I Miss the 2d Brawler

I Miss the 2d Brawler

Imagine this. You’re at your favorite mall in 1993. You step into the arcade, it’s a little dark, it’s a little smelly, and the floor is covered in carpet that’s designed to look like space. You’ve just been handed your head (literally) a few times in Mortal Kombat and you and your buds walk past an arcade cabinet and you see this.

It’s time to put your differences aside and team up to defeat the Shredder. 4 of you get a stack of quarters from your folks and pump the machine full of them until you’ve all been defeated. You probably didn’t win against the dimension-warping Ninjas, but you had a great time. You laughed and screamed as you cut through endless waves of Foot Clan Soldiers and Bebops and Rocksteadys. You left, got some pizza, and tried to relive the afternoon on NES or SNES or Genesis. If you didn’t have TMNT there was: Final Fight, Streets of Rage, Captain Commando, or River City Ransom. At this point the Beat ‘Em Up feels like a relic from a forgotten age and while we’re seeing a slight resurgence now, they often feel like they’re slightly out of time. I’m very excited to play Streets of Rage 4 or the Ninja Warriors remake, but it’s tough to see a genre that OWNED the late 1980s and 1990s fade into obscurity. It also hurts that many of these games are tied up in licensing deals that may cause them to never see the light of day again. I spent a lot of time with this genre and I’d love to see it come back.

From the late 1980s into the late 1990s there was a genre of game that had a very important place in each and every arcade, The Brawler or Beat ‘Em Up as they’re also commonly known as. For those of you who may not be up on the lingo, the 2D Brawler is a genre in which your characters typically walks to the right beating the snot out of everything in their way. The stage continues to scroll with the player as they move and you can almost ALWAYS play with multiple players. You can jump and punch and kick and throw. Another key aspect is the ability to move both vertically and horizontally in order to ensure every punk on the street gets their beating. They were punishingly difficult in the arcade and were gratuitously violent, but to a point of silliness. Playing games like Final Fight and Double Dragon in a modern context feels like watching a movie like The Warriors, over-the-top, street fighting insanity that is mindless and fun to play. While other genres have continued to carry the torch for this style, there was something a little extra special about playing these games in a dark arcade with friends while hopped up on Dr. Pepper and chewing Bubble Tape.

They Were Always So Serious

I’d love to think what Japanese developers thought US cities like New York and LA were like in the 1980s. If Brawlers were any indication of what they thought, then boy were these cities rough. Beat ‘Em Ups almost always started on the streets of some modern dystopian city in the US. You and your partners were attacked by endless waves of street punks or ninjas or robots or all three. Typically you had the choice of a fast hero or a big heavy brawler. Other games like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles differentiated characters based on their weapon type. I always love how incredibly serious these games seemed to be, at least in delivery. Every street is covered in street punks, equipped with knives, bats, pipes, swords, or lit dynamite. I always wondered where they got their hands on sticks of TNT, I wonder if there was some kind of black market for that type of thing. The graffiti plastered walls painted a picture of the NYC that we all expected to find in the 1980s. Burning barrels lined the streets while you were attacked by all sorts of fiends.  While the intent was always serious, the delivery was fun and almost goofy. Even kneeing someone in the face in Double Dragon a bunch of times feels silly in a modern context.

As you pass through the streets of Metro City or NYC or LA the circumstances feel incredibly dire while awesome 80s metal and dance music thump the speakers of the CRT almost perfectly in time with each punch or kick. I love when games are over-the-top while not taking themselves seriously. The Beat ‘Em Up has always felt like it sat perfectly in that mood. Where else would you find an Ex Pro Wrestler-turned-Mayor, a Karate Master, and a dude in a tank top? In a brawler! Streets of Rage 3 gave you the option to play as a boxing Kangaroo…and I love it.

Licenses Were King!

If a developer wanted to turn a popular franchise into an arcade/video game, it most likely got a Beat ‘Em Up. While Konami’s Beat ‘Em Ups were king, Capcom, Data East, Technos, and Sega all produced some legendary brawlers that are still celebrated today.  Many of these games were tied to licenses, and while it’s heartbreaking that they’re difficult to bring back due to restrictive laws, it’s amazing that we got to play them back in the 1990s. While the most popular license belonged to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, beat ‘em ups were plentiful across everything from Superheroes to Cartoons. Konami ran the show with TMNT, X-Men, and Simpsons, but some arcades were stocked with Spider-Man from Sega and The Punisher and Alien vs. Predator from Capcom, or Captain America and the Avengers from Data East. Comicbook heroes fit the genre so well, because they do so much fighting. While The Simpsons does not seem that it would fit the style of the genre…the 1991 arcade classic stands out in many gamer’s minds.  I’m not knowledgeable of how these games were developed from a technical standpoint, but I gather it was relatively easy to alter the format to fit for another license. While The Simpsons, TMNT, and X-Men are all somewhat functionally different, these games had a similar feel. It was awesome to watch these shows or read the comics and then go to the arcade to play games that felt like you were playing the show. The games admittedly didn’t look as good as their animated counterparts, but we thought they did!

The use of licenses gave these games a familiarity and made them stand out. While I think Final Fight and Violent Storm are two of the best beat ‘em ups of all time, it’s easy to see how they could get overshadowed by Wolverine and the X-Men wrecking house on Magneto, especially in the 1990s. Interestingly enough, you could see how these licenses were the subject of some degree of battle. Konami got the X-Men and TMNT, Capcom Alien vs. Predator, and Sega had Spider-Man. Data East was stuck with the grossly unpopular Avengers, at the time. It’s easy to see how Konami would clean up in this genre. Even though Sega had Spider-Man (and I LOVE LOVE LOVE this game), it’s hard to sell a game with Spider-Man, Namor, Black Cat, and Hawkeye. I’ve read a LOT of comics…and this team up mostly likely never happened, but the roster must have been fairly cheap to license. Actually….Hawkeye was in Captain America and the Avengers as well, poor Clint, no one gives him any respect. While the genre itself scratches the retro or nostalgia itch the licenses also serve that purpose. Many of we late millennials learned how to play video games with beat ‘em ups, while we were learning about our favorite characters through comics and cartoons. I love original IPs, but I’m also a fan of when a license is handled well and these beat ‘em ups were a great exploration into these characters. They were fun!

They Translated Well To Home Consoles (Mostly)

The Brawler is a very pure genre in that it does fairly simple things and serves as a building block to future generations of games. One of my favorite aspects of these games was that it was easy to get a similar experience at home that you would get in an arcade. I still strongly argue that Turtles in Time on the SNES is actually a better, more robust game than its arcade counterpart. It has more stages, more enemies, and feels perfectly translated. You lose the ability to play with 4 players but fighting Slash in pre-history is pretty awesome. I’ve always preferred Double Dragon on NES to it’s arcade version as well, though I’m probably wrong on that one. Their simplicity allowed for the home experience to be quite similar and while some features were lost in translation, being able to play arcade games at home was a big deal. In the early 1990s companies like Capcom, Sega, and Konami focused on bringing their arcade games to home consoles. The Sega Genesis built itself on a very arcadey experience with fast, loud games that were punishingly difficult. It’s competitor, the SNES focused more on slower and more expansive experiences, but still offered some mostly arcade-accurate recreations like Turtles in Time and Final Fight (still upset you can’t play 2 player).   

Their simplicity in design and control allowed for their ports to hold up very well. That way you could spend $20 at the arcade then go home to play the same game on a $50 cartridge honing your skills until you could go back to the arcade to get a little bit further than your last run. Yes, High Score Girl (an amazing Anime you should watch..) gets that completely right. In addition, they’re easy to pick up and play and easy to understand. RPGs can get very bogged down with systems and platformers often require the player to control on multiple planes or deal with unresponsive cameras. The Beat ‘Em Up is an incredibly easy concept to grasp; walk to the right and punch things in the face. I miss that degree of simplicity sometimes, especially when I want to sit down and play something fairly mindless. Nowadays I turn to games like Diablo or Ultimate Alliance to satisfy that urge, but it’s not the same, GREAT but not the same. 

Streets of Rage was home console only, and those games are some of the most legendary brawlers in history. Natsume famously created an amazing Power Rangers beat ‘em up that only launched on consoles as well. I even preferred the Ninja Warriors SNES port from Natsume to the PC Engine or arcade title. Capcom and Konami developed some great home brawlers using licenses from Marvel and DC. The Adventures of Batman and Robin was a brilliant rendition of Batman: The Animated Series developed by Konami. Capcom would create X-Men: Mutant Apocalypse and War of the Gems using the Marvel stable of characters, further celebrating the brawler at home. These games work well on home consoles!

They Live Within the DNA of Modern Games

The Brawler has definitely evolved past its own simplicity and has become something more than it ever was. While series like Viewtiful Joe and Castle Crashers tried to call back to a forgotten era, the beat ‘em up has become part of the modern action game. The ideas and concepts from this genre are seen in everything from RPGs to Character Action games. We can see how games like Gauntlet and Dungeons and Dragons: Tower of Doom have inspired the likes of Diablo and Marvel Ultimate Alliance. Games where you fight waves of enemies and ultimately use your brawling skills to take down a boss. Beat ‘Em Ups are in the fabric of this genre and these top-down action RPGs owe more to the brawler than almost any other genre. They may be RPGs now, but they’ve got a lot of Final Fight in them. 

The popularity of the Character Action game has been front-and-center since Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden came on the scene in the early 2000s. They reinvented the action genre but are deeply influenced by their developers’ arcade histories. Capcom has created some of the greatest beat ‘em ups ever and it would only make sense that their experience with action games would lead to the creation of classics like Devil May Cry. DMC has often felt like it was one part Resident Evil and one part Knights of the Round. If you’re hacking and slashing in a game, there’s a good chance that it was inspired by some street brawling madness ten or fifteen years earlier. While many genres have found a second life, the brawler is struggling to fit in.

Many Genres Have Had a Resurgence, Why Not The Brawler?

Retro or classic gaming is popular. Not only is this due to the access we have to old games, but to new companies striving to create experiences that mirror what these classics did. We have received a glut of Metroid-likes and action platformers. Turn-based JRPGs have come back to life with games like Octopath Traveler. The arcade shooter, now known Shoot ‘Em Up or SHMUP, may be healthier now that it’s ever been. What about the brawler? This somewhat forgotten genre is in the need for a new life in the 20s. I wonder what has held back the beat ‘em up from being revived and I’m often puzzled. I believe it starts with scope, these games were never very large or long, they were designed to eat your quarters but ultimately had little depth. Games like TMNT ‘89 felt longer than it was because there’s a good chance you never made it past the second stage. While I think their simplicity is a strength, it could be a contributing factor to why it’s been left in the dust. 

Gaming has changed. In 1990 it was reasonable to ask $50 for a cartridge of Final Fight or Turtles in time, games that can both easily be completed within an hour or so. It would be immensely unfair if a game asked that much out of a consumer in 2019. If a game like this was to be created, I couldn’t expect it to sell for more than $19.99, which means that margins may not be great either. It may not be financially viable for a AAA company or an indie to put work into a game that may not generate what they need it to. It’s much easier for companies like Capcom or SNK to repackage their classic brawlers as downloads as seen in the Capcom Beat ‘Em Up Bundle from 2018. Many positive feelings about these games are also driven by nostalgia, so their overall quality may have waned a bit.

Without arcades, it’s hard to make these games stand out among the God of Wars and Breaths of the Wild of the world. Gaming experiences have gotten deep and unending. Characters are pushed to the max and gamers are calling for deep narrative and developed personalities. These games are hard-headed, face smashing, action titles that give little regard for narrative or character development. They’re light on the mind and heavy on the punches, it makes sense that they may not resonate like they used to. They’re also a relic of a forgotten age, the age of the arcade. It was intense to see a cabinet with 4 or 6 joysticks, now couch multiplayer has all but vanished as players have decided to play more games online than in person. It’s ok, just a sign of how they’ve moved on. 

The genre tried to make a comeback between 2008 and 2012, but ultimately we got a few great games and not much else. Castle Crashers and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (The Game) stand out as some of the best downloadable games of all time. Sadly, SP has been removed from the online marketplace (thank you licensing) leaving Castle Crashers to stand alone. They’re great games but they couldn’t reignite the brawler flame. It’s a shame that Double Dragon: Neon wasn’t good enough to carry the torch, but it fizzled pretty quickly. Natsume and Sega will be the next companies to give it a shot when they relaunch The Ninja Warriors and release Streets of Rage 4 in the near future. Rare is also creating a new Battletoads game, which could possibly help as well. 

This genre may be somewhat nonexistent these days, but it’s soul lives on. The action game will always be popular and series like Yakuza are paying homage to the beat ‘em up every day. To the point where games like Yakuza and Judgment are the modern answer to the classic brawler. Their lineage draws itself back to Golden Axe, Streets of Rage, Dynamite Deku, and Shenmue. The genre may no longer be around in its purest form, but it lives on as part of something bigger.

Luckily, thanks to digital storefronts, we have great access to many of the classics. The Capcom Beat ‘Em Up Collection is a great way to experience many of those classic Capcom brawlers. SNK games are also easy to come across on Steam and other digital services. Streets of Rage, Golden Axe, and Altered Beast are essentially everywhere. It may be sad that there are few 2D Beat ‘Em Ups around these days, but it’s cool to see how the genre has matured. Now I’m going to go play some Final Fight CD.

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