It can be easy for some gamers to write off the side-scrolling beat-‘em-up genre as shallow and repetitive, especially when taking into account how the medium of video games has evolved and matured over the past two decades, but this is doing the genre a disservice.
Side-scrolling beat-‘em-ups have actually taught us some interesting and valuable things, such as how breaking open a metal bin or a wooden barrel or crate can potentially reveal a delicious whole roast chicken or some similar food hiding within, and how eating such hidden food (well, more “absorbing” than eating) can instantly heal you no matter how badly you’ve been beaten, stabbed, burned, and generally battered.
Or how if you were a young woman in the mid-1980s to early 1990s and you had a boyfriend, father, or some other male friend or relation who was proficient in hand-to-hand combat, then there was a 93.7% chance of you being kidnapped by a criminal gang.
Or how said gangs were usually comprised of hundreds of members (many of whom looked identical, but each of whom at least had the courtesy to wear an outfit of the colour that signified their level of badass-ness), yet in most cases the gang budget never stretched to equipping these criminals with firearms.
The game generally considered to be the first ever side-scrolling beat-‘em-up is Spartan X, which was developed and published by Irem and released in arcades in Japan in 1984. The game was given an international arcade release the following year under the new title of Kung-Fu Master, and a host of ports followed for home computers such as the Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC, and consoles such as the Nintendo Entertainment System / Famicom and Sega’s SG-1000.
Inspired by Bruce Lee’s Game of Death but also very loosely based on the 1984 martial arts comedy movie Wheels on Meals, in which Jackie Chan co-starred (this being a time before Chan worked alongside such cinematic legends as Chris Tucker and Owen Wilson), Kung-Fu Master laid the groundwork for the side-scrolling beat-‘em-up genre as a whole, with its side-scrolling levels, multiple attack options, hordes of oncoming enemies, a boss battle at the end of each level, and the protagonist’s goal being to rescue his kidnapped girlfriend.
Kung-Fu Master would eventually receive a sequel in 1991 in the form of the Japan-only Famicom exclusive Spartan X 2, although this game contained barely any connection to the original, and by the time of its release, many other side-scrolling beat-‘em-ups had already significantly advanced the genre in the seven years that had passed between the two games.
The action of Kung-Fu Master took place inside a multi-tiered pagoda with an Oriental visual style, and in the same year, a historical Japanese setting was used for Jordan Mechner’s beat-‘em-up / one-on-one fighting hybrid Karateka. However, it wouldn’t be long before side-scrolling beat-‘em-ups took to the streets, and a modern-day urban setting would go on to become the one most associated with the genre.
1986’s Renegade from Technōs Japan introduced such a setting, with a focus on urban brawling with thugs in locations such as an alley and a parking lot, rather than the martial arts approach of Kung-Fu Master and Karateka. Interestingly, the North American-style urban locations and gangs of thugs featured in Renegade which would be so influential to later beat-‘em-ups were actually alterations made for the heavily localised Western release – the original Japanese version of the game, Nekketsu Kōha Kunio-kun (roughly translated as Hot-Blooded Tough Guy Kunio, and the first in the series of Kunio-kun games), featured different sprites and backgrounds.
Also, the original plot cast the player as high school student Kunio fighting to protect his bullied male friend, while in Renegade, the player took control of a vigilante out to rescue his kidnapped girlfriend. Although different, each delicate situation is of course resolved via the application of relentless and brutal violence.
Nekketsu Kōha Kunio-kun / Renegade was also influential to future beat-‘em-ups due to its introduction of innovations such as eight-direction control that allowed the player to move on a vertical plane as well as a horizontal one, and enemies who could sustain multiple hits.
Renegade would receive two home system sequels from Imagine Software, a label owned by developer / publisher Ocean, in the form of Target: Renegade (1988) and Renegade III: The Final Chapter (1989), the latter adding time-travel to the familiar “kidnapped girlfriend” plot, the developers apparently coming to the conclusion that the best way to enhance a journey of gritty urban revenge was to introduce the opportunity to punch dinosaurs in the face.
Not content with having already significantly advanced the genre the previous year, in 1987 Technōs Japan released another side-scrolling beat-‘em-up which would become the first game in a series that continues to this day, and which introduced a gameplay element that was a huge step forward for the genre. The game was Double Dragon, and the step forward was two-player cooperative play.
Double Dragon allowed two players to take control of brothers Jimmy and Billy Lee as they – wait for it – fought to rescue kidnapped love interest Marian from a criminal gang. The option to allow two or more players to fight side-by-side as separate characters would become commonplace in the beat-‘em-up genre after Double Dragon, and would in fact be one of the main reasons behind the genre’s popularity. Even today, the side-scrolling beat-‘em-up remains a genre where cooperative play is expected in the majority of – if not all – titles.
Double Dragon also introduced the ability to disarm an opponent and then pick up and use their fallen weapon, putting baseball bats, knives, whips, and even dynamite at the player’s disposal – another gameplay innovation that would go on to become a common feature of the genre.
Double Dragon was a huge success, the original arcade version being popular enough to spawn numerous ports, the game being released on ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Sega Master System, NES, the handheld Atari Lynx, and many other machines.
Over the following years, the success of the original game led to a number of both direct sequels and spin-off games. One of these was Double Dragon II on the Nintendo Game Boy, which wasn’t a port of the original game’s arcade sequel but rather the second Double Dragon game to appear on the handheld console, and a game which was actually a Double Dragon-themed localisation of 1990’s Nekketsu Kōha Kunio-kun: Bangai Rantō Hen, another game in the Kunio-kun series.
Oh, Kunio. One day the rest of the world will accept you as you really are.
Some of the spin-off Double Dragon games were one-on-one fighting games rather than side-scrolling beat-‘em-ups, a franchise experiment with generally poor results. A similar low level of quality was also to be found in the franchise’s forays into other mediums, such as a short-lived comic book series, an animated television series, and the notoriously poor 1994 live-action film which saw Terminator 2’s Robert Patrick slumming it with a bad script and an even worse haircut.
But whatever highs and lows the series experienced over the years following its debut, the impact of the original Double Dragon can’t be denied, and the game’s critical and commercial success led to a sudden surge of interest in the side-scrolling beat-‘em-up genre from both gamers and video game developers – 1988 saw the release of a number of high-profile beat-‘em-ups even though Double Dragon had only been released the previous year.
Data East’s Bad Dudes Vs. Dragon Ninja followed the example of Double Dragon and offered two-player cooperative gameplay, and although most of the game was also set in a selection of modern-day urban environments, its enemies were not typical street thugs but ninjas. The game succinctly explained this in an introduction screen containing the following exposition: “Rampant ninja related crimes these days…”.
Yep, that explains that.
And it was clear that these ninjas meant business, since they weren’t content with kidnapping the player’s girlfriend, oh no. Instead, they kidnapped the President of the United States. Men with ambition, those ninjas.
And speaking of ninjas, 1988 also saw the birth of the Ninja Gaiden series, with an almost simultaneous release in arcades and on the NES. However, although they shared a name, the two games were actually developed by different teams and were very different in terms of content, the NES version of Ninja Gaiden being a platforming game – and a notoriously difficult one, at that – and the arcade version being a beat-‘em-up.
Also, there wasn’t a kidnapped girlfriend or President in sight in either version – in the arcade game, the player was tasked with stopping an evil descendant of 16th century “prophet” Nostradamus, while the NES version involved the protagonist’s attempt to avenge his murdered father.
Although the arcade version of Ninja Gaiden was later ported to a number of home computers and the Atari Lynx, it was the NES version of the game that achieved the greater level of popularity, spawning two sequels on the same console and various ports, sequels, and spin-offs on other consoles of the early to mid-1990s. Then followed several years of inactivity for the franchise before its eventual return in 2004.
While games like Bad Dudes Vs. Dragon Ninja, Ninja Gaiden (arcade version), and Irem’s Vigilante (considered a spiritual successor to Kung-Fu Master) continued the growing trend of featuring modern-day urban settings and (relatively) realistic characters, other side-scrolling beat-‘em-ups of the time branched out in more fantastical directions.
Sega’s Dynamite Düx was a two-player beat-‘em-up starring anthropomorphic ducks Pin and Bin, who were out to rescue their kidnapped owner by fighting their way through hordes of limbless dogs, roller-skating cats (a little insensitive to the dogs, don’t you think?), lightning-throwing clouds, and a crown-wearing penguin and his minions. The game still making too much sense for you? Okay, how about this: KFC’s Colonel Sanders also makes an appearance.
Although Sega were certainly not the only developer heavily involved in the side-scrolling beat-‘em-up genre at the time, they did produce a number of very successful titles within it, one of which was Altered Beast, which ran on the Sega System 16 arcade system board, the same hardware that powered Dynamite Düx, Shinobi, future hit Golden Axe, and many others.
Altered Beast was set in Ancient Greece, and although the plot stuck to the same old kidnapping scenario (the kidnap victim this time being the goddess Athena), the game did try to introduce some variation into the genre by giving the player the ability to transform into a number of humanoid beasts – werewolf, dragon, bear, and tiger, each form possessing powers unavailable in standard human form.
Altered Beast was received well enough that it was later ported to a number of home computers and consoles, and the Sega Mega Drive / Genesis version of the game was even a pack-in title included with a purchase of the console itself, considerably raising the game’s profile. Nowadays, Altered Beast is often remembered for its tinny-sounding voice samples (“Welcome to your doom!”), and the “Rhinoceros-Man” form of the game’s villain, Neff, even made a cameo in Disney’s 2012 animated movie Wreck-It Ralph.
While Altered Beast applied mythological fantasy to the side-scrolling beat-‘em-up genre, Namco’s Splatterhouse threw a bucket of bloody entrails over it, bringing gore-soaked horror to the genre in a very direct – and controversy-stirring – manner. The less than subtle approach taken by Namco for Splatterhouse was immediately evident in the fact that protagonist Rick wore a blue boiler suit and a hockey mask – squint your eyes and the game could be Jason Voorhees Super Hack Blood Man Adventure.
But it was the general level of blood and gore present in the game that really caught peoples’ attention: pick up a meat cleaver and you could decapitate enemies; rotting, undead figures were chained to walls, vomiting acid; the scenery was filled with mutilated corpses and assorted gore; and when hit with a wooden plank, certain enemies would explode against the wall in a bloody mess.
This level of visual horror extended to the design of the enemies and bosses, such as a skinless giant with a bag covering his head and chainsaws for hands (a relative of Resident Evil 4’s Dr. Salvador, maybe?), and a floating inverted crucifix surrounded by rotting heads. (Yes, I know – I was so shocked and appalled by this, my monocle fell out).
Splatterhouse also added a twist to the familiar beat-‘em-up story, in that although your task was to rescue your kidnapped girlfriend, you actually failed in this task near the end of the game – the damsel in distress dies, and all Rick is left with is to burn the place down and kick the shit out of any remaining shambling monstrosity stupid enough to get in his way. Since the kidnapping plot tended to conclude with a happy ending in previous beat-‘em-ups, the dark twist introduced to the formula in Splatterhouse emphasised the fact that the game wasn’t content to simply copy what had come before, and that this didn’t just apply to its visuals.
Outside of the arcades, Samurai Warrior: The Battles of Usagi Yojimbo on the Commodore 64 was an interesting curiosity similar to Karateka in that it combined side-scrolling action with one-on-one fights. Based on Stan Sakai’s comic book series Usagi Yojimbo – a series starring an anthropomorphic samurai rabbit which takes place centuries ago, during Japan’s Edo period – the game featured a level of choice and depth unseen in most similar games of the time, with the inclusion of alternate paths, sword training, the ability to earn money through gambling, and a karma system based on the player’s choice of actions.
As the 1980s neared their end and the 1990s and the horrible shadow of “Ice Ice Baby” loomed, the momentum and popularity that the side-scrolling beat-‘em-up genre had been experiencing since Double Dragon showed no signs of abating, with 1989 seeing the release of numerous titles – of varying quality – both in arcades and on home computers and consoles.
Beat-‘em-ups on home systems were not always ports of previous arcade releases. For example, the Amiga received the fantasy-themed Sword of Sodan, while the NES received River City Ransom (Street Gangs in PAL regions), which was yet another heavily altered localisation of a game in the Kunio-kun series, this time Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari. River City Ransom was an innovative beat-‘em-up due to its inclusion of role-playing and open-world elements – alongside the actual fighting, the player could upgrade their character’s attributes and learn new techniques, while its non-linear structure offered a degree of freedom not usually found in the genre.
Although River City Ransom was not a huge commercial success at the time, as the years passed it developed a status as a cult classic, being highly regarded by many gamers and going on to influence future games, such as Vblank Entertainment’s 2012 parody action title Retro City Rampage.
The arcade was the place where the side-scrolling beat-‘em-up continued to flourish most, however, partly due to the high quality of a few of these arcade titles and partly due to the sheer number of games that were emerging as a result of the genre’s popularity.
Although some of these games were uninspired and derivative, others certainly had their own selling points. For example, Crime Fighters featured four-player cooperative play and a large number of enemies on-screen simultaneously, while Dynasty Wars featured horse-mounted combat and the ability to level-up your character. Even so, while a number of beat-‘em-ups would go on to receive sequels, relative obscurity still awaited many of them – some being more deserving of this than others – when compared with better-known, higher-profile games of the genre.
One such high-profile arcade game achieved success via a combination of licensing and the fact that it was actually a very good game: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The original animated series began in 1987, and it wasn’t long before the Turtles were a worldwide phenomenon, with blood and teeth frequently being spilled in schoolyards as kids battled over which of the four Turtles was the best. (It’s Raphael, by the way).
1989 saw the release of two games with the title Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, one on the NES and one in the arcades, both of which were developed by Konami. While the NES version was a platform game, the arcade version was a side-scrolling beat-‘em-up, and two separate cabinets were released for the game: a regular cabinet that only allowed two people to play cooperatively, and a deluxe cabinet that allowed up to four players, meaning a group of four people could take all of the Turtles into battle simultaneously – gaming nirvana at the time for those who were fans of both video games and the Turtles.
The game featured smooth animation and fast-paced gameplay, and was packed with personality. And with bold, colourful graphics and decent-sized sprites, the art design was a faithful recreation of the animated series, with each Turtle using his trademark weapon to fight a cast of villains familiar to fans of the series, including flailing, shrieking brain / scrotum creature Krang; and nemesis-who-sounds-suspiciously-like-Uncle-Phil-from-The–Fresh–Prince–of–Bel–Air Shredder.
Meanwhile, Sega continued to cement its status as a major player in the side-scrolling beat-‘em-up genre with the release of Golden Axe, the primary designer of which was Makoto Uchida, who had also been the primary designer of Altered Beast. Another connection between the two games was in Golden Axe’s mountable “cockatrice” creature, which had previously appeared as an enemy in Altered Beast.
As had already been the case with Sega’s Altered Beast and Dynamite Düx, Golden Axe kept away from the typical modern-day urban setting of so many other beat-‘em-ups, instead taking place in the fantasy kingdom of Yuria, the three playable characters being dwarf Gilius Thunderhead, barbarian Ax Battler, and amazon Tyris Flare, their quest being to kill the evil tyrant Death Adder (after killing several hundred of his minions first, of course).
Although they were capable of several hand-to-hand attacks, the three heroes of Golden Axe didn’t fight empty-handed – Gilius carried an axe, while Ax and Tyris each carried a sword, and although each character used their one primary weapon throughout the game, combat was still deep and varied. Along with a host of melee attacks – various hacks and slashes, flying kicks, pummelling enemies with the pommel of a weapon, throws, shoulder barges – each character possessed their own unique set of magical attacks, and also, saddled creatures known as bizarrians (of which the previously mentioned cockatrice was one) could be ridden and used against enemies.
As with the majority of the most successful arcade beat-‘em-ups, Golden Axe was ported to a number of home systems, one of the most faithful and acclaimed ports being the Mega Drive version, which went so far as to add an extra level to the main game as well as a separate Duel Mode that actually contained two features: a single-screen battle against waves of increasingly difficult enemies, and the ability for two players to fight a one-on-one battle against each other. The Mega Drive version also added a cover featuring Tyris throwing her back out in an attempt to pull a sexy pose, and Ax sporting a fetching but probably-not-ideal-for-battle posing pouch.
Golden Axe was further proof that although some developers were content to imitate what had come before and release lazy and uninspired beat-‘em-ups simply in order to cash-in on the popularity of the genre, Sega and several other companies, while obviously still intending to make commercially successful games, also wanted to explore and innovate the genre at the same time through the release of imaginative, high-quality games.
With this in mind, in December 1989, Capcom released an arcade side-scrolling beat-‘em-up that, on paper, sounded utterly unremarkable:
Set in the present day.
“Woman kidnapped by criminal gang” plot.
But this game turned out to be far from unremarkable. This game was Final Fight, and it would become one of the most successful and acclaimed side-scrolling beat-‘em-ups of all time. It was also one of the games that would remain at the forefront of the genre over the coming years, as the glory days of the beat-‘em-up gradually began to wane in the face of the growing popularity of competitive fighting games such as Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat.
But those days of yoga fire and spine removal were yet to come. And the brilliance of Final Fight was a clear sign that the side-scrolling beat-‘em-up genre still had plenty of fight left in it, and that if it was going to go down at any point in the future, it would go down swinging.
End of Part 1