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Top 10 Gaming: “Beat ‘Em Up” Video Games

Streets of Rage was a fine game. Did it make our list? Streets of Rage was a fine game. Did it make our list?

Once one of the most popular genres of video game, the Beat ‘Em Up required you and maybe a friend or two to battle in close combat against hordes of enemies en route to bigger, badder, opponents. These weren’t one-on-one fighting games a la Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat. And they weren’t platform games like Contra or Bionic Commando. They were straight up brawlers, in most cases requiring you to clear the screen of enemies before moving furhter along. And while most were martial arts themed, some of the best of the genre were exceptions to the rule.

Here’s a look at 10 of the best Beat ‘Em Up video games of all time.

10. Battletoads

Limbs turn giant in BattletoadsLimbs turn giant in BattletoadsAn NES classic, Battletoads is renowned as one of the most difficult games of all time. It might have been frustrating, but the fun never stopped. This was also one of the first Beat ‘Em Ups with a goofball premise instead of trying to be totally badass.

Even the animated action took on a cartoon form as the frogs' knockout blows saw their fists and feet balloon to comic proportions.

The Simpsons arcade game was another notable example of a brawler whose tone was less-than-serious. It was a fun way to spend quarters, but something about using Homer, Marge, and Bart to whoop ass didn’t feel quite right, which keeps it from cracking our top ten.

  9. Ninja Gaiden (arcade)

The arcade version of Ninja Gaiden was much different from the home versionThe arcade version of Ninja Gaiden was much different from the home versionThe first in a long line of Ninja Gaiden games, the arcade version was the only true Beat ‘Em Up among them. Players controlled a generic looking ninja as he made his way through the streets beating up thugs dressed sort of like Jason from Friday the 13th.

The cool thing about this game was that you could leap up on top of things and also hang from bars and whoop some ass trapeze style.

The NES version was a platformer that bore little resemblance to the arcade version. It was an excellent game in its own right, but could be a little disappointing for kids who brought it home expecting to recreate their arcade experience.

8. P.O.W.

Kicking an enemy through the air was just the tip of the iceberb in P.O.W.Kicking an enemy through the air was just the tip of the iceberb in P.O.W.P.O.W. was another coin-op that threatened to consume all your quarters with its addictive brand of violence. This was exactly the type of side-scrolling brawler that dominated arcades and corner stores from the late ‘80s through the early ‘90s.

Although it bordered on the generic, the thing that set P.O.W. apart was the fluidity of the controls and animation as players kicked and punched their way through military prison camps. Also, whereas most Beat ‘Em Ups allow players to acquire only blunt weapons, P.O.W. supplied knives and machine guns.

7. X-Men (arcade)

Wolverine and Cyclops face the BlobWolverine and Cyclops face the BlobComic book heroes made their fair share of appearances in Beat ‘Em Ups, but the best of them all was the hit coin-op, X-Men (not to be confused with X-Men: Children of the Atom, a popular arcade fighting game).

The spin on the classic formula here was the ability to use the X-Men characters’ mutant powers. For fans of the comic book, the plethora of classic characters was a dream come true as well. Add the ability to have up to six players at the machine, and you've got a winner on your hands.

Other comics based Beat ‘Em Ups included Spider-Man: The Video Game, an arcade game that let you control Spidey plus some more minor Marvel heroes, but lacked the fluidity of X-Men.

The Punisher was another badass arcade game that allowed you to control Frank Castle or Nick Fury, and use an array of firearms.

Batman Returns was a title released on a slew of home consoles, but only the Super Nintendo version is really worth mentioning. It was easily the best Beat ‘Em Up available for that system, and made for a great way to kill a rainy afternoon.

There were two Spider-Man & Venom games for 16-bit home consoles – Maximum Carnage and Separation Anxiety. They were both passable Beat ‘Em Ups, but not special enough to warrant a spot on this list.

6. River City Ransom

River City Ransom was an outstanding game in spite of its aestheticRiver City Ransom was an outstanding game in spite of its aestheticThis NES classic was not only one of the great Beat ‘Em Ups for that once ubiquitous system, but one of the best games of any genre for the Nintendo. A middling success upon its release, River City Ransom enjoys cult popularity among collectors and nostalgists in the post 8-bit era.

The success of River City Ransom has everything to do with the game play, as the graphics are passable but the cartoonish and simple characters are a far cry from the serious standard for the genre.

That said, the aesthetic never gets in the way of having a ton of fun, which is why River City Ransom places so high on this list. Also, one of the things you can pick up to clobber enemies with is your partner – that’s right, Player 2. That type of sense of humor is something lacking in many Beat ‘Em Ups.

5. Golden Axe and Altered Beast (tie)

One of the strange bosses in Altered BeastOne of the strange bosses in Altered BeastBesides dominating the 16-bit era with the Genesis, Sega also created two killer Beat ‘Em Ups in Altered Beast and Golden Axe. Not only were these excellent arcade games, they translated exceptionally well to the home console.

In fact, Altered Beast was such a success that it was included with the early versions of the Genesis, a move that helped sell a good number of those machines.

In Altered Beast, players controlled a man who fought his way through ghouls while morphing into a werewolf, a dragon, a were-bear, and others.

Fantastic violence in Golden AxeFantastic violence in Golden AxeGolden Axe had a dungeons and dragons, hack and slash theme, and unlike Altered Beast, allowed players to move up and down on the screen in addition to scrolling sideways.

Golden Axe also gave you the chance to saddle up and ride on a animals as well as power up on magic spells that would clear the screen of enemies.

These were two essential titles for the Genesis (and were also available for the Sega Master System), and worth a few quarters at the arcade as well. Golden Axe went on to produce a few sequels.

4. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (arcade)

Donatello was the best turtle to use in TMNTDonatello was the best turtle to use in TMNTThere have been a ton of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games since the quartet’s popularity went through the roof in the late ‘80s. Some of those have been better than others, but without a doubt the best of the bunch was the coin-op classic.

The animation and gameplay were so fluid on this stand-up, and the graphics were so good on top of it that, even though four players could get in on the action at once, you might be waiting quite a while for your turn at the arcade.

The home version was billed as a sequel to the original TMNT NES game, but bore no resemblance and was a much finer game, even though it suffered for being an 8-bit adaptation of the coin-op.

A later installment, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time, appeared in arcades a couple of years later and was ported to the Super Nintendo. In some ways, this version is superior to the original. But for doing what it did first, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles earns the #4 spot here.

3. Final Fight

Flying kicks and piiledrivers made Final Fight funFlying kicks and piiledrivers made Final Fight funFinal Fight redefined the Beat ‘Em Up genre. In the ‘90s, you couldn’t walk into an arcade and not see this game, and you couldn’t see the game and not play it.

This was straight up brawling at its finest. The coolest thing was what happened when you grabbed an enemy. Most Beat ‘Em Ups featured some type of throw or grappling feature, but in Final Fight, those throws looked awesome.

Plus, you could execute a jumping attack after grabbing an opponent. If you chose Mike Haggar, the professional wrestling mayor Metro City, that meant you could piledrive some scumbag into the sidewalk.

How fun is that?

2. Kung-Fu Master

Game of Death inspired Kung-Fu MasterGame of Death inspired Kung-Fu MasterIn 1984, Kung-Fu Master became the first Beat ‘Em Up and set much of the template for the games to come. The foremost of those features was the side-scrolling punch and kick attack of one character versus multiple enemies.

Kung-Fu Master capitalized on the martial arts craze of the ‘80s and had a damsel in distress theme that permeated many early video games, including the Beat ‘Em Ups that followed.

As Thomas, players ascended level after level of generic baddies rushing at you. Each level ended with a different boss to be conquered, which was a theme still in its nascent stages at that time. Kung-Fu Master also seems to have drawn some of its inspiration from the classic Bruce Lee movie, Game of Death.

Its simplicity and fluidity worked so well that it made a great port to the NES, where kids without enough quarters to master the level with malicious snakes and giant bees could hone their skills for the arcade.

1. Double Dragon

The best Beat 'Em Up everThe best Beat 'Em Up everDouble Dragon is really the reason this list exists at all. Double Dragon took the Beat ‘Em Up genre and perfected it all the way back in 1987.

Here, nearly every idea that ever existed in a subsequent game of the genre was in place. You could play two players simultaneously, acquire weapons, and use joystick and button combinations to execute moves beyond just punching, kicking, and jumping.

The variety of enemies kept the game interesting, as did the urban terrain and obstacles, including cliff edges.

The game’s plot even featured a twist at the end wherein Player 1 and Player 2, after having worked cooperatively through the duration of the game, would have to fight to determine a single winner at the final screen. Brilliant!

(Of course, that was just in the arcade version, the best and most popular incarnation of the great game. The 8-bit home versions fell short of high expectations based on the coin-op.)

Double Dragon was so good that even half-assed knock offs like 1988’s Bad Dudes were still super fun.

Although it is responsible for setting the bar for its genre, Double Dragon owes a debt of gratitude to its predecessor, Renegade, which was released the previous year. Renegade introduced the multi-directional movement (as opposed to being confined to just left and right), and also invented the urban setting that virtually every Beat ‘Em Up since has used. Renegade, however, did not scroll continuously and instead incorporated a limited space like a fighting game, which hampered its fun a bit.

Honorable Mention

Aliens vs. Predator was one of the most underrated arcade gamesAliens vs. Predator was one of the most underrated arcade gamesAliens vs. Predator is a nearly forgotten Beat ‘Em Up that was one of the most enjoyable arcade games of its time. Released in 1994, it never got ported to a home system, which has kept it in relative obscurity.

However, Aliens vs. Predator built on the genre formula already in place by making weaponry a central theme of the action. It was a fast-paced and fun game that deserved more recognition than it got.

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Last modified on Thursday, 02 June 2011 18:10

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