Genre Theory 101: Side-Scrolling Beat ‘Em Ups


With the recent announcement of Double Dragon Neon, the XBLA and PSN reboot of the late 80s/early 90s classic ‘Double Dragon’ series, I feel that now is a good time to draw further attention towards one of gaming’s greatest genres. A genre that today, other than a few stellar titles every now and then, is criminally underrated and underused by the gaming industry. It’s had its ups and downs, its share of beloved classics as well as forgettable copycats and a whole lot of loose change spent on its various titles in the arcades over the years, and I’m here to tell you why side-scrolling beat ‘em ups, as a genre, are awesome.

A side-scrolling beat ‘em up is set in a 2D world where the player can do naught but walk from left to right, punching and kicking other guy’s skulls in with martial arts and the occasional melee weapon. Unlike 2D fighter games, such as the ‘Street Fighter’ series, which pit players against each other in competitive one-on-one duels, beat ‘em ups consist of a player (or players) traversing through levels while taking on a large number of AI-controlled enemies, and sometimes an end-of-level boss. The most popular setting for a beat ‘em up is usually a couple muscular dudes beating up more muscular dudes in some dirty city streets, bars or sewers, though this isn’t always the case - ‘Knights of the Round’ (Capcom, 1991) is set amongst a medieval backdrop, and ‘Altered Beast’ (Sega, 1988) let’s the player take the role of a freaking werewolf.

Games of the side-scrolling beat ‘em up ilk are usually tough as nails, as the aim for the arcade releases, like most arcade games, is to squeeze more quarters or pounds or whatever currency out of players. This is where the co-operative element comes into play – having a buddy (or buddies, depending on the game) along for the ride makes the game easier, way more fun and you can even sponge off someone else for those precious ‘extra life tokens’.

Image from the manga based on ‘Captain Commando’ (Capcom, 1991)

Genre Conventions
The name of ‘beat ‘em up’ is pretty self-explanatory – players find themselves traversing various screens, pummelling enemy after enemy until the end-of-level boss fight. The enemies players face will often be comprised of just a few different sprites or character models. To make the variety of enemies appear more plentiful, developers would often utilize the same with different colour design – known as palette-swapping – to fill out the ranks.

Due to beat ‘em ups’ tendency to focus more on action and punching guys in the face, story will sometimes be an area which suffers.. The story will often be loosely alluded to, often just acting as some vague backdrop to get players down to all the punching and kicking. Repeated and more clichéd stories include “You’re a Police officer/special forces; beat up some bad guys to get to the criminal mastermind” or “These bad guys kidnapped someone/stole something you need/want; beat ‘em up!” This, obviously, isn’t always the case. ‘Guardian Heroes’ (Treasure/Sega, 1996) employed a proper storyline, complete with cutscenes, branching paths, multiple endings and RPG elements.

Playable characters usually fall into the categories of the weak but agile one, the slow but strong one, and the in-betweener, who’s pretty decent in both areas but doesn’t excel in either. Although this isn’t always the case, it can be seen in many prominent examples of the genre, such as ‘Final Fight’ (Capcom, 1989) and ‘Streets of Rage’ (Sega, 1991). Some games employ a larger cast of characters - ‘The King of Dragons’ (Capcom, 1991) features a medieval-themed cast of five characters, while ‘X-Men’ (Konami, 1992) features a roster of six different popular X-Men characters.

The co-operative element is stable of the genre. Although not every beat ‘em up ever has featured co-op play, the vast majority have. Many games feature co-op play for two players, while some branch out to three or four player co-op, and others – such as the aforementioned ‘X-Men’ - even went as far as six player co-op in special cabinets only.

‘Streets of Rage 2′ (Sega, 1992)

Noteworthy Titles

  • ‘Double Dragon’ (Technos Japan/Taito, 1987): Mostly worth noting due to its importance in the conception of the genre. Up to two players play as Billy and Jimmy, fighting their way through the territory of the Black Warriors to get back their shared love interest.
  • ‘Streets of Rage’ series: The ‘Streets of Rage’ series was a trilogy of games originally released between 1991-1994 for the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, while the first two entries in the series were also released for both the Game Gear and the Master System. The series features fondly-remembered brawling of the highest quality as players travel through dingy city streets, punching and kicking their way to victory.
  • ‘Final Fight’ series: Originally conceived by Capcom as a ‘Street Fighter’ sequel in 1989, ‘Final Fight’ was made a franchise of its own when its focus shifted from one-on-one fighting, to a side-scrolling brawler. ‘Final Fight’ was an instant classic and birthed the whole ‘fast guy, strong guy, balanced guy’ thing.
  • ‘Captain Commando’ (Capcom, 1991): Featuring four player co-op and an interesting cast of characters – including the titular Captain Commando,  a ninja, and alien mummy and a baby in a giant robot suit - ‘Captain Commando’ supplies players with an enjoyable brawler romp through a science fiction, almost comic book-like setting.
  • ‘Knights of the Round’ & ‘The King of Dragons’ (Capcom, 1991): Both games feature similar medieval settings as well as RPG elements in the form of experience points which level players up through progression, awarding them with better armour and weapons. The latter goes one step further by adding more variety to its roster – characters such as mages and archers were added to the mix, alongside closer range fighters.

‘Final Fight’s’ Poison has an errm, interesting history.

  • ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time’ (Konami, 1991): A sequel to the original ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ arcade game, ‘Turtles in Time’ is fondly remembered as a beat ‘em up classic. Up to four players can work together as the four Turtles, fighting in the streets of New York City before moving onto travelling through history.
  • ‘The Punisher (Capcom, 1993): Based on the badass Marvel character, ‘The Punisher’ sees players assuming the role of the titular anti-hero, in pursuit of the Kingpin, while fighting other famous Punisher villains along the way. On top of the punching and kicking as per, ‘The Punisher’ livened up things by adding some enjoyable shooting segments to the mix. In two-player co-op, the second player could, weirdly, play as Nick Fury.
  • ‘Alien vs. Predator’ (Capcom, 1994): Coming years before the average-at-best crossover films, ‘Alien vs. Predator’ let up to three players play as either human marines or Predators and fight off waves of Xenomorph aliens.
  • ‘Guardian Heroes’ (Sega, 1996): A Sega Saturn exclusive (you can pick it up on XBLA now, though) ‘Guardian Heroes’ features a storyline with branching paths and multiple endings, something which isn’t often seen in the beat ‘em up genre. It’s also got beautiful sprite graphics, RPG elements and four player co-op play.
  • ‘Viewtiful Joe’ (Clover Studio/Capcom, 2003): ‘Viewtiful Joe’ was met with critical acclaim when it was released in 2003, for its use of 3D cel-shaded graphics and unique gameplay elements – such as the ability to speed up or slow down time. Players play as Joe, a movie fan who transforms into the superhero ‘Viewtiful Joe’ to rescue his girlfriend.
  • ‘Castle Crashers’ (The Behemoth, 2008): Bringing beat ‘em up fun and dark humour to XBLA (and later PSN), ‘Castle Crashers’ pits four players together as brightly coloured knights in a cartoony medieval world. There’s also RPG elements in the forms of leveling up through experience points, and full online play support.

‘Castle Crashers’ (The Behemoth, 2008)

Why It’s Awesome
It’s the ultimate couch co-op experience – although many more modern beat ‘em ups, and re-releases of older ones, feature online co-op play, it’s still local co-op that completes the experience. Nothing quite like teaming up with some buddies, grabbing some pizza and beverages, and kicking the ever-loving crap out of everything that moves together. It’s an experience which has been just as entertaining since the genre’s original conception.

It’s a genre you can rely on – there are a lot of beat ‘em up games. A lot of them, across multiple decades and plenty of different platforms. While admittedly there’s a whole lot of filler and carbon-copies of more popular titles in there, there’s still a great deal of gems to discover. This ensures that, once you complete and get tired of one game, there will always be a bunch more for you to invest your time in afterwards. Sure, some people may claim that playing a large amount of beat ‘em up games would just become a repetitive endeavour,  but there’s where the whole ‘ultimate couch co-op experience’ previously mentioned comes in. And for some people, like me, the familiar feeling of trudging from left to right while beating up dudes is a warm, comfortable feeling indeed.

It’s the memories - nostalgia undoubtedly plays a role in the appreciation of the beat ‘em up genre. Games can sometimes seem shallow, unforgiving or out-dated compared to the video games of today. But if you remember going to the arcade or playing any of the genre’s many titles on the home consoles of the late 80s through to the mid 90s, then chances are you’ll find something to enjoy.

  1. Galvion said:

    Streets of Rage… so good! Great post!

    • Thanks. :D I should have also remembered to mention Streets of Rage Remake, which combines the best aspects of all three games in the series. Damn. D:

  2. Galvion said:

    I thought the remake was cancelled and a lot of gamers, including myself, were very up in arms.

    • It was an unofficial fan-made release. It got released but Sega filed against it, so it got er.. unreleased, haha, and ports to (I think) iOS and Wii were cancelled. The PC version is still out there on the internet if you can find it, though.

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