Updated: Oct 23
Welcome back, everyone. In the first article of this three-part mini-series, we investigated the birth and subsequent rise of the Brawler genre. In this, the second article, we will see Brawlers reach their zenith followed swiftly by their precipitous fall into relative obscurity. Let’s dive in…
Oddities and Offshoots
But before we do that, let’s take a look at some of the oddities and off-shoots to the genre that emerged at this time. As Brawlers became more and more popular, they started to influence gaming in general. This resulted in several games that took Brawler’s basic mechanics and introduced them into other genres.
1988 saw N.A.R.C. hit the arcades. This took the brawler formula and swapped the fisticuffs for firearms, thus creating something unique at the time. N.A.R.C. also featured driveable vehicles. These were a rarity in 1980s Brawlers; however, they would become more common in the 1990s. N.A.R.C. was also one of the earliest titles to use digitised graphics, resulting in a far more realistic look. This, combined with its high body count, adult subject matter and excessive gore resulted in some controversy at the time, which only increased its notoriety.
N.A.R.C’s gun-play highlighted and exacerbated a quirk common to most Brawlers, this being the difficulty in determining if an enemy is on ‘your’ level. Since both player characters and NPCs are 2D sprites, unless an enemy is on exactly the correct horizontal ‘plane’ as yourself, you will be unable to hit them - or they you. Imagine 2D cardboard cut out characters trying to meet edge-to-edge in a board game - this is the digital equivalent. In N.A.R.C. this also applies to bullets and rockets. Judging on which horizontal plane an enemy would be when your projectiles reached them from across the screen was even more challenging than landing a punch at point-blank-range.
This would result in your shots going wide frequently. Conversely, it may result in your character being hit by something you had expected to sail by harmlessly.
These quirks could be rectified - somewhat - by moving to the very top or bottom of the playing area, as this generally resulted in enemies doing likewise, thus lining them up on your horizontal plane. This quirk has persisted up to the modern era.
Busted dirtbags! Warning - this video is pretty gory 😊
1990 Alien Storm
1990’s Alien Storm also tweaked the brawler formula to include shape-shifting aliens. Our heroes - one guy, one gal, and one I-can’t-believe-it's-not-a-Cylon - fight the alien invaders with high voltage cattle prods, electro whips and good old-fashioned flamethrowers. In terms of tone, Alien Storm was the complete opposite of N.A.R.C., opting instead for light-hearted slapstick and humour.
Alien Storm mixed things up further by introducing 'gallery shooter' sections. These were fun too, in part due to the amount of environmental destruction these stages permitted. They also helped break up the core Brawler gameplay, thus preventing it from becoming stale.
Alien Storm Three Player Arcade
It is a little-known fact that all food vans are fronts for anti-alien invasion agencies. Except for ice cream vans - those are for the Zombie apocalypse.
The simplistic game-play of Brawlers made them an attractive option for film and TV tie-ins - pretty much anything could be turned into a Brawler with a little effort. Two standout examples which were genuinely decent games in their own right were 1989’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (or Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles in the UK due to censorship laws) and 1991’s The Simpsons. Both were created by industry giants Konami and likely ran on similar hardware. One innovation these games introduced was simultaneous four-player co-op, facilitated by plus-sized cabinets.
Are baddie Ninjas supposed to explode?
1991 The Simpsons
At least they are out of the house doing things as a family...
The 1990s: The Peak
The early to mid-1990s saw what were arguably the best brawlers yet. By this point, developers could draw inspiration from over half a decade’s worth of similar games. What worked had been worked out, and what didn’t had been discarded. This evolutionary approach resulted in a trilogy of brawlers, which many considered the pinnacle of the brawler genre to this day. That trilogy was…
Streets of Rage 1 (1991) 2 (1992) and 3 (1994)
The initially SEGA Mega Drive / Genesis exclusive Streets of Rage trilogy (or Bare Knuckle as it was known in Japan) was one of SEGA’s ‘killer app’ franchises (alongside Sonic the Hedgehog) and did much to ensure the console’s success.
Truth be told, there was little that was wholly original about the Streets of Rage games, but they were masterpieces nonetheless. The Streets of Rage trilogy successfully combined all the best elements of the best brawler franchises from before. These elements were then packaged together with superb gameplay, fantastic visuals, an atmosphere that oozes ‘street cred’, and one of the best soundtracks in video game history.
Streets of Rage 2 SEGA Genesis / Mega Drive
Blaze Fielding - many a ‘90s schoolboy’s first ‘digital crush’
1993 Cadillacs and Dinosaurs
Another worthy mention and an example of a more obscure tie in was Capcom’s Cadillacs and Dinosaurs. In this comedic romp, you arrived in style in open-top ‘50s Cadillacs, fought poachers and pacified irate dinos by punching them on the snout. Towards the end of the game, you were also fighting rather disgusting mutants as well.
Sadly, Cadillacs and Dinosaurs was an arcade exclusive that was not ported to any of the home systems. Emulation via MAME or similar is the only way for modern audiences to enjoy this game.
Cadillacs and Dinosaurs Three Player Arcade
03:48 - So punching a dino annoys it, but moar punching tames it? Perhaps they should have tried that in Jurassic Park…
1994 Aliens vs Predator
1994’s Aliens Vs Predator was another exceptional brawler that brought several innovations to the table, most notably player characters always possessing guns/plasma casters. This allowed projectile weapons to be included in regular gameplay. Bonus ‘pickupable’ weapons from the movies, such as Pulse Rifles and Predator Smart Discs were included too of course.
Aliens vs Predator introduced a good deal of variety, as the player characters had very different weapons, playstyles and movesets. These movesets included special moves ‘inspired’ by Capcom stable mate Street Fighter II, including Hadoukens, Dragon Punches, and Cammy’s Thrust Kick. Indeed, the player characters in Aliens
vs Predator Arcade possessed the most extensive movesets of any Brawler up to that point, being closer to that of Street Fighter 2's than that of most Brawlers.
AvP Arcade also added considerable variety to the genre’s air control and jumping kicks. Lt. Kurosawa, for example, could rebound off walls, sword bounce from one enemy’s head to another and then chain into an air grab and slam, while the Predator Hunter could chain a flying slam into a Blanka style cannonball roll. Pulling off such combos required considerable skill - or luck should you perform them by accident when button mashing - but were extremely rewarding when done right.
Sadly, Aliens vs Predator Arcade was another arcade exclusive that was not ported to any of the home systems. Again, emulation via MAME or similar is the only way for modern audiences to enjoy this genre high point.
Aliens vs Predator Arcade Three Player
Still better acting than in AVP: Requiem
The 1990s: The Fall
Sadly, it appeared to many that AvP was the Brawler genre’s ‘last hurrah’. The one-on-one fighting games, most notably Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat, had stolen a lot of the Brawler’s thunder. This, combined with a general lack of innovation and an apparent inability to solve some of the Brawler genre’s more irritating gameplay quirks, lead to Brawlers slipping into obscurity. The later decline of Video Arcades and the rising popularity of 3D polygon games over 2D sprite-based games appeared to seal the Brawler’s fate forever.
Thankfully, this proved not to be the case, as Brawlers would see a resurgence in the 21st century, which we will cover in the third and final article of the series. See you all there.
Have you played any of the games covered in part two? If so, what were your experiences with them? Are there any other notable tie-in Brawlers that we should highlight? And can you think of any other oddities and offshoots to the Brawler genre that are worth a look? 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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 Turtles in Time and The Simpsons Arcade
Bare Knuckle Japanese Mega Drive Box Art