I turned a critical eye toward beat ‘em ups a while back, but let it be known that I’m still a devoted fan of the genre, despite its repetitive nature and numerous flaws. Although there are plenty of gameplay tweaks that can be done to breathe new life into the category, I’m focusing on the positive by highlighting the best brawlers of all time in an X-List that features a mix of well-known titles and more obscure efforts.
So grab your baseball bat, brass knucks, and D-pads, ’cause we’re takin’ it to the streets.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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
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.
Gameplay consists of walking from left to right and plowing through thugs, but it’s done in a remarkably fresh manner. 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.
Grabbing additional cassettes of the same type increases the Sosetsitsu and Stance’s potencies. Alternately, you can upgrade those abilities in the various shops strewn about the game if you have the proper currencies to make the purchase. Add a killer soundtrack and you have an incredibly fun beat ‘em up title that doesn’t take itself, or the medium, too seriously.
And that’s that.
You’re probably wondering where popular titles like Guardian Heroes or Golden Axe are to be found; not 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. Nostalgia commands me to like Ghoulies as it does the same with the games on this list, despite knowing that better-crafted material exists. Judge me not–after all, there’s some schmoe out there that has it hard for China Warrior. Ahem.