Updated: Feb 15, 2021
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.
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.
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.
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
(*Public Service Announcement for my American friends - over here in the UK calling someone ‘thick’ is the same as calling them ‘stupid’. Probably best avoid saying it unless you like your brawler action to be IRL 😉)
1989 Final Fight
1989’s Final Fight was a major step forward for brawlers that set the standard for all that would follow. Visually it was a vast improvement over previous games, with significantly larger and more detailed sprites. It also featured selectable player characters, each possessing unique stats and fighting styles. This injected a good deal of variety and replayability.
Final Fight included a variety of weapons to use, some taken from enemies whilst others were created by smashing objects in the environment. These included knives, pipes, and even katanas. Weapons with a long reach tended to be slow, and thus were ineffective at close range since they lacked an alternate quick and close attack. This sometimes limited their usefulness. Knives were used at the same speed as punches, however, and were always useful. This would become another trope common to the brawlers that came after.
Another issue was that the ‘use weapon button’ and the ‘pick up weapon button’ were the same. If you attempted to use a weapon whilst standing over another, more often than not you would keep swapping weapons instead of using them, sometimes with fatal consequences. Again, this issue would become apparent in most subsequent brawlers too.
Final Fight also featured several somewhat odd gameplay tropes. One of which being smashing open objects to reveal HP restoring food, or points increasing valuables. Quite why a trash can would contain a perfectly good (and still piping hot) roast dinner or a Diamond necklace is beyond me. I’m guessing the off-screen inhabitants of Video Game Land are both rich and wasteful. And yes, this trope was carried over into later brawlers as well.
Final Fight featured the HP draining ‘special attack’, which was a useful last-ditch escape from being surrounded - at the cost of draining a small amount of your HP. This was likely done for balance reasons, as otherwise, you could beat the game easily by simply spamming these special attacks over and over. Again, almost all subsequent brawlers would include these too. Both the player characters and enemy NPCs were varied and visually distinct, with at least five of them reappearing as playable characters in the later Street Fighter 2 franchise.
Final Fight Arcade
In case you are wondering, yes, Hagar’s special attack was the inspiration for Zangief’s spinning clothesline special move.
Video by NintendoComplete
1989 Golden Axe
Golden Axe took the brawler formula and mutated it into a high-fantasy side-scrolling ‘hack and slash’. Its aesthetics and character designs were clearly inspired by the popular Conan and Red Sonja films of the early to mid-'80s.
The medieval high fantasy setting allowed for an interesting and diverse range of enemies, including skeletons, warhammer wielding giants, barbarians and fire breathing dragons. Golden Axe also introduced several new gameplay mechanics, including dash attacks, magic smart bombs and riding on the backs of creatures. (In this case wingless bipedal fire breathing dragons and what looks like a cross between a mauve parrot and a frog.)
The high-fantasy setting also allowed for some unusual locations, including a village atop a giant turtle and fighting along the back of a giant eagle in flight.
Golden Axe Arcade
Welcome to the fashion show. AX-Battler pleases with his Posing Pouch of Protection, Tyris Flare risks bearing all in her Battle Bikini whilst Gilius Thunderhead makes wine in his Singlet of Fermentation. Bonus points you can guess where the wine is kept 😉
Video by World of Longplays
Conclusion of Part One
This brings us to the end of part one. We have seen that the brawler genre made significant strides in only a few short years. In the next article we will investigate brawlers at their peak popularity, the reasons for their decline and speculate on their possible resurgence in the modern era. See you all there.
Did you learn something here today, or were you already clued-in to the early days of brawlers? Have you played any of the games mentioned thus far? If so, which ones, on which systems and what were your experiences? Are there any other 1980’s brawlers that you feel are worth covering? Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences 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 online multiplayer. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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