In 1985, we moved to a small town in Alabama with a skating rink and nothing else. My parents wouldn’t give me firecrackers with which to blow off fingers, but they were more than happy to let me spend my days at the rink. While other kids went off to skate to Tone Loc and Young MC, I’d shoot off the waxed floors toward the Double Dragon cabinet, my hands shredding my pockets for quarters.
I grew up in the second generation of coin op culture, and I’m here to tell you there are a more than a few brawlers (or “beat ‘em ups”) that you should have played. Lest I begin to sound like a nostalgic fool, I want to remind you that MAME exists, as do the various console DLC services. And who knows? Maybe they’re more fun without the skeevy DJ constantly interrupting to ask how he can get into your sister’s pants…
Twin brothers, Billy and Jimmy Lee, embark on an epic battle into Black Warrior territory to rescue Marian, with whom they are both in love. Now that I type that plot out, it’s kind of weird. I mean, what are they planning to do when they find her? The fanfics write themselves, but nevermind that. Often considered the first successful brawler, Double Dragon had a lot of features that would forever influence the genre to come. These included using a variety of moves and throws, bludgeoning your opponent with their own weapons and my favorite: beating the hell out of each other to try to gain Marian’s love when you win the game. She was kind of a bitch like that.
In an era when the gang revenge fighters like Final Fight and River City Ransom reigned supreme, Golden Axe dared to step into the fantasy genre. Players took control of a barbarian, an amazon or a dwarf, and set about trying to destroy the evil villain, Death Adder. Now, if you think that’s a crappy moniker, you may have forgotten the barbarian’s name was Axe Battler. Apparently, in Yuria, parents just called ‘em like they saw ‘em when it came to naming the kids.
Two of the major features of Golden Axe that captured my attention were magic and mounts. Periodically, jerks on dragons or griffons would appear, and you could knock them off and take their mounts, reigning fire on your enemies. Of course, as soon as you were knocked off a few times, the animal would flee at lightning speed. Combine that with the fact that you could knock your buddies off their animals and steal them and we learn that no one gets to ride dragons for more than 30 frustrating seconds. You could also cast a spell using magic decanters to damage everything on the screen, and the level and type of spell varied from character to character. In true, sexist fantasy form, the woman was far and away better at magic than the dudes. Once cast, you had to refill your decanters, and how did you do that? By beating the everliving snot out of innocent gnomes. All in all, an incredible game.
What’s not to love about America’s favorite (non-Kardashian) dysfunctional family? In The Simpsons Arcade, players take on the roles of Homer, Bart, Marge and Lisa as they try to rescue Maggie from Mr. Burns. Apparently, Smithers was trying to steal a diamond for Mr. Burns (who could have just bought it), when a mix up with Homer put the diamond in Maggie’s mouth like a pacifier. Then Smithers kidnaps Maggie because, uh… it’s easier than pulling the diamond out of her mouth? Maybe I should stop trying to outline the stories to these games.
Each character had a vastly different fighting style and forte, and developers were quick to offer lots of environmental items to pick up and use, such as post-office boxes, umbrellas and signposts. One of the major innovations of this game was the team-up maneuver where two characters could ally to attack enemies in a more powerful fashion. Moreover, the boss fights were spectacular from the very first level. The battles in The Simpsons Arcade were so incredible that I once had my pocket picked whilst playing the cabinet and didn’t even notice. I have no regrets.
What the Simpsons started, X-men finished. Building their brawler base on another American license, Konami turned it up to eleven with this release. For the first time, players could choose any of six mutants, each with distinct powers and attacks. What’s more, they weren’t just the popular mutants; Konami pulled out Dazzler from the Marvel archives! The X-men cabinet was the pride and joy of any arcade it graced, featuring two continuous screens and multiplayer up to six people. You couldn’t put it next to other machines, lest players one and six get squished. To see the machine at full capacity was one of the most fulfilling brawler experiences to date, and an absolute thrill. While it didn’t bring a lot of innovation to the genre, the sheer scale of it blew coin op fans off their feet.
What X-men was to brawler scale, Alien Vs. Predator was to spit and polish. AvP arcade didn’t have nearly the number of characters, clocking in at two humans and two predators, and it didn’t bring much in the way of innovation, aside from a “shoot” button. It was nice to finally see brawler characters bring guns to the knife fight, but I digress. The graphics were positively gorgeous. Truckloads of animations from one of the world’s great game art teams, in addition to massive amounts of sprites onscreen, led to a rewarding (and exhausting) quarter-cruncher beyond compare. The game cabinet also featured a thumping subwoofer and all tracks mixed in the QSound 3D positional sound system, giving the machine a sort of siren call that could lure you across any arcade.
What’s interesting is that the machine was slated to appear with the release of the first Alien Vs. Predator film… in 1994. The movie never came out until it was rewritten and shot almost a decade later. Those familiar with the sordid tale of the film and its ultimate destruction at the hands of Paul W.S. Anderson should appreciate that fact. Just as they never made the good version of Alien Vs. Predator into a film, they never ported the arcade game to any console or marketplace. Both works remain sad relics of a time that should have been.
Speaking of relics, what happened to the noble brawler? Its life bar low, and a random cheeseburger nowhere in sight, it has begun to flicker and die. Very few current console releases mimic what was easily a dominant genre in the early 90s, and younger players remain entirely unfamiliar with console hits like River City Ransom and Batman Returns. Brawlers represented a substantial part of my childhood game consumption, and I still miss them in the wake of the epic RPG and the first person shooter. Where, then, can we turn for that pulse-pounding coin-op cooperative action?
You should know that brawlers aren’t entirely dead, even if they have been significantly diminished. The past few years have seen two major market successes in the genre, and I can only hope we’ll see more. If an arcade would charge fifty cents (or… my god… even twenty-five) for the experience, they’d probably get a substantial portion of my paycheck after office hours.
Fans of Simpsons and River City Ransom will be ridiculously pleased with this XBLA and PSHome title. Based on what is easily my favorite video game flick, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game was created expressly for old-school losers like me. The game features four player co-op, a leveling system, combos, special attacks, weapons and the works. While the game’s system appears a bit like Castle Crashers (discussed below), I can assure you that they’re nothing alike when you’re holding the controller. The music was expertly crafted by chip-tune geniuses Anamanaguchi, and the artwork was headed by sprite legend Paul Robertson. The Scott Pilgrim film had a lot more to do with fighting games than brawlers, but I’m glad the developers made the strange genre choice they did. Beat ‘em up fans everywhere owe Ubisoft a beer.
When Castle Crashers exploded onto the scene, I, along with over two million XBLA users, gladly handed over my credit card. I had been waiting for the Behemoth title for years at that point, after Alien Hominid slaked my thirst for more Metal Slug-style run n’ gun games. Castle Crashers brought us a brawler with high character control, including custom leveling, persistent weapons and animal companions. The combos are great, and they allow you to unleash far more destruction than is entirely sporting upon your enemies. Unlike Scott Pilgrim, players of Castle Crashers are free to develop their characters in any direction they wish, and two players’ save files are likely to differ greatly. Behemoth’s unique sense of humor and fun Flash animation serve to further bring the game to life, creating an experience you won’t forget.
So what does the future hold for brawlers? Likely, not very much, and that’s unfortunate. Very little exists in the way of games being hyped for the genre, in spite of the two huge successes detailed above. Not many serious publishing studios are willing to tackle what was once the most popular style of gameplay around. However, the spirit of the brawler is very much alive and well in games like Arkham City, as well as hack n’ slash titles like the remake of Devil May Cry. Will we still get that incredible sidescrolling co-op experience? Maybe, but it will probably just be an appeal to the nostalgia of older gamers… and if that doesn’t make you want to pick up a trashcan and hit someone with it, I don’t know what will.
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