Which 2D Beat ’em Up Series Need to Return?

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.

Double Dragon II (1988)

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.

Streets of Rage 2 (1992)

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.

Yakuza 0 (2017)

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.

Double Dragon Neon (2012)

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.

The counterpart to Turtles in Time was released on Sega Genesis. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Hyperstone Heist (1992)

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.

Capcom keeps the spirit of Final Fight alive through Street Fighter V: Champion Edition (2020).

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!

Review Plus: River City Girls.

Welcome to our first edition of Review Plus!

You will find our review shortly after the introduction. In addition to our review of the game, you will find useful tidbits of information covering River City Girls. Plus, this review will address the beat ’em up genre and the direction it’s moving in.

River City Girls is a 2D beat ’em up developed by WayForward. Known for the Shantae series, WayForward adapted the River City Ransom (NES) title which is known as the Kunio-Kun series in Japan. Featuring animated cutscenes by Studio Trigger, River City Girls features classic 2D pixel artwork along with anime transitions for the opening, boss fights, and endings. In addition, you will find part of the story told through manga-like cutscenes.

Despite its good intentions, I believe River City Girls falls short of its potential. While it features incredibly strong brawler action, a few issues hamper an otherwise decent revival of the 2D beat ’em up genre. However, the classic style gameplay remains both the focal point and the game’s strongest suit.

Story

The game starts off with Misako and Kyoko receiving a mysterious text that their boyfriends have been kidnapped. Contrary to the stories of games, like Double Dragon, the premise of the story reverses the role.

Perhaps the most pressing part of the story comes from the game’s ending. It turns the entire plot on its head in a surprising way and emphasizes the girls’ true role. I give major props to WayForward for this one.

Misako and Kyoko play foil to each other throughout the game. These single-track-minded women just want an excuse to throwdown. Despite their idiocy, you can’t help but feel charmed by their tenacity.

Unfortunately, I did not find much of the story and dialogue to be amazing. Aside from a little bit of witty banter, I found it to be cringeworthy. While much of the boss dialogue feels like wasted banter, one particular character, Godai, seriously bothered me.

Your resident creeper-stalker feeds you information while trying to get into your good graces. Even without Godai, much of the dialogue in cutscenes felt like forced humor. I honestly wanted to skip most of it but didn’t want to leave out any possible useful information.

For better or for worse, River City Girls maintains a cast of wacky characters.

Visuals

One of the high points of River City Girls comes from the artwork. The character designs and backdrops feature well-drawn details. I’m especially particular about the shop designs. Several shops have their own art of the girls shopping while a different shopkeeper takes their order.

River City Girls features 2D sprite artwork somewhat reminiscent of the 16-bit era. However, I’ve seen this style before used in multiple indie games which it honestly feels more like than a mainstream title. While WayForward tends to use a more cartoonish art style for their flagship series, Shantae, this reminds me more of games like Katana Zero.

Katana Zero (2019)

What I strongly dislike, however, is how small the text is on the menu. The menu is displayed on the character’s smartphone. However, I had to come up to my 52″ HDTV just to check inputs or side-quests that I could not read from my usual sitting position.

Unfortunately, I also ran into multiple frame-drops throughout the game. They didn’t prevail literally the entire game but were noticeable when they did. Even after a year’s release, I’m surprised WayForward still has not patched them out.

Audio

You’ll feel a solid amount of satisfaction breaking your fists on enemies and crashing weapons over their heads. However, I found some sound effects lacking. I don’t get why an enemy slamming a hammer on concrete produces no sound. On the other hand, bashing enemies feels satisfying as you might expect and keeps you wanting more.

Despite middling feelings on the sound effects, most of my enjoyment came from the music. Much of it was catchy and, along with a number of sound effects, featured 8-bit cues you would hear in the NES River City Ransom. Several of the vocal sounds featured some catchy beats you would enjoy while fighting.

Gameplay

This game presents its beat ’em up gameplay in a manner that says the genre never even left. It feels so seamless to beat down enemies with combos, throws, stomps, and weapon attacks. Despite this, however, the game will not count your combos.

One of my favorite parts of gameplay was the ability to recruit enemies to join you. If they surrendered, you could grab them and enlist them as summons. Similarly to Marvel vs. Capcom, they would hop in, use their signature attack, pose, and hop out. You would not be able to use them for a set time.

My problem came from the inconsistency of combos, however. This isn’t Tekken, but you will maximize your damage by juggling your enemies. Unfortunately, your timing must change based on enemy types. This threw me off multiple times.

Gameplay Issues

Another problem I had came from how invincibility frames work. Congratulations to the developer for not giving the characters invincibility frames while using throw moves. It makes them useless when you’re getting pounded in the back of the head. From my experience with other games in the genre, this is a big no-no.

Also, I had a moderate issue with the equips. The Frilled Bra and Frilly Bottom might be the only useful accessories I used. Everything else gives around a 5% increase or a 5% chance to activate. These passives were so useless that you could easily get through the game without using them. I wouldn’t bother buying them and would save your money for the Dojo or healing items instead.

Unlike other beat ’em ups, this also features an RPG system where you equip gear, level up, and can use items to heal. For anyone who remembers Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game, this is where these elements came from. The Scott Pilgrim game paid massive homage to River City Ransom and used many of the mechanics as well.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game (2010)

Let me also mention this game is full of load times transitioning between each screen. If it was another large area, I could understand that. But I feel they put no effort into good transitioning for a 2D game released in 2019. This will likely annoy you especially if you’re making trips back to shops to pick up items or new moves.

Co-op

This game is best experienced with a friend. However, not everyone is big into beat ’em ups. If you’re flying solo, you might have a harder time with it than others. Unfortunately, if you’re looking for others to play with, this game does not feature online co-op.

However, for a 2019 brawler, this feels woefully outdated. Multiple games of its genre, released in the last decade, feature online co-op. Even the recently released Streets of Rage 4 features online co-op. I do not understand why WayForward opted not to release a feature such a basic option in a multiplayer game released today.

Extras

This game encourages a level of exploration. Unlike the stage-by-stage games prevalent within the genre, the River City titles have you moving through destinations in multiple directions. You can also find statues of Sabu and destroy them. Completing the quest of destruction unlocks the true hidden final boss fight.

Additionally, you can unlock New Game Plus. Doing so not only lets you carry over your gear from the first playthrough but you can also unlock two characters. Riki and Kunio, the main characters of River City Ransom, become available.

However, this will otherwise not change much regarding the game itself. The only other incentive is a cat side-quest that unlocks infinite SP. Keep in mind, however, that Riki and Kunio are only a glorified palette swap. Nothing about the story changes as the sequences are still voiced by the girls.

The Future of the Genre

River City Girls was the first game in which I recall to pave the way forward for brawlers in the current generation. Previously, WayForward released Double Dragon Neon for PS3 and Xbox 360. Plus, Double Dragon IV came out to a lukewarm response. WayForward’s advertisement at least shined a light on a bright and colorful attempt to bring attention to the new game.

One year after its release, we now have Streets of Rage 4. Sega’s shining star beat ’em up series came back after a 25-year hiatus. Furthermore, even Raw Thrills released an arcade-exclusive TMNT title that pays homage to Konami’s titles of the past.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2018)

2D beat ’em ups feel largely obscured by their 3D evolution. Modern games include Platinum Games’ Astral Chain or Sega’s Yakuza series. It’s hard to find the interest generated in beat ’em ups in an era without the 90s interest of arcade games. However, the demand for the genre remains real and strong enough for developers to take notice. The genre is not dead and, with this momentum, might become a mainstay for the decade once more.

Also, the creator of Scott Pilgrim noted that Ubisoft, developers of the game, reached out to him.

Final Thoughts

Overall, River City Girls excels in combat despite several flaws hampering both gameplay and story alike. I found it hard to put down as I was pummeling enemies, bosses, and even cars. It even served a heavy enough challenge for me to retry bosses several times over.

However, its addition of annoying dialogue, incredibly short length for a game released in 2019, and a few bothersome issues to gameplay made me want to end the game once I was over halfway through.

While it was cool back in Double Dragon to have enemies that looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 80s. No, it is not funny today to have these same enemies that make “Ahnold” noises with Terminator references.

WayForward’s cheap humor stems from the Shantae series which is hit-or-miss. They could do without forcing comedy and that alone would boost the grade. If you want a better, cute beat ’em up based on anime aesthetics, you could always go with Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds.

Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds (2013)

However, if you’re after a beat ’em up and you don’t mind the cheesy dialogue and voice acting, then go right for it. Even then, it features undeniable charm from the character designs. It’s at least 8 hours of fun enemy-bashing and button-mashing.

To summarize, I recommend it for enthusiasts of the genre or those seeking to play some couch co-op action with a friend or a loved one. You’ll enjoy the music, the cutscenes, and the retro homages. It’s easy to pick up and play. However, I don’t think it qualifies as being a game for everyone.

In this era, there are scarcely any releases you will find in the genre besides re-releases of classics. If you passed up River City Girls, you wouldn’t miss much more than some solid aesthetics for an otherwise alright game in the genre. Depending on the systems you own, you could download classics like Double Dragon II, Streets of Rage 2, or even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time. If you want a modern release still available on current systems, Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds would surely endear you.

However, if you like beat ’em up action, then these issues might not stop you from trying a decent brawler. I recommend it to enthusiasts of the genre but I wouldn’t expect it to be anything impressive outside of the aesthetics and your standard brawler fanfare. Despite this, it should still entertain you for a few hours. While it’s not a bad game, it could truly be better.

Score: 6.5/10

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