Brawlers: Retrospective and Rebirth: Part Two – The Peak and the Fall

Updated: Feb 15

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 N.A.R.C.

N.A.R.C. Driving Stage
A Porsche 911 Carrera with twin machine guns – a nice understated ride for undercover work

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.

N.A.R.C. Arcade

Busted dirtbags! Warning - this video is pretty gory 😊

Video by LordBBH

1990 Alien Storm

Alien Storm
I hope that store’s insurance covers ‘Aliens and Flamethrowers Damage’

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.

Video by arronmunroe

Tie Ins

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.

1989 TMNT

Are baddie Ninjas supposed to explode?

Video by arronmunroe

1991 The Simpsons

At least they are out of the house doing things as a family...

Video by arronmunroe

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)

Bare Knuckle Japanese Mega Drive Box Art
Bare Knuckle Japanese Mega Drive Box Art

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’

Video by TurkishBullet19