The evolution of the niche beat-em-up genre

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Editor's Note from Stephanie Carmichael:
Jimmy examines the state of beat-em-ups and argues that they're still thriving today in perhaps unexpected forms.

The past popularity of the side-scrolling brawler is comparable to the first-person-shooter-enriched market of today. Back in the late ’80s, a game called Double Dragon ushered in an era of clones and iterations on the formula of walk-to-the-right-and-punch-everything-in-your-path. It was easy to understand, and it was great cooperative arcade fun. You died a lot, which helped the Golden Age of arcades in that kids would dump massive amounts of quarters to finish these games.

But if the genre was created decades ago, is it as obsolete as the technology that run these games? Titles like Castle Crashers and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game would beg to differ. They’re both equally as successful in terms of both sales and critic reception.

Those are the only two beat-em-ups that most people can really think of in this modern era. My memories are mostly of games like TMNT IV: Turtles in Time, Battletoads, and Double Dragon.

The biggest difference between the beat-em-ups of yesterday and today is the difficulty — in the side-scrolling ones, anyway.

Perhaps the most nail-bitingly, childish-rage-inducing example is in any Battletoads game. For me, it was the speed-bike section where you’re constantly avoiding obstacles as they blink onscreen. Granted, I probably have the reflexes to do it now, but back then … I vaguely remember chewing on my controller in frustration. I was a kid. Kids are nuts.

Side-scrolling brawlers hold a special place in my heart. They all had that element of pick-up-and-play that games nowadays have a hard time implementing (those are called “casual games” nowadays). Difficulty varied from a breeze-in-the-park to a thumb-destroyer. But most of all, I have fond memories of playing these games with everyone in my family.

Maybe side-scrolling brawlers are niche now. Call it outdated, or call it retro — whatever you will. I just believe the genre is evolving. Games like DmC: Devil May Cry, God of War, and Ninja Gaiden have moved into the three-dimensional platform. Instead of having enemies hit you from one side, the brawler genre has moved into a plane where you can get hit from all angles.

You can take away my Altered Beast and my Streets of Rage, but you’ll never take away my insatiable need to blow through thousands of peons with my bare hands or a giant, two-handed claymore sword. Brawlers are fun in this paradigm alone. Modern games like Bayonetta expand upon the concept by providing the player with a multitude of weapons and combos.

Hell, I even love Dynasty Warriors because of my passion for brawlers.

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