Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Who are the beat-em-up kings, and when are we gonna get there?

at 6:30 PM
Have I posted about anything but beat-em-ups in like, a month? That's what I've been playing and I write about what I play. If you don't like it, well YOU CAN JUST GIIIIIIIIIT OUT!

So with the weekly beat-em-up posts covering such eccentricities as Growl and Undercover Cops and more serious posts targeting obscura like Sengoku 3, you may be asking: is he ever gonna talk about a game I've played before? We name-drop Final Fight every two seconds but haven't taken the time to write about it or explain why it's classic - the main reason being that I don't feel like playing it because I don't enjoy it. But we are eventually going to cover some of the beat-em-up kings for context, not because I think they're necessarily better or more important than anything else, but to get a sense of grounding for the seemingly arbitrary selection of titles we've been covering. So who ARE these so-called beat-em-up kings, and what makes them so royal? Are they basically the same thing as a burger king?

Final Fight (Capcom)
Well, if you ask anyone at all to name one beat-em-up, they will say "Final Fight". That's it. That's like asking for "one fantasy trilogy" (Lord of the Rings) or "one crime film" (The Godfather). It's the answer ingrained into the popular consciousness. The classic. Further, if you ask for one beat-em-up developer, you'll probably get "Capcom" (developers of Final Fight). Oddly enough, there's no single other particularly high-profile beat-em-up attributable to Capcom, though they made a slew of other conservative, well-respected arcade and SNES games, many licensed with semi-obscure properties: The Punisher, Aliens vs. Predator (which was just a comic book at the time), Cadillacs and Dinosaurs (yet another comic), Knights of the Round, King of Dragons, so forth. They all play pretty similarly, most are only two or three player, and most are pretty fun, though very similar to Final Fight. The two real gems in the Capcom crown are their later Dungeons & Dragons games, 1993's Tower of Doom and 1996's Shadow over Mystara, featuring complex special attack and defense mechanics, RPG-esque class balance, and great four-player teamwork. To get some Capcom representation into the mix, we'll be featuring Cadillacs and Dinosaurs this very week, chosen because I've heard people like it.

Aliens vs. Predator (Capcom)
Knights of the Round (Capcom)
If you ask for a second beat-em-up after Final Fight, the answer'll depend on who you're talking to. Someone who knows their classic gaming and is more the type to go back and play these games now will most likely say Streets of Rage 2. Ragey Rage 2 is sometimes thought of as the last great beat-em-up [citation needed], the culmination of all the ideas of the genre before it descended into the excess that would characterize its later years (magic systems, combo systems, dungeons). It's refined with just enough special inputs not to be confusing and a steady stream of new and interesting enemies, and decked in great graphics and tunes. The original Streets of Rage was sort of the game that proved original home beat-em-ups could be a thing (and was one of the first great Genesis games) and Streets of Rage 3... well no one really likes that one except Golem. Of course, the Streets of Rage series was developed in-house at Sega, whose name resides on another classic that often transcends the beat-em-up label and is probably best remembered by people who "were there": Golden Axe. Golden Axe is the worst game I've ever played, but people like it, so :shrug:. So Sega: they're beat-em-up king #2. Since the Streets of Rage series deserves a lot deeper than Weekly Beat-em-up coverage and the Golden Axe games are the worst three games ever created by human hand, we'll be taking on a slightly more idiosyncratic Sega beat-em-up: Alien Storm.
Streets of Rage 2 (Sega)
The Worst Game Ever Made (Sega)
People from my generation, kids who grew up knowing superheroes from cartoons rather than comic books or movies, would probably be quicker to name the works of a third developer: Konami. I'm sure if I asked my non-gamer brothers to name an arcade game, they'd instantly respond either "X-Men", "Turtles in Time", or "The Simpsons". At a time when licensed games were largely shit (they still mostly are I guess), Konami took the biggest licenses and turned out faithful co-op games that you could play with three (or even five!) friends or strangers. Maybe it's just me, but was anything bigger for kids in the early '90s than X-Men and Ninja Turtles? These games feature shockingly colorful graphics and a wide cast of characters starring all the cartoon favorites (well, most all... by the time I was playing X-Men Dazzler was a thing of the past and I always wondered why the sixth playable character wasn't a more popular mutant like Beast or Jean Grey (technically I get why after looking it up: Dazzler was in the lineup in the 1989 pilot episode of a cartoon that failed to materialize until 1992, after the game had released). The Konami games are a feast for the eyes and feature simple, easy to grasp mechanics; their challenges are oriented more around huge casts of enemies. There are a few original Konami beat-em-ups as well, but they're pretty seriously obscure. Konami mostly stuck to the arcades, but their TMNT games were lucky enough to see home versions - the lesser-known Genesis adaptation of Turtles in Time, TMNT: Hyperstone Heist is the first game we'll be playing from Konami.

X-Men (Konami)
TMNT IV: Turtles in Time, SNES version (Konami)
We certainly can't complete the Beat-em-up King Final Four without mentioning Technos. Technos is the developer you're least likely to know by name, but who is most significant in the historical development of the genre. And though you may not know the developer, you probably know the games - most of all RenegadeDouble Dragon, and River City Ransom. While Final Fight gets the credit for genrefying and mainstreamizing it, it's Technos who invented the beat-em-up. Their 1986 arcade/NES game Renegade is without a shadow of a doubt the first beat-em-up, introducing multi-hit enemies, the X-Y isometric movement plane, grappling, combo attacks, positional attacks, and just about all of the dynamics of modern action combat. We'll talk more about Renegade later in the week. Double Dragon took that a step farther with more complex input mechanics (punch AND kick), picking up weapons, two-player simultaneous co-op, continuous left-right scrolling, and an overall more dramatic and dynamic narrative structure. Double Dragon II further tweaked the formula (creating somewhat of a hybrid between Renegade and Double Dragon), introduced more variety in boss fights, and brought co-op play to home consoles; simultaneously River City Ransom was bringing beat-em-up gameplay to an adventure/RPG structure. Without Technos, the beat-em-up would not be - as far as I'm concerned they are the ultimate King of the Hill. Unfortunately, after Double Dragon II, very few of their games made it outside of Japan (they didn't even develop the wildly unpopular Double Dragon III), and the few that did (like The Combatribes and Shadow Force) struggled to find an audience in the post-Final Fight world. We will be playing a lot of Technos games because A.) they're historically important B.) I like them a lot and C.) unlike the previous three developers, they show substantial internal variety. Most likely the first we'll play will be The Combatribes, as it's fairly accessible.

Renegade (Technos)
Shadow Force (can you not see the logo in the image?)
So those are, as far as I'm concerned, the four "main" beat-em-up developing kings. Are they the best? Are their games the best? That remains to be seen (I'll give you a hint: in some cases yes, in some cases no). Keep watching the Weekly Beat-em-up to find out out!

Update: Since this was a bit of a beat-em-up historiography, it was pointed out to me that maybe it'd be a good idea to list where you can play some of these games today. Here are some legit places to cheaply buy the games mentioned in this post:

On Xbox Live Arcade and Playstation Network you can find mostly online-equipped versions of:
--Final Fight arcade version (in Final Fight: Double Impact)
--D&D: Tower of Doom and D&D Shadow over Mystara (collected in Chronicles of Mystara)
--Streets of Rage 1, 2, and 3 (separately, no online play, XBLA only)
--Golden Axe arcade version (no online play, XBLA only)
--X-Men
--The Simpsons
--Formerly you could find Turtles in Time, but it has been taken down

In Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection for the Xbox 360 and PS3 you can find the Genesis versions of:
--Streets of Rage 12, and 3
--Golden Axe I, II, and III
--Alien Storm
Please - if you own a PS3 or 360, buy Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection! It has 30+ great Genesis games including the entire original Sonic series, all of Streets of Rage, the Shining Force games, the Phantasy Star series, and a couple hidden gems too! It even has save states and full control customization (far better than Nintendo Virtual Console). And it's only ~$15 on Amazon! This is absolutely the best way to play these games.

On the Nintendo Wii Virtual Console you can find the NES/SNES/Genesis versions of:
--Final Fight 1, 2, and 3
--Streets of Rage 12, and 3
--Golden Axe III, and III
--Alien Storm
--Renegade
--Double Dragon I and II
--River City Ransom
--The Combatribes

The remaining games can be emulated using MAME. I will leave it up to you to find MAME and discover where to find ROMs - with the power of today's internet, it should only take a minute. So anyway, check em out!

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