Beat-em-up breakdown: Common themes in popular brawlers

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Beat-em-ups typically feature a small group of protagonists fighting off massive hordes of enemies in melee combat. Almost every one of these games I’ve played shares a few basic rules: choose your character, punch or hack through a level, fight a boss, rinse, and repeat. They also usually feature the same kinds of enemies and weapons. I’ve made a list of archetypes that you’re sure to find in any given beat-em-up.

Heroes: These character types are the toughest of the tough. They have incredible strength, endless stamina, and can eat whole, roasted chickens in less than a second. Why in the world would anyone want to mess with them? I don’t know the answer, but every single person they come across wants a piece of them. Heroes are usually led by a good-looking male who’s best-friends with a hot babe, a hulking wrestler-type beast, and some sort of rowdy midget or kid.


Damsels in distress

Helpless maidens: They are the reason why heroes fight. Every female that’s not in your party is going to get kidnapped. Sometimes we get to watch as it happens. In Double Dragon, the Black Warriors abduct Marian right in front of Billy and Jimmy Lee’s house in broad daylight. What the hell was she doing there anyway? If four beefy guys invade my personal space, and one of them is Machine Gun Willy, the least I can do is scream.

Martial artists: Everybody is kung fu fighting, and I do mean everybody. See that guy talking on the public phone? He’s a jiu-jitsu black belt. The hobo in the corner? Wushu gold dragon right there. Oddly enough, the gang leaders seem to prefer machine guns. Wussies!

Bikers: Traffic safety doesn’t apply to heroes as they’re constantly waltzing into busy avenues. Biker thugs are mindless murderers who try to run everyone over without caring for their own security. Actually, I’ve never seen a biker fall off their motorcycle from slamming into you in a beat-em-up. The ones in Streets of Rage are particularly nasty because they also throw dynamite sticks at you.

Feeling lucky?

Punks: These are the lower-level hoodlums that roam the streets. They’re weak and have bad haircuts. Punks are afraid of heroes and tend to hide off-screen to land cheap shots. Their determination is admirable, but most gangs have punk-breeding farms, so don’t feel bad about bashing their faces with a spiked club.

Clawed baddies: I hate these guys. Clawed bad guys are assholes that can inflict serious damage with their bladed gloves. They usually come in pairs and attacking you from both sides. Sometimes, they behave like wild animals and rarely stand still. Freddy Krueger and Wolverine were probably gang members at some point.

Power loaders: Made popular by the movie Aliens and later seen in The Matrix and Avatar, power loaders pack a massive punch. While not the most common enemy type, these guys will mess you up good in games like Alien vs. Predator, Violent Storm, and Rival Turf.

Laugh and grow fat

Fatties: Crime bosses and gang leaders do not discriminate against horizontally-challenged members. In fact, they sometimes encourage it. Fatties don’t usually show up early in the games because they’re tough sons of bitches, and sometimes they even have mysterious plump powers. In Streets of Rage you couldn’t throw them without hurting yourself, Bad DudesKarnov has fiery breath, and Final Fight lard-buckets can bust through walls with their fat heads.

Agents: You can tell which gang members are higher on the food chain because of the clothes they wear. Agents have slick business suits and expensive sunglasses. 99% of them will be packing heat, and the 1% that are unarmed are 10th dan karate masters. Look for them in The Punisher, Streets of Rage 3, and Double Dragon Advance.


Hookers: Perhaps they don’t sell their bodies for money, but they sure dress like prostitutes and dominatrices. Every single brawler has female enemies that shriek like mandragoras and have a thing for whips. Among their traits are agility, flexibility, speed, and partial nudity. Gangsta girls are sometimes portrayed as freaks, like the girl in the green outfit from The Punisher (pictured above).

Robots: Disguised as humans, robots might show up in later stages to let you know how much money crime bosses possess. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Battle Circuit, and The Punisher all feature these evil mechanical contraptions. Here’s a tip: After you beat one, get the hell away from it because it will explode!

Weapons and items: Punches and kicks will get you far, but baseball bats and swords are a welcome addition to your arsenal. Whenever you see an oil drum, trash can, wooden box, or vending machine, destroying it will reveal wonderful surprises and the occasional explosive. Abandoned gold bars give you points, fruits and other culinary delights heal your lacerations, and miniature versions of your character give you extra lives. Any weapon is good — except knives, which are generally useless. Steel pipes can be a mayor’s best friend, and fire-hydrant plugs will kill foot soldiers in one hit.

They might be giants

Bosses: You can’t beat a level without some sort of boss character waiting at the end. These are usually giants in the literal sense: impossibly large, colossally abmormal monstrosities. Regular enemies like Double Dragon’s Abobo and Final Fight’s Andore can also be enormous, but they don't present as much of a challenge. (In case you’re wondering, that mammoth freak in the yellow pants is from Kung Fu Master.)

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