Beat’EM Ups, What are They & How they came to be?
A couple of decades ago, arcade games were all the rage. And one genre of games that were as ubiquitous as any were brawlers, button mashers, otherwise known as “beat em ups.” These games made a seamless transition to consoles, offering home gamers the opportunity to take out relentless hordes of oncoming villains.
And in the recent past, beat ‘em ups were reborn with the help of Xbox Live Arcade, allowing older players to rekindle their love for the button mashing genre while making some new fans in the process. So in the interest of nostalgia, here is everything you need to know about retro gaming brawlers.
The origin of beat ‘em ups
Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, arcade games were manufactured for one purpose: getting kids to feed quarters into machines with reckless abandon. There were few better ways to achieve this goal than by designing games with high difficulty and non-stop action that barely gave players time to think. This is where brawlers came in.
The frenetic gameplay and mass enemies meant it was only a matter of time before button mashing failed to be effective and death ensued. Then the countdown screen appeared, giving dejected players 10 or so seconds to fish another quarter from their pocket and redeem themselves. It was a call to action more effective than any maverick ad team could ever dream up.
Retro beat ‘em ups typically featured 2D graphics with side-scrolling gameplay.
They were made up of a protagonist (or two, or four) engaging in melee combat against seemingly endless villains, and more often than not the game had a co-op feature. The brilliant thing about this genre is that what worked in the arcade worked equally well on home consoles during the time, such as the Sega Genesis Console.
This is because 16-bit technology allowed for decent level design and gameplay. Of course, the move to 32-bit and 3D technology was the death knell for the “beat ‘em up” genre, as the new consoles focused more on action-adventure titles and shooters.
The death of beat ‘em ups
Brawlers had their time in the sun, and by the mid-‘90s that time was all but over. Some hold to the notion that the popularity of “Street Fighter II” and other such fighters rendered beat ‘em ups obsolete. The sad truth is that arcade fighters and brawlers alike couldn’t find their place in a 32-bit world. The end of beat ‘em ups’ popularity coincided with the end of arcade’s mass popularity. And the world of console gaming moved on without the genre.
As mentioned above, the retro gaming brawlers found new life through online gaming. Hopefully, younger gamers used to all those luscious, open-world environments and complex controllers will gain a newfound respect for the simplicity of design and focus on easy, fun gameplay offered up by retro brawlers.
Below Are Some of the More Popular 90s Video Games
The Punisher – Sega Genesis (1994)
Frank Castle is a ruthless son of a gun. If you’re a criminal and Frank sets his sights on you, it’s game over. Developed by Sculpted Software, The Punisher has you dealing with an army of baddies as Frank Castle. You’ll go up against a motley crew of bad guys – street ruffians, skinheads with knives, mafia hitmen, acrobatic female ninjas and even some cyborgs for good measure. At the end of each level, you get to go up against a formidable boss. Nick Fury makes an appearance in some stages too. All of it leads up to your climactic battle with Wilson Fisk, The Kingpin.
The controls are basic, and that’s a good thing. Standard controls make it easy to attack and unleash devastating special moves.
Double Dragon II: The Revenge – NES (1990)
The original Double Dragon is a classic of the beat-em-up genre, and in the second outing, developers Acclaim Entertainment pushed the bar even further. You still get to kick some ass as badass brothers Jimmy and Billy Lee. The co-op feature meant that you and a friend could now team up and lay down a monstrous beating on the foes that faced you. Plus, both brothers got some new moves to play with, like the Cyclone Spin Kick. An all new set of stages and set-pieces meant that things were always fresh, and anyone who played this game will never forget the helicopter stage. The difficulty level is slightly higher this time around, which isn’t a bad thing at all.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles The Hyperstone Heist – Sega Genesis (1992)
Coming hot on the heels of the juggernaut success of Street Fighter II, and Konami’s own TMNT: Turtles in Time, The Hyperstone Heist had high expectations when it first released. And while this is basically a port of Turtles in Time, The Hyperstone Heist still mixed things up just enough so that you didn’t feel you were playing a poor imitation of its predecessor.
The plot is fairly standard – Shredder has stolen the Hyperstone, a magical device that he has used to shrink New York City. As the Turtles, it’s your job to restore order to the world and lay the smack down while you’re doing it. This game features an interesting variation on Turtles in Time, because the levels are bigger and the enemies are far nimbler. The game features everything you’d want from a Turtles game. Great combat, colorful graphics, memorable boss fights and yes, a great surfing level.
Knights Of The Round – SNES (1991) -
Knights Of The Round takes the traditional beat-em-up formula and wraps it in a nice layer of historical themes and fabled characters. You play as the knights from the Arthurian legends, and the plot and setting make it a pleasant diversion from other games in the genre. The game features a lot of decent dialogue and overall, the presentation value is pretty high. Basically, if you’ve played Golden Axe, then you know what to expect here.
You can choose between three separate characters – Arthur, Lancelot and Percival – and each of them has their own combat style and special abilities. The game uses an interesting leveling system, based on finding artifacts and the points you gain from combat. As you progress through the game, the unique armor and weapons that your character uses become more powerful. And, you wouldn’t be much of a knight if you couldn’t fight on horseback, right? There’s a lot to like about KOTR – the graphics are stellar, the level design is intricate, and the sound design really makes you feel like you’re part of this medieval heroic tale.
Here is some great gameplay
Final Fight – SNES (1989)
If you’re a fan of Retro Gaming Beat'em ups, you need to play Final Fight. This isn’t just one of the best beat-em-ups, it’s one of the best arcades games of all time. It is the perfect distillation of the genre. You’re a gang of heroes out to avenge/save a damsel in distress, and you have a license to brawl. Final Fight has a ton of things going for it – the graphics are fantastic, the combat is deep and challenging and the enemies are varied, memorable and interesting.
You can choose from two characters – a pro-wrestler-turned-mayor (because why not?) called Haggard and a hot-shot fighter called Cody. Both Cody and Haggar have unique fighting styles and special moves. You can grab enemies, jump and spin when you’re in a tough situation. However, once you’re facing a gang of different enemies at once, the beauty of this combat system becomes apparent. You’ll come up against challenging bosses, and you get to smack around a ton of enemies in every stage, often with a wide variety of weapons. Play this game.
Streets of Rage 2 – Sega Genesis (1992)
Streets of Rage 2 is an icon of the brawler genre. It is one of the most refined, good-looking and unabashedly fun games to grace the Genesis. Even today, a decade and a half later, Streets of Rage 2 still holds up. And that’s saying something.
Set a year after the events of the original Streets of Rage, the sequel picks up with the main villain Mr. X getting back to doing no good at all. This time, he’s hurting from the bruising you put on him last time and has sent out his legions to terrorize your town. To top it all, he’s kidnapped Adam, one of the original heroes. So it’s up to Axel and Blaze to set things right. And this time around, they’re joined by two new characters – a gigantic wrestler called Max and Adam’s skater bro called Skate.
These characters are fun to play as because they force you to play a certain style. Max, for example, hits really hard but is slow. Blaze, on the other hand, is slightly faster, but doesn’t deal as much damage. And this time, all the characters have their own unique moves. Featuring a pulse-pounding soundtrack and stellar graphics, this game is an absolute must-play.
Here is some Streets of Rage 3 Gameplay
Battletoads – NES (1991)
If you’ve heard about Battletoads, you’ve probably heard about the third level. Yes, the lava lake is insanely tough and may induce bouts of hair-pulling. But don’t let that dissuade you from enjoying a fun beat-em-up. Battletoads is a unique and rewarding experience for players who dare take the challenge.
Since the heroes are toads, the game features a pleasantly outlandish mix of enemies and level design. You’ll fight rats, pigs, ravens, killer plants and even ride around on dragons. Yes, you read that right. The game features an insane array of set-pieces and requires near perfect timing to finish, but that’s part of the charm.
Splatterhouse 2 – Sega Genesis (1992)
There are few games that give you the pure rush of playing an unstoppable badass like the Splatterhouse games. Splatterhouse 2 starts off weird and creepy, and itonly gets better and gorier from there. You have a mask that keeps whispering cryptic things as you’re going around beating the brains out of a wide variety of monstrosities.
As Rick, wearer of the mask, you are a force of nature who has to fight your way through a nightmarish landscape populated by lots and lots of demons. And this is a good thing. Along the way, you can pick up chainsaws, metal pipes, a shotgun and even a severed head to splatter your enemies and send them back into the depths of hell. There are eight stages to play through, and each of them has a boss fight, most of which are pretty challenging and fun. And things get real gnarly real quick, so you’ll have to keep your reflexes up to finish this game. The game looks great, with all of the gothic imagery and hilariously over-the-top gore to keep you satisfied.
Mighty Morphin Power Rangers – SNES (1994)
Everything old is new again. After years of rumors, the Power Rangers movie trailer just dropped recently. And it hit all the nostalgia feels for folks who were Power Rangers fans back in the day. Newer gamers may not realize this, but Mighty Morphin Power Rangers were an absolute phenomenon during the 90s. Every band of kids had their own make-believe team of Rangers. And what better way to make-believe than play as your favorite superheroes in a kick-ass video game?!
The game features a fairly generic storyline which has you fight monsters through a bunch of areas until you get to the final boss. You have to choose from the different Power Rangers (Red, Black, Pink, Blue and Yellow) each of whom have a unique weapon and fighting style. You begin each level as the civilian version of your hero until the boss shows up. And then, ITS MORPHIN TIME! The graphics look pretty good for the time, and the heroes and enemies are well-animated. Plus, it’s all worth it when you get to the end level. Trust us on this one.
River City Ransom – NES (1994)
River City is in peril. The once tranquil town is now in the throes of terror, with gang war and delinquency disrupting the lives of good folks. And now, this war has spilled over into the schools. To make things worse, a good-for-nothing called Slick has kidnapped your girlfriend. You know what this means – it’s time to pound some fools into the pavement and restore order to River City.
River City Ransom is truly one of the long-standing classics of the genre, and for good reason – it has an interesting combat style and offers character progression that feels meaningful. You can play as one of two characters – Ryan and Alex. They’re both basically the same, with slightly different skins. You have to kick, punch and use weapons that your enemies drop to fight your way through. However, this is where River City Ransom deviates from the norm – you can equip different items, read tomes and eat food items to grow stronger and gain new abilities. Different books allow you to punch or kick better, and some even allow you to unleash special moves like “Acro Circus Array” – a flying, spinning attack.
Even on the lowest difficulty settings, this is a pretty tough game. And the bosses take some serious work to beat. Playing the game in co-op makes it more fun because you can manage the battlefield more efficiently. If you’re a fan of the genre, check this out.
Honorable mentions – Splatterhouse 3, Turtles IV Turtles in Time, Captain Commando, Mighty Final Fight, BattleToads & Double Dragon.
So, what did you think of our retro gaming beat'em up list?
Did it make you want to go out and play some of these brawlers again? Did we miss out on mentioning your favorite beat-em-up? Let us know in the comments. What more info on the great but almost forgotten genre, the Retro Gaming Brawler?