The beat ’em ups of yesteryear recently made a return to form with the release of several prominent games. Also known as Brawlers, this 2D side-scrolling genre began in the ’80s. With or without platforming action, the characters could jump, punch, kick, throw, and use weapons against hordes of enemies. The genre became famous for 2-4 player co-op and fighting against powerful bosses.
Brawlers of the 80s and 90s made their presence known on Arcade machines. Titles such as Double Dragon II, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Final Fight were but a few major names of the era. When Capcom’s Final Fight was ported to the SNES with limitations, Sega went onto create their own title. Following their own Golden Axe and Altered Beast titles, Sega created one of the most prolific beat ’em ups on the Genesis: Streets of Rage.
Unfortunately, Beat ’em ups began to phase out of popularity in the late 90s which was during the rise of 3D gaming. With the exception of few titles, the genre became a sort of novelty and less of a norm. With the release of recent games, such as Streets of Rage 4, however, perhaps the gaming industry may see a new revival of the genre.
3D Beat ’em ups
While names like River City Ransom, Streets of Rage, and Double Dragon became synonymous with the genre, 2D beat ’em ups were not the only titles. The mid-2000s boasted several titles that featured similar gameplay. One example was Clover Studios’ God Hand. Despite being only one player, this cult classic became a favorite among those who played it.
Another was Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks. While reimagining the story of Mortal Kombat 1 and 2, this title featured 2-player co-op, juggling combos, and even Fatalities. Much like many titles featured here, Shaolin Monks never received a sequel or a re-release.
3D beat ’em ups began to take form in one particular series. Sega’s Yakuza series adapted the fighting style for its combat in the series. Additionally, using skill trees, Kiryu can unlock new abilities. Plus, Yakuza animated the fights and special moves with ass-kicking technique.
2D beat ’em ups in the post-2000s.
Viewtiful Joe lead the example of a 2D brawler during the big wave of 3D titles. This single-player adventure served as a platformer/brawler hybrid. Its stylish VFX moves, cel-shaded visuals, and overall charm won the hearts of many players. Viewtiful Joe would continue with several sequels and spin-offs before quietly disappearing from the gaming industry.
Meanwhile, developer Vanillaware created beat ’em up/JRPG hybrids such as Odin Sphere. Original a spiritual successor to their 90s beat ’em up, Princess Crown, the developers would later follow-up with Dragon’s Crown. The latter title not only featured multiple lanes but 4-player co-op as well. Vanillaware’s titles, which were published by Atlus, would be remastered on the PlayStation 4.
Sega re-released their Saturn classic, Guardian Heroes, on Xbox 360. The Xbox Live Arcade release featured updated visuals and gameplay. The controls came inspired by fighting games while the fantasy setting falls in line with similar titles such as Golden Axe. Guardian Heroes is still available to play for Xbox One owners.
Studio 5pb and MAGES’ Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds serves as one of the highlight beat ’em up titles released in the last decade. This anime-inspired game came from a spin-off of Japan’s fighting game, Phantom Breaker. The studio is also known for the visual novel, Steins;Gate, which was successfully adapted into an anime. As a result, Kurisu Makise is featured as a playable character.
Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds Overdrive is currently available for all major consoles and PC. It features 4-player co-op as well as online gameplay.
More recently, several companies would make attempts to revive the genre or add a throwback. WayForward revived the Double Dragon series with Double Dragon Neon. Several years later, Arc Systems Works, as well as Double Dragon series creator, Yoshihisa Kishimoto, would release Double Dragon IV. Despite attempting to revive a classic, the title would come out to unfortunately lukewarm reviews.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Perhaps the most pressing title that sparked interested in the genre once more was Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game. Based on the graphic novel and movie, Scott Pilgrim largely paid homage to River City Ransom. The title allowed players to enter shops, bash enemies with unconscious enemies, and level up their stats. The art style also took cues from the River City series.
In addition to making references to multiple popular games, it ended up being widely successful. Unfortunately, the title was pulled from digital markets.
However, more recently, series creator Bryan Lee O’Malley mentioned that Ubisoft, developers of the game, have contacted him likely in talks for a re-release of the title.
Gone But Not Forgotten
One of the saddest things about the genre is how developers incorporated licensed franchises into beat ’em ups. While Konami’s titles – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Simpsons, and X-Men were all re-released in the 2010s, the same could not be said for other classics of yesteryear. X-Men: Mutant Apocalypse remains unreleased since its debut on the SNES.
This beat ’em up/platformer hybrid allowed you to play as 5 different X-Men which all featured their trademark abilities. Similarly to Capcom’s Street Fighter II, each character utilized button input commands for their special attacks. Featuring over 15 different stages and boss fights, X-Men: Mutant Apocalypse was surprisingly well-polished for a title licensed from a comic book series.
Meanwhile, although one TMNT game made the re-release, the same could not be said for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project (NES) or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time (Arcade/SNES). Both titles succeeded and improved upon the arcade classic and were hallmark brawler titles for their respective systems.
While Turtles in Time Re-Shelled made an attempt to remake the original classic, it was only a half-baked attempt to do so. However, more recently, a new TMNT arcade game came out developed by Raw Thrills. The game may be found at your local Bowlero or Dave ‘n Busters.
Future of the Genre
With the recent releases River City Girls and Streets of Rage 4, developers attempt to bring back a genre many once thought died. Furthermore, the recently-released Battletoads brings hope that, once more, beat ’em ups will return.
While it feels pleasant to relive those days, players want developers to remain consistent with their works. Instead of just reliving the past for nostalgia, we want the developers to continue evolving on these brands. Players want to see Streets of Rage, Ninja Turtles, and Double Dragon become a thing once again.
It’s up to the developers to create quality titles, polish them, and market them to get more players to try their games. Old-school fans will always flock to these titles. But if they want to continue growing the fanbase, they’ll need to keep evolving. When you consider the quality of life improvements gaming has evolved with, along with the technology we have in games today, we might be starting off with the strongest era of beat ’em ups in history.
What was your favorite beat ’em up? Let us know in the comments below. Also, make sure to follow our social media channels to keep up with us and take our latest gaming content with you!