Updated: Oct 23
Welcome back everyone. In the first article in this three-part miniseries we looked at the beginnings of the Brawler genre back in the 1980s. In part two we saw Brawlers reach their Zenith in the early 1990s, followed by a precipitous fall in popularity and thus relevance by the decade’s midpoint. In this, the third and final entry of the series, we will investigate the genre’s comeback in the mid 2000s, its current niche popularity and ask what the future might bring. Let’s dive in…
All was quiet on the Brawler front from the mid 1990s to the mid-2000s. Indeed, arcade style games in general had seen a sharp decline during this period. This was partly due to the decline of the video arcades themselves. Home systems had surpassed what most arcade cabinets were capable of in terms of graphics and sound, thus robbing arcades of one of their main draws. Couch multi-player and the rise of on-line multiplayer also ate into the arcade market since they eroded the arcade’s social aspect. Lastly, games developed for home systems tended to be larger, more complex and possess greater replay value. For Brawlers to become relevant again, they would need to adapt and embrace this new paradigm. Thankfully, this is precisely what they did.
Some of the most impressive brawlers came from the modding communities of South America, where it appears the Brawler genre remained popular even after its decline in Japan and the West. (If anyone reading this could confirm or deny that, it would be very much appreciated.) These were made possible due to the Beats of Rage Open engine (Open BoR), a user made game engine that can be used to create - or re-create - Brawlers. (It is essentially the Brawler equivalent of M.U.G.E.N)
The two most notable South American Open BoR games released during this period are Streets of Rage Remake and Final Fight LNS (Las Noches Skyperas)
2006 Streets of Rage Remake 5.1
Streets of Rage Remake by Bomber Games had a long and somewhat troubled development history. Its initial incarnation was released in 2006. It then went through several revisions over the years, with each revision making incremental improvements, culminating in its current version 5.1, released around 2012. Allegedly SEGA almost killed the project via a Cease and Desist notification in 2011, although presumably an agreement was reached or a workaround devised since it is still available for download at the time of writing.
Streets of Rage Remake combines the best elements of all three retail Streets of Rage games, adds a whole host of additional content, updates the graphics and allows for more customisation options than you can shake a fist at. The cut character Ash has been reintroduced as both an enemy boss and as a playable character. Indeed, several bosses and enemy NPCs are now unlockable playable characters.
As you would expect, it featured co-op play. What you might not have expected was that in the absence of another human to play with, the game’s A.I. can control a second player, and is surprisingly effective at doing so. The game also features firearms - including a rocket launcher - vehicle sections and branching paths allowing for playthroughs featuring levels from all three retail games. This is topped off with a whole host of unlockable content and game modes, which aids its replay value immensely. Best of all, it is free - download link can be found in the description of the video below.
What is Streets of Rage Remake?
The Burger King of Brawlers - “Have it your way”
Final Fight LNS
Final Fight LNS is to Final Fight what Streets of Rage Remake is to Streets of Rage - and then some. It combines the stages and characters from all three Final Fight games, grants them additional special moves and an insane combo system - 100 hit combos are quite achievable. Indeed, chaining such large combos is pretty much essential to progress as the game is punishingly difficult, with even its easiest difficulty setting being more challenging than most Brawler’s hardest. Veteran brawlers will no doubt relish the challenge.
Final Fight LNS relies heavily on ‘juggling’, i.e. the ability to hit enemies in the air and thus preventing them from hitting the ground. Done right, an enemy can be kept aloft and taking damage until they expire. Whilst they are being juggled, they cannot hit back. The video below shows this in action. Note that enemies can do the same to you, therefore a single mistake can quickly turn the tide of battle against you.
As you might expect from a modern Brawler, it too has unlockable characters - over 70 of them. This line-up includes characters from Capcom classics such as Street Fighters 2,3 and Alpha, Aliens vs Predator Arcade, Dark Stalkers, Strider and Cadillacs and Dinosaurs to name but a few. Its latest version also includes at least one character from SNK’s Fatal Fury franchise. It too is free - download link can be found in the description of the video below.
Final Fight LNS Ultimate - Ultra Hard Hannah playthrough
Brings an M-16, grenades and a Triceratops to a street fight…
2008 Castle Crashers
Commercial Brawlers too have undergone a resurgence, starting with 2008’s wacky and superb Castle Crashers, released on Xbox Live for the Xbox 360 - and then on PS3 and Steam in 2010, and finally on Switch in 2019. Created by The Behemoth - formerly of Newgrounds, it shares a similar cartoony aesthetic as its stablemate Alien Hominid and the flash games that inspired them.
Castle Crashers combines brawler gameplay with RPG elements. Levels can be repeated as often as you like to grind for XP (eXperience Points), which can be used to upgrade your knight’s abilities, weapons, and magic. Castle Crashers also introduced ‘animal orbs’, floating animals that would perform tasks automatically, for example, discovering hidden loot. One particularly amusing animal orb was the ‘Bi-Polar bear’, which would attack enemies, but sometimes randomly decide to attack you instead.
Another major innovation made by Castle Crashers was on-line co-op play. Up to four could play at once, with any combination of local and on-line players.
Since it ran on Xbox live and Steam, Castle Crashers featured achievements, which may have been another first for the genre. Castle Crashers was another genre high point, and its commercial success may have paved the way for later commercially released brawlers, such as…
Castle Crashers Remastered - Switch Trailer
And now you can crash castles on Nintendo Switch as well, excellent news.
Streets of Rage 4
Of course, the highest profile Brawler in the modern era is Streets of Rage 4. The game features a distinctive hand drawn art style, new characters and new gameplay mechanics. It has also remedied one of the genre’s peculiar quirks, that of enemies disappearing off the edge of the screen. Previously, this forced the player to wait until the enemies wandered back onto the screen in order to fight them. Streets of Rage 4 solves this problem by preventing enemies from moving off the visible play area - i.e. the screen - in the first place.
Innovative gameplay mechanics include the ability to regain health expended on special attacks by performing follow up attacks without being hit, however being hit negates this, fostering a high-risk, high-reward playstyle. Thrown weapons now rebound of enemies and can be caught in mid-air, ready to be used again. Another innovation is the ranking system, whereby player’s performance in a level is determined by their score. Rank points accumulate over time towards the player’s ‘lifetime score’ and can be used to unlock secret characters from previous the original trilogy.
Streets of Rage 4 - Official Launch Trailer
I’m seriously liking the art style…
I imagine Streets of Rage 4 is selling very well, however, I doubt the Brawler will ever be a mainstream genre again. Video games have simply come too far since the mid-1990s for Brawlers to be relevant today in the AAA space.
However, Brawlers have also made a comeback on the indie scene, with The TakeOver, River City Ransom: Underground, River City Girls, and Fight’N Rage - to name but a few - all having been released on Steam within the last few years. Considering the popularity of retro style games in general this trend may well continue for some time, and I suspect it is here that the Brawler genre will find its new home.
What are your thoughts? Are there any Brawlers of note you would like to mention? Are there any mechanics in brawlers you particularly liked or found especially annoying? What mechanics would you like to see implemented in future Brawlers? Let us know in the comments section below.
Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to on-line multi-player. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17, and contacted via email at email@example.com
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