Beat em up. A title that says it all, what more would you even need to know? Beat them up, and hurry or else you’ll be the one receiving the "bare knuckle" in the face. That’s really all the explanation you need and, in the 80s and early 90s in the arcades, the brawler genre captured many kids and young adults. Then again, those mechanics of having to beat everyone on screen, time after time, in endless waves of punks and criminals, lend itself perfectly to that arcade scheme of making the player to drop as many coins as possible. But what happened to this once successful genre?
Let’s go back to the origins first. In 1984, IREM released Kung fu Master in the arcades, often recognized as the first of the genre for its classic 2D side scrolling action. Inspired by Bruce Lee flicks, the brawler would later be converted to the NES, courtesy of a young developer called Shigeru Miyamoto. Kung Fu Master is notable also for being one of the games which introduced the idea of a final boss; a stronger enemy to defeat before going on to the next level.
But Kung Fu Master stood mostly alone while, in 1986, designer Yoshihisa Kishimoto would use the same mechanics for a title inspired by his turbulent high school years, Kunio-kun. But the history of the genre would change when it came time to convert that title, later known as River City, for the Western audience. Gone would be the Japanese high schools, for obvious “marketing” reasons, and in their place, a classic damsel in distress story. Starring punks and criminals ready to be beaten up, Renegade, as it would become known in Europe and the US, would also allow the player to move more freely vertically and horizontally.
Renegade wore its inspirations on its sleeves, the classic tale of revenge and the urban slums from The Warriors and the Death Wish movie series. Its immediate success would also inspire a series of home computer sequels, which had nothing to do with Kunio-kun at all. Kishimoto would also be inspired, going back to the brawler with Double Dragon. The game would be probably the most successful beat em up title yet, introducing also the brothers Billy and Jimmy Lee, that could fight together and, at the end, against each other. This would become a classic element of the beat em up genre, as opposed to the movies from which the genre was inspired, which would often see one lone vigilante going against criminals or seeking revenge.
Later, the genre would explore other topos, such as the metamorphosis in Altered Beast, or the Conan-inspired fantasy genre in the hack'n'slash classic Golden Axe. Capcom would, instead, continue with the underground revenge plot, with Final Fight and later other comic book inspired titles such as The Punisher and Cadillacs & Dinosaurs. Up until 1991, it seemed the genre would be unstoppable, with licensing taking over with beat em ups starring The Simpson, Teenage Mutant Ninja (sorry, Hero, for you UK folks) Turtles and even anime and manga titles such as Sailor Moon on Super Nintendo. But, by the mid 90s, it seemed the genre was on a downward spiral, losing popularity with no way back.
The decline of the arcades, plus the popularity of the 1-vs-1 fighting genre, seemed to leave the brawler for dead. Attempts to bring it back, such as Squaresoft’s hybrid The Bouncer in 2000 or straightforward reboots such as Final Fight Streetwise or Golden Axe Beast Rider, would have little to no success with both audience and critics. Where beat 'em up seemed to be alive and well, instead, was as inspiration for other developers. Clearly, series such as Bayonetta, Devil May Cry and God of War (before the reboot) took the beat em up rulebook and ran with it, making it more relevant for the Xbox360 and PlayStation 3 audience.
Even the Like a Dragon series, clearly owes a debt to both Kunio-kun and the whole beat em up genre, taking its mechanics while spicing it up with crazy storylines, unique characters and a lot of minigames. But, still there are still plenty of old school brawlers as well. SEGA recently announced new titles in the Golden Axe and Rage series, Kunio-Kun is still continuing with River City Ransom: Underground and Wayforward successfully rebooted Double Dragon with the incredibly 80s and in your face Neon. Even classic Asian movie Oldboy inspired games and, in 2022, Shredder’s Revenge showed that beat em ups can still entertain modern audiences, not necessarily only through remakes and remasters.
It remains to be seen if the classic side scrolling beat em up will continue to live on as a genre able to stand on its own to legs, or as a simple nostalgic relic of “happier” times. But whatever will happen in the future, the brawler still stands as one of the most important genres of the 80s and 90s. Much like the biblical character of Onan, its seeds can still be found in countless modern games. So, while you’re fighting some deadbeats in Like a Dragon - Infinite Wealth, think that we could never be where we are today, without the poor forgotten brothers Bim- uh, Billy and Jimmy Lee.