind, but they’re not all as violent as you might think.
Bullet hell games require you to hold the fire button at all times (more or less) to defeat enemies and rack up points.
You can find bullet hell games that focus on painting the world in the blood of your enemies, but there are plenty of tamer ones, including the bullet-hell puzzler Ikaruga, Neon Abyss, and Raven Estate.
Raven Estate, developed by NicolaiGD, Jeremy Lowther and Gizmo199
This genre doesn’t just include the kind of classic card games you’d find on Clubhouse Games (although who doesn’t enjoy a nice relaxing game of Solitaire?).
Collectable card games like Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering are some of the most popular franchises in the world, not to mention the video game spin-offs of Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokémon Trading Cards.
Another subsection of card games called deckbuilders put a heavier emphasis on constructing your deck, rather than on the outcome of versus matches.
Fighting games have been a staple of 2D gaming since Street Fighter debuted on arcade machines in the 1980s.
The Mortal Kombat franchise caused a stir in the 90s with its graphic Fatalities, but that didn’t stop fighting games from surging in popularity. Arguably, it helped, much to our mothers’ collective dismay.
A subsection of fighting games known as beat ’em ups are another popular 2D fighting genre. Traditiional fighting games tend to focus on one-on-one matches, whereas beat ’em ups are built with scrolling levels and multiple enemies to defeat.
Mortal Kombat, developed by Midway
Hack and slash
Hack and slash games are a lot like beat ‘em ups, just with swords rather than fists.
The Ninja Gaiden series was one of the first 2D franchises to really put hack and slash games on the map in the 1990s.
3D juggernauts like Devil May Cry are more associated with the genre these days, but plenty of exceptional 2D hack and slashes continue to release, including indie games like Katana ZERO.
Idle games (Hyper-casual games)
Idle games (sometimes known as incremental, clicker, or hyper-casual games) are designed to pose low-effort tasks that reward players with points or upgrades.
That may sound like a harsh assessment, but that’s genuinely the point of idle games. They’re meant to be something you don’t need to dedicate loads of energy to, so the simpler and more trivial the task, the better.
Cookie Clicker is often cited as the game that sent idle games mainstream, but other popular hyper-casual games include Clicker Heroes, AdVenture Capitalist, and the satisfyingly-named Prawn Slapper.
Cookie Clicker, developed by DashNet
For a lot of people, you can’t hear 2D gaming without thinking of Metroidvania games.
As the name suggests, this genre takes its name from the Metroid and Castlevania series. They feature sprawling environments connected by 2D rooms, with some parts of the world closed off until you unlock a new ability or receive a new item.
Metroidvania’s thrive on exploration and backtracking, filling their worlds with secrets and shortcuts that can either make navigation or the game itself easier.
Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night are obvious examples of this genre at its best, but others include indie games like Hollow Knight, Ori and the Blind Forest, and Axiom Verge.
Whether couch co-op or via the magic of the internet, 2D multiplayer games have been comfortably challenging the dominance of 3D multiplayers for years.
There are loads of different kinds of 2D multiplayer games, including:
- Online multiplayer games like Among Us
- Party games like Bishi-Bashi Special
- Drop-in/drop-out multiplayer games like Sonic Mania
We’ll be introducing out-of-the-box multiplayer support to the GameMaker engine in the next few months, so get yourself a spare controller and keep an eye on the latest GameMaker updates.
Bishi-Bashi Special, developed by Konami
Platformers have dominated the 2D scene since the introduction of 1981 arcade classic, Donkey Kong - the first platformer ever made.
Platformers are all about jumping and climbing to explore the environment. There are plenty of genre off-shoots too, including:
- Collect-a-thon platformers, where the player needs to gather collectables like gems or puzzle pieces to complete the game
- Mascot platformers that feature a recurring lead character and recurring gameplay mechanics
- Puzzle platformers, where the player solves puzzles to complete objectives or move between rooms
We’ve heard rumours that Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog games are pretty good flag-bearers for the 2D platformer, but hundreds of exceptional games deserve a mention as well, including:
Check out our Windy Woods tutorial and learn how to make your own platformer with GameMaker.
Rayman Legends, developed by Ubisoft
Puzzle games are all about making people’s brains work, whether through problem-solving, pattern recognition, mental maths etc.
They can range from adaptations of real-world puzzles like Sudoku all the way to uniquely gaming puzzles like Picross.
Puzzle games are particularly successful on handheld platforms like mobile and tablet, but you’ll find high-quality puzzlers everywhere you look, including Murder By Numbers, Candy Crush Saga, and the Professor Layton series.
Break out the dance mats, folks, because it’s time to talk about rhythm games.
These are all about moving, hitting a button, or performing actions to the beat of the music. Rhythm games went mainstream in the 1990s with the debut of PaRappa the Rapper (“Kick, punch, it’s all in the mind!”) and the Dance Dance Revolution series.
Guitar Hero is probably the most recognisable rhythm game series today, but 2D games like Crypt of the NecroDancer and its Zelda spin-off, Cadence of Hyrule, are still finding new ways to implement rhythm mechanics to this day.
PaRappa the Rapper Remastered, developed by Sony Interactive Entertainment
Roguelikes are built from procedurally-generated dungeons. No two runs of a roguelike are ever the same, which makes them one of the most replayable genres going.
Roguelikes also tend to feature permadeath systems so that whenever a player dies, they restart at the beginning of the game to start a new run.
Examples of popular 2D roguelikes include Colt Canyon, Enter the Gungeon, and The Binding Of Isaac.
Role-playing games (RPGs) are another staple of 2D. After all, RPGs are heavily inspired by real-world tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons.
Role-playing games are all about choice. They let you create your own character, make decisions that influence the story, and explore the world at your own pace.
Other types of role-playing games include:
- Action RPGs, which feature real-time combat rather than traditional turn-based combat, like Regions Of Ruin
- Japanese RPGs (JRPGs), which tend to feature a more linear story or cast of characters, such as Final Fantasy
- Monster tamers. Think of Pokémon, and you’ve got the idea
Final Fantasy VI, developed by Square
Run and gun
Run and gun games are a bit like bullet hells, but they put a heavier emphasis on dodging enemy fire, rather than just mowing them down in a torrent of lasers or lead.
Popular run and gun titles include Contra, Sunset Riders, and Blazing Chrome.
Simulation games are designed to put you in charge of something you’re unlikely to experience in real life, like building a house or running a zoo for dinosaurs.
They tend to be heavy on detail and management mechanics to represent their chosen experiences as authentically as possible.
Notable simulation sub-genres include:
- Construction and management simulations (CMS) which allow you to build fictional cities, structures, or projects
- Life simulators allow you to manage people and/or animals, which generally entails making sure your charges don’t die
- Vehicle simulators, which put you behind the controls of anything from race cars to fighter jets
Easily the most famous management sim of all time is - ironically enough - The Sims, but popular 2D franchises include Factorio and Stardew Valley.
Factorio, developed by Wube Software Ltd
Tower defence games
Tower defence games are a classic mid-2000s Flash game genre, popular today on mobile and desktop platforms.
These games are all about defending an objective for as long as possible. By buying towers, turrets, pits, and other hazards, you need to set up your defences to protect yourself against a horde of enemies.
Famous examples include Plants vs Zombies, They Are Billions, and Bloons TD.
In turn-based strategy (TBS) games, players are given a set period of time to commit to an in-game action which plays out when they finish their turn.
Turn-based strategy games usually give you a moment to breathe, consider the impact the last turn has had on the game, and plan your response.
Games like Civilization and Heroes Of Might And Magic are just two examples of popular turn-based strategy games.
Sid Meier’s Civilization, developed by MicroProse, MPS Labs & Microplay Software
A visual novel typically features static graphics and an anime art style.
Sometimes known as an interactive movie, these games are more about story than gameplay, requiring the player to advance the plot by moving through dialogue, making decisions, and building relationships that affect the story.
Popular sub-genres of visual novels include dating sims, such as the weird and wonderful indie game, Sucker For Love: First Date, and mystery/legal dramas like Nintendo's famous Phoenix Wright series.
What other types of 2D games are there?
The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed a few important types of 2D games that we haven’t mentioned yet.
In an auto-scroller, levels are designed to move automatically to force the player into progressing and making quick decisions.
In some auto-scrollers, the player loses a life if they can’t keep up with the speed of the level. In others, the player simply disappears off-screen and has to work their way back on-screen before a timer runs out.
Developers have used auto-scrolling to create chase sequences or flight mechanics in the past, predominately in platformers and shooters, including #NoticeMe Game Jam finalist, High Moon.
High Moon, developed by addyvalentine
Side-scrollers are much like auto-scrollers with one key difference: the camera moves alongside the player, rather than the level moving of its own accord.
These games give players more time to plan and explore their surroundings.
You don’t have to look far to find quality examples of quality 2D side-scrollers, including Mega Man and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge.
Top-down games are exactly what they sound like: 2D games with a top-down view of the world, rather than a side-on view as we see in side-scrollers.
You usually see top-down camera angles in games where getting a clearer view of your surroundings is beneficial to gameplay, such as shooters like Hotline Miami and racers like Micro Machines.
Hotline Miami, developed by Dennaton Games
In a single-screen game, each level is set in a new room that appears on screen in its entirety. When you’ve completed your objective, you move on to the next room.
Some of the earliest video games, including arcade classics like Pac-Man and Bubble Bobble, used the single-screen technique. Many puzzle and platform games use the single-screen approach today, such as #NoticeMe Game Jam winner, Moonleap.
As you’ve probably noticed, a lot of developers use elements of more than one game genre to create the gameplay they’re after, like single-screen puzzle platformers, Metroidvania hack and slashes, and side-scrolling rhythm fighting games.
There’s no rule against combining gaming genres and seeing what works.
Just because there’s not been a rhythm action run and gun platform dating sim before, doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be.