The “Expert” Design of Modern Beat ’em Ups

“Beat-em-up” video games are relics of the past that manage to still persist to this day mostly as nostalgia trips. Examples include River City Girls (a gender role reversal of River City Ransom) and Streets of Rage 4. In these games, you can see the ways in which developers have tried to update the formulas to current gaming conventions, and it has me thinking about the evolution that the genre has gone through over multiple decades.

Beginning in coin-op arcades, the goal of beat-em-ups was to try to take your money in a war of attrition. They were downright ubiquitous too, with Double Dragon, Nekketsu Kouha Kunio-kun (adapted in other countries as Renegade), Final FIght, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Sengoku are among the biggest examples from the 1980s to 1990s.  Despite their blatant unfairness, however, there’s just always been something fun about their simplicity. You walk side to side, defeating waves of enemies and overpowered bosses with flashy attacks and however many coins were in your pockets.

But home consoles have had beat-em-up games for a long time as well, and the original quarter-munching system could not apply there. Instead, they usually did at least one of two things. The first was to limit how many times you could play in order to make the challenge about being good enough. Streets of Rage, for example, began as a Sega Genesis/Megadrive game, and restricted how many continues you could use. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game did the same, though it could be made more forgiving using a cheat code. The second approach was to adjust the experience to include elements from other genres. From one NES iteration to the next, Double Dragon incorporated things like an experience system, platforming, and recruiting enemy bosses as allies. Kunio-kun’s descendant is River City Ransom, a kind of 50-50 RPG and beat-em-up experience. Ninja Gaiden went from beat-em-up in the arcades to completely switching genres to a notoriously cruel action platformer. As Jeremy Parish points out in his NES Works video series, this was par for the course for many games in their conversion to home play.

For many years, the two variants existed side by side, with the arcades still taking kids’ allowances bit by bit while consoles acted as investments rewarding time spent. Eventually, however, arcades mostly faded away, and their brand of beat-em-ups kind of lost their place. These days, players can still visit the classic beat-em-ups of the past through re-releases on modern consoles and computers, but the lack of quarter feeding makes them an inherently different experience. However, there’s still a lot of love for the genre, especially among those who grew up with it, and there’s been a clear desire to capture the magic in a faithful way while still updating the beat-em-up to include accepted standards of current gaming—like not tossing you all the way back to the first level after you lose.

The result is that many of the beat-em-ups of the last decade really want to emphasize being “skill tests.” Both River City Girls and Streets of Rage 4, for example, take a lot of influence from fighting games—especially the “anime fighter” subgenre. The use of ground bounces, wall bounces, and air juggling makes these games partly an exercise in optimizing combos. 2013’s Dragon’s Crown also leaves plenty of room for combo creativity, and along with River City Girls does bring in RPG aspects that also reflect a more contemporary sensibility. While not the first beat-em-ups to incorporate these elements (that might be Guardian Heroes in 1996), the approach seems to have become a staple of sorts. What’s more, Streets of Rage 4 has bosses that are programmed to avoid attacks through brisk walk speeds (as if to whiff punish), as well as armor frames. Perhaps because fighting games are a closely related genre, the thinking is that it’s easiest to graft on those elements.

There are plenty of pros to adding long combos to beat-em-ups, namely in the realm of rewarding players for dedicating themselves to improving, but I think there is a recurring and significant con of sorts: the loss of the genre’s characteristic simplicity. In a lot of old beat-em-ups, you could probably get away with just doing basic punch combinations constantly, but now, the difficulty of newer games has been cranked up so as to almost require players to do those fancy combos to reliably succeed. In some ways, it reminds me of the direction Mega Man 9 and 10 went, which is to really fine-tune its platforming into combos of sorts. The result is a degree of extra polish that can sometimes feel too slick. 

In the end, trying to add an extra bit of rewarding challenge to beat-em-ups is hardly a bad thing, but I have to wonder if there are other possible ways to make the genre work in this day and age. One thing I’m surprised to have not seen is placing the beat-em-up into the money-draining successor to the arcade in the form of play-to-win mobile games. It would be downright diabolical, and I’m morbidly curious to see what would come out of it.  

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