X-List: The 10 Best Beat Em Up games of all time

Posted on Aug 10 2013 - 10:30am by Jeffrey L. Wilson

X List X List: The 10 Best Beat Em Up games of all time

The beat ‘em up is back. The genre — seemingly dead since the tail end of the 16-bit era — has made a surprising resurgence this console generation. These aren’t cheap cash-ins, either; the new beat ‘em up crop has the looks and heart of a brawler from yesteryear.

And that’s why several of them have made 2D-X‘s Best Beat ‘Em Up X-List. This celebration of all things combative in a 2D plane include both classic and contemporary titles from the likes of Capcom, Technos, Ubisoft, SEGA, and other development houses. If you like guiding an on-screen character as it punches an enemy squarely in the jaw, this is the game roundup for you.

Let’s get ready to rumble!

Shank 2 X List: The 10 Best Beat Em Up games of all time

Shank 2
Filled to the brim with decapitations, impalements, severed limbs, and bullet-ridden bodies, Klei Entertainment’s follow up to 2010’s Shank has more in common with Woo’s movies than the grindhouse revenge flicks that helped inspire it. Shank 2 doesn’t revolutionize the beat ‘em up genre, but its new combo system, marvelous brutal counterattacks, and incredible visual style and animation makes one of the best titles on the market today.

Shank 2 is the modern 2D brawler done right. The overly critical will state that the improvements are features that should have been included in 2010′s game–a valid argument. Still, it’s difficult not to fall in love with Shank 2‘s hyper-violent universe which revels in its own insanity. That said, should Shank 3 come along we’re going to need more varied gameplay elements (two-player Campaign co-op, vehicles to pilot) in order to prevent this sharp blade from dulling.

River City Ransom X List: The 10 Best Beat Em Up games of all time

River City Ransom
Otaku, purists, and a wide variety of nitpickers may, in retrospect, hold disdain for Technos’ localization of Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari, but I will proclaim to the day that I meet the big NES in the sky, that the greaser look that the company’s American division gave the sprites is way more bad ass than the Japanese schoolboy uniforms of the original. It’s the closest thing to an 8-bit brawler version of The Outsiders, but without scenes like this.

The story is typical beat ‘em up fare: a fair maiden  is kidnapped by a shady character (in this case, Slick) who rules the mean streets with a squat, miniature iron fist, and it’s up to our plucky protagonists, Alex and Ryan, to dish out hardcore street justice. Why did it rock my socks? River City Ransom utilized a unique RPG system for powering up your pint-size brawler, which let gamers buy all manner of skills (with money lifted from the pockets of fallen foes) that heightened your fist-smashing-face skills. Plus, you could block attacks (a rare, but awesome gem in the genre), that few other of its contemporaries allowed. After all, if someone wanted to bash me in the head with a 2 x 4, I think I’d guard.

TMNT X List: The 10 Best Beat Em Up games of all time

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Out of all the brawlers on this list, TMNT is the title that brings back the warmest of fuzzies. Back in the day, my friends and I would blow our meager allowances guiding four of the world’s greatest artists as they hacked their way through several waves of Shredder’s bumbling ninja armies using katanas, bo staffs, nunchucks, and sais. This game could’ve been a 100 percent piece of crap, but we would’ve played the heck out of it anyway because of FOUR PLAYER SIMULTANEOUS TURTLE ACTION. Seriously, that’s all it took.

It was the dream game of every  ’80s kid who grew up with the mutant quartet as their favorite show. Fortunately, Konami displayed plenty of care and attention to detail with what would become its golden goose license during the early ’90s; the graphics are ace (I remember my jaw dropping at the sight of the flame effects in stage one while fighting Rock Steady and Be Bop), as is  the music (I still consider the Technodome stage to have one of the finest scores in action games). Gameplay is simple, but incredibly tight, which serves as the peanut butter to the sweet audio/visual jelly.

Final Fight X List: The 10 Best Beat Em Up games of all time

Final Fight
Mike Haggar, ex-pro wrestler, is the mayor that every major city needs to prevent young punks like the Blood, the Crips, and those Nekketsu kids from running rampant and terrorizing the populace. Final Fight, like the original Double Dragon, took place in an urban setting, only Capcom’s brawler was far more playable thanks to sprites that don’t feel as though they’re moving through quicksand.

One of the most overlooked aspects of Final Fight‘s success is one of its most obvious traits: players could choose from one of three characters: The slow, but powerful Haggar, the swift-footed, but weak Guy, and the pretty boy and future ex-con Cody. Back in the day, when player one and player two were automatically assigned urban avengers, it was more than a little bit awesome to select your on-screen avatar.

The graphics and sound are typical late ’80s/ early ’90s Capcom arcade–chunky, but so satisfying. There’s a generic back story about the Haggar’s daughter getting kidnapped by the Mad Gear Gang, but I have to say that it’s handled with far more respect than the Final Fight crew’s appearance on the god-awful American Street Fighter cartoon.

Renegade X List: The 10 Best Beat Em Up games of all time

Technos knows how to make a fun and engaging brawler. Double Dragon may get the name recognition, and River City Ransom may have the cult status, but Renegade, the company’s first entry into the Kunio series, is perhaps the most underrated brawler in gaming history. Sure, it has an absolutely insane maze in the fourth and final stages that will make you want to place shotgun securely in mouth, and there’s very little variety in the street thugs’ appearance, but Renegade has a few interesting aspects that makes it one of my favorite beat ‘em ups ever produced.

The bizarrely-named Mr. K could swiftly pummel opponents in front of him and behind him courtesy of dedicated left and right attack buttons, mount downed opponents and ground pound them UFC-style, and hop on a motorcycle and boot rival riders from their perches in a thrilling chase sequence. Individually, these features would’ve been incredible, but together? 100% pure 8-bit street brawling badassedness.

Streets of Rage 2 X List: The 10 Best Beat Em Up games of all time

Streets of Rage II
Simply put, Streets of Rage II was the Genesis’/Mega Drive’s finest moment in 1992. The game takes the beat ‘em up basics of the original and adds a slew of new additions including individual special attacks for each of the four selectable characters (replacing the squad car super of the original), non-energy-draining attacks, life gauges for all characters, and new weapons for laying the smack down on deserving foes. The jump in quality is almost as high as the one seen in Street Fighter II over its predecessor, except that the original Streets of Rage was a playable game.

The enemy legions are one of the most varied and unique in the BEU circle. Some are your typical street thugs, but you’ll also encounter kickboxers and robots — robots! Despite the latter, the rugged sprites and detailed backgrounds give Streets of Rage II a truly urban feel that few other BEUs could replicate. The true testament to this game’s greatness is its enduring legacy; it’s fondly remembered as one of the genre’s eternal gems.

Knights of the Round X List: The 10 Best Beat Em Up games of all time

Knights of the Round
This is one title that almost went completely under the radar. If it weren’t for me plundering Gametap’s library a few years ago I would never have discovered this gem. Knights of the Round, like many Capcom beat ‘em ups, doesn’t exactly turn the genre on its head, but adds a few twists, and rock solid presentation,  that separate it from the pack.

As with Final Fight, you can select from three characters (Arthur, Lancelot, Percival) with a mission to unite Britain. Where things get spicy is in the gameplay: you can mount horses, block attacks, and level up your character depending on the number of dirty heathens that taste your sweet steel. The medieval setting adds a somewhat fresh spin on the genre, but the background graphics, in which members of your storming army battle foes, adds to the title’s semi-epic scope.

Double Dragon Neon Screen 1 X List: The 10 Best Beat Em Up games of all time

Double Dragon Neon
Double Dragon Neon reboots the original classic as it reaches the quarter century mark. Instead of strictly adhering to the original game’s plot of Billy and Jimmy Lee retrieving a kidnapped Marion from the hands of street vermin in a post-apocalyptic metropolis, Double Dragon veers into the area of Day-Glo, synthesizer abuse, and big hair — and revels in its cheese. Marion’s once again gut-punched, but this is a decidedly different title altogether than the original and the game benefits from the change.

The Dragons have a basic set of moves–punch, kick, throw, jump kick, leg sweep, flying knee, duck/evade–but you can customize Billy and Jimmy with active and passive abilities by collecting cassette tapes from downed enemies. The active abilities (Sosetsitsu) let you pop off Street Fighter-like fireballs, summon dragons that damage all on-screen enemies, and other totally tubular attacks in exchange for a portion of your magic meter. The passive abilities (Stances) boost your offense or defense in various ways. Add a killer soundtrack and you have an incredibly fun beat ‘em up title that doesn’t take itself, or the medium, too seriously.

Scott Pilgrim vs The World The Game 1024x575 X List: The 10 Best Beat Em Up games of all time

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game is about a Canadian 23-year-old named Scott Pilgrim who, along with his pals Kim Pine, Stephen Stills, and new girlfriend Ramona Flowers, must defeat Ramona’s seven evil ex-boyfriends before Scott can finally date her. A simple premise explained by the Marvel vs. Capcom 2-style attract demo that plays when the game boots up. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game is a classic-style arcade game, calling back to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in TimeThe Simpsons Arcade Game, and other classic brawlers, particularly River City Ransom.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game has a lot of passion and heart, backed up by impeccable art design, rousing music, and simple and fun arcade brawling that should have you beating up bad guys long into the wee small hours.

Dragons Crown Screenshots 26 1024x576 X List: The 10 Best Beat Em Up games of all time

Dragon’s Crown
Dragon’s Crown is the best beat-em-up this generation — maybe ever. There’s been a resurgence of late — cycles come and go as they often do — and while Double Dragon Neon and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game scratched the brawler itch, they were only only appetizers to Vanillaware’s Dragon’s Crown, a gorgeous ode to Disney, Frank Frazetta, and Capcom’s classic Dungeons & Dragons games. The large 2D graphics, typical of Kamitani’s exaggerated illustrations, flex, morph and stretch with an anime-meets-Renaissance style that must be seen in motion to truly appreciate. Each new animation, whether an explosive flame spell or a giant enemy’s death wail, is an impressive display of digital artistry.

None of that, however, would matter without a solid foundation underneath. Responsive combat, intuitive controls and interlocking systems — loot, skills, a cooking mini-game (!!!) — enhance what could have been an aesthetically pleasing if simple and derivative experience. Dragon’s Crown is an instant classic.

And that’s that.

You’re probably wondering where popular titles like Guardian Heroes or Golden Axe are to be foundnot here, mate. Naturally, in any list of this sort there are perceived omissions that rile die hards, but gaming, much like a not-so great film, album, or book is often painted in rose-colored memories. Still, I think these are some of the genre’s best representations — do you?

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Jeffrey L. Wilson is the former Big Boss of 2D-X.com. Now retired, he spends his days as a man of leisure. Kinda.

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15 Comments so far. Feel free to join this conversation.

  1. Raul June 9, 2009 at 6:38 PM - Reply

    knights of the round definetly overlooked ,so is renegade. I bought renegade thinking it was double droagon back in 1989 i didnt regret it though,great list.

  2. Jeffrey L. Wilson June 9, 2009 at 8:04 PM - Reply

    Hey Raul, did you happen to get a chance to play River City Ransom EX for the GBA? It came out when I had fell out of gaming for a brief time and I never got any hands-on with it.

  3. Raul June 11, 2009 at 10:53 PM - Reply

    Na, not a big handheld guy. Actually ive never played river city period. I dunno why.

  4. MattK November 12, 2012 at 8:28 PM - Reply

    Good picks. Granted this is all very subjective, but there are some classics that I adore and would be remiss to not mention here: Castle Crashers, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Dungeons & Dragons 1 and 2, Alien vs. Predator (Capcom arcade version), Spider-Man (Sega arcade), X-Men (Konami arcade), Bucky O’Hare (Konami arcade), Captain America and the Avengers, Captain Commando (Capcom, arcade version), Sonic Blast Man (SNES), Brawl Brothers/Rushing Beat 2 (SNES), Mutation Nation (Neo Geo), Super Battletoads (arcade), the Sengoku series (Neo Geo), The Punisher (Capcom arcade), The Death and Return of Superman (SNES), Alien Storm (Genesis), Asterix (Konami Arcade)… and, of course, the one you brought up recently: Zombie Revenge!

    • Jeffrey L. Wilson November 14, 2012 at 3:04 PM - Reply

      The Death and Return of Superman! I played that game to no end as a kid even though I sorta kinda didn’t like it. I was hardcore into the comic storyline, so I couldn’t resist.

      • MattK November 24, 2012 at 12:52 AM - Reply

        The brawling itself wasn’t pitch-perfect, but I did like how they worked the comic storyline into the game.

    • Trevor Alexandre August 14, 2013 at 5:44 AM - Reply

      add Cyborg Justice for the Genesis to that list, spent too much time on that game when I was a much younger bastard. crazed robots, customization galore ( driven by taking goes apart to equip their shattered remains).

  5. N.I.C. April 4, 2013 at 6:01 AM - Reply

    Final fight?

  6. Kirill Pogrebinskyy August 10, 2013 at 12:36 PM - Reply

    streets of rage 3 was awesome too :)

  7. Ryan Alexander Herrera August 14, 2013 at 1:29 AM - Reply

    There is a severe lack of Castle Crashers on this list.

  8. Trevor Alexandre August 14, 2013 at 5:45 AM - Reply

    epic list.

  9. dejavu2222 September 17, 2013 at 2:25 PM - Reply

    Streets of Rage 1 over SOR2 for me, music wise and gameplay! Also seriously missing a honorable mentions section! Where the hell is X-Men! Where is Cap America and Avengers! Where is Spider-Man Arcade! Where is Sengoku?! Where is Castle Crashers? Also fan made games like Streets of Rage Remake~!

    Ahhh anyway, still a good list…and love 2D style (classic style) game coverage so keep it up!

    BOO to the Halos, GTAs, Maddens, and other mindless garbage games.

    • Jeffrey L. Wilson September 17, 2013 at 2:48 PM - Reply

      Thank your, sir. These X-Lists are continually updated as we returned to/discover more beat ‘em ups. Oh, I tried to play X-Men last year and hated it. Horribly dated.

  10. Rick Cook March 4, 2014 at 12:08 PM - Reply

    Comix Zone holds a special place in my heart. It was unforgiving in a way few beat em ups rarely are: your own punches could damage you, almost an endurance and health bar combined. It’s not “one of the best” but I do still like it.

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