Harken back to my golden age of gaming, a time when the Sega Genesis and SuperNES were head to head in the console wars. There was a game genre that sparked my love of co-op, one that seems to have all but disappeared. From Altered Beast to Golden Axe, Streets of Rage to Double Dragon - the co-op beat em up games were the cream of the crop in co-op experiences. The concept of these games was simple - partner up with a friend and punch, kick and attack everything in your path. They were challenging, fun, and over the top; but once 3D games became popular they all but disappeared.
A beat em up game is a fighting game at it's core, but instead of simple one on one battles, players face off against a variety of enemies scrolling through different levels. Most of these games have their roots in arcades where multiple players could team up against the computer. One of the earliest co-op beat em up games was called Renegade which was released in 1986 on a variety of platforms including the Arcades. The game was simple, featuring four fighting areas that players were locked into as waves of enemies were thrown at them. It was the first game that allowed players to move not only side to side in the environment, but up and down as well.
Prepare for my iron fist Mr Hawaii Shirt Guy.
It wasn't long after Renegade was released that we saw the golden age begin to take shape. Starting in the arcades in 1987, Double Dragon is perhaps one of the most famous co-op brawlers of all time. The game was ported to over 20 platforms, with the most recent being a complete remake on Xbox Live Arcade. Starring brothers Billy and Jimmy Lee, players were on the quest to save Billy's girlfriend against the evil gangs. Double Dragon was the first game that allowed players to not only use punches and kicks, but special moves and weapons. Whenever a whip was dropped, it was a mad dash to pick it up.
It takes skill to get 0 score by the time you get here in Double Dragon XLBA
Shortly after Double Dragon, Capcom launched Final Fight in the Arcades which was then ported to 15 different platforms, including most recently, the Virtual Console on the Wii. The game shared a lot of commonality with Double Dragon, but now players were given the choice of three characters, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Whether you wanted the slow and powerful Haggar, the fast and agile Guy or the balanced Cody; players were asked to work together and form the perfect team to pound faces in.
Don't say that about my sister! - River City Ransom NES
As the early 90's hit the arcades continued to be a popular stomping ground for these side scrolling beat em ups. Soon movie and tv tie-ins became prevalent with the likes of Aliens vs. Predator, The Simpsons, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and many, many more. But another trend started in the 90's thanks to the popularity of a little home console from Nintendo. River City Ransom launched in 1990 on the NES and helped set a new standard for beat em ups on the home console. While still retaining what made the previous games so popular, River City Ransom added a pseudo-rpg style system that allowed you to level up your characters over time.
Soon we began to see games pop up on both platforms, with the likes of BattleToads starting on the NES and soon after landing on the Genesis. BattleToads was always hailed for it's incredibly difficult nature, and certain levels in the game still instill rage in players. BattleToads was so popular that it actually began to cross over with other Beat Em Up games, as one of the sequels, BattleToads and Double Dragon was released on both the NES and Genesis.
Battletoads was the cause for many broken controllers.
Why did they go "blah" when they died? - Golden Axe
As Sega's home console base grew with their Genesis system, they slowly began to bring some of their more popular arcade titles to the system. Golden Axe was the first of these release in 1989, and is the first fantasy style beat em up we'll discuss. Like Final Fight, players were given the choice of characters that not only were different in strength, but magic and weapons as well. Golden Axe's lead developer, Makato Uchida, also went on to create another co-op beat em up in Altered Beast. While Altered Beast did fairly well in the arcades, it truly took off on the Genesis system allowing players to take the role of an undead centurion with the ability to transform into a superhuman character.
While the Genesis had a few other popular beat em ups like Pit Fighter, the one that stood out was their exclusive console beat em up franchise in Streets of Rage. While the first Streets of Rage offered 3 different characters to choose from and a moderately lengthed game, it was the second game in the series that set a new bar. Offering a full 8 levels chock full of a variety of backdrops and bosses, this wasn't a game you could sit down a beat in 20 minutes much like a lot of the previously mentioned titles. It was a game designed for the consoles.
Nobody wanted to play the annoying kid on rollerblades.
As the consoles continued to show promise with some solid title, the arcades hit their pinnacle with two amazing games from Capcom. Dungeons and Dragons: Tower of Doom (1993) and Dungeons and Dragons: Shadow of Mystara (1996). These two games not only featured character building for players with seven different character types, but they featured puzzles and multiple paths throughout the entire game with quests. Players earn experience, buy items, and unlock hidden secrets. Featuring multiple endings it could take players weeks before seeing the entire game - a rarity in arcades.
By the late 90's the era of 3D games were upon us. And with that we saw the end of the classic 2d side scrolling co-op beat em up. While a few games may have strived to bring the idea into the 3d world, very few translated the experience very well. The Bouncer on the PlayStation 2 was a pretty poor beat em up that lacked co-op all together. Game's like Urban Reign were perfect for co-op, but you had to use a code to unlock it. The Red Star was a game, originally slated for a 2004 release, that didn't see the light of day to 2007 when hit the PlayStation 2. It's one of the last truly exceptional co-op beat em' ups that did something news by combining gameplay from top down shooters with traditional beat em up action.
The Red Star was a game many people overlooked because of publishing troubles.
So while the genre may have all but disappeared, I'd say that certain games and genres are the spiritual successors. Marvel Ultimate Alliance and the X-Men Legends series stick out to me as the new gen beat em ups. Even games like Baldur's Gate Dark Alliance have extended what the D&D beat em up games did in the arcade. We also have games like Castle Crashers, which is a throwback to the beat em ups of old. If the popularity of a title like this is any indication, people miss their 2d co-op beat em ups.
The best modern beat em up to date.
It's been a long journey for the beat em up genre. It's one that most of us in our late 20's and early 30's have fond memories of. An evolution of this genre is not ideal, but we'll take the co-op when we can get it. I know I'd love to see some brand new next-gen beat em ups. I want classic, down to the streets side scrolling style with some great co-op play. There's no reason the genre all of us grew up loving can't make a comeback. Until that time I know I'll be enjoying the Xbox Live Arcade, PSN and Wii Virtual Console re-releases of these titles!
I just want to note that I have missed and ommitted numerous games through this retrospective. While your favorite game may not have been mentioned, I'm sure it played an integral part in this history. We simply only have so much room to write.