Monday, 12 December 2016

Fists (and Blades!) Against Darkness!

Growing up in the 8 and 16-bit era of video games, I've seen my fair share of changes to the industry. We've gone from 2D pixel art to polygons, video game music to orchestral faux-movie soundtracks, and experimental level design to scripted corridors, and many more things have changed on top of those. The industry now has little in common with where it began.

However there is one genre of video games that have fallen off the map nearly entirely, relegated to download titles. This is the only genre where "professional" reviewers berate releases for not "modernizing" and getting with the recent zeitgeist and abandoning everything that made them great in the first place.

The genre I'm talking about is the Beat 'Em Up.

In the 1980s the arcades were king. Where else could you get together with a bunch of friends, goof off on some silly simplistic games, then go catch the newest Bill Murray or Spielberg film? The arcade is a fairly dead concept now, derided by modern critics as outdated and overly simplistic, and every genre birthed in those old cabinets has been either buried or declared irrelevant by those in charge of the industry.

Sound familiar?

Beat 'Em Up video games are simple. You have an attack button, a jump button, and that's usually it. Gameplay is centered around characters traversing imaginatively designed locations while beating the stuffing out of any enemy stupid enough to get in your way. These games are usually very short, but long on excitement and replayability. Classics of the genre include Double Dragon, Golden Axe, the Streets of Rage trilogy, Final Fight, The Simpsons, X-Men, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games by Konami, Aliens Vs. Predator, The Punisher, the Dungeons & Dragons Mystara games, and River City Ransom. If you've ever touched a joystick or d-pad before 1999 there is very little chance you didn't play most of these.

But this post isn't about them. It's about the ones lost in the mists of time. You see, because the genre was birthed in the arcades, which are dead, many great games were left in the dust and forgotten over the years. This, combined with an industry that has largely abandoned its roots in favor of mindless "progress", has left these classics forgotten and abandoned and left in a warehouse somewhere in Portland. But that doesn't mean I can't talk about them here.

Besides that, who doesn't want to play a part in an action movie, pulp novel, or thriller? People who hate fun. Who else could it be?

Here are ten Beat 'Em Ups you (probably) never played, and really should:

1) Undercover Cops

Play as three street sweepers as they rid the city of crime! It's sort of post-apocalyptic in a Fist of the North Star way, but the background hardly matters. The level design in this game is impeccable, from dodging sand crawling enemies and mines to escaping a collapsing construction site, every situation in this game is dynamic. Not to mention the moves. Grabs, pummels, special moves, context sensitive inputs, jumping attacks, this game really goes all out.

Irem made this as their only entry in the genre, and I have to say, it really doesn't show. It was made with a care in the design you rarely saw at the time, and it still stands out now as a top entry in the genre. The only downside is that nobody has ever heard of it.

Unfortunately, the best version of this game is not the most easily available version. The standard North American version features less moves than the original and a weaker soundtrack. To play it at its fullest you must either play the Japanese version, the World version, or the extremely rare Alpha Renewal version which includes everything in the original as well as an English translation. But it's well worth seeking out.

2) Metamorphic Force

Ever wanted to play as a werewolf and tear monsters and demons apart? Well here's your chance. Metamorphic Force takes the Beat 'Em Up template and adds transformations and an old school pulp feel to its surroundings. The game is fast-paced and as brutal as Konami's other entries in the genre, but the intensity and aesthetic were nailed so hard here that it's hard to imagine why it isn't well known. This is their Sunset Riders for the Beat 'Em Up genre.

My controversial take is that this is Konami's second best entry in the genre. Yes, even above the X-Men, The Simpsons, and TMNT games. The controls and level design are just so much tighter that it never gets old to play. What's their best Beat 'Em Up? That would be the next game on this list.

The North American version has a few faults not in other versions (listed in the video itself!) but it doesn't really matter which you play. They're all available in English and they all rock.

3) Crime Fighters 2: Vendetta

This is the most '80s Beat 'Em Up ever. And it is glorious. You play as a gang trying to stop another gang who kidnapped your protegee with nothing but your fists and anything you find lying on the ground. Protect the city by beating the stuffing out of anything in your way. Beat 'Em Up 101 taken to its delicious logical extreme. This game has a gonzo sense of humor, a four player mode, and some of the craziest bosses this side of Cannon Films.

It's actually quite amazing how well a game as clearly dated as this has aged as well as it has. The weapons are zany and extremely powerful with detailed sprites, the music sounds like its straight out of an old Chuck Norris movie, the controls are simplistic (there isn't even a jump button) and yet allow for some advanced maneuvers, and the game offers just enough enemy, weapon, and level, variety to keep it fresh. I liked this game when I was younger, but my opinion on it only improves with time.

Vendetta is available in so many versions and alternate territory releases that it doesn't matter which one you play. However, it has never been re-released, and that is the real shame of it. Throw in the fact that Konami is the one behind this, and you have yourself a problem in trying to play it today. But it is worth the hunt. The genre hardly ever gets better than Vendetta.

4) Battle Circuit

Capcom was the biggest name in Beat 'Em Ups, and this was their last entry in the genre, released back in 1997. Its wacky retro golden age of science fiction take is the perfect aesthetic to close off the 2D arcade era, especially considering how heavily Beat 'Em Ups relate to old pulp and action movies. But the gameplay is as expansive as ever, adding to the plethora of moves, crafty enemies and level design that Capcom throws at the player here.

You can unlock and purchase new moves between stages, all of which vary between characters. You can play as a wisecracking space alien plant. You chase down an evil scientist that blows up about as often as large objects in Michael Bay films do. For Capcom's swansong to the genre it doesn't get much better than this.

It's only a shame few people got to play it. Battle Circuit has never been ported, and Capcom has rarely acknowledged its existence since its release. But people are missing out: It's really one of the best in the genre.

5) Violent Storm

The last Beat 'Em Up made by Konami is a heck of a doozy. Everything they learned from TMNT, Metamorphic Force, and the Crime Fighters games is in Violent Storm. You play a warrior in a nebulous post-apocalyptic yet utopian world where your girl is stolen and you have to fight to get her back. It's very Double Dragon, but with Konami's wacky sense of humor and early '90s sensibilities. It also makes a good place for the genre to come full circle.

At first glance this game doesn't seem as in depth as Vendetta (the game made just before it), and it probably doesn't reach the same spread of ideas, but Violent Storm's differences are about how subtle the changes are. There is a lot of influence from Final Fight in the basic controls and set up, but where it changes it up is in the variety of moves you can preform, the main characters, the stage variety, the off-kilter humor, the enemy types, and the insane bosses. It was clearly made by the creators of the first two Crime Fighters games, and it is only a shame they never made another one after this. But it makes for an end to a fascinating trilogy of Beat 'Em Ups.

Unfortunately, this is a game made by Konami in their classic period of the late 80s and early 90s. Like most arcade games from the era, this means that it has never been re-released, and since this is Konami, probably won't be. But if you can find an arcade cabinet, give it a go. That first stage theme music pretty much says it all.

6) Sengoku 3

SNK is one of the best arcade game developers. Great in fighting games, puzzle games, and shooters, they seemed to have it all. But they never made a great Beat 'Em Up. Every attempt they made at the genre was thoroughly mediocre, unable to touch either Capcom or Konami's attempts in the genre. That is, until Sengoku 3.

The first two Sengoku games are bland post-apocalyptic Beat 'Em Ups with some interesting character designs and art ideas, but with abysmal stages and stiff controls. Sengoku 3 is entirely different. You now play as magic ninjas fighting demons using a wide variety of moves at your disposal and multiple ways to play through the excellently designed levels. SNK might not have been very good at the genre, but this is not only an exception, it is one of the best Beat 'Em Ups you'll ever play. And it was released in 2001 by a defunct team called Noise Factory which means it is also no holdover from the 1980s or '90s.

Being the most modern arcade game on this list (and yet still over 15 years old), it should stand to reason that it is the easiest game to find. Well, it is available on the Nintendo Wii's Virtual Console service, but has otherwise been left obscure. If you can find an SNK arcade cabinet with this game included consider yourself lucky.

*Side Note: Noise Factory developed another Beat 'Em Up called Gaia Crusaders. If you can find it it is well worth the trouble. They only made two in the genre but they are both great.

7) Double Dragon Advance

Everyone knows about Double Dragon, but no one knows about this game. This remake of the original Double Dragon takes everything that worked in the arcade and NES games, and the sequels, and throws them in a blender to make the best game in the series. It is essentially the best of the old school and new school in one overlooked game.

Technos made the original Double Dragon way back in the '80s and ended up changing arcade games in the process. However, despite closing down in the '90s, the team who made this game put everything into it to show how the genre expanded since the original game's release. You have running moves, pummel moves throw moves, combos, weapons, jumping attacks, crouch attacks, and the best level design the series has ever seen. It adds so much but never loses what made the original game a classic in the first place. As a tribute to the pioneers of the genre, it is impeccable.

This game was released on the Game Boy Advance. That should speak to how common it is to find. It has not been re-released as of yet on any modern system or service, and it is hard to imagine if it ever will. But if you have a system that can play GBA games, this an essential addition to your library. Although if you have any love of retro games, the GBA is one of the best anyway.

*Side Note: Technos' last arcade Beat 'Em Up before closing was Shadow Force: a super hard game where you have four attack buttons and play as magical ninjas. This game is next to impossible to find, but well worth seeking out.

8) Rushing Beat Shura

This is the most tragic game on this list. You see, this was actually released over here. The Rushing Beat series was released on the SNES throughout the 1990s, all with changed names and edits. The first was titled Rival Turf, the second was called Brawl Brothers, and the third was called The Peacekeepers. Rushing Beat Shura is the original Japanese version of the third entry.

There are branching paths, multiple endings, wide enemy varieties to fight, and a cyber-punk/near future story to keep you invested in what is going on. For a console release in the genre, this game is pretty packed. Boredom is tough in this game since it is different every time you play it with multiple characters (including unlockables) that change the way it is played. It's only a shame this has never been re-released in the decades that followed.

Don't bother with the North American version. The aesthetics have been peeled off, the music is gone, and the translation is incomprehensible. If you don't want to seek the Japanese version of Shura down, then I suggest sticking with the North American version of the second game: Brawl Brothers. It is the least changed of the three, and even includes the original Japanese version in the game which can be unlocked with a code if you so desire.

9) Golden Axe: Revenge of Death Adder

Like with Double Dragon you might be confused as to why this is here. Surely everyone has played Golden Axe? Well, nobody played this game. This is the second arcade entry in the series, and the most overlooked. It was never ported to anything, and Sega has all but forgotten its existence. But it is also not only the best game in the series, but one of the best in the genre.

The amount of enemies on the screen adds to the sword and sorcery carnage you'll be thrown into, the characters all have a wide spread in how you play as them, and the series has never looked this good. The chaos adds so much to the affair. If you have any love for the series, or the genre, then you owe yourself a playthrough of this one. The level design is the most inventive in the series, adding vertical scrolling and branching paths which changes the game up every time you play it. The Golden Axe series never surpassed this game.

As I said before, Revenge of Death Adder has never been re-released. Not even for the ailing Sega Saturn system. The original arcade game and the Genesis series has been ported to every collection Sega has put out, but this entry remains elusive. It is a mystery as to why.

10) Night Slashers

Last, but not least, how about a supernatural horror Beat 'Em Up? Night Slashers is what would happen if Darkstalkers was a Beat 'Em Up instead of a fighting game. You play as vampire hunters as they track down and slay evil in a set up that could only have existed in the 1980s. What other decade could you incinerate a vampire at dawn only minutes after piledriving a zombie into concrete? Yes, it's one of those games.

There's nothing particularly new in Night Slashers, but it has so much style and panache that you can't help but like it. You fight every horror movie staple monster you can think of and send them back to Hell as violently as possible. Your arsenal includes crosses, charms, and giant metal arms, depending on who you play as, not to mention insane wrestling grapple moves, running attacks and specials, and tag team moves when playing with a friend. Its basically Monster Squad: the Game for the adult set.

Again, like most of the entries on this list, Night Slashers has never been re-released, which is a shame. It's one of Data East's best games, but is still stranded in the arcade. If you can find a cabinet out in the wild then be sure to give it a go. One odd change is that the last hit of Christopher's combo in the Japanese version is a crucifix, while in the North American version it is a crystal ball. It was obviously done to avoid controversy (Because a crucifix obliterating evil is bad or something) but it is a pretty silly change nonetheless.

All in all, Beat 'Em Ups are a great and oft-overlooked classic gaming genre. There's really nothing like them out there, especially these days. Who doesn't like mowing down bad guys with a loved one (or three!) at your side? Unfortunately, with the loss of classic gaming compilations and ports, it looks unlikely that we'll be seeing re-releases or revivals of any of these games any time soon. The game industry just doesn't have that segment focused on preserving its past.

However, that doesn't stop gamers from seeking these classics out on their own. The '80s and '90s were a golden age for arcade games and have scores of gems waited to be uncovered. Whatever you do, don't miss out on them. You'll be missing out on some good times if you do.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a werewolf to DDT.

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