Rage Against The Streets: The Rise And Fall Of Scrolling Beat ‘Em Ups

Joel Harvey

“Kick! Punch! It’s all in the mind.”

Words spoken by a rapping onion who teaches kung-fu, but they have a powerful resonance for some. Especially if you happen to exist inside a side-scrolling beat ’em up game. For these characters, their entire raison d’être is to kick and punch, kick and punch. And then move right a bit. Then kick and punch some more, but always keep moving right. Never go back; there’s nothing there for you anymore on the left side of the screen.

These are the simple rules that defined the genre of the side-scrolling beat ’em ups – rules that we all understood in the eighties and nineties. Because across those decades, this genre was the king of the fighters. And it ruled the arcades and home consoles with a golden axe.

First Fight

Much like shooting things and playing sports, fighting games were popular forms of early video game entertainment. This holy trinity – the fighter, the shooter and the holy goalpost – were the foundations for the industry. We can’t be sure what that said about us a gaming audience, or how games companies perceived us; maybe as psychotic violent thugs obsessed with competition? Harsh.

Games in this era tended to fall into one of those three groups. Well, unless they were a platformer. But we all know that Mario is more of a psychopath than any of us – just look at his moustache. No well-balanced individual would make a decision to willingly grow a hairy monstrosity like that.

Some video game companies would come to characterize the formative world of beat ’em ups, and one of them was Technōs Japan. This games developer from the far east would create some seminal arcade titles in the genre, with the first being Karate Champ in 1984. This one-on-one fighter would influence the roundhouse-kicking granddaddy of side-scrolling beat ’em ups: Kung-Fu Master.

If Chop Chop Master Onion had a favourite video game when he was growing up in the dirt, we suspect it would’ve been Kung-Fu Master. This deliciously simple martial arts-flavored game became the template for the side-scrolling genre. Without it, other classics couldn’t have followed. And once again, it was Technōs Japan that would punch the way forward with highly influential titles.

Doubling Down

It was a game known in Japan as Nekketsu Kōha Kunio-kun that was pivotal in the genre’s evolution, although Western audiences would know it better as Renegade. The translation of the Japanese title is far better if you ask us though: Hot-Blooded Tough Guy Kunio.

What Renegade did was introduce all the basic features that would come to define any self-respecting beat ’em up; combo moves, jumping and multiple enemy attacks. But despite this, Renegade will never be the arcade fighter that we truly fell in love with. No, there was another that stole our hearts and would set the benchmark for the genre for years to come.

And we warn you now, it’s going to get weird – two dragons.

Because whilst Renegade may have been the petrol of scrolling fighters, it was Double Dragon that brought the fire. Introducing two-player elements to the genre, DD monumentally changed things up. There was nothing more fun than fighting your way through stages with a mate at your side, and this became an immensely important feature for future titles.

After DD, there were a host of side-scrolling multiplayer fighters that ruled the arcades; Golden Axe, The Simpsons, TMNT: Turtles In Time, and Final Fight to name a few. The latter would inspire the much-loved Streets of Rage.

Sega’s legendary title is the go-to memory of the genre for many gamers, and rightly so too. It managed to take the DNA of previous fighting titles and morphed them into a fresh, stylish video game. Unique design elements and strong gameplay made the Streets of Rage games some of the most memorable, and playable, titles of the early nineties.

But in many ways, Streets of Rage also represented the end of the genre as we knew it.

Final Fight?

The biggest issue that faced side-scrolling beat ’em ups was how they worked in the 3D world of gaming. As the technology advanced, the trend moved away from two dimensions and fighters tried to keep up. Whereas one-on-one fighters would transition well with Tekken, poor games like Fighting Force on the PlayStation would display the difficulty developers were facing with scrolling fighters.

The simple fact was that the genre was not well-suited for this extra dimension. It might’ve been fine moving from left to right and down to up, but moving in other directions didn’t work as well. And as a result, side-scrolling games started to lose their way. But the genre wasn’t done yet though. The excellent, nostalgic Scott Pilgrim vs. The World game was clear proof that the health bar of the genre wasn’t entirely depleted.

And like finding a roast chicken in a phone booth, the health could be replenished entirely in the future. The gorgeous-looking Takeover on the Nintendo Switch could be bringing the genre kicking and punching into the new generation.

Swipe right? Nah, we’d much rather scroll right and fight some more.

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