Capcom, Capcom, Capcom! As prolific as they were, they also had a lot of competition.
One of those vying for brass tokens from everyone’s pockets was Toaplan, known mainly for their shmups (and for Snow Bros.), but who also dabbled in one of Capcom’s favorite genres — the beat ’em up.
If you have never heard of Knuckle Bash before, you’re not alone. I didn’t know what this was, either, until I started poking around beat ’em up history and found this staring back at me starring a street fighter, a masked luchador, and an Elvis lookalike.
Knuckle Bash was released to the arcades in 1993 and was distributed by Atari in North America. It ran on Toaplan’s “System 2” or “Version 2” hardware which was comparable to Capcom’s CPS-1 in that it also had a Motorola 68000 running as the CPU along with a Z80 with Yamaha’s music chips providing the sound. A great shot of the board and a list of games that it ran can be found over at System 16 – The Arcade Museum. A custom graphics system designed by Toaplan also ran the show.
In this 2D, side-scrolling beat ’em up, players (solo or two in co-op) picked from three unusual heroes to save wrestling from the evil of the Mad Bulls Each stage in this game plays out like a royal rumble with everyone from bellhops to tourists to a flying Japanese demon getting in on the action wherever it might be. It could be in the streets of a Chinese city, a hotel lobby, or a secret underground ring versus a scimitar-wielding Iron Sheik wannabe.
Aside from playing as an Elvis-themed wrestler, Toaplan added in a few twists to make their beat ’em up stand out. The game consisted of two main “missions” which they could decide which of whom to start with, each mission lasting four stages with two special stages making up the end. There were also no pick-ups of any kind — no weapons, food items, or hidden chairs and tables hidden underneath the ring. Continues picked up right where you died, like in a Capcom beat ’em up, but unlike ones such as Knights of the Round, it actually reset your score.
The stages themselves were more like self-enclosed areas multiple screens in size, much like Renegade’s, filled with enemies and the occasional “boss” like character. At the end of each mission, Toaplan made it so that their final boss (a super ninja-like character named Hayate for the first mission and a football player in armor for the second) actually offered up their services and became a selectable character once beaten. Before the next mission, or final stages, started, you could pick if you wanted to play as someone else.
The playable bosses and freshly squeezed far-out funkiness of its setting glossed over Knuckle Bash as just an alright beat ’em up. The action (and the enemies) didn’t have a lot of variety, the game seems relatively short when weighed against its peers, and the pixel art wavered from being not-bad (such as with some bad guy face portraits shown between the stages) to being bland.
Knuckle Bash didn’t get a second chance at life outside the arcade as part of a collection, nor was it picked up by anyone else. As for Toaplan, they went under a year later in 1994 though many of its developers had gone on to other companies such as CAVE where their experience went towards what Toaplan did really well — shmups.
Still, if anyone had ever wondered what a beat ’em up crossed with a wrestling storyline might be like, Knuckle Bash stands out for being one of the more hilariously bizarre entries in beat ’em up history in trying to answer something that no one had ever expected.