Beat ’em ups were some of the best fun that anyone could have at the arcade.
They were simple to play, full of action, and often pulled you down into a mob of bad guys that provided the flesh and bone salve for your chosen hero’s fists and feet. Beat ’em ups had been around in one form or another, but in the arcade, they were big during the late eighties through early nineties and gobbled up rolls of tokens. The genre proved to be remarkably flexible across whatever source material it was applied to whether it was a pugilistic pummel fest like Capcom’s famous Final Fight or an adaptation of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons with the Tower of Doom.
A lot of companies got into it like Konami, SNK, Data East, and many more. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is probably one of Konami’s best known efforts featuring four way co-op. Data East has Bad Dudes to its name, and SNK had the Sengoku series. As hinted above, Capcom also had a respectable number of these out there from Final Fight to ones based on comic book characters like The Punisher.
Surprisingly, they also featured plenty of story elements in between long bouts of body breaking moves finishing up with ending screens that did more than display “Congratulations!” for the player. They were interactive stories for the action crowd, but never forgot their roots with scoreboards and plenty of challenge.
The beat ’em up genre had existed in some form before it stepped into arcades, too, such as in PC games like Karateka though without the kind of frenetic speed and chaos that appeared later. And when consoles became even bigger, it was only a matter of time before beat ’em ups would arrive in force. One of these would earn itself a cult fan following that would go on to create a PC homage years later only for Sega to try and squash it.
Which was it? Streets of Rage.
It came out for the Genesis/Mega Drive in ’91 and was a ball of pixelized fury that you and a buddy could team up on. It brought three different characters to pick from, levels filled with gangs ready to wreck your face, and lots of stuff to break like crates and phone booths for health ups and weapons. Enemies with colorful names like Y. Signal came out to party along with bosses at the end of each stage. Voice samples were added in and the game has an amazing soundtrack that still has fans today.
The game wouldn’t die out with the Genesis and had even gone on to have two more sequels. Today, you can even find it for the Virtual Console or even the iPhone.
It would also inspire a group of fans to create Beats of Rage, a beat ’em up engine on the PC that can use sprites and stages from other games to mix together some incredibly insane beat ’em up mash ups such as having your favorite fighting game character duke it with characters from Final Fight. If you’re more ambitious, you could even create your own homemade pixels and import those.
Years later, fans would release a homage to it with a full blown version for the PC, but Sega swooped down on the project and killed it citing licensing issues. The initial release is still floating around out there, though, and it’s really well done. It’s even open ended like Beats of Rage allowing modders to use it as a base for their own beat ’em up adventures.
The ad for Streets of Rage didn’t feature any screenshots, but it also didn’t exaggerate the kind of moves that you’d see in the game. Uppercuts, knee smashes, kicks, roundhouses, and throws were all in there giving the player plenty of flexibility in dishing out as much martial terror as their fingers could muster. This was a game I spent a lot of with, but every minute burned was well worth it in delivering fist-sized servings of street justice, especially in co-op.