Missing In Action is a column where we take a look at genres that have all but disappeared in the arcade industry as light-gun games, racers and dancers have primarily replaced other types of games that play well in the arcade. If you missed previous articles, we have already covered Space Games and Puzzle Games. Today we are going to take a look at the scrolling fighter – also known as the Beat ‘Em ‘ Up or Brawler (depending on where you’re from – I usually refer to them as beat ’em ups) where instead of the fighter being a 1-0n-1 battle between you and one opponent, you walk along kicking the crap out of anyone that gets in your way. With the new resurgence of fighters on the market I felt that now is a good time to take a look at this nearly forgotten genre.
A bit of history first…
Scrolling fighters owe their creation to standard fighters themselves which came onto the scene as early as 1979 with VectorBeam’s Warrior, the first 1-on-1 fighter. This later would expand to games like Karate Champ(Data East, 1984), Great Swordsman (Taito, 1984) and of course Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. Scrolling fighters differed by breaking form the single screen format and combined elements of a platformer title with a fighter(keep this in mind if you look up scrolling fighters on sites like KLOV. They seem to use the term loosely). Scrolling branched off as early as 1984 with two games coming along to define the genre: Kung Fu Master where you fought waves of enemies off and a boss at the end of each floor in an attempt to save your girlfriend Sylvia; the second being Samurai Magic where you control a samurai fighting through waves of sword-wielding enemies and a boss at the end of each level. After this the number of scrolling fighters begun making their way to the scene including Knuckle Joe, The Legend of Kage, My Hero/Seishun Scandal, Nun Chackun, Rush N’ Attack, Express Raider, Gladiator, Guardian, Iron Horse, Rock N’ Rage and Trojan, but it wasn’t until the predecessor of Double Dragon came along that things really got rolling in this genre. Hit the post break for the rest of the story.
The game that really paved the way for scrolling fighters was known as Nekketsu Kouha Kunio-Kun which would bring the influence along that games like Double Dragon needed. The game was heavily modified for a US release and called Renegade overseas but the original Nekketsu proved so popular in Japan that it influenced a number of sequels and spin-offs including the popular River City Ransom for the NES. In Nekketsu, you play a Japanese school student who decides to take on several Japanese gangs for beating up your little brother. A number of enemies attack from all sides and use must use your combat skills to defeat them as well as tough bosses that appear at the end of each level. In comparing this game with many other scrolling fighters that would come along in subsequent years it is easy to see how it influenced them. But for many people Nekketsu is forgotten by time and the title that would really define the beat ’em up for many people would be the Nekketsu-influenced game Double Dragon also by Technos, licensed to Taito. Double Dragon put you in the role of Billy or Jimmy Lee on a quest to rescue Billy’s girlfriend Marian from street gang known as the Black Warriors. Gamers could play co-operatively throughout the game with a great twist at the end where you must beat each other up to see who wins Marian. Double Dragon itself would go on to create a number of spin-offs and clones although it’s sequels didn’t manage to really capture the same level of interest as the original (DD2 didn’t change much from the first game and DD3 made you put in coins to purchase stuff in the game which was a “feature ” that most players didn’t appreciate).
After Double Dragon proved that scrolling fighters were perfectly suitable for the arcade market we began to see many others hit to the scene, all of which provided for many hours of fun and entertainment. The nice thing was that most of these games strived to make their own mark on the genre as opposed to simply copying Double Dragon’s formula. Sega’s Altered Beast changed things up with the ability of your character to morph into a different beast with certain powers each level; Ninja Gaiden introduced us to the ninja Ryu along with his five special techniques – the combo moves and tricks you could pull off combined with the high difficulty of the game and some violence helped this one stand out; Splatterhouse successfully combined the violent horror concept with a beat ’em up; a couple of games dealt with saving popular public figures from being kidnapped with Bad Dudes Vs. Dragon Ninja having you save Ronald Reagan from ninjas and Vigilante sending you off to save Madonna from Skinheads. 1989 gave us some of the most memorable beat ’em ups of all time including the awesome Golden Axe which introduced the fantasy element into beat ’em ups with magic and ridable creatures (and also spawned a few excellent sequels); Final Fight and Streets of Rage let us play as vigilantes on a quest to clean up the streets; Skull And Crossbones is the first game I know of to feature both pirates and ninjas battling it out for supremacy and it’s a beat ’em up; and of course who could forget the mighty Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles where players could take control of their favorite cartoon turtles in a battle against the evil Shredder. A sequel to this game, TMNT: Turtles in Time is considered by some to be the best beat ’em up of all time featuring more great beat ’em up action, fun voice overs, the ability to throw certain enemies into the screen and the ability to do special combos with a team mate. Konami was on a roll with beat ’em ups around this time, as they created the very popular Simpsons arcade game, where you could play as a member of the Simpson family fighting to save Maggie from Mr. Burns. Cartoons and comic books seemed to translate best into beat ’em ups with Spiderman and X-Men being notable games that were popular in arcades (especially X-Men with it’s dual screen cabinet and support for up to 6-players on one cabinet). While not based on a comic book series BattleToads, the super hard and extra violent just for arcades beat ’em up proved to be a popular game. Even a few RPG-style games were combined with the beat ’em up concept such as Dungeon Magic(also called Light Bringer), Gate of Doom, and Dungeon’s and Dragon: Tower of Doom. And who could forget Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker, made before the star became quite eccentric(among other things). Really there are so many that came along that it’s difficult to talk about all of them and the impact they had on gaming but no matter what you think about them, they had quite an impact on the arcade scene for a time. A0fter 2001 came along they have been few and far between, with the only game I know of sticking to the 2D scrolling fighter roots was a game called Oriental Legend, which hasn’t necessarily seen a wide release.
There were a number of 3D beat ’em ups that tried to make a living in arcades and they were popular to an extent although they never supplanted 2D beat ’em ups. Notable 3D scrolling fighters include Die Hard Arcade, Dynamite Cop, Zombie Revenge, Demolish Fist and most recently Asian Dynamite. Also to an extent, Gauntlet Legends could be thought of as a scrolling fighter/RPG that did well in it’s time.
Are scrolling fighters still viable?
The beat ’em up, scrolling fighter genre peaked in the late 80’s and early 90’s but I don’t believe that means that they are no longer viable. While Sega did release Asian Dynamite in arcades last year in Japan and Europe (there is no US release that I know of), they didn’t market the game well even in those areas so the location test for the title in Japan was virtually unknown. On top of that they released it for the aging NAOMI hardware which is unlikely to get the masses excited as they like to see games coming out on more recent hardware. I was excited when Konami came out with information on Action Cop as this was essentially a beat ’em up combined with motion controls and proved to be fairly popular at the AOU show. While not every beat ’em up in the future has to use motion controls the fact of the matter is that such games play best in arcades where you’re not out to experience a 40-hour storyline – you just want to get a some aggression out and have a little fun. One spin-off of the beat ’em up that is completely viable is the Dynasty Warriors-style game (which actually got it’s start in arcades as a 2D beat ’em up with Dynasty Warriors or perhaps Romance of the Three Kingdoms) where it’s you vs. a giant army of nearly countless enemies. Capcom was developing one game that followed this concept known as War of the Grail but unfortunately that ended up being cancelled. There is at least one 2D beat ’em up headed to arcades this year called Oriental Legend 2 but unless you live in Taiwan or Japan it will probably be difficult to come by.
It would be great to see some more beat ’em ups again, especially if developers could bring some new ideas to the table thanks to new technologies. Konami’s Action Cop is a great start with the more recent hardware and motion controls but I think that it is tantalizing to imagine what else they could do with the genre if they put their minds to it. Not only that, beat ’em ups are pure and simple fun, especially with 4 players.