Where Have All the Beat-Em-Ups Gone?


I was watching some video of Final Fight 3 the other day, and it reminded me of a beef I have with the video game industry. What happened to the classic beat-em-up (or brawler) genre?

My love of brawlers probably has a lot to do with the era in which I was born. I was an impressionable young kid in the ’90s, when series like Final Fight and Streets of Rage were king.

The formula was simple: walk from left to right, pummeling any random thugs who stand in your way. You’ll probably find additional weapons or health pick-ups inside of barrels or crates or from the corpses of enemies. At the end of each level is a tougher boss with unique attacks. Lather, rinse, repeat. Toss in five or six levels in different locations, and you have yourself a brawler.

The original Final Fight was the classic example of an arcade game that was meant to eat your quarters — the difficulty was extremely high, even if you were playing with two people. And when the cheap enemies had siphoned off the last of your precious health, the continue screen featured your character tied up, frantically trying to blow out the fuse on a stack of dynamite. It basically guilt-tripped you into putting in another coin.

Brawlers found success in the home market as well, despite a god-awful port of the first Final Fight game. Final Fight and Streets of Rage each ended up with three titles in the 16-bit era. Earlier pioneers like Double Dragon and Golden Axe continued to find popularity. Even niche games like Brawl Brothers (props to you if you’ve even heard of it) managed to get a foothold in the market because of the success of the genre as a whole.

Then 3-D was introduced into gaming, and beat-em-ups died.

That statement isn’t 100% true, but it’s damn close. Something about the translation between two and three dimensions essentially destroyed the brawler genre. Sure, some games have tried with varying success to duplicate that golden era. Off the top of my head:

  • 6,074 Dynasty/Samurai Warriors games have been released, and their core mechanic includes a lot of hapless enemies and combos
  • Titles like Viewtiful Joe and The Warriors found critical acclaim, but struggled to leave a lasting impact commercially
  • The Yakuza series has a ton of familiar elements of its predecessors, but its heavy Japanese pedigree turned away some gamers (and who the hell knows if Yakuza 5 is ever coming to the U.S.)
  • Retro games with a 2-D perspective were pretty fun, like Castle Crashers and Scott Pilgrim

Some people will even try to tell you that action games like Devil May Cry, God of War and Bayonetta are brawlers. They’re not, and those people should be ashamed (although with the exception of God of War, those games are solid).

All I want from a modern game is to capture the familiar elements of the past with the innovations and improved graphics of the present. I don’t need much. At least two players, although four-player support would be best. Give me playable characters with unique, diverse move sets and give friend and foe alike a health bar. Story and cutscenes? Those are neat, as long as they don’t come at the expense of the other core elements. I don’t even care if it’s 2-D or 3-D, as long as it’s fluid and fun.

Beat-em-ups were never huge commercial stars, but the best series always managed to post good to great numbers and beat expectations. I’d like to see a developer like Capcom or Sega take one last stab at a bona fide brawler and see if it can resonate with today’s gamers.

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3 thoughts on “Where Have All the Beat-Em-Ups Gone?

  1. Well, it used to be 2-D, then it was 2.5-D with King of Dragons, The Simpsons, TMNT, etc. etc., and then 3-D came along! Games like Ratchet and Clank, God of War, Dynasty Warriors etc. etc. are not beat-em-ups, they’re the CHILDREN of beat-em-ups. Beat-em-ups worked because they didn’t take a lot of memory (something that was valuable way back when), they were easy to learn, difficult to master, and made you feel powerful against droves of enemies.

    Then the limits on memory got lifted, and you got voice acting, and huge boss sequences with epic finishing moves, an enormous skill tree, a complex plot, etc. because the developers said, “Why not? We have room!”

    The things they failed at reproducing are the simplicity of it, as well as the consequences of dying. Dying in any of those games is a frickin’ big deal. In a beat-em-up, you just blinked and revived until you ran out of quarters.

    So there aren’t the classic beat-em-up games anymore. I wish they’d figure out how to bring back that simplicity and then sell us a 10-dollar awesome game that is still fun to play, but… I’m not sure it makes business sense anymore. But hey, I hope I answered your question: now you know where the beat-em-ups went!

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