Death and Rebirth of the Beat 'Em Up Genre
Trevor | May 5, 2017
In a previous segment, we visited Beat 'Em Ups at their highest and most profitable point. This time, we're looking at how technological shifts took their toll on the genre, outright killed it, and then remade it into something new.
If you've somehow stumbled onto Part 2 first, this link will take you to Part 1 on our History of the Beat 'Em Up Genre.
As games entered the 3D space, designers began to encounter a problem.
We're talking depth as in actual simulated depth now, not the kind Renegade and its spiritual successors attempted to mimic with a large background layer character assets walked up and down on. Now games had proper vertical and horizontal space to work with, and it posed a huge problem for the Beat 'Em Up Genre.
When the player only had to pay attention to two sides of the screen, it was easy to dole out enemies in small proportions and still know as a designer the Player would immediately be aware of all threats on screen. And, since a Player’s Fist, Pipe, Dragon Claw or what have you could hit everything in a given space directly in front of a character model, you could trust the player had the tools to deal with the crowd.
With the addition of a true Z-and-Y axis came a taxing problem; how do you give the player the tools to fight in a fully 3D space while still ensuring they will be aware of all threats on the screen, and, more importantly, know they have tools to fight effectively without taking hits from blind angles?
Arin Hanson from Game Grumps addressed this issue brilliantly in his Sequelitis video on Ocarina of Time. On the issue of jumping from 2D to 3D, he says:
"The More specific you have to get about situations analogous to reality, the more you have to stipulate on."
In order to better illustrate this problem, let’s take a look at an example of how not to handle combat in a 3D space.
Castlevania 64 came out in January of 1999 to strangely favorable reviews, leaving me to wonder if critics played the same game 14-year-old me did.
The issue with Castlevania 64 isn’t that it isn’t faithful to the original -- in some ways, it’s too faithful. In the original Castlevania, the player only needed to address threats in a 2D plane. In a space with no proper Z or Y axis, designers get to play fast and loose with how a whip in a hallway operates. Here, a whip cuts across all 36 inches of average hallway width at once. It’s a trans-dimensional cleaving whip.
Here in a 3D space though, the whip behaves like an actual whip. It only hits the tiny space a whip would actually hit when flung forward in a straight line, making it horribly inefficient to deal with multiple foes.
If this is still a tricky problem to visualize, consider these crudely doodled-on screenshots.
Look at this bloodthirsty Castlevania whip! It whomps three ghouls at once with no remorse, all because in this particular Belmont's universe, everyone stands directly in front of each other at all times.
Now here’s figure two, where I've tried my best to capture a shot of Reinhardt mid-swing.
In Castlevania 1, Reinhardt would hit everything 180 degrees ahead of his character model within the red circle. Now that we've moved to 3D though, look at how much space within the circle his whip takes up. It hits maybe 2 degrees of your 360 degree space!
Look at that flimsy whip! You may as well be trying to throw a grape into someone’s mouth while on the open ocean.
In a Typhoon.
And they’re passing by in a speedboat.
Now imagine three skeletons, a dude on a motorcycle, and a Frankenstein Monster with a chainsaw are all within that circle, and you need all of them dead right goddamn now.
Castlevania 64 had a lock-on mechanic that -- ideally -- would've solved this problem, but it also had sloppy camera controls that made it challenging to keep anything on screen. The player had three options, "Battle Mode, Action View, and Normal Mode," and all of them were terrible in their own special ways.
This issue is probably why the second playable character, Carrie, doesn’t have a melee weapon at all. Instead she throws out a homing orb, which deals with enemies one at a time by aggressively glowing at them until they fall apart. Doesn’t solve your mobbed-to-death problem, but it’s still more reliable than a whip and requires no precise aiming on your part.
If you scan videos for Castlevania 64 online, you’ll notice many speedrunners or Lets Player's stick to Carrie almost exclusively, and I’ve no doubt this is because Reinhardt’s poor precision and short range make him an inferior choice. YouTuber Cruelest Chris opens his video by telling Reinhardt to piss off, and then says "Carrie is the one who's good."
We'll return to the concept of locking on soon and how -- when it was done well -- it changed 3D combat forever. Before we reach that revolutionary step, however, we'll take a look at other approaches to 3D combat in this new frontier.
For an earlier example of how developers dealt with the change to 3D, here’s a 1996 release called Dynamite Deka. You may also recognize it as Die Hard: Arcade, since it was hilariously re-titled as such in the States to take advantage of name recognition with the hit film.
In Die Hard: Arcade, players only encounter a few enemies at once. The camera always remains at static angles, ensuring players are always aware of every opponent on the screen. When it's time for the players to advance to the next area, they never walk from room to room themselves, thus ensuring they won’t be surprised from around a corner.
Instead, a cutscene transition plays which shows your characters running to the next zone. To make these scenes exciting, the player gets a Quick Time Event. Pressing Punch, Kick, or Jump when prompted makes the next room slightly easier, or saves you from taking damage.
Another aside -- To my knowledge, this is the earliest implementation of Quick Time Events in their most recognizable form. Resident Evil 4 would go on to popularize them further, making it a mainstay in every game to come for the next decade and beyond.
Anyway, back to Die Hard: Arcade. What it gets right is fairness. The player is never put in a position to be overwhelmed or surprised from something off screen. Your kicks and punches are capable of hitting multiple foes at once. Multiple blows will even knock a foe into the air, rendering them helpless for a time and eliminating any threat to the players. If the players are put in a situation with multiple tough enemies at once, there’s often items nearby to make it easier, like a Gun, Grenade, Fire Axe, Pipe, or Rocket Launcher.
However, Die Hard: Arcade also failed to capitalize on the new technology filling out its bones. It preserves the Beat Em’ Up philosophy, making punches and kicks feel great, shoving random objects on the screen the player picks up and uses to thrash dudes, enemies appearing in small quantities, major Michael Bay visual set-pieces -- but it does all this without building upon it. Everything happening in Die Hard: Arcade is identical to Beat ‘Em Ups like Streets of Rage or Double Dragon.
With the exception of the spectacle of a 3D space, a Z-axis has added little to the experience overall. By no means does this make it a bad game -- on the contrary, it remains one of my favorites in the genre -- but it didn't break any molds.
For a game that illustrates a less successful attempt at combat in a 3D space, here's Vu Game's Xena: Warrior Princess.
I don’t have much to say about this title, but I include it here for two reasons. One, yes, you can throw her Chakra and it's great. A lot more fun than attacking with her sword or kicks. Once you throw the Chakra, you control its flight path entirely.
Two, I think Xena here perfectly demonstrates early struggles designing 3D combat. The camera is pulled close to the player model, making it easy to get blindsided by enemies. Xena's sword swipes and kicks all sweep in huge arcs, because -- well, remember the whip? Any forward-motion thrusts or kicks hit such a small space they're nearly impossible for the player to land effectively, so Vu Games adopted a different tactic entirely and just had Xena always attack in wide arcs.
Here’s Ninja: Shadow of Darkness by Core Design, the now defunct studio known for creating Tomb Raider. Ninja preserves a lot of the core design ideas from Beat ‘Em Ups, and like Xena, solves the depth problem by designing sword slashes to always sweep in a wide arc in front of the player. You've also got access to all sorts of throwing items, but you'll notice from the picture below our Ninja here always throws three at once. That's because aiming tiny throwing Kunai in 3D space with zero aim assistance wouldn't serve to do much other than annoy the player and litter the ground with knives. By adding two more Kunai to the sides of each throw, the player hits a much wider space, and they're allowed to be lazier with their precision.
And finally, here’s Rising Zan by Agetec, one of the strangest action games out there. It’s something of a cult classic these days.
Rising Zan included a lock-on function, a mix of Gun and Sword combat, special moves, mini-games, and Zan even had his own damn rock n’ roll theme song. A ranking system evaluates the player’s skill at the end of each level, with the ranking “Super Ultra Sexy Hero” being the highest possible result.
If you can't tell yet, Rising Zan did not take itself very seriously.
Rising Zan does not execute all these ideas well. The game moves at a breakneck speed, the special moves are clunky to execute, and the mini-games don't communicate what's expected of the Player with much clarity. But, despite its rough edges, Rising Zan was on the pulse of the next big thing. We’ll see all these ideas again as we approach the end.
The main purpose of all these examples is to illustrate how challenging it was to be designing games on the cutting edge, especially in the Beat 'Em Up Genre. New ideas on how to help the player aim in a 3D space became the main focus of every new title, but few seemed to have anything substantial.
When Ocarina of Time came out in November of 1999, it changed 3D combat forever.
In order to combat the issue of, uh... combat in a 3D space, Orcarina of Time introduced a technique known as Z-Targeting. By holding the Z button down, which was located on the back of the Nintendo 64 Controller, Link focused his attention on a single target, and all his attacks would naturally travel in said target's direction.
Z-Targeting focused the players attention on one enemy at a time now, which made it much easier to land hits reliably in a 3D space. It didn’t take long for other designers to see the value in a targeting button and follow suit.
However, as other designers began to adopt this tech in their own software, the dynamic of combat in a Beat ‘Em Up fundamentally changed as a result. Instead of managing entire crowds, the player now singles out only one enemy at a time. It creates a new one-on-one dynamic where none used to exist before. Players were once tested on their ability to manage a crowd, but now they're tested on their ability to single out and eliminate individual threats quickly before becoming overwhelmed.
Beat Em’ Ups that employed this strategy found themselves solving one problem at the cost of another. With the player’s focus squared in on single enemies, it became easy for a player to be unexpectedly blindsided, as their primary tool for aiming attacks also requires taking their attention off other threats.
And so, post-Z-Targeting Beat ‘Em Ups splintered into two camps. While many adopted this new concept, others opted for a stereotypical New Yorker strategy -- forghedaboudit. Here’s Gekido, an under-appreciated Playstation Beat ‘Em Up that didn't bother with targeting and utilized its new tech in other ways.
As you can see, the game uses 3D models, but the framing and perspective look identical to early 90’s Beat ‘Em Ups. Gekido used new technology to offer more choices in attacks to the player, leaving the concept of truly 3D stages to the wayside. Characters level up and learn new moves, and they have special attacks and techniques which were designed to deal with groups, like so.
It may not be utilizing the 3D space to its fullest extent, but it at least found new ways to flex it’s technologically superior muscles.
Cool as Gekido might seem, it says a lot that by 2000 the hippest Beat 'Em Up on the scene had already regressed to older design ideas.
As tech progressed into the new millenium, Beat 'Em Ups splintered further in their conceptual approach to 3D. With each title, it became harder to lock down what exactly defined a Beat 'Em Up. The entire genre seemed to be evolving, but like proper Evolution, it was messy, mutations weren't always beneficial, and there were many casualties in the name of progress.
Fighting Force, a PS1 game from 1997, seemed like the last real attempt to create a 3D Beat 'Em Up. Much like Xena, It attempted to solve the issue of 3D space with large sweeping motions. It also adopted the Die Hard: Arcade method of static environments and wide camera views, keeping enemies visible on the screen whenever possible. The player does walk from room to room here, but most stages involve killing swathes of dudes in one area, then pacing across a parking lot until the next swathe shows up.
A couple “kill-dozens-of-guys” sequences, as our other editor might call it.
In many ways, I look at Fighting Force as the last gasp of the traditional Beat ‘Em Up. The game began production as a sequel to Streets of Rage, the popular Genesis series, but due to licensing conflicts took on a new name and face. Beat ‘Em Ups would continue to come out after Fighting Force, but none of them would preserve the original spirit of the genre in a 3D space. Fighting Force did everything it could to remain faithful to its pedigree. It included weaponry on the ground, tires to throw, food pickups for health that just drop on the floor -- but even with releases on multiple platforms, the franchise couldn’t find a leg to stand on, critically or financially.
Even its sequel, Fighting Force 2, got away from the Beat ‘Em Up spirit, putting more emphasis on stealth instead. It also dropped the Multiplayer angle and became a more traditional single player action-adventure game.
It’s here in the late 90’s where the Beat ‘Em Up genre in its most recognizable form would end. The advent of Z-Targeting and a third dimension changed combat in gaming forever, and the jump to 3D proved to be disastrous for the genre.
In its original form, that is. The Beat ‘Em Up, the nebulous term that describes all the properties I’ve mentioned above, died at the turn of the century. That style of game, with one-or-two button attacks, edible turkeys on the ground, and steel pipes lining every street corner, now exists only as fan-made indie platformers, made by people who were inspired by the genre to become designers themselves. They exist in the online storefronts of our world as fifteen-to-five-dollar budget titles. Some of them are made extraordinarly well, perhaps better than any of the genre to come before it, but the medium through which they're experienced -- and the average size of the audience -- has diminished significantly.
Before we move on, it's worth highlighting a few 2D and 3D Beat 'Em Ups that appeared in the 2000's and beyond.
I'd be remiss (and likely mocked) if I did not mention Tom Fulp, the founder of a studio known as The Behemoth. Fulp first rose to popularity with a viscerally fun and brutal title known as Alien Hominid, which was first released on Newgrounds in 2002 as a free game anyone with a working internet connection and Flash plugin could play. Over the next two years, Fulp and his small team would recreate this Flash prototype into a larger product and release a version into the console market.
While not a Beat 'Em Up itself (the game had more in common with a "run-and-gun" arcade title like Metal Slug rather than Beat 'Em Ups like Final Fight), the studio would go on to make Castle Crashers, which is arguably the most successful traditional Beat 'Em Up to come out since the 90's.
While independent developers still continue to make quality games within the genre, most major studios dared not touch it. The last example of a 2D Beat 'Em Up developed by a major studio I'm aware of is a fantastic adaptation of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, developed by Ubisoft Montreal in 2010.
Seriously though, the soundtrack to this game is unreal. Here's the song that plays during the first Boss Fight pictured above.
Unfortunately, due to the strange turns and twists in the world of licensing agreements -- and the fact Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World now exists across multiple production companies -- this game has proven difficult to re-release. Brian Lee O'Malley himself has responded to many fans on twitter about the difficulties of lining up all the Powers-That-Be required to make a new release possible.
Wayforward rebooted the famous Double Dragon franchise in 2012 with Double Dragon Neon, another game with an incredible soundtrack. Anyone who plays Neon expecting a traditional Double Dragon experience, however, will quickly walk away disappointed. The game is more an homage to the entire era of the 80's, referencing old Saturday Morning Cartoons and movies at every turn. It just happens to use the adventures of the Lee Brothers as a framing device.
As for 3D Beat 'Em Ups, there is one specific game I must mention, and one other genre worth addressing before we move on.
Released in 2005 and based on a cult classic film of the same name (Which was in turn based on a 1965 Novel of the same name), The Warriors starts before the events of the film. In many ways, it's the perfect film property to translate into a Beat 'Em Up -- the whole thing is about gangs throwing down in the street, after all, and sure enough the game maintains all the same features we've seen so far. The streets are awash with impliments of destruction, gritty violence, and other gangs lookin' to make you bleed.
There's still one other "mutation" from the era that has remained popular into the current era, and that's Koei Tecmo's "Warriors" series. The original Dynasty Warriors was a relatively passable fighting game -- not unlike Street Fighter, but with the main cast replaced with famous Chinese Generals from the Warring States period.
When Dynasty Warriors 2 came out on PS2, the series adopted a different approach entirely. Instead of the Generals only battling each other, what if the player got to fight the entire war themselves?
What follows is a series of games where you kill many, many dudes across the same two hundred year period of China's history. Plenty of design elements from Beat 'Em Ups are present in the series, including pick-ups on the battlefield and the player's crowd management skills being put to the test. This series takes the "wide arcing attack" approach we saw in early games and takes it to dizzying, absurd heights.
Nowadays, this series has eeked into other franchises entirely. There's Samurai Warriors, Hyrule Warriors, and soon there'll be Fire Emblem Warriors. It won't be long until every franchise gets its own "Warriors" title.
With the exception of Koei-Tecmo and their population culling simulators, If we turn our eyes to what other major studios have released since then, it might seem like the Beat 'Em Up is dead and gone. Independent developers keep the Pyre lit from time to time with the release of a well-crafted homage, but major studios seem to avoid the genre like the plague.
However, if we turn our thinking around, as a famous Video Game Lawyer is known to say, I believe there's evidence even major developers didn't forget about their Beat 'Em Up roots entirely. Keeping with our evolution analogy, there was another mutation around the year 2000.
What became of that was a new genre of its own.
In 1999, Capcom began work on Resident Evil 4. Still in its conceptual stages as a Playstation 2 game, the staff fumbled around with a brand new set of levers and dials, trying to create something unique and original on the new technology they were afforded.
By 2000, the staff at Capcom noticed the game was becoming more and more unlike a traditional Resident Evil game. Resident Evil was a series designed around the concept of fear, a genre known as “survival horror.” The pacing was supposed to be slow, deliberate, and methodical. While the staff tried to maintain darker, gothic settings (the creative team even went as far as to do a tour of the UK and Spain, photographing gothic statues just to get the brick-work right) they’d created gameplay that felt too fast and frantic for the horror genre, and it clashed with the setting and tone. The player character was a powerful beast, capable of mowing down enemies with stylish moves. While fun to play, it didn't exactly leave a player feeling frightened of their surroundings.
The Director, Hideki Kamiya, stood by his decisions on the gameplay, content with the way it had become a cool and stylized action game.
After several failed attempts to merge this stylized action with the darker tone of Resident Evil, Producer Shinji Mikami convinced the staff to spin the whole thing off into an independent project, with new characters, a new story, and a new title.
In 2001, the game launched as Devil May Cry. Leon was replaced with a snarky, brash half-human, half-demon named Dante. As Dante, players travelled to Mallet island only to find the place crawling with demons.
Then, for the next eight hours, you kill all of those demons.
Remember Rising Zan? There’s some curious similarities to Devil May Cry, such as...
- A mixture of Sword and Gun combat.
- Ranking the player on their performance.
- Combat in fully 3D environments with a lock-on mechanic.
- A confident protagonist, with just a dash of asshole.
Xena, Ninja, Rising Zan, and many other games populating the Playstation and Nintendo 64 tried to mix ranged combat with close quarters strikes. They aren’t necessarily bad games (except maybe Xena), but they suffer from being made at a time when 3D combat was in an experimental stage. In most of these games, the player dispatches enemies in a few quick blows, and spends the rest of their time exploring the environment.
What set Devil May Cry apart from these early attempts at 3D action combat was execution. Forget jumping on blocks or solving puzzles -- combat is the only focus.
Just like Renegade in 1986, Devil May Cry inspired many developers to try their hand at capturing its frantic combo-heavy style. In the early to mid 2000’s, these games were often called “action games” or “adventure games,” but doing so wasn’t entirely accurate. They had a unique approach to combat that was unlike most other games on the market, and demanded more skill from the player to navigate the enviornment and dispatch foes.
Some, like 2005’s God of War, were massive hits of their own. God of War became a franchise even larger than Devil May Cry itself, spawning multiple console and PSP releases.
Others, like 2007’s X-Blades, were maybe not so successful.
From the cult classic angle, there’s 2008’s No More Heroes, a Wii release where the player used sweeping motions to render enemies into a blood-spraying mess.
Today, these games are often referred to as the “Character Action" genre, or Character Action Games. The entire genre is defined by similar ideas and rules to the Beat 'em Up genre that came before it. All the games we've discussed above feature some common threads we've seen before. Enemies have large health pools and require multiple hits to eliminate. The player is often placed in a room with multiple foes and may only advance once they’ve all been dispatched. The player is tested on their ability to manage a crowd of threats.
All of this sounds pretty familiar, right?
There’s even some mechanical oddities from the Beat ‘Em Up that have worked their way into this new genre.
One of my favorite examples -- passive aggressive combatants.
See, it wouldn’t be good game design to have every enemy on the screen punch the player at once. You could do it, but it wouldn’t be much fun for the player, and if they fail to dispatch enemies quickly, they’ll end up in an impossible situation where they get punched, infinitely and forever, until the quarters run out. You can see this problem crop up in some OpenBOR titles.
In order to solve this dilemma in old Beat 'Em Ups, enemies often shuffled back and forth a few times before attacking, or stand around behind your back without doing anything, contemplating existence between punches. That way, the player has time to respond to a new threat before being hit.
In Character Action Games, you can see this design philosophy carried forward. In Devil May Cry, enemies make an effort to walk into camera view before taking any actions, even if the attack is a long distance lunge. Many yell or reel back before the attack too, telegraphing their next action to an absurd degree.
This is all done in an effort to make the game fair for the player, but it creates this strange cognitive dissonance. All these enemies want the player dead, but they're all procrastinators too. So they won't kill that Dante guy like, you know, right now. But soon.
Today, Devil May Cry is its own franchise, with four main games and a 2013 reboot by Ninja Theory. Hideki Kamiya is now the Director of Platinum Games, a studio known for creating even more of these frantic, fast-paced, combo heavy games. They’ve produced fan favorites like Bayonetta, Wonderful 101, Vanquished, and have even worked on licensed products like Transformers: Devastation and Legend of Korra.
Our entire journey, from Time Traveling Turtles to Quippy Smart-Ass Half-Demons, has been in service of this. No creative work is truly born from nothing. Art and creation are human endeavours that all build upon one other. In the act of creating something new, we pull from the things that came before us, the things that inspired us to create in the first place.
Hideki Kamiya has often spoken in interviews about how one of his favorite things during the arcade days is how a crowd would form when someone performed extraordinarly well on a single quarter. If you look at all the games he's created from Devil May Cry onward, you'll notice every game judges you like a crowd is watching. You're awarded a score, a medal, a badge -- something to acknowledge your efforts, and encourage the player to master the game beyond survival alone.
The Beat 'Em Up never truly died. The shell of it did, perhaps -- the Battletoads and Lee Brothers are no longer be with us -- but the ideas nestled within were stripped out and carried forward by a new generation of designers. The Beat 'Em Up may no longer be the most viable venture, but with recent titles like Furi and Nier: Automata, the Character Action Genre has never been better.
Through these designers, the spirit of something key to the shared history of games lives on, and now it's being passed on to us. I don't know what the ideas of today will inspire in next decade's designers, but I'm optimistic even as many of these games get lost to time, Players will still have a desire to learn what came before. What laid the foundation for the things we love today.
And in that way, this Genre That Is No More will never truly be lost.