Try to imagine a world where the most basic form of melee combat, fist fighting, doesn’t even exist in video games. Almost every game these days has an obligatory punch/kick/slap/chop button (how else are you supposed to get your gun from the guard?), but this was not the case until 1976 when Sega released Heavyweight Champ. This pioneering game was originally released as an arcade game, in black-and-white with two motion sensitive boxing gloves that players wore as controllers. The game was simple at best, a side-view boxing match with the option of punching low or high in which the contestants walk up and pummel each other until the other one falls down. However, its simplicity doesn’t detract from its undeniable influence. Who would have ever thought, realistic violence in video games…
Turns out the idea was a hit (no pun) and the ‘side-view fighting game’ concept was reinvented several times over the following years. It wasn’t until 1984 when Data East’s Karate Champ and Irem’s Kung-Fu Master introduced the martial-arts themed, side-scrolling and multiple enemies characteristics we identify with the Beat ‘Em Up genre. This trend culminated with the release of Techno’s Renegade in 1986 which incorporated strategical combo attacks, horizontal and directional movement and the ability to jump. In addition to changing the dynamics of the Beat ‘Em Up, Renegade reshaped the tone by introducing the urban street-combat theme and the “That guy stole my girlfriend/crystal of power/the King, and now I have to go beat him up,” plot-line movement.
The stage was set, Renegade provided the template for the Beat ‘Em Up, but the spark that ignited the Golden Age was Technos Japan’s Double Dragon (1987). The addition of multi-player cooperative play in this game sent the genre to new heights and opened the flood gates, ushering in a wave of some of the most memorable and identifiable games of yesteryear. Atop this wave, cresting in all it’s glory were games such as Final Fight, Arabian Fight, Golden Axe, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Streets of Rage. Some Beat ‘Em Ups even went on to be influential in their own way, such as Crossed Swords, a first person perspective Beat ‘Em Up that became one of the pioneering games of the hack-and-slash genre.
Sadly though, nothing lasts forever and the Beat ‘Em Up Golden Age came to a halt in 1991 when Capcom’s Street Fighter II re-energized the popularity of one-on-one fighting games. This, coupled with the growing interest in 3D games and the loss of interest in 2D side-scrollers spelled doom for the entire genre and by the mid-90s the games started to suffer from lack of creativity. Facing extinction, game creators tried to keep the genre alive by adapting it to the new, prevailing 3D technology. From this sprang the immensely popular Dynasty Warriors series (of which there are 14 games) and the not so popular Fighting Force game. However, these games eventually met with the same criticism of being unimaginative and repetitive. By 2002 the Beat ‘Em Up genre was officially pronounced ‘dead’ as pretty much no new Beat ‘Em Ups had hit the market that year.
A few notable games managed to keep the waning genre on its feet. Behemoth’s Castle Crashers (2008) garnered some attention with its hilarious sense of humor and compelling cooperative game play. Capcom’s Viewtiful Joe (2003) incorporated cel-shading and the ability to shift between 2D and 3D environments was very unique. Rockstar Games’ The Warriors (2005) successfully adapted the Beat ‘Em Up to a 3D environment and added other scenarios to the game that were not possible with traditional 2D graphics, such as chase scenes and a few mini games. Capcom’s God Hand (2006) and Sega’s Madworld (2009) provided more comical relief as they parodied the intense violence of traditional Beat ‘Em Ups. Even some of the original Beat ‘Em Ups, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Tutrles IV: Turtles in Time, were revamped from their original 1980’s appearances and re-released with better graphics on new generation consoles.
But we all know what happens to crazes when they die out. Consider the flannel shirt, yo yos and skateboarding. When a craze dies out it rises again and experiences a revival. Such was the case for the Beat ‘Em Up genre, except the revival was that of its protege and close relative, the Hack-and-Slash. If any of you retro gamers has had the chance to put down your worn and ‘generously-used’ (see: played until the point of breaking) controllers in the last ten years you may have heard of, or even played, games such as Devil May Cry, Ninja Gaiden, God of War, Heavenly Sword and Afro Samurai and noticed the striking similarities these games share with the early Beat ‘Em Ups and Hack-and-Slashes of the 1980’s. You can add as many bells and whistles, glowing demon blades twice the size of your character’s body and crazy, levitating, spinning combos as you want to a game, but really at the end of the day you can never completely outshine those that paved the way. The revival of these games shows that while the physical, archetypal shell of the Beat ‘Em Up may have died off long ago the spirit of this genre is still quite alive in games today. A big tip of my hat to Heavyweight Champ for throwing the first punch, high fives to Karate Champ and Kung-Fu Master for making us all feel like Bruce Lee, solemn hand shake to Renegade for setting the standard and a hearty pat on the back to Double Dragon for igniting the Golden Age of a genre that shaped video games as we know them.
Beat ‘Em Ups you should check out:
Micheal Jackson’s Moonwalker
Mighty Morphing Power Rangers(series)
Ninja Baseball Bat Man
X-Men: Mutant Apocalypse
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (series)
Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game
Knights of Valor (series)
The Death and Return of Superman
Marvel Super Heroes: War of the Gems
Battle Toads (series)