The Life, Death, and Rebirth of the Beat 'Em Up Genre
Trevor | April 8, 2017
From the mid-eighties to the late-ninties, a single genre of Arcade game ate more quarters than any DDR or Metal Slug machine. Which genre, you might ask? That depends -- Are you a bad enough dude to read an entire article about the history of Beat 'Em Ups?
In the early days of game design, programmers fumbled around figuring out which gears and levers they had to turn to create the human sensation known as “fun”. In this process, developers stumbled across an entire genre that, for an era of gaming history, conquered all.
The Beat ‘Em Up.
Unlike other genres -- The First Person Shooter, The Role Playing Game, The Platformer -- The Beat ‘em Up didn’t thrive beyond its age of conception. Most other genres expanded and grew as the years went on, evolving with the times, but the Beat ‘Em Up, much like the discography of Stan Bush, remains trapped in a single decade.
A recent trip down memory lane prompted me to investigate what happened to the Beat ‘Em Up, why they vanished from the industry, and what became of this genre in the end as it trickled out.
I’m now back to report on this history no one asked for.
In the wake of Super Mario Bros. in 1983 came a zillion, trillion platforming clones trying to capitalize on its popularity. Suddenly pixel dudes and dudettes everywhere were running right and bouncin' off heads.
As designers experimented with this formula, they found new ways to interact with enemies beyond mere head-hoppage. On consoles, this started with simple attacks, like Castlevania’s whipping action. Certain games expanded on the idea, but combat rarely evolved beyond single swipes from whatever weapon you happened to be programmed to attack with.
In the Arcade circuit however, whacking things until they died was already taking on a different form, and it would soon alter the home console scene as well.
The Early Days
This is Renegade, a 1986 arcade game.
Depending on your age (and/or your general interest in this genre of gaming) this is likely the first time you've seen it, and yet, this game is considered the start of the entire Beat ‘Em Up genre.
What defines a Beat 'Em Up exactly, you might ask? These qualities tend to stand out across the genre, and most were established here in Renegade:
- Enemies take multiple hits to kill.
- The player can sometimes moves in four directions with the inclusion of a pseudo X-axis.
- Available actions typically include punching, jumping, and kicking.
- Linear progression from stage to stage.
- Objects littering the ground act as powerups for the player.
Despite only marginal popularity at the time of release, Renegade would go on to influence the entire industry.
The reason Renegade goes mostly unknown today is because Technos’s 1987 follow up, Double Dragon, lit the arcade world on fire. Double Dragon’s outrageous success went a long way to burying Renegade so deep in the dirt of arcade history it's stuck in bedrock. Many today consider Double Dragon to be the origin of the whole genre, so I’ve excavated Renegade from under its bigger, more impressive brother so it can finally be given a proper spotlight.
- (Ed. -- Alan, you now know what game to blame for popularizing the genre you so detest.)
Technos would go on to make River City Ransom for the NES, bringing their particular brand of thwacking and smacking to home consoles. A strange discovery I came across; Technos' considers this game an “in-universe” sequel to Renegade, along with their other NES title Super Dodge Ball.
So the world where two dudes pummel every gang in town to death with their bare fists is the same one where high school students are trained to throw dodgeballs so hard they kill rival high schoolers.
This universe is brutal.
With this series of games, Technnos would go on to change how games were made across every market during this predominantly two-dimensional era.
It would be remiss of me to go on to the next era without also mentioning Data East’s early successes in the beat Em’ Up genre, mainly because of this famous screenshot:
This is Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninjas, which is known today for its absurd opening line.
After battling your way through countless stages across freeways and helicopters, the players finally rescue “President Ronnie,” who is definitely not Ronald Regan.
Data East would also go on to make Captain America and the Avengers a good twenty years before the Marvel Cinematic Universe began. It received a number of ports as well, both to home consoles and the Game Boy and Game Gear mobile market.
Kings of the Arcade, Princes of the Consoles
As the 90's approached, two new home consoles entered the market. The Sega Genesis retailed in the US starting in 1989, challenging the NES in a market it had dominated since 1985 (1983, if you include Japan). The two most popular marketing tag lines; The Genesis had "Blast Processing" and it had "More Bits." Sixteen bits, to be exact, compared to the NES's paultry eight.
A year later, Nintendo answered with the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. It’s here, in the “Bit Wars” era of the 90’s, where arcade and home console hardware finally reached comparable levels. While still not entirely on par with Arcade hardware, the SNES and Sega Genesis closed the technological gap significantly. Now, with some alterations to match storage space, developers could release the same game on home console cartridges.
This "Bit Wars" era could be it's own article entirely, but for our sake, we're only concerned with how it applies to the Beat 'Em Up genre. If anyone reading is curious and wants to learn more about how Sega and Nintendo engaged in something of a technological arms race for dominance in digital entertainment, I recommend Console Wars by Blake J. Harris.
As we saw earlier with Double Dragon, this sort of adaptation process happened during the NES era too (even Renegade got a dumbed down port), but designers were forced to take more drastic measures to bring arcade games into living rooms then. Perhaps the two most famous examples of this are Strider and Bionic Commando, two titles so dramatically remade for home consoles, they were entirely different games.
Rather than try to create direct ports, these two games were completely redesigned from the ground up with brand new mechanics, levels, and overall structures. After how much redesigning they underwent, they're practically games that just happened to have similar names as their Arcade counterparts. With the Genesis and Super Nintendo, companies could bring home more authentic ports without having to start from scratch.
One of the reasons this new hardware was so important with Beat ‘Em Ups is their mechanical simplicity. Since there’s not much depth in gameplay, this genre relied on spectacle to keep the player’s attention. The easiest way to do this prior to better hardware was to make each stage thematically varied. The player would progress from a Winter Wonderland, to a Jungle, to a City Street, or to -- god help you -- a Sewer Level. Each stage would also introduce a unique set of baddies to bash, ensuring the player kept encountering something new at each turn.
What would the Boss of the stage look like? What crazy locale would you end up in next? This genre relied on satisfying sound effects, pixel art, and your own ennui to carry you to the end. That, and a lot of your quarters.
On the SNES, many of these games would make great use of new technology for the sake of spectacle. The port of Turtles in Time did a masterful job with this, as Konami altered stages from the original just to include more visual tricks unique to the SNES. For example, here’s a scene where you get to toss Foot Soldiers at Shredder.
Konami created an entire Technodrome stage leading up to this fling-happy fight just for the home console release. After this encounter, the characters are sucked into that glowing wall in the background and embark across different time periods.
In the Arcade, Shredder’s floating head shows up in the sewers and banishes you into time instead.
Speaking of the importance of spectacle, the SNES had another trick to add some visual flair to home ports -- Mode 7.
Mode 7 was an SNES technique which extended the background layer and, with some scaling and rotation, created the illusion of three-dimensions. Below you can see it being put to use for a hoverboard stage, “Neon Night Riders.” While this stage does exist in the Arcade version, it’s been altered here on the SNES to make the player feel like they’re traveling into the background.
During the 90’s, companies competed both at home and on consoles to produce the next great Beat ‘Em Up, trying to one-up each other with a new attention-grabber and quarter-eater.
From here on, I’m going to spotlight a few stand-out titles from the early 90’s. First up, Final Fight, released in 1989.
Capcom’s Final Fight series was an early fan favorite in which Mike Haggar, Guy, and Cody smash their way through Metro City, cleainin' up the streets by personally bashing one member of the Mad Gear Gang at a time. Many of the characters from Final Fight, heroes and enemies alike, would end up in future Capcom properties. Most notably, Guy, Sodom, Cody, Hugo, and Poison would all eventually join the cast of Street Fighter.
I’m still holding out hope Mike Haggar himself will make the jump to a proper Street Fighter game someday.
Capcom went on to release Captain Commando in 1991, which also took place in Metro City, but now in the far flung future of 2026. This is one of my personal favorites because of the absurd cast of characters.
There aren’t many games out there where you get to play as a baby who knows wrestling moves controlling a suit of armor.
Captain Commando was conceived as a mascot for Capcom (a fact which becomes quite obvious if you look at the first three letters of his two names), but despite additional appearances in the Marvel vs. Capcom series, he didn’t stick around.
We already spent a lot of time on Turtles In -- uh... Time, but Konami had many other popular Beat 'Em Ups. Pictured below is the 1991 Simpsons Arcade game, which was re-released in 2012 on the Xbox Live and Playstation Network digital storefronts, and then somehow un-re-released in 2013. How it's even possible a game be "un-re-released" and my concerns therein is a topic for another article.
There's also 1992's X-Men, famous for having two variations -- a standard four-player kit, and a massive six-player monstrosity.
The Double Dragon franchise continued its successful endeavours too, both on home consoles and in the Arcade. Eventually the series received a console-only adventure for the Super Nintendo (Titled Super Double Dragon, of course, because everything was “Super” on the Super Nintendo).
In fact, by the end of 1991, consoles had many of their own Beat ‘Em Up franchises now, with no Arcade releases at all.
On the Genesis, the Streets of Rage franchise reigned supreme for three entries. Streets of Rage 2 remains such a fan favorite, modders still make new additions to this day. A cursory glance at the steam workshop page shows just how active the community remains.
In the process of researching this article I discovered OpenBOR, a moddable engine inspired by Streets of Rage (the BOR stands for “Beats of Rage”). Fans use this engine to create their own Streets of Rage style games from scratch.
Another small aside to illustrate the love that exists for this series -- In 2003, a dedicated fan known only as “Bomber Link” began work on a comprehensive fan port which ambitiously packed every stage, weapon, and character in the entire series into one game. This wasn’t just a romhack -- Bomber Link built the thing from the ground up, without using a single line of code from the originals. After almost a full decade of work, the game finally launched in 2011 under the title “Streets of Rage: Remake.”
Sega sent a Cease and Desist letter a month after release.
Sega drove a dagger right into the heart of the Streets of Rage fanbase with that C & D. Fortunately openBOR remains available, and fans live on creating crazy new projects to this day. (And, if we're being totally honest, you can still find Streets of Rage: Remake available for download somewhere on the internet.)
On the SNES, Taito, who’d previously worked on the localization of Technos’s arcade hits like Double Dragon and Renegade, saw an opportunity to bring one of their sillier arcade games back to life in this era.
This is Sonic Blast Man, the Arcade Game.
Yes, that red punching bag is the controller.
In Sonic Blast Man, the goal was to punch that red pad as hard as possible to solve a crisis. The machine also came with a boxing glove for the player to put on.
It started with something simple, like laying out a street thug.
As you got farther into the game though, the situations became more and more absurd. Like say, a giant crab attacking a cruise ship.
It all ends with the player punching an Asteroid to save earth. I didn't bother picturing it here, because I promise you, it doesn't top the Crab.
Nothing tops the Crab.
If you’re thinking it’d be cool to try I’m right there with you, but you’d be hard pressed to find one of these arcade machines today. In 1995, Taito recalled them after numerous reports of injuries. The following year, Taito paid a civil penalty of $50,000 for failing to file incident reports related to these wrist-shattering devices masquerading as Arcade entertainment.
If I'm being honest with myself, If I happened across a Sonic Blast Man arcade machine on the street, Even knowning all that history, I’d still throw quarters in one anyway just to say I’ve done it.
Anyway, Taito eventually turned Sonic Blast Man into a semi-successful SNES Beat ‘Em Up, which also got its own sequel, Sonic Blast Man 2. They included the old Arcade stages as mini-games between levels, except now you were expected to press a button at the right time instead of physically punching the controller. I'm glad they adopted this route, because it means the ridiculous scenarios Sonic Blast Man could only solve with three hard punches have been preserved.
The saddest example of Beat ‘Em Ups brought to home devices I could find was Street Fighting Man.
No, not the Rolling Stones song.
I present to you... Street Fighting Man, the MS-DOS game.
Released in 1989 -- the same year as freaking Final Fight, mind you -- Street Fighting Man wanders around major named cities in the US punching thugs. The screen proudly announces "Nick is Cool" everywhere you go. Ends up that bold declaration on the top of the screen serves as the health bar -- Nick gets progressively less "Cool" as he gets beat on.
Street Fighting Man is not what I’d call a good game, and to address the full spectrum of its failures would take an article of its own. I present it here because its mere existence speaks volumes about how much the Beat ‘Em Up genre caught on. In 1989, Someone was willing to take a stab at an MS-DOS Beat ‘Em Up, just to bring it to an untapped PC market.
In 1991, Rare got into the Beat ‘Em Up racket with the popular Battletoads franchise. Unlike many other Beat ‘Em Up series, Battletoads started on consoles and ended in arcades. The first entry still has a reputation today for being one of the hardest games in the NES library.
Battletoads in Battlemaniacs came out on the SNES and Genesis in 1993, and later that year came Battletoads And Double Dragon: The Ultimate Team. As the title suggests, this was a crossover project between Technos and Rare to cash in on the popularity of both franchises at once.
The most incredible thing about this team-up to me is the amount of platforms it came out on. Don’t own an SNES or Genesis? No problem, pick up the NES version.
Don’t own that? No worries, here’s a Game Boy one.
In 1994, Battletoads finally launched their own arcade game. (Technically this was simply called Battletoads, but fans refer to it as either Super Battletoads or Battletoads Arcade to differentiate it from the initial entry in the series.) It’s here the series ended. Battletoads Arcade was a tremendous flop, and Rare has yet to make another proper Battletoads game since.
Rare hasn’t forgotten about The Toads entirely, however. Most recently, Rash appeared as a playable character in the Xbox One and Windows 10 fighting game Killer Instinct.
Battletoads Arcade failure was something of a bad portent of things to come for the genre. As Sony entered the market In 1994, games would begin to experiment with new technology, and Beat 'Em Ups would have to change as a result.
In the next segment, we'll look at what difficulties the Beat 'Em Up Genre faced as technology embraced a third dimension, how they tried (and often failed) to adapt, and finally, witness how the Genre rose from the ashes to become something entirely new.