Saturday, 12 September 2015

The DNA of side-scrolling beat 'em ups

A few days ago, I got around to downloading a recent re-release of one of my all-time favourites: Streets of Rage 2. I've got the original Mega Drive game and I've got the excellent fan remake but I couldn't resist spending a few quid on the '3D' edition for the 3DS. It's still a storming game (obvs) and the port by M2 is superb on so many levels but that's not what I'm here to talk about; not today at least. Y'see, I love the classic side-scrolling fighters that just aren't made in abundance anymore but when you've played your fair share, you begin to notice that there is a shared 'DNA' of sorts; a checklist that all beat 'em ups must apparently adhere to. So I thought it would be fun to do a quick feature about what makes a great beat 'em up.

The Enemies:
Side-scrolling beat 'em ups all tend to have a) standard thugs/foot soldiers/minions b) sub-bosses to provide a bit more challenge mid-way through a stage c) a main boss at the end of each level. If you're playing a fighter based on the real world then of course, the standard thugs at the bottom of the payscale must all dress the same and go by names such as 'Grit', 'Bonanza' or 'William' (don't ask why, just accept it). They will also be weak and the player character will have no trouble despatching about 40 guys in the same street. Try doing that in real life! Male goons must of course be punks, bodybuilder types, huge fat men (wearing braces) or ninjas. The girls are happy to walk the streets in leotards, tiny crop tops or high heels - perfect combat gear...apparently. The sub-bosses will be karate experts or just bigger blokes capable of actually blocking your attacks whereas the big bad end-of-level nasties will have ways of breaking out of your combos, moving around at unlikely speeds or being cheap with projectiles (which the regular goons didn't think to do).

The Player Characters:
There are typical archtypes of playable warriors in side-scrolling beat 'em ups. Power characters, agile characters and all-rounders. You can expect the 'Power' character to be handy with suplexes and devastating throws but sluggish and therefore ideal for both experts and newcomers. The experts will know how to play the Power charecter without falling prey to their weaknesses while newbies will appreciate being able to bash through enemies easier but probably won't be able to complete the game with them in the long run. The 'Agile' character will be the bane of feminists by usually being a female sculpted from the 'fast but weak' mould. Their combos will be good and their speed useful but expect to take longer to wear down foes and definitely expect a harder time against the bosses. Oh and they will be just as unsuitably dressed for fighting as the women in the enemy's ranks. One for the experts. Finally, the 'All-Rounder' is the ultimate universally friendly character that has no specific strengths but covers all bases just enough so that anybody can use them regardless of experience. All will be striving to defeat the game's ultimate end boss for a range of epic reasons including (but not limited to) the kidknapping/murder of a loved one, in the hope that the city's crime will be completely destroyed with the elimination of a single villain or because said villain has a ballistic missile ready to launch.

The Locations:
Where to begin? Your typical beat 'em up will feature city streets, city parks, a dockland or industrial zone, a factory/warehouse, some sort of Japanese-themed area, a fight atop a moving train, a beach, the top floor of a skyscraper, a subway system, another streets stage, a seedy bar, and a bridge. The fantasy equivalent will not be complete without volcanoes, villages, a stage set aboard a ship, a mountain, a cave and a castle or two. It's also incredible just how easy it is to be trading blows with thugs in a neon-lit street before being blasted up into space to take the battle into orbit onboard the villain's secret space station. Such things are to be expected after all.

For all these stereotypes and worn-out cliches however, gamers can't get enough of what they should already be expecting and that certainly goes for me as well. There was a time when arcades and home consoles were flooded with games like these and I do miss this era. Modern day digital services such as PSN and XBLA have brought us the likes of Double Dragon Neon and the Scott Pilgrim game however so who knows? Maybe there are still many more streets and warehouses to battle through and many more knife-toting guys (and indentikit clones) called 'Slider' to introduce to the power of justice...


  1. There is also a nice little 2D walk along beat em up hid in the middle of Saints Row 4, its a real tongue in cheek piece, with 16bit graphics, jerky digitised voices. It makes me wish that they had expanded it into a full game instead of the approximately 2 levels you get and had made it selectable to play whenever you want from the main screen after you had finished the part that is in the game.

    There was also some great homebrew walk-along beat em ups downloadable for hacked versions of the original Xbox. I had a few of them, there were streets of rage and golden axe inspired ones, might be worth a look for you.

  2. I really enjoy MAME for these sorts of games. In fact, I pretty much only keep it on my PC for the likes of Golden Axe: Revenge of Death Adder and Violent Storm. Get these on PSN and XBLA somebody!