I’m a huge fan of beat-them-ups. You lowly peasants may refer to them as “beat-em-ups.” However, I am a classy gentleman. So, naturally, I am above such vulgarities as the term “‘em”. I am a man of leisure and as such I have time to fully pronounce the word. If you do not, please know that I detest you.
If you’re going to talk about beat-them-ups, there’s only one place to start. Actually, there are probably several, but fuck it, I’m starting with Double Dragon.
Double Dragon (various systems, 1987, Technos Japan)
If you want to get technical, Renegade (also made by Technos Japan) was the first game in the walk-down-the-street-and-kill-everybody genre, in 1986 (it’s also the first game in the legendary Kunio-Kun series, which also included such magnificent games as River City Ransom and Super Dodgeball). However, if I’m going to be perfectly honest, I really don’t like that game. I find it repetitive and a bit overly-primitive to really be fun. So yes, it may technically be the first of its genre, but Double Dragon is where things really picked up steam. It took a lot of the mechanics of Renegade and made them smoother. It also added weapons and some totally kick-ass music (0:56 seconds is where the most epic guitar solo in all of video game music begins).
Double Dragon was, of course, extremely popular, and began the “golden age” of beat-em-ups. It was a huge success in the arcade and led to many, many home versions. Ordinarily I try to maintain a standard of journalistic excellence here (stop laughing, goddammit), but I will come right out and say that the Master System version of Double Dragon is by far the best. No other version even comes close. The Master System version didn’t use the weird leveling system of the NES version, it featured more on-screen enemies at once as well as a larger variety of enemies, and it even looked better. Just compare the NES version:
To the Master System version:
Seriously, what the fuck is even going on in that first picture? It looks like the bad guy punched Billy’s face so hard that it came out of his ass. The Master System version, on the other hand, looks remarkably smooth and bright for its time.
Perhaps the most significant and, frankly, unbelievable difference between the two is that the NES version didn’t even have a co-op mode. I found this out many, many years ago, and I still find it unbelievable. Double Dragon is a seminal co-op game, and the NES is possibly the most famously co-op centric console ever. That alone would make the Master System version superior in my book.
Of course, the NES later got River City Ransom, so Sega kinda got fucked there. It’s very reminiscent of the Mortal Kombat debacle, when the SNES version of Mortal Kombat 2 made the Genesis version look like shit after Sega spent a year bragging about how their version of the first game had red pixels instead of grey pixels. Nintendo wins. FATALITY.
Double Dragon is a lot of fun, especially with another person, but it still feels a little repetitive and primitive when compared to later games in the genre. Without a life bar, it feels like it takes just a little too long to kill enemies, especially toward the end, when the game starts sending wave after wave of enemies after you. This is the same problem that marked early fighting games; there was little to break the monotony. However, the team at Technos being the geniuses they were, the game has various tricks to combat that, even if ultimately this didn’t completely fix it. The weapons were a very forward-thinking addition, and helped make the gameplay a little more varied, although the fact that they magically disappear after clearing the screen in the home versions was a little frustrating. The traps in the last two levels also helped, although they were fucking irritating. I must have lost 1000 dragons to that goddammed bridge. And keep in mind, these were double dragons, so that’s, like… 2000 dragons.
Captain America and the Avengers (Arcade/SNES/Genesis, 1991, Data East)
I’ve said many times before that I am an engine that runs solely on nostalgia. While this is true, I rarely get nostalgic feelings from games themselves, because I’ve kept every game I’ve ever had (the only game I’ve ever sold was Metal Combat: Falcon’s Revenge, the sequel to Battleclash which I received as a birthday gift, and the only reason I sold it was because I didn’t have a Super Scope. And despite that, my inner collector was still threatening to rip a hole in the space time continuum to show me a time where I would own a Super Scope, thus making the sale seem insane), and have played them pretty consistently since I was young. However, occasionally I have such strong memories of a specific time tied a game that playing it always brings me back. Captain America and the Avengers is one of those games.
I’m not sure if this was true everywhere, or just here in Knoxville, but the arcade version of this game was all over the place. Gas stations, grocery stores, skating rinks, even arcades, if you can believe it. And, being that this was in the early 1990s, which I personally consider to be the golden age of arcades (if only because my favorite genres of arcade games, beat-em-ups and fighting games, really came to prominence then, and because I consider the golden age of arcades to be so because of the games, and not the culture around them), there was always a large pool of kids older than me with whom to play. This was good, because it meant I didn’t have to be good at the games in order to enjoy them.
Of course, that said, there wasn’t anything you could be terribly GOOD at with Captain America and the Avengers, except maybe putting in quarters as fast as possible and tapping the attack button REEEEEALLY fast during the “shooter” sections of the game. In a lot of cases, that sounds like a bad thing, but here, it just works somehow; It’s fun as hell to just run around as Cap or Iron Man hucking Coke machines at robots. It also doesn’t hurt that CAatA had the worst dialogue in video game history, coupled with the BEST voice acting in gaming history. In most games, “‘You cannot escape!’ ‘You will be the one escaping!’” wouldn’t pass for anything decent, much less exciting. But holy shit, with the voice acting? Whatever they’re talking about, it becomes the most exciting thing in history. “‘YOU CANNOT ESCAPE!!!’ ‘YOUUUU WILL BE THE ONE ESCAPIIIING!’” Even little minor things like death (well, minor here, since it happens so fucking much) become exciting. When I die, if I don’t yell “I… CAN’T… MOOOOOOOOOOVE!”, I’m going to be very disappointed with myself. In fact, the only time the game seems bored is, oddly enough, when it’s announcing its own name. “Captain America, and… the… Avennnnnngerrrrrrrrr…sh.” The voice sounds like Captain America’s (and now that I think about it, also Vision’s, Iron Man’s, Hawkeye’s, and pretty much all of the villains) but it’s read with all the excitement of a spy who’s been captured and is consigned to his fate, drinking his last bottle of liquor before being brought back to be shot in the back of the neck. It’s fantastic. The only bad thing I’ll say about the dialogue in the game is that the game’s best line, “WHY SHOULD IT GOES WELL?” isn’t read aloud. When you get to that line in the game, every line around it is read by the voice actors, but it just goes silent there. You kind of expect to hear papers shuffling around followed by “Should I… am I supposed to read that? I don’t think that’s what it’s supposed to say.”
I’m trying really hard not to let nostalgia color my love of this game. It’s hard, but I’m pretty sure this is accurate. CAatA is a really great game. The gameplay manages to stay pretty fresh throughout the whole game, partly due to a myriad of throwable weapons and a couple of horizontal shooter sequences. It never quite gets to the point of feeling like you’re just mashing buttons. It keeps the pace of the game going, and allows you to clear groups of enemies quickly enough that it gives you a sense of power without making you feel like you’re invincible, which I think is key to the genre.
There are also a lot of little touches that make the game really special, especially for fans of the Marvel mythos. Cameos from all sorts of crazy-ass characters abound, both popular and obscure (The Living Laser? KLAW? I’m surprised they didn’t pull out Batroc the Leaper or Turner D. Century), and unlike a lot of licensed games from the era, they really pay attention to the established canon of the stories. No one acts out of character (like in early Batman games where Batman would use guns, or early Spiderman games where Spidey had to murder and eat helpless children for sustenance), and while the storyline doesn’t approach the sophistication and moral complexity of comic storylines of the time, it does at least feel like a plausible comic book story. My favorite little touch in the game, though, is one that shows a keen eye for detail and almost certainly an appreciation for the genre. The bosses can be quite difficult, which is typical for arcade games, especially beat-em-ups; after all, that’s the best way to keep quarters rolling in without making the game feel unbalanced or too difficult in the actual stages. You expect a boss to be difficult. But the coolest part of the boss fight is when you start to round the last corner and the boss’s life bar starts to run out. All of a sudden, your hero yells “OKAY, GO!” and this heroic, triumphant music kicks in. It really makes it feel like an epic battle, and gives you this feeling of being a kid and just really wanting the good guys to win, even though you know they’re going to. It sounds stupid, but just watch this video and tell me it’s not true (boss fight starts at 2:20, epic music kicks in at 2:35):
FUCK YEAH GO VISION
Streets of Rage 2 (Genesis, 1993, Sega)
STREETS OF FUCKING RAGE 2.
You think you know, but you don’t know. You have no idea.
Every once in a while a game dominates its genre to such an extent that it is impossible to extricate the two. With beat-em-ups, it’s… well, it’s probably Final Fight. But Streets of Rage 2 is the game that has always been near and dear to my own heart. Well, so has Final Fight, as evidenced by the fact that Mike Haggar is the de facto mascot of this site.
But look, just bear with me for a minute. Streets of Rage 2 is fucking incredible. It has the most actively engaging and deepest engine of any beat-em-up I’ve ever played, which is a big part of why the game is great, but I’ll get to that in a minute. What really makes the game special is the incredible atmosphere. There’s a unique feeling to the game that is missing in other games in the genre, a feeling of apocalyptic doom hanging in the air as you beat up various palette-swapped rave kids and punk rockers. Even Double Dragon, which is ostensibly about a post-nuclear war society where karate is the only law, starring Chuck Norris as Billy, doesn’t have this kind of feeling of dread. It might be that the type of fear that SOR2 plays on is a much more realistic one in this era, a “decline of western civilization” feeling, where society seems to be in such a state of disrepair that gangs just roam the streets in search of random violence for fun (this was present in Final Fight as well, of course, but felt much more cartoonish than it did in SOR2).
Adding to this atmosphere, and possibly even the biggest factor in its existence, is the music. Holy sweet goddamn. I have a tough time picking favorite things, but this soundtrack could easily make it in the running for favorite soundtracks, and favorite music, and just favorite anythings ever. I could really dedicate a whole article to this soundtrack, and probably should, but I’m going to play the arbitrary journalism card here and pretend like I need to keep this relevant to the game. Yuzo Koshiro is a monumentally underrated composer, and this is him at his strongest; the music draws you into the atmosphere of the game like few other soundtracks I’ve ever heard. One of the most unique things about it is how amazing it is at serving as both standalone music and background ambience. Typically I tend to greatly prefer soundtracks that consist mainly of standalone music that works in the background, but isn’t ambient, which is why I tend to find the music for so many newer games like Mass Effect and the Elder Scrolls games boring, but SOR2 has music that builds the atmosphere and excitement of the game without being the most noticeable part, at least at first; it isn’t until you start listening to the music by itself that you realize that every single track from the game has permanently imprinted itself in your head.
Yes, another ten out of ten. Fuck you, this game deserves it.
It is simply impossible to make a better beat-em-up than Streets of Rage 2. Want proof of this statement? There are not one but two engines that emulate the way SOR2 is played, and despite nearly 20 years of progress, and a shitload of fantastic games with all kinds of new and innovative features, there still isn’t a game that has usurped it. Go ahead, go get those games. Spend a few hours playing them, it’s worth the time. They’re fun. But they’re never going to replace SOR2.
So we’ve already gone over how great the atmosphere is in the game. How does it actually play?
Well, like I said at the beginning of the article, it fucking delivers in the gameplay department too. The reason there are two remakes of the SOR engine and none of the Final Fight engine is because the mechanics of the SOR engine are simply more complex and more fun without being any more difficult to use. Final Fight feels like it was built around the arcade, made not to have any of the complexities that would take a while to learn or, more importantly, allow you to get good enough at the game to beat it without spending a lot of money. SOR2, on the other hand, was built for consoles, made for players to learn and explore, and challenges players by expecting them to get good at the game, rather than throwing herds of enemies and cheap-ass bosses at them (okay, well, there’s Jet, but he doesn’t count, because fuck him).
Ultimately, if I were asked to pick between Final Fight and Streets of Rage 2? I hate making decisions like that, because come on, I live in the real world, and I can’t imagine any bizarre fucking scenario in which I would have to decide between the two. Have I come into possession of the last copies of each game, and my son is dying, and they have to sacrifice one of the games to implant it into his robot body to turn him into a cyborg to save his life? In that case, it’s no question: I choose to implant Streets of Rage 2, because then I can have speakers installed in him and have some badass bass-pumpin’ beats wherever I go. But in a simple situation in which I had to pick one? I’m not sure I can say, Haggar is looking right at me. But hey, I did write about SOR2 in this article and not Final Fight. Infer from that what you will.
I see you sitting in the corner there. I know what you’re planning to do. You’re planning to do a flash kick, aren’t you? It’s pretty obvious. I mean, you only have two moves. You might as well come over here and try that cheap-ass double sweep kick, because I’m not stupid enough to walk right into a flash kick. That shit hurts. Hell, look at me; I’m sitting here writing you a letter. I’ve got time. I don’t have a fireball or anything, so I can’t hit you from afar. All I can do is sit here and wait. I’ve got to wait. Dammit I can’t wait anymore. I’m going over there. And I -
Goddamn you Guile. Goddamn you and your fucking flash kick.
“Dear Dead or Alive characters:
Your fighting game fucking sucks. It’s not even fighting. It’s fucking defending and then reversing attacks. Please make more beach volleyball games. We likey cleavage.
The Street Fighter Gang”
Why aren’t you getting in on this? It’s legal ass-busting. Seriously! I beat the crap out of some Chinese chick and they didn’t even call the police! And that’s a good thing, because I’m still dressed in a striped convict outfit with shackles on my hands and feet. Come down here and kick some ass with me!
“Vega, buddy. Seriously. At first when we started teasing you and saying you were gay, it was a joke. But we took note of how offended you were and stopped. You said you weren’t, and that was good enough for us. But then more and more evidence kept coming up. Now we found this picture of you on a men’s dating board:
I know you’re probably going through a lot of things. It’s really stressful to hide stuff like that. But you can talk to us. This is a safe place, and you’re with friends. We won’t judge you. We didn’t judge Blanka. Just be honest with yourself, and you can be honest with us.
Love (the hetero kind, not, you know, gay)
Your friends at Shadaloo
P.S.: Zangief thinks you’re cute.”
We here at Sears understand your participation in the World Warrior tournament is a point of great pride for you. It is for us too; that’s why we decided to sponsor you. However, we feel that the requirement that you wear more than your fighting uniform to meet and greets and other Sears-sponsored events was implicit in your endorsement agreement. We feel that the remarkably skimpy outfit you wore to our Sears KidsNOW! event goes beyond the limits of good taste into the territory of potential legal action by the parents of the children who attended. We would appreciate it if you used more common sense in the future.
Sears PR Manager”
“To All My Fellow Street Fighters:
- Love, Ken”
Dean Rexley, a city councilman from Metro City, USA, has announced his candidacy in this year’s Metro City mayoral election, becoming the first to oppose incumbent Mike Haggar since his first term. In an interview with the Metro City Generic Press that has been described variously as “insane” and “suicidal”, Rexley stated his reasons for his campaign against Haggar. “13 terms is simply too many! The only reason Haggar was elected in the first place was his ‘anti-crime initiative’. Yes, I agree that Metro City had a crime problem at the time, but Haggar took it too far. In response to requests for increased police funding, Haggar simply walked down the street killing everyone in sight, viciously beating them with lead pipes and piledriving them into the concrete, headfirst. All of this culminated in Haggar dropkicking handicapped businessman Horace Belger out of his wheelchair and through a plate glass window to a deadly 11-story drop. I mean, the man eats barbeque he finds in oil drums! Do we really want someone like this running our town?” Upon hearing this, Haggar, who had been standing at the door waiting to be interviewed, shattered the door to splinters with his trademark Spinning Lariat, threw a knife into Rexley’s face, then suplexed him four times. Witnesses report Rexley then flashed 3 times and disappeared.
(This blogger endorses Mike Haggar for Metro City Mayor.)