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Plotting the Evolution of the Scrolling Beat-’Em-Up

True scrolling beat-’em-up are sometimes presented as a lesser form when contrasted with competitive fighting games. After all, aren't fighting games the natural home of some of the world’s most talented players, and about as definingly ‘hardcore’ as you can get?

Fighting games and their community certainly deserve respect for the form they have pushed forward. But beat-’em-ups do not exist at the expense of fighting games’ presence in our lives. And more importantly still, the former have left a tremendous legacy of influence across the gaming medium, filled many of our heads with cherished nostalgic memories, and even enjoyed a renaissance in recent years.

Tracking the emergence and impact of the form, however, starts by distinguishing two genres that are effectively cousins in the taxonomy of game design convention.

The two are frequently confused. There was a time in the UK in the 1990s when almost any game focused on melee combat was branded a ‘beat-’em-up’. It didn’t matter if they scrolled or focused on one-on-one confrontations in a constrained arena. When pixelated fists were thrown, the UK’s gaming press reached for ‘beat-’em-up’.

By the dawn of the new millennium, perhaps thanks in part to the rise of the internet in laypeople’s lives, we caught up with the rest of the world’s distinction between two main schools of melee combat video game. But all these years on, you still hear the terms muddled. And it’s understandable, to a degree, as both came from the same inception point.

THE KING OF FIGHTERS (1994)

Fighting games tend to focus on one-on-one combat, and are frequently played in a competitive context. If you’re thinking of Street Fighter, THE KING OF FIGHTERS or Tekken, you’re in exactly the right territory. Occasionally called FTGs (following the Japanese naming convention for 2D shooters as ‘STGs’), fighters are presently regarded as one of the most purebred gaming forms, where high skill ceilings and dazzling competitive play define their scene.

But until the first iteration of Street Fighter II arrived in arcades from 1991, it was beat-’em-ups that enjoyed a bounty of that attention and respect. In fact, scrolling brawler’s courted much success for many more years thereafter, but eventually – and temporarily – they were shoved to one side by fighting games’ colossal commercial rise. It’s worth noting, as the word has come up, that ‘brawlers’ or ‘scrolling brawlers’ is also often applied to the beat-’em-up form as an alternative genre descriptor.

Back on the history, Street Fighter II’s commercial success was so tremendous that there was something of a gold rush in the early 1990s as myriad game companies pivoted to make one-on-one fighting games. There’s even a narrative that suggests Street Fighter II’s success was a catalyst in the demise of arcades. The logic states that as arcades became awash with fighting game clones, their appeal to a broad, vast mainstream audience with a diverse spread of tastes was diminished.

The Simpsons (1991)

Before the debut of perhaps Capcom’s most famous game, though, scrolling beat-’em-ups thrived. The genre’s success is the reason titles like Double Dragon, Golden Axe and Streets of Rage still carry pop-cultural clout today. And the form attracted so many players that in the late 1980s and early 1990s Batman, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Simpsons all had their own side scrollers. Beat-’em-ups, it turned out, had such a reach that they could double up as marketing tools, connecting with a sizable global audience.

Both beat-’em-ups and fighting games have their origins in martial arts cinema, and each form owes a great deal to the early boxing games that were popular in arcades in the late 1970s. Before the dawn of 1980, there was no real distinction between different styles of melee action games.

Kung-Fu Master (1984)

But in 1984, a pair of titles were released that essentially mark the point when the two sub-genres bifurcated and became distinct. Irem of R-Type fame delivered Kung-Fu Master cabinets to arcades for the first time, presenting a simple beat-’em-up that loosely adapted the Jackie Chan movie Meals on Wheels. Irem’s characterful creation thrived in Japan and the US, asserting the potential of melee combat games where players faced off a steady flow of rivals on a scrolling plane.

That same year another famed arcade outfit – Data East – released one-on-one martial arts-inspired fist fighting title Karate Champ, and months later updated the game to offer two-player competitive combat under the name Karate Champ: Player vs Player. This too was wildly successful, setting the conventions of fighting game design such as best-of-three conditions – conventions that still exist to this day.

Final Fight (1989)

Over time the two forms became increasingly distinct. Fighting game designers focused on bewilderingly complex movesets and refinement of the core concept. Beat-’em-up creators leaned more and more into building elaborate worlds and characters. There are many titles that blend elements of both, or defy any definitions that attempt to separate the forms. Indeed, the magnificent 1989 arcade release Final Fight was initially intended to be a Street Fighter sequel, and was developed under the working title Street Fighter '89. And yet it ultimately emerged as a scrolling beat-’em-up that borrowed much of the tone and energy of a fighting game. It would appear that at some point at the close of the decade, Capcom decided that the two genres were distinct, even if they had been at work on a project that inherited a little of the DNA of each form.

And certainly, following 1984 an evolutionary journey began that ultimately led to two different types of gaming experience.

In the case of Kung-Fu Master, it was played on an extremely 2D linear plane, as with a classic platformer. That is to say, you could move left and right and jump, but the game made no attempt to replicate movement through depth. Think of the likes of Streets of Rage or UK studio Rare’s Battletoads, and while each is a 2D game, they suggest a perspective closer to isometric, where the player viewpoint looks slightly down on the playfield. That allows the illusion of sprites moving back and forth through the foreground and background - a display technique known as ‘belt scrolling’.

Streets of Rage (1991)

The belt scrolling technique emerged as dominant in the beat-’em-up genre, and was particularly good at communicating the sense of a world or place that contained the action – something very much defining of the beat-’em-up experience. But belt scrolling served not just as an aesthetic device. In allowing a gameplay dynamic where players could move through and around the enemies they faced – elevating the energy, excitement and strategy of such titles.

1987’s Nekketsu Kōha Kunio-kun really set the template for what brawlers could be. It introduced belt scrolling, as well as putting slightly more demand on players, while giving them a somewhat more complex move set and combo system than previously seen. It’s designer Yoshihisa Kishimoto’s next game was Double Dragon.

Double Dragon (1987)

It’s worth noting here that linear plane scrolling beat-’em-ups continued to be made, including some sublime creations such as Namco’s beloved Splatterhouse, and the oddly charismatic Bad Dudes Vs. DragonNinja. Even as late as 2003 Capcom’s eccentric scrolling beat-’em-up series Viewtiful Joe stuck with the linear-plane approach.

Through the 1990s, though, the rise of both fighting games and 3D visuals rather eclipsed the traditional beat-’em-up, however it scrolled. Some studios attempted to move the genre with the times, and examples like SEGA’s 1996 effort Die Hard Arcade’s embracing of 3D visuals was actually better than it sounds. And at the same time it certainly took a few awkward paces away from the genre purity that made beat-’em-ups so appealing.

Eventually, though, the genre’s presence across the cultural landscape faded as the 1990s rolled on. But it never went away.

Firstly, you can clearly draw a line between the likes of Double Dragon and the modern action hack ‘n’ slash. As you roam through the vast worlds of lavish productions such as Bayonetta, God of War and Enslaved, the feel of beat-’em-ups is hard to ignore. The latter was made by Ninja Theory, now famed for the quality of their series Hellblade. There too, you will find the DNA of the brawler, even if the world is very much three-dimensional. Meanwhile, the 1988 scrolling brawler Ninja Gaiden itself evolved into a respected and infamously difficult action hack ‘n’ slash series. And there’s certainly a little of the ingredients of the brawler in the recipe that spawned the Dark Souls games. That link between the traditional brawler and modern action games is but one of the fascinating topics explored in our own newly released publication, Go Straight, which takes a detailed look at the genre’s history and legacy, as well as dozens of the titles that defined it.

Go Straight: The Ultimate Guide to Side-Scrolling Beat-’Em-Ups

Meanwhile, today’s gaming fans have been treated to some sublime works that mark something of a renaissance for the genre. In 2020 both Battletoads and Streets of Rage saw new series entries that each expertly maintained the genre’s purity while modernising the form both in terms of aesthetic punch and technical responsiveness. In the years earlier works like the brilliant Wulver Blade showed indies had a renewed interest in the genre, and even hits like Hotline Miami owed double Dragon and its ilk a major hat tip.

Clearly, the scrolling beat-’em-up has many years of influence and popularity ahead of it. It will continue to shape other forms while seeing its purebred realisation continue to evolve. The genre might just have to bear comparison and contrast to fighting games for as long as it lives.