Brawlers: Retrospective and Rebirth: Part One – The Rise

Updated: Feb 15

Thursday the 30th of April, 2020, was a great day for fans of ‘old school’ brawlers? Why? Because the hotly anticipated Streets of Rage 4 was released on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Switch. Its mean Metascore and mean User Scores across the four platforms currently stand at 82.5 and 7.9 respectively*. This suggests there is still a lot of love for the franchise and perhaps the side-scrolling ‘brawler’ genre in general. *Correct at time of writing.

Brawlers Defined

Side-scrolling beat ‘em ups, AKA ‘brawlers’, are a loose genre of games that became very popular in the video arcades of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, and the 8-Bit and 16-Bit consoles of those eras.

The basic ‘Brawler formula’ was simple. One or more player-controlled characters walked from left-to-right fighting large numbers of NPC opponents, using their fists, feet and the occasional melee weapon. Both players and enemies could move ‘in-and-out’ of / up-and-down the screen allowing them to navigate the environment, dodge attacks and attack targets.

Plots were usually equally simplistic. They generally revolved around a gang kidnapping the girlfriend/sister/daughter of the hero. The hero needs to fight through the entire gang by themselves to reach the Kingpin and rescue the girl. Sometimes there was no kidnapping, and the heroes decided to fight the entire gang single-handedly because… reasons?

Let’s be honest, no one played brawlers for their stories. With these games, it was all about the frenetic button-mashing mayhem. Which is why brawler fans were saddened by the decline of the genre, and have rejoiced at its renewed popularity.

In this two-part mini-series we will take a deep dive into the brawler genre. This will include tracking the brawler's progress from its humble beginnings, its rise and subsequent fall. We will also be discussing the current state of play and then taking a speculative look at what the future might bring.

The 1980s - The Rise

The 1980s saw the release of the first 'brawlers.' These were followed in quick succession by titles that improved upon and expanded the genre. Many of the tropes that would come to define brawlers were established in these formative years. We will look a each in turn...

1984: Kung Fu Master

1984’s Kung Fu Master is often cited as the first arcade side-scrolling beat ‘em up. You may be more familiar with its 1985 NES incarnation, named simply Kung Fu. Although extremely simplistic and primitive compared to what would come later, many of the brawler genre’s staple mechanics were on display, including; scrolling, multiple enemies, a range of kicks, punches and flying attacks, etc. It also displayed health / HP bars for both the player and enemies. This allowed you to see at a glance how much HP you had left, and thus estimate how many more blows it will take to kill you. Enemy HP bars showed you how much HP they had left, allowing you to gauge both the power of your attacks and how many of them it will take to finish them off.

What Kung Fu / Kung Fu Master lacked was the moving in and out of the screen which would define the multi-plane brawler genre. Indeed, after Kung Fu, brawlers split into two main categories. The first was the strictly 2D side-scrolling beat ‘em ups similar to Kung Fu itself, which often incorporated elements of platform games*. The second category was the faux 2.5D brawlers which will be the focus of this article.

Kung Fu Master Arcade

"Everyone was Kung Fu Fighting..." Ok, I'll, stop now

Video by Jan Doedel

*If you would like to see a separate article devoted to the former category let us know in the comments section below and we will see what we can do.

1986: Renegade

Renegade was one of the first fighting games to introduce the moving in and out of the screen ‘multi-plane’ mechanic. (The other being the Pro-wrestling based Mat Mania). It was released both in Japan (where it was called Nekketsu Kōha Kunio-Kun) and in the West. The graphics of the Western release were altered considerably to appeal to a Western audience, with the 1979 film ‘The Warriors’ being a clear inspiration.

Although Renegade was not a true side-scrolling brawler (each level was essentially a large arena) many of the genre’s other staples were introduced here, such as; grabbing, kneeing and throwing enemies, jumping kicks, reverse attacks (for hitting enemies behind you) being grabbed from behind and booting baddies off bikes. It also featured a ‘hit ‘em whilst they are down’ mechanic that for some reason was not adopted by many of the brawlers that came later. (I guess ‘ground n’ pound’ wasn’t invented by the UFC after all 😉)

Many of the enemies that would go on to become stereotypical of the genre were first introduced here. These included; ‘Ladies of the night’ with thigh-high boots, fishnets, and whips, long-haired bikers, chunky enemies who charge at you, bald black dudes wearing sunglasses - including at night - and guys wearing suits brandishing guns. In Renegade’s case the final boss was a wise-guy wearing a suit and brandishing a gun - Scorsese would be proud.

The genre’s idiosyncratic ‘copy-and-paste’ bad guys were also on display here. You were fighting multiple copies of the same NPC - often at the same time. Each NPC character is then technically a class of enemy, not an individual. Why this is so is never explained. I can only assume that identical octuplets are common in Video Game (Gang) Land, or those crime bosses have access to cloning technology.

Renegade Arcade

Attack of the clone… er… twins?

Video by Nz0x

1987: Double Dragon

Double Dragon was arguably the first true multi-plane side-scrolling brawler. Designed by the same developers as Renegade, Double Dragon took everything great about the earlier title and improved upon it - except for ground and pound, which appears to have been omitted.

Double Dragon featured two-player co-op gameplay, which would be incorporated into almost every brawler that would follow. There was only one damsel in distress to rescue, however, so how was it decided which twin brother would ‘get the girl’? By fighting to the death of course! Talk about sibling rivalry…

Another major improvement over Renegade was the use of weapons taken from downed enemies, including baseball bats and throwing knives. One feature of Double Dragon that was absent in most brawlers is that enemies would back-step to keep out of range of your weapon swings, meaning using weapons effectively required an element of timing and tactics.

Many of the other ‘brawler tropes’ seemingly started here as well, such as; inexplicably giant enemies, conveyor belts in the obligatory industrial level and knocking enemies over ledges and down holes. This last mechanic was often the most effective way of defeating enemies quickly. Of course, it helped that enemies would often walk off said platforms and ledges by themselves, saving you the hassle. I have heard of ‘thick as thieves’ but this must be a case of ‘brain-dead as gangsters*’.

Double Dragon Arcade

Enter the (Double) Dragon

Video by arcadegamesfreak