Renting games was commonplace through the 1990s. Popping into a local video store often meant a chance to browse the latest console releases, often sporting distinct, utilitarian rental packaging. You might even manage to convince a parent to let you rent an entire gaming system, taken home in a huge protective clamshell case.
For a young Dave Cook (pictured above), a trip to a Ritz video rental store with his father turned out to be a pivotal moment in his relationship with games. The game he picked was the Mega Drive version of Streets of Rage 2, which was first released in 1992. Upon getting home and firing it up for the first time, Cook began a journey that would lead him to become the author of our latest publication Go Straight: The Ultimate Guide to Side-Scrolling Beat-’Em-Ups.
“From the moment that Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima’s banging music ‘Go Straight’ hit on stage one, it was love at first sight,” Cook remembers, revealing the inspiration for his remarkable creation’s title. “It’s still my favourite game ever made today. The combat is simple, yet deep with possibility, every move feels amazing when it connects, and the arcade-esque visuals are still so impressive for 16-bit hardware. From there, I started to learn about and play other side-scrollers and I’ve never stopped since.”
Side scrolling beat-’em-ups have been pivotally important in the evolution of games more broadly, with a far reaching influence and rich legacy ‒ it’s a history we explored in our recent blog post ‒ and that you can learn a great deal more about in Go Straight itself. That impact, almost certainly, comes from the gameplay purity that remains the foundation of almost every side-scroller to this day.
Side-scrollers of this type certainly have an enduring appeal, and for Cook that comes down to their simplicity. Somewhat like fighting games, 2D shooters and lightgun games, the genre’s lack of fundamental complexity has allowed designers to do a great many interesting and creative things within a constrained ruleset.
“The main appeal of the genre is its core gameplay loop, which lies under the hood of pretty much every side-scroller,” Cook elaborates. “The loop is basically walking from left to right, hitting enemies until they fall over, occasionally picking up weapons or using special moves.
“That’s basically it, but that loop is such a simple concept that it gives developers plenty of space to iterate and build new ideas on top of it. Take Capcom’s Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow Over Mystara, for example: it still has that simple gameplay loop found in most other side-scrollers, but now it has a currency system, an inventory wheel, a deceptively deep magic system, moral choices and much more. It’s so simple to get into thanks to that gameplay loop, but takes time to master. This is why the genre has endured for so many decades.”
In terms of Cook’s book, the idea appeared in his head as he saw peers and friends with a games writing history authoring hardback game history books. For a time, the notion remained an exclusive to Cook’s mind, as he toyed with the idea. Then, when the news of Streets of Rage 4’s long awaited development was announced, Cook’s resolve to write a book about brawlers was cemented.
With the project underway, he set out creating something that was more than a straight up, linear history of the genre.
“My biggest aim for the book was to shed light on games that players might not have heard about, so they can sample the broader world of side-scrolling beat ‘em ups,” Cook explains. “We’ve already heard from lots of readers on social media telling us about certain games they found as a result of reading, which is genuinely heart-warming to see. It really is just a big celebration of a genre that is very dear to me, and I’m thankful I got a chance to talk about so many games as an avid fan and player.”
With the book out and being very well received by genre fans and newcomers across the world, Cook’s mind turns to where side-scrolling beat-’em-ups have got to today. Encouraging, this expert in the form is very optimistic, and has some pointers as to current examples to tuck into or eagerly await.
“The future of side-scrolling beat ‘em ups is the brightest it’s been in a long time,” Cook enthuses. “We’ve only just had such releases as Streets of Rage 4, River City Girls Zero, and Battletoads, but looking forward we are going to be really spoiled for choice. Ones to look out for are Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge, Jitsu Squad, River City Girls 2, Final Vendetta, Deadly Metropolis and more. It’s a great time for new and current fans.”
Ultimately, Go Straight has come as the genre enjoys a bristling renaissance. Not that it ever truly went away. Because the side-scrolling beat-’em-up is a perennial genre. Since its emergence as a distinct form of fighting game in the early 1980s, scrollers have always been there - a mainstay of gaming culture and design. It just so happens that a new generation of game makers are putting new energy and ideas into the genre. It’s a great time to explore the scrolling brawler form - and a perfect time to open your mind to its rich history and diverse library by taking a (side-scrolling) journey through Go Straight.