Beat’em-Ups 101: All You Need to Know About Brawlers
Presented by Gamerforlife
Note from racketboy: I’m proud to welcome the forum veteran, Gamerforlife to the contributer team. His passion for the Beatemup genre really shone through with this piece and I look forward to more guides from him. Enjoy! BTW, this is our second installment of our Genre 101 series, following up on Ack’s Survival Horror 101.
About The Beat’em up Genre
Beat’em ups, which are also known as Brawlers (and belt scroll games in Japan), generally focus on one player taking on a large number of enemies in some form of melee oriented combat. The beat’em up genre is also well known for offering co-op gameplay for 2-4 players, which for some people is a big part of the genre’s appeal. The genre should not be confused with one on one fighting games inspired by Street Fighter II, which is a common mistake some gamers make. Though there is some shared history and crossover between the two genres in terms of characters and certain gameplay elements, they are not the same.
The genre’s arcade roots are reflected in its simplicity. Beat’em ups generally have easy to learn controls and the focus of the gameplay never becomes more complicated than simply pummeling every person you see on the screen until you see the end credits. Like most arcade games, things are kept simple in order to make the games accessible to a wide audience. The whole purpose of arcade games was to get as many people as possible interested enough in a game to start putting quarters into the machine and playing it.
However, this simplicity has also drawn criticism from some, particularly later in the genre’s history. However, like many games rooted in the arcades, the depth comes from getting high scores or the challenge of attempting to complete the game in one credit. Repetition is an oft-used complaint regarding this genre as well, though there are many examples of beat’em ups that offer a lot of variety in play through deep combo systems similar to fighting games, playable characters with different combat style, a variety of weapon use, clever level designs, environmental hazards that can be used for or against the players, bonus games and even gameplay elements borrowed from role-playing games.
Some have also criticized the high level of difficulty many beat’em ups have. This is to be expected from a genre having its roots in the arcade. High difficulty meant more player deaths, which meant more quarters being funneled into the machine. For fans of the genre however, the challenge of mastering these difficult games is part of the appeal. Getting through an arcade beat’em up using only one credit is as popular a challenge among hardcore gamers as it is in the shoot’em up genre.
History of the Beat’em up
The Beat’em up genre initially flourished in arcades and went on to find success on home consoles as well. Beat’em ups and fighting games were a regular fixture of arcades in the late eighties and early nineties and both genres had a large output on home consoles in the 16-bit era as well. In fact, in can be argued that beat’em ups, fighting games and platformers were the most prominent genres of the 16-bit era. However, the beat’em up genre really declined in popularity during the late nineties as interest in arcades and 16-bit consoles dwindled as well. It can be said that the 32-bit era and the move to 3D technology in the video game industry officially ended the Golden Era of the beat’em up genre.
After the move to 3-D, the majority of games in the genre would eventually merge with action adventure games and much of the action was diluted with the inclusion of other genre elements like platforming, puzzle solving, item fetch quests and quick time event exercises. Co-op play became largely a thing of the past as well. Only a few games retained any elements of the older, more traditional beat’em ups. Beat’em ups in 2D nearly died off until they were able to find some success on digital download services like Xbox Live Arcade. A company in Taiwan known as International Games System (or IGS)has also kept the classic 2D beat’em up alive by releasing a small number of fun, but obscure 2D beat’em ups for arcades like Oriental Legend 2, The Gladiator and The Knights of Valour series
Themes and Influences
The beat’em up genre really began in the eighties. The earliest beat’em ups owe a lot to early Hong Kong cinema as seen in the Kung Fu Master arcade game. Many early beat’em ups would also focus on urban settings, revenge themes and crime fighting like some movies of the time. The 1979 movie The Warriors also seems to have had some influence on the genre. In fact, much later in the genre’s history Rockstar decided to make a beat’em up game based on this classic movie. Popular movies, comic books and cartoons of the late eighties and early nineties would form the basis for many beat’em ups. Konami is well known for licensing many popular shows, movies and comic books of the time for its beat’em ups like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Simpsons cartoons, the Batman movies and the X-Men comic books. Over the course of the genre’s history however, games would draw upon a variety of sources including pen-and-paper tabletop role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, historical settings, science fiction, Japanese animation, fantasy settings, and horror movies. Just about anything can form a basis for a good beat’em up.
The genre really started to take shape in 1984 with Irem’s Spartan X(renamed Kung Fu Master in the US where it was published by Data East), a game inspired by a Jackie Chan movie originally called Wheels on Meals. The game also has elements from Bruce Lee’s Game of Death movie, as it focuses on the player fighting his way up a five story “Devil’s Temple” with each floor being more challenging than the last. The gameplay was very simplistic by modern genre standards, allowing players to punch, kick, jump and crouch. Each stage had a timer and the player had to complete the level before it ran out, a very common gameplay element in other beat’em up games to follow. Strangely, Kung Fu Master featured a protagonist moving from the right side of the screen to the left, fighting enemies along the way. This is in contrast to the usual left to right approach of most beat’em up games.
In 1986, Technos Japan released Nekketsu Koha Kunio-kun, which would be re-named Renegade in the US (where it was published by Taito). This game added some new elements to the beat’em up genre, such as a semi-isometric perspective allowing 4-directional movement, tougher enemies, and an urban setting. The Kunio series would go on to produce other influential games in the beat’em up genre, such as Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari(River City Ransom), which introduced rpg elements to the genre, and spiritual successor to the Kunio series, Double Dragon.
Beat’em ups Enter Their Golden Age
When Double Dragon was released in 1987 by Taito Corporation, it introduced some key new features into the genre, including two player co-op and the ability to pick up and use weapons. The game was very successful, spawning a few sequels and a few copy cat games by other companies. There have even been movies, comics and cartoons all based on Double Dragon. It is with Double Dragon that the beat’em up genre starting to gain popularity, but an even more successful game was to come.
In 1989, Capcom released Final Fight into the arcades, originally meant to be a sequel to their fighting game Street Fighter. Final Fight impressed gamers with its large character sprites, and simple, easy to use controls. It also introduced a 360 attack which would use a portion of a player’s health to knock down any surrounding enemies. This would become a beat’em up staple. Final Fight spawned a number of ports and sequels and its winning formula would eventually be copied numerous times. Capcom itself went on to create a number of beat’em ups throughout the nineties looking to capitalize on Final Fight’s success. This would include some of the best titles in the genre as Capcom continued to refine and experiment with Final Fight’s formula until they released their last arcade beat’em up in 1997(Battle Circuit). Final Fight marked a real turning point in the history of the beat’em up genre and is still the first game that pops into many people’s mind when someone mentions the beat’em up genre.
1989 also saw the release of Konami’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, based on the highly successful children’s cartoon of the time. TMNT was significant in its use of 4-player co-op gameplay as well as letting players use objects in the environment against their enemies. The game was a huge success and much like Final Fight did for Capcom, laid the groundwork for other popular beat’em ups from Konami. Four player co-op became a real draw for Konami’s arcade beat’em ups with X-Men even upping that number to six in 1992(it also had an impressive multiple screen set up that was similar to The Ninja Warriors). The instant recognition of the licensed properties that Konami used also made their games very popular like the Simpsons arcade game in 1991. Along with Capcom, Konami really dominated the beat’em up genre in the early nineties. They also put out a number of console beat’em ups for the Nintendo, Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis modeled after the Ninja Turtles arcade game( and a few notable Batman games as well).
Another notable title to come out in 1989 was the popular Golden Axe by Sega. This title had a fantasy setting reminiscent of the Conan the Barbarian movie and was interesting for its visually impressive magic attacks and for having different types of dragons that players could actually ride and use to attack enemies. Some view Golden Axe as the first successful “Hack and Slash” beat’em up, which is simply what gamers called beat’em ups that emphasize the use of bladed weapons This game was a good indication of Sega’s important influence in the beat’em genre. Their impact would really be felt later with the Streets of Rage series.
1991 was an important year for the beat’em up genre. Capcom released a one on one fighting game known as Street Fighter II, which became a massive success for the company and was solely responsible for making the fighting game genre popular. The success of Street Fighter II and the fighting genre in general would bring more people to the arcades, which meant more people playing arcade beat’em ups as well. The beat’em up genre would also find itself borrowing some gameplay elements from the Street Fighter series and its imitators as time went on. When Final Fight 3 made its way onto the Super Nintendo late in the console’s life cycle it made use of the same style of controller inputs for performing special attacks as the ones in Street Fighter II. Treasure’s Guardian Heroes would end up incorporating this as well. The use of complex combination attacks, which Street Fighter games made popular, would work their way into the beat’em up genre as well, particularly in games like SNK’s excellent Sengoku III.
This year Rare also released Battletoads on the Nintendo to try and capitalize on the success of Konami’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle games. While the game incorporated a variety of gameplay styles, it is perhaps best remembered for its humorous, highly exaggerated beat’em up gameplay featuring very cartoonish attacks where the fists and feet of the Battletoads would swell to ridiculous proportions. Battletoads is remembered as not only a classic game, but also as one of the most difficult games on the Nintendo. Eventually Rare would create Battletoads & Double Dragon, bringing two important beat’em ups series together for the first time. A Super Nintendo game called Battletoads in Battlemaniacs incorporated much of the same gameplay elements as the original Battletoads and there was also an arcade game known as Super Battletoads. Neither of these games ever seemed to match the success of the original Battletoads on the NES however.
This was also the year that Sega released Streets of Rage in an attempt to complete with the success of Capcom’s Final Fight, which was ported to the Super Nintendo that same year. Streets of Rage was pretty much a Final Fight clone, yet one aspect of the game really took gamers by surprise. The game’s soundtrack was one of the best soundtracks ever heard in a beat’em up. Composed by Yuzo Koshiro, the soundtrack for Streets of Rage is still well regarded today. The following two years would see the release of Streets of Rage 2 in Japan and the US. It was released on a 16-megabit cartridge with larger characters, better graphics, inspired level design, four playable characters with distinct fighting styles and a surprisingly large moveset for players to use. Yuzo Koshiro also delivered yet another amazing soundtrack that was arguably better than the one in the first game. Streets of Rage 2 is often called one of the best console beat’em ups ever made. It was a far more ambitious sequel than Capcom’s Final Fight 2(released the following year on the SNES)and really put the series on equal footing with the Final Fight series. Some would say it surpassed it. The rivalry between Final Fight and Streets of Rage is well known and many gamers still argue about which series is better to this day.
The Genre Struggling To Find Itself in the 32-Bit Era
Beat’em ups were at their prime in the late eighties to early nineties. Some argue that the genre began to lose popularity to the closely related fighting game genre after the explosive success of Street Fighter II. However, both genres seemed to suffer a decline in popularity after the 32-bit consoles hit the market. Arcades were declining in popularity in lieu of the advanced technology of home consoles and interest in 2D gaming in general was waning as gaming moved towards 3-dimensional gameplay. Sony was at the forefront of this change with their 3D focused Playstation console and they were not very interested in 2D video games at the time. The Sega Saturn had a few 2D beat’em ups worth playing like the excellent Three Dirty Dwarves. Also, there were ports of some of Capcom’s arcade titles like Tenchi wo Kurau II(known as Warriors of Fate in American arcades) and their two Dungeons & Dragons games(released together in a package known as Dungeons & Dragons Collection).
Sega even tried to successfully transition the genre into 3D with Die Hard Arcade and ported the game to the Saturn. However, The Saturn never became as successful as the Playstation, which meant that games like Three Dirty Dwarves and Die Hard Arcade were overlooked and Capcom’s arcade ports were not even released outside of Japan. Even with support on the Saturn, the genre’s popularity was still in decline. Despite this, there was one beat’em up title released during the Saturn’s lifespan that truly bears mentioning.
In 1996, with the beat’em up genre waning in popularity, Treasure decided to turn the genre on its head as they so often did with their games. In that year, they released Guardian Heroes. It is today one of the most highly sought after games on the Sega Saturn and is considered by many genre fans to be the best beat’em up of all time. In typical Treasure fashion, Guardian Heroes was a quirky, unique game that truly marched to the beat of its own drummer. It introduced things to the genre that had never been done before. It featured a heavy emphasis on its story, even providing players a variety of different paths through the game’s story and different endings. This large emphasis on story combined with a leveling system that allowed players to improve a variety of character stats gave the game a bit of a role playing game feel.
The gameplay was very unconventional for a beat’em up as well. Players were confined to a 2D plane, unable to move up or down like they could in most beat’em ups. However, one push of a button sent their character jumping into the background or the foreground of the stage. This use of different planes of combat was highly unconventional and gave the game a level of strategy not seen before. Switching planes at the right time was an excellent way of avoiding enemy attacks and an excellent way to avoid getting surrounded. The game is also remembered for the iconic undead soldier, who basically functioned as a kind of bodyguard for the player. His actions were controlled by the game but could be changed by a variety of commands the player could issue. To sweeten things even further, Treasure threw in two player co-op for the story mode and a massive versus mode that included every single character in the game and allowed up to six players. Guardian Heroes is a true classic and a one of a kind game. It really gave fans of this dying genre something to celebrate.
Despite the greatness of Guardian Heroes, the 32-bit era was still not a great one for the genre. The move to 3D brought little to the genre, particularly on the Playstation(at least the Saturn had Die Hard Arcade). Core’s Fighting Force for the Playstation received a lot of hype but was not well received upon its release. Gekido Urban Fighters was terrible. Jackie Chan’s Stuntmaster was a decent game, but not amazing. Crisis Beat was a fun, but unspectacular game that never saw release in America. 2D beat’em ups were scarce on the Playstation with one pretty good beat’em up on the PS1 called Panzer Bandit that sought to emulate the Saturn’s Guardian Heroes, but it was not quite as amazing and became a very obscure title. For import gamers, there was a game available in Japan for both the Saturn and the Playstation called Nekketsu Oyako, which was a good but fairly standard beat’em up that is perhaps notable only for its weirdness(at one point you get swallowed by a whale and have to play through an entire stage within its belly).
The Beat’em up Genre Reborn in 3D
After the rough transition period into 3D during the 32-bit era, the genre managed to carry on and it received some notable contributions after the release of the Sega Saturn’s successor, the Sega Dreamcast. Games like Sword of the Berserk: Guts Rage and arcade ports like Zombie Revenge and Dynamite Cop finally brought some good 3D titles to the genre. The Dreamcast also saw the release of Cannon Spike, an interesting hybrid of the beat’em up and shoot’em up genres (a similar title was released years later on the PS 2 called The Red Star).
The year 2000 brought a notable title to the genre on the Playstation 2. Koei’s Dynasty Warriors 2 tossed aside the one on one fighting game formula of its first entry. This installment was an interesting title that featured a massive number of onscreen enemies and open battlefields. It also featured some light strategy and rpg elements which made for an interesting combination. It certainly was a unique title in the beat’em up genre. However, it was the next game that would truly bring Koei success.
2001 was a significant year for the genre. Dynasty Warriors 3 made some improvements on the formula presented in its predecessor. One notable change was the addition of a co-op feature. Dynasty Warriors 3 was a big seller in both North America and Japan. The series would continue to be a big success in Japan with later entries, spinoffs and expansions. This year also marked the release of Square’s heavily hyped The Bouncer on the PS2. All that hype didn’t help it win over critics though. Perhaps the most significant event of 2001 was the release of Capcom’s Devil May Cry.
Like many beat’em ups, Devil May Cry placed a heavy emphasis on combat versus numerous enemies, all taking place within a gothic setting as players took control of a part human, part demon character known as Dante. It had a deep and complex combo system and fast paced gameplay with highly responsive controls. The game’s excellent controls and fast paced play led to many critics saying that it felt like a classic 2D game. Given that the game had only one playable character, Dante was bestowed with a very large moveset and a variety of weapons. Complementing this was an interesting combo system that graded performance with “style” ratings and encouraged player to keep attacking enemies without taking any damage. The game’s gothic visual style was also very interesting. Dante’s charisma also won over a legion of gamers and as time went on Dante would become a gaming icon.
However, Devil May Cry differed from most beat’em up titles due to its variety of other genre elements. The game’s survival horror roots showed through in its puzzles and item fetch quests. There was also some platform based gameplay. Devil May Cry also differed greatly from most beat’em up titles in having only one playable character and lacking any kind of multi-player of any kind. The game seemed like more of an action adventure title than a beat’em up. Similar to Capcom’s other hit that came out earlier that year which was Onimusha. This merging of the beat’em up genre with action adventure elements would continue over time. Devil May Cry in particular had a number of imitators, most notably games like Team Ninja’s reboot of the Ninja Gaiden series and Sony’s God of War. Some view Devil May Cry and the games it inspired as the evolution of the genre while other people don’t even consider them real beat’em ups. However, Devil May Cry indicated the direction that melee based combat titles would take moving into the future.
In the wake of Devil May Cry’s success however, there would be other notable titles on the PS 2 that were a bit closer to the traditional beat’em ups of old. The Dynasty Warriors series would continue on with more games continuing to find much success in Japan (even as critics in the West began to dislike the series), Rockstar would delight beat’em up fans with the video game adaptation of The Warriors movie(which was also available on the Xbox), Capcom’s Clover Studio would put out a very unconventional title known as God Hand, the Mortal Kombat series would successfully move into beat’em up territory with Shaolin Monks and the spirit of Golden Axe could be seen in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, both based on the incredibly successful movie adaptations of the Lord of the Rings novels. Some other interesting takes on the genre came from Sony with Jet Li’s Rise to Honor and Mark of Kri, both of which made interesting use of the Playstation’s analogue sticks in combat (though Mark of Kri also included a lot of stealth based gameplay).
The Gamecube also had one significant title to offer the genre. Predating God Hand was another unconventional beat’em up by Clover Studio on the Gamecube. They chose to bring back classic 2D beat’em up gameplay with Viewtiful Joe. Viewtiful Joe featured a lot of unique gameplay ideas in the form of different movie themed super powers that Joe could use against his enemies. It was a critically acclaimed, glorious return to classic, 2D beat’em up gameplay with a modern twist.
The Xbox had one notable beat’em up title in the surprisingly good Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which featured good gameplay and made good use of the Buffy license as well. The game was popular enough to spawn a sequel called Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Chaos Bleeds.
Moving forward, we can see the genre’s influence on the Xbox 360 with Capcom’s Dead Rising. This game featured a lot of beat’em up elements within a Zombie movie setting and can even be considered a hybrid of the beat’em up and Survival Horror genres. 2009 saw the release of the highly successful Batman:Arkham Asylum on the PS3 and Xbox 360, which featured a great, beat’em up combat system to compliment its stealth based gameplay and Metroid inspired exploration.
There seems to be a comfortable home for classic 2D beat’em ups on the 360’s Live Arcade service. Castle Crashers by Behemoth was an homage to games like River City Ransom, though it feels closer in spirit to Guardian Heroes. Castle Crashers was a very successful title on Xbox Live Arcade, which begs the question of whether or not traditional 2D beat’em ups can only find success as downloadable, budget titles now. At the time of this article being written, there is much talk about the Scott Pilgrim vs The World beat’em up, which will also be a download only title. Also, classic beat’em ups like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Streets of Rage 2, Golden Axe and Final Fight have all made it to the Xbox Live Arcade market place. Konami’s Turtles in Time even received a remake.
Unfortunately, there are still a large number of classic arcade beat’em ups that have never been ported to any console at the time of this article. The MAME emulator has become a popular application for allowing gamers to experience these old classics again as it is unknown if these titles will ever be released on any home console even as downloadable titles.
- Always Outnumbered – You’ll never find a fair fight in a beat’em up. You will always have to face overwhelming odds. Even when facing a boss, you can usually expect him to bring some cronies into the fray to help him out. Beat’em ups will always try to overwhelm you with the sheer number of enemies they throw at you, much in the same way 2D shooters will overwhelm players by filling the screen with bullets.
- Weapons – There is perhaps no other genre that is so well known for the variety of weaponry it has offered players. Everything from baseball bats, lead pipes, pistols, shotguns, barrels, grenades, pepper shakers, whips, chains, beer bottles, Molotov cocktails, knives, katanas, to just about anything you can think of has probably been seen in one beat’em up or another.
- Co-op Multi-Player – Some people view multi-player as an essential aspect of the genre, with two player co-op being a bare minimum expectation for some fans. Games like X-Men Arcade have brought the number up to six players.
- Multiple Playable Characters – Given the large number of titles which feature multi-player, most beat’em ups offer multiple playable characters. At one time, players were simply offered a choice of a fast character, a strong but slow one and a balanced character. Over time, the differences between characters has grown, giving the genre quite a bit of variety and allowing players to choose a style of combat that suits them. The Dynasty Warriors series feature some of the largest rosters of any other game in the genre, rivaling many games in the one on one fighting game genre.
- Health Restoring Food Items – Oddly enough, Beat’em up characters have no problem eating any type of food they find on the ground or in a trash can. It’s certainly one of the more humorous conventions of the genre. Apples, turkeys, sodas, meat buns, burgers, pizza and other assorted food items have all been used to keep characters healthy and ready for more combat
Critical Gameplay Elements
- Offensive Variety – This is critical when looking at what distinguishes beat’em ups from other genres. If you compare a 16-bit classic action platformer like Castlevania IV to Final Fight, the difference is noticeable. Simon Belmont vanquishes his foes by swinging his whip at them and that’s pretty much it aside from a few sub weapons. That’s because most of the game’s variety comes from the platforming exercises and avoiding enemies and attacks. Now take a look at Final Fight on the Super Nintendo, a good basic template for most 16-bit beat’em ups and you’ll find characters with multi-hitting attack combos, jump attacks, a throw, and a 360 move. They can also make use of any weapons that are found. Modern games like Bayonetta are also known for their large movesets and number of weapons and the same can be said of some modern 2D beat’em ups like The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai. Only the one on one fighting genre popularized by Street Fighter II rivals the beat’em up genre for offensive variety.
- 4-Way Movement – While most 2D games like platformers, run and guns and fighting games have always focused on strict two directional movement from left to right and vice versa, the majority of classic 2D beat’em ups allowed for four directional movement using a semi-isometric perspective. This made it easier to throw lots of enemies at players while giving them a way to avoid being surrounded. This is where the “belt scroll” name given to the genre by Japanese players comes from. Some notable exceptions are Ninja Warriors(both the arcade version and SNES remake) and Viewtiful Joe, which restricted movement to a 2D plane. Guardian Heroes added an interesting twist to this by splitting the playing area into different planes, each of which forced players into two directional movement, while still allowing them to avoid enemies by switching from one plane to another.
- Combos, and other Fighting game elements – Beat’em ups have borrowed a lot from the Fighting genre, including complex combos, Street Fighter style special attacks, super moves, blocking, countering and other things.
- Throws – Most beat’em ups incorporate some kind of throwing move that is critical to keeping players from getting surrounded by enemies. Throwing one enemy into a group of others will knock them down and give you some breathing room.
- Health Draining 360 Attacks – This is a frequently used gameplay element in the genre. These attacks will usually knock down any nearby enemies and also free you from an enemy combo at the cost of some health. However, there are variations on this in games like Streets of Rage and the Super Nintendo version of Ninja Warriors that do not cost players any health
Tips and Tricks
- Curb your Appetite – Never grab a food item until you really need it. Beat’em ups are often about seeing how long you can last before the next food item comes along. If you’re doing good, save it until you cleared the area of enemies to give you an edge against the next mob. If you’re playing with a friend or two, it’s best to leave food for whoever needs it most. It’ll help everyone out in the long run
- Crowd Control – Try to keep your enemies from surrounding you. Throwing an enemy into a group is a big help. If playing with a friend, you can each take one side of the screen and fight the enemies there so that neither of you get surrounded. When all else fails, most beat’em ups will let you sacrifice a portion of your health for a 360 attack that will knock down every enemy around you. If you’re playing Streets of Rage, just summon your pal on the force for an awesome screen clearing explosive attack! No health required!
- Approach Bosses with Caution – When fighting bosses, hit and run tactics are the way to go in most beat’em ups. Don’t stand next to the boss after you’ve knocked him down either or you’ll be in a world of hurt. Generally speaking, you don’t want to be too aggressive. There are exceptions to this rule however
- Infinite Combos are Your Friend – Some beat’em ups allow you to keep a combo going infinitely while keeping your enemy stuck in a constant stunned state. Pausing for a second after every strike in Streets of Rage 2 for example will keep your character from finishing his combo. So you can just keep hitting your enemy without knocking him down until his life bar is depleted. You should try to get two or more enemies caught in your infinite combo for an even greater advantage in combat.
- Pick the Right Character – A lot of beat’em ups have characters who fight differently. Often you’ll have a choice between a slow character, a fast one and a balanced one. Some beat’em ups have even more differences between the characters like range and character specific attacks.
- Make Good Use of Weapons and the Environment – Sometimes even the toughest enemies are easy to take out with the right weapon. In games like Sega’s Die Hard Arcade and Capcom’s Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, you’ll find a lot of firearms that will give you an edge. Armored Warriors is completely built around having the right weapon for the situation and Konami’s Ninja Turtle games are well known for letting players use objects in the environment against the enemy
- Hack and Slash – Hack and Slash seems to have originated in pen and paper role-playing games and is sometimes used to refer to certain types of role-playing video games or Gauntlet style games. However, with regard to the beat’em up genre, hack and slash usually just refers to any beat’em up game where the playable characters make use of sharp melee weapons throughout the entirety of the game. Gameplay is generally the same as any Beat’em up though and many players don’t see the distinction between the two genres. Golden Axe is a very good example of a hack and slash game. Yet many players just consider it a beat’em up game.
- Dynasty Warriors Clones – The Romance of the Three Kingdoms novel seems to inspire quite a few entertaining beat’em ups from Capcom’s Warriors of Fate(before it was localized for non-Japanese audiences)to IGS’s Knights of Valour series and most notably, Koei’s Dynasty Warriors series. Beginning with its second installment, the Dynasty Warriors series has become known for its focus on combat against a massive number of onscreen enemies on large open battlefields. The feeling of the player single handedly destroying an entire army of foes is what these games go for. While often derided by critics in the western part of the world, the series has been a massive success in the east, spawning many sequels, rehashes, spinoffs, etc. Many other companies have tried to copy this style of beat’em up. The Ninety-Nine Nights series, Spartan: Total Warrior, Kingdom Under Fire: Crusaders(which also incorporated real time strategy and role-playing game elements), and most notably Capcom’s Sengoku Basara series, which are probably the most blatant in their copying of the Dynasty Warriors series.
- Devil May Cry Clones – Games like Team Ninja’s Ninja Gaiden, Bayonetta, God of War and other titles have taken on a similar style of game design as Devil May Cry and are often called the best combat oriented games on the market today by mainstream gaming media. Games in this style differ greatly from traditional beat’em ups in a number of ways, but they are popular and you’ll see a lot of games like this in retail today if you’re looking for a game that lets you engage large groups of enemies in melee combat.
- First Person Beat’em up – There are a very small number of games that have experimented with first person melee combat. Games like Breakdown, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay and Condemned: Criminal Origins have all attempted this. However, Zeno Clash was designed to feel like a real beat’em up with the developers even mentioning Double Dragon as one of their influences. The game has received some good reviews and is an interesting new, modern approach to the beat’em up genre. Very similar to how Mirror’s Edge tried to bring platforming into a first person perspective. First person games have been dominated by the shooter genre, so games like Zeno Clash are a refreshing change
Top 5 Most Influential
- Renegade – This really created the template that most 2D beat’em ups would end up following as time went on. Kung Fu may be the first beat’em up, but the genre as we know it began here. It also paved the way for other classic beat’em ups from Technos like River City Ransom and Double Dragon.
- Double Dragon (eBay / Amazon) – This is really the first beat’em up to achieve a high level of popularity. It was the first indication of how lucrative the genre was capable of being. It also further refined the genre with weapons and co-op which became beat’em up staples.
- Final Fight (eBay / Amazon) – As popular as Double Dragon was; Final Fight caught on in a big way and laid the groundwork for a long line of other popular beat’em ups from Capcom and a large number of copy cats from other companies. Final Fight’s success also led to the creation of Sega’s extremely popular Streets of Rage series. There is simply no questioning Final Fight’s influence on the genre.
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (eBay / Amazon) – Like Capcom’s Final Fight, this laid the groundwork for many of Konami’s other great beat’em ups, including a sequel and a number of console beat’em ups and other TMNT based games. This game really showed the importance of multi-player and licensing in the genre as well. It was also the clear inspiration for Rare’s classic Battletoads series.
- Streets of Rage (eBay / Amazon) – The Streets of Rage series really stands out for its music, which is still regarded by many people as the best music the genre has seen. It’s a standard few other beat’em ups have ever matched. The series also helped Sega really bring attention to the Sega Genesis. Games like Streets of Rage and Sonic are synonymous with the Sega Genesis. Perhaps the series’ greatest legacy is in the fan created projects that have stemmed from it. A popular homebrew game engine known as Beats of Rage has been downloaded and used by many beat’em up fans leading to the creation of countless fan made beat’em ups. There is also a very popular project known as Streets of Rage Remake which is well known among beat’em up fans
Top 5 Most Timeless
- Guardian Heroes (eBay / Amazon) – Most, if not all of Treasure’s games stand the test of time and Guardian Heroes is no exception. What makes the game timeless is that it is still so unique and quirky. There is nothing in the genre quite like Guardian Heroes with its unique play mechanics. The game still looks and controls great too, especially with the Sega Saturn’s highly regarded six button controller. It’s full of replayability with all the different story paths, optional bosses and a very diverse cast of playable characters who have very distinct roles in combat. Plus, the two player story mode co-op and a six player versus mode with an insane number of characters to choose from make it a great game to play with friends to this day.
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV:Turtles in Time (eBay / Amazon) – Every bit as fun and accessible now as it was when it was released. TMNT IV still impresses with its great use of Mode 7 effects, fun soundtrack(sadly lacking in Turtles in Time Re-Shelled) and colorful, cartoony graphics that perfectly captured the look of the cartoon(much like The Simpsons and Buck O’Hare games did). It’s one of the best arcade to home ports ever made, arguably better than the arcade original in a number of ways(Konami made some nice tweaks and changes). It’s the pinnacle of all of Konami’s TMNT based beat’em ups and it really reflects many of the same elements that have made Konami’s other arcade beat’em ups so enjoyable as well.
- Sengoku III (eBay) – Though not known by many genre fans, Sengoku III is an excellent title that still holds up well today. Similar in some ways to Noise Factory’s earlier game Gaia Crusaders, it features fantastic graphics with very large character sprites, a good soundtrack, a cast of distinct characters to play as, awesome magic attacks and a very fun combo system. It’s just a great game all around and the combo system ranks as one of the best in the genre. This is quite possibly the Neo Geo’s best contribution to the genre.
- Streets of Rage 2 (eBay / Amazon) – The genre has evolved quite a bit since the release of this game. There are many beat’em ups with more depth, challenge and originality. However, even when stacked up against more advanced games in the genre, Streets of Rage 2 still manages to be fun. More importantly,the popularity of the Streets of Rage series and this installment in particular has endured over the years. There are many Streets of Rage related fan projects still going on the internet and the game’s re-release on Xbox Live Arcade was met favorably with critics, who have a tendency to turn their noses up at retro titles like this. This game still comes up frequently when gamers discuss their favorite console beat’em ups of all time. There’s just something about this game that continues to endear it to many genre fans
- Capcom (Insert your favorite game here) – This company has brought so many timeless classics to the genre that it is impossible to pick just one. It would be easy to just pick Final Fight, since it is so well known. However, Capcom has improved greatly on the Final Fight formula with games like Aliens vs Predator, Battle Circuit, Armored Warriors, Dungeons & Dungeons: Shadow over Mystara, and Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, all of which are still being enjoyed by many gamers on emulators to this day and can justifiably be called timeless classics. There is no other company that has contributed as much to the genre as Capcom, which is even more true when you factor in games from Clover like Viewtiful Joe and God Hand.
Top 5 Most Original
- Comix Zone (eBay / Amazon) – The whole game played like an interactive comic book. Jumping from panel to panel as an omnipresent artist drew in villains to face off against made for a unique experience. Speech bubbles and pages getting torn made for a nice visual touch as well. There’s really no other beat’em up out there with Comix Zone’s visual style. Throw in a rat sidekick and a main character who looks more like a regular guy than any you’ll see in other beat’em ups and you truly have a game that is unique.
- Guardian Heroes (eBay / Amazon) – It’s hard to find any Treasure game that isn’t quirky and odd and Guardian Heroes is no exception. Fighting alongside an undead bodyguard and playing as a character who tends to trip over her own feet a lot are just a few of the game’s unique charms. As covered already in this article, GH differs from beat’em up genre norms in a number of ways like the plane switching approach to movement, branching story,stat based character advancement,street fighter inspired special attacks, an in-depth versus mode, magic attacks, and a playable character that can actually heal herself. You won’t find another beat’em up that plays quite this one.
- Viewtiful Joe (eBay / Amazon) – The game’s VFX powers were unlike anything that’s been done in the genre and really gave the Viewtiful Joe series a very unique feel and style. The basic idea was to have the VFX powers resemble many of the camera tricks used in movies. They allowed you to manipulate the game(as well as your enemies) in many fun ways like slowing down or speeding up time. Viewtiful Joe really made you feel like you were the star of your own movie and perhaps no other beat’em up captures the feeling of being a super hero as well as this one did.
- God Hand (eBay / Amazon) – With an unusual, behind the back camera angle, a dodge system that made use of the right analogue stick on the PS2 controller, tank controls that recall Resident Evil, a self adjusting difficulty system, a variety of randomized gameplay elements (like the appearance of powerful demon enemies when you least expect it), the unusual god reel system, and context sensitive attacks, there is certainly nothing conventional about God Hand’s gameplay. Not surprisingly, coming from the same team behind Viewtiful Joe. It also featured a strange and bizarre storyline full of truly wacky moments and unusual bosses. God Hand seems like both a celebration of and a send-up of the whole beat’em up genre. Loved by some and hated by others (just take one look at the review score it received from IGN), It’s difficult to find a more unusual beat’em up than this one
- Three Dirty Dwarves (eBay / Amazon) – Another game full of bizarre, wacky characters and a wacky world. Certainly one of the funnier beat’em ups out there. Three Dirty Dwarves is also unique for its three character system. You pretty much were in control of all three dwarves at all times and could switch between them at will to strategically make use of their different attacks. If you took a hit, you lost one dwarf and had to revive him with another. It was possible at certain times to use various super powered attacks that combined the abilities of all three dwarves. You could also be attacked by or attack enemies in the backgrounds of the stages, while facing off against enemies in the foreground. There were some truly interesting levels that broke away from the usual beat’em up gameplay, much like Battletoads. The game had an interesting cartoony look to it as well and was full of bizarre and hilarious characters. It also had some truly creative boss fights that are unlike any you will see in other beat’em ups. One of the most original story premises for a beat’em up too. Three children who were being experimented on played a game of Dungeons & Dragons and summoned their three dwarven counterparts into the real world to rescue them from their corporate captor. Three Dirty Dwarves seems very obscure even among genre fans, which is a shame. It’s an excellent and unique beat’em up
- Streets of Rage and Streets of Rage 2 – These two games pretty much own this category. Still the best sounding beat’em up games to this day. The soundtracks to these two games are legendary among genre fans. Oddly enough though, the third installment featured a much less impressive soundtrack from the same composer. Two out of three isn’t bad though, and Yuzo Koshiro has composed some other great video game soundtracks.
- Final Fight (Sega CD) – This version of Final Fight featured a remixed soundtrack done to take advantage of the CD audio. It sounds excellent, making this the best sounding version of Final Fight there is. The game as a whole is an excellent port. Sega really took Capcom’s classic, genre defining beat’em up and did it justice here.
- Castle Crashers – Being a game from The Behemoth, it was expected that the game would look great and that it would be funny, but the quality of the game’s soundtrack was a surprise. Castle Crashers is full of memorable tracks. The pirate ship theme, Pipistrello’s Cave, the Necromancer’s theme and quite a few others are catchy, memorable and worthy of a spot on anyone’s mp3 player.
- Batman Returns (SNES) – One of the many licenses Konami made good use of was the Batman license. Long before Batman: Arkham Asylum came along, Konami had already created fantastic games on the SNES like The Adventures of Batman and Robin(which had some light beat’em up gameplay mixed with platforming, unlike the Sega Genesis game of the same name) and Batman Returns. Just about every Konami beat’em up had great music. Batman Returns stands out from their other titles however. Being based on the Batman Returns movie, it was important for the music to capture the overall feel of the movie’s soundtrack. Konami pulled that off easily. The SNES was known for having better sound quality than the Sega Genesis and games from Konami like this and Turtles in Time really showed that(not to mention the amazing music in some of their other games outside of the beat’em up genre like Castlevania IV).
- Comix Zone – Truly an interactive comic book in every way, no other beat’em up looks like this one. It’s also a wonderful example of Sega making good use of the Genesis’s more limited color palette showing up a lot of SNES games.
- Castle Crashers – Dan Paladin’s art style is distinctive and beloved among the gaming community. Castle Crashers is a gorgeous looking game with a cartoony style and features some of the cutest and funniest looking characters you’ll ever see in a game. The art only enhances the wonderful humor that Behemoth games are known for
- Three Dirty Dwarves – Another game with a distinct, cartoony style. Like Castle Crashers, it is also full of wacky, bizarre and funny characters. This underrated gem’s visual style really stands out. While you could easily point out Konami beat’em ups for their great cartoon graphics based on popular licenses, it’s the originality of the character designs, settings and visual style that really make games like this one and Castle Crashers stand out. It’s also neat the way the game tries to look three dimensional during some boss fights, which also adds to its visual appeal. Lastly, the game has some really nice fully animated cutscenes. This game is a good example of why fans of 2D graphics love the Sega Saturn
- Guardian Heroes – A good example of why the Sega Saturn is known as a 2D powerhouse, Guardian Heroes is full of scaling effects, explosions, great looking sprites, wonderful character designs with a distinctly Japanese anime inspired look and it can handle an impressively large number of onscreen enemies at a time. Guardian Heroes is a real treat for the eyes and the onscreen action can get wonderfully chaotic at times.
- Viewtiful Joe – With 3D cell shaded, comic book inspired graphics, cool visual effects for the VFX powers and large characters, Viewtiful Joe just looks amazing. With the Viewtiful Joe series and Okami, Clover really showed a knack for making gorgeous looking games.