A Look at Legends: Capcom vs. Konami – The Arcade Beat Down

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The beat ’em up genre didn’t begin with these two heavyweights, but they created some of the most inventive and iconic titles for it in the arcades in the late 80s and early 90s with systems that were copied and cloned by countless competitors since.

Their designers also had very different approaches when it came to nailing the gameplay and production elements for their titles – these two weren’t shy about introducing small twists and tweaks to the general formula or in taking weird side trips into properties that no one might have otherwise heard of. They were packed with action, they were fun, they were great co-op experiences.

And the rivalry began with Final Fight in 1989.

Capcom Kicks Things Off

When Yoshiki Okamoto played Double Dragon II, its mechanics must have sung sweet music to his designer’s instincts. The man that gave the world Time Pilot and used Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, as a soundtrack in Gyruss looked at Technos’ sequel and believed he could do better. And in many ways, he did.

Technos’ Double Dragon series rocked the arcade scene with two-player co-op and a tough, brutal challenge, putting the beat ’em up scene front and center in the arcades with its short-form distillation of a big street brawl reformulated for a new audience mashing buttons and using eight-way joysticks.

It helped pave the way for the kind of side-scrolling, martial arts action raging through 3D-like stages. No longer were players restricted to 2D side-scrolling levels – now they could move in eight directions, jump on obstacles, and beat down enemies at the same time while enjoying a small, action-sized dose of story.

The end game took place in an enemy base stylized as some kind of ancient temple with traps. Blocks would jut out of the wall to trip you up and there were statues with giant spears ready to skewer passers-by, making a tough game even tougher on players.

Traps, bar/block health gauges… Both Capcom and Konami weren’t above throwing in traps to mess with players in their arcade beat ’em ups in the same way, but Konami also borrowed the block health gauge for a few of their games.

Competitors like SNK would even dip their arcade irons in to stoke the flames prior to this game with titles such as P.O.W. Prisoners of War , but Okamoto (who was now working for Capcom after Konami) would one-up the series with by throwing in a log with the name Final Fight carved into it.

Final Fight was huge – literally. It had bigger character sprites, bigger backdrops, bigger…everything…as Okamoto and his team dove into the challenge of beating Technos at their own game and helped a relatively small company step up even higher on everyone’s radar as a serious challenger.

Haggar, former street fighter turned Mayor, cleaning up Metro City as a mythic Jessie Ventura.

Haggar, former street fighter turned Mayor, cleaning up Metro City as a mythic Jessie Ventura.

What emerged provided a ridiculous amount of fast-paced excuses to wreck the bad guys and whatever else had the poor fortune to be left in the way from crates exploding with food to a car set up as a bonus smash ’em up. It even had three characters to pick from, each with their own fighting styles, strengths, and weaknesses, for up to three players in glorious co-op which was a quantum leap from what Double Dragon II’s mirrored protagonists came with.

On the opposite side of the stage stood Dynasty Wars, an adaptation of a manga that focused on the Three Kingdoms period. Its smaller sprites, always-on-horseback gameplay, and bland bosses gave way to Capcom’s further experimentation with storytelling in the arcade. It wasn’t that great an arcade game, but it and Final Fight furthered Capcom’s experience in blending together story in with the action which few arcade games had really tried to do to the extent that Capcom would. For their designers, however, they would turn it into something as standard as the hardware that would run it.

...or a city burning in the far distance.

It wasn’t that great a game, but it certainly had a lot of story to it.

Hardware Wars

One of the things that Final Fight also brought to the arcade was Capcom’s CPS hardware.

Arcade game development often used custom hardware that focused on a tiny handful of games (or even just one game). Imagine having to buy a new console (with a new monitor and speaker set up) every time you wanted to play a certain game and that was what arcade owners had to weigh their investment costs against. If you wondered why your local arcade didn’t update its roster constantly, this was why. A typical arcade game could cost thousands of dollars.

To fight that, Capcom developed the CPS (or CP System) which was a lot like a console in a cab (the cabinet that the game was in).

Game ROMs were packaged into cartridges and if an owner wanted to change games, all they would have to do is swap that out (and dress up the cab). It helped cut down on costs for both sides and proved to be an extremely versatile backbone powering Capcom classics from Ghouls ‘n Ghosts in 1988 to Street Fighter II: Champion Edition in 1992. It had a long and storied history with Capcom’s best.

In the other corner was Konami who didn’t seem to bother with trying to find a hardware solution to make it easier on pocketbooks. Arcade museum, System 16, comments Konami followed a “what CPU have we got a lot of today” methodology. Having one system board for a game wasn’t enough – it often had to be custom tweaked with new graphics chips and CPUs depending on the title creating a virtual potpourri of boards throughout their arcade history. Where Capcom would use the CPS for several years, Konami would roll out about as many board configurations to support their games.

Both Capcom and Konami used Motorola’s 16-bit 68000 CPU coupled with the easily programmable and highly versatile 8-bit Z80 from Zilog in their hardware. Both went back to the late 1970s (the Z80 coming out in 1976 and Motorola’s pricier 68000 arriving in 1979).

Coincidentally, both chips would also form the brain trust behind Sega’s home efforts starting with the Master System in 1985 (which used a true Z80 as its brain) and later, the Mega Drive (Sega Genesis) which used both a Motorola 68000 and a Z80 as a part of Sega’s attempt in bridging the gap between the arcade and your living room in 1988 with considerable success.

Capcom’s CPS series used the 68000 as the brains, but by the time the CPS2 arrived, replaced the traditional Yamaha sound chips (the Z80 was often used as the sound CPU coupled with the Yamahas) with Q-Sound. As for Konami, well, they would occasionally use the 68000 and the Z80 but never on the same kind of consistent basis that Capcom specialized with.

Despite the difference in approaches to hardware, however, both camps made what they worked with sing, and Konami’s designers would prove that by countering Capcom’s double beat ’em up punch in 1989 with a triple threat. But as we would see, only one of their punches would score a hit that would be remembered generations later, its green fist meeting Final Fight’s in an explosion of tokens, quarters, and ports.

Cowabunga!

Konami met the double smackdown of Final Fight and Dynasty Wars with three beat ’em up themed titles of their own – S.P.Y. Special Project Y, Crime Fighters, and the elephant in the arcade, their action adaptation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Surprisingly, all three ran on relatively the same PCB with chips being swapped out in between each (TMNT used a Motorola 68000 CPU, for example, while S.P.Y. and Crime Fighters both used custom Konami chips).

Dynasty Wars wasn’t that great a game despite the added story elements. Heavy repetition and lackluster gameplay seemed like a strange turn from Okamoto’s flashier peer. But it was also one of their earliest licenses for a beat ’em up in adapting Hiroshi Motomiya’s Tenchi o Kurau (“The Devouring of Heaven and Earth”). That left Final Fight alone on the beat ’em up sand to fend off Konami’s triple threat.

But S.P.Y. had also stumbled in trying to do a lot of things at once and not one of them especially well. I have to give it credit in doing something that could have worked more at home than in the arcade, though, with a bit more work. The heavy repetition and forcing the player to replay the entire game over again for the real ending didn’t work in its favor, either, the way it did in Capcom’s Ghouls ‘n Ghosts.

It looks like Karnov's cousins ended up on the supervillain's payroll. They're not that tough, though.

S.P.Y. was like a grab bag of genres — the run ‘n gun, the flying third person shooter, and the beat ’em up with 2D and 3D stages.

Crime Fighters wasn’t a bad beat ’em up but the smaller sprites and lackluster boss fights paled in comparison to what Final Fight brought to the table both visually and mechanically. Both it and S.P.Y. were also light on story, though S.P.Y.’s heavy cribbing of James Bond tried to fill in the blanks as best as possible.

That made TMNT the great equalizer. Coming off of the incredibly popular cartoon adaptation of the original comics (which exchanged much of the grit for kid-friendly humor dressed up with heavy action), and featuring four-way co-op in its largest configuration, the arcade game was a huge hit demonstrating to Konami the appeal of a well-placed license in their catalog.

TMNT in 1989's visuals weren't bad for its time.

It’s not as pretty as Final Fight, but it didn’t really need to be with all of this action to rip through as a famous Turtle.

Strip away the license, and you still have a decent beat ’em up though it didn’t feel quite as hard-hitting as Final Fight does or as filled with as many breakable (or edible) extras filling out the 3D backdrop. But it was a bang up showcase of Konami’s style for visual fireworks, great music, and a keen eye for making their adaptations work within the beat ’em up experience.

Strangely enough, both decided to take a beat ’em up breather in 1990. And then in 1991, attacked the arcades with three beat ’em up games apiece.

Konami’s Playground

Capcom didn’t have the appetite that Konami did for licenses-as-beat ’em ups when 1991 rolled around. The three beat ’em ups Capcom brought to the arcades were all original IP. Captain Commando was built around a stylized version of Capcom’s off and then on again mascot and both the King of Dragons and Knights of the Round were fantasy slash ’em ups, thought Knights was very loosely based off of the King Arthur legend. Yet all three were original titles by Capcom’s designers who took the Final Fight model and tweaked it in a variety of ways for each game to varying degrees of success whether it was the size of the bosses (such as the dragon in King of Dragons) or the co-op characters.

It didn't get up and walk around, but it was still pretty awesome to look at.

It didn’t have a famous license, but Knights of the Round was still amazingly cool to play.

Konami also brought in three beat ’em ups. Vendetta was the follow-up to Crime Fighters, but it was a big improvement featuring larger sprites, backdrops, and a variety of breakables and bad guys to rip through. It wasn’t as pretty as Final Fight, but it was an amazing step above Crime Fighters. But the next two were licensed powerhouses.

The Simpsons was catching fire in the late 80s as an animated American sitcom and Konami’s designers deftly translated the show down to the pixel with an incredible arcade adaptation. It was like playing through an episode albeit with a lot more action with four-way co-op filled with all the characteristic nuances from the show from most of the voice actors to the music. Konami dressed it up with scaling sprite effects, show-inspired soundtrack, and innovative combo attacks introducing a new co-op mechanic that none of the other beat ’em ups before it offered.

The Simpsons are off to rescue Maggie and are ready to wreck everything and everyone in their way to do it.

Konami’s The Simpsons was a brilliant adaptation of the cartoon sitcom right down to the pixelized expressions on everyone’s faces.

Bookending the deal was the better looking and sounding sequel to 1989’s TMNT, Turtles in Time, which introduced fast moving stages surfing the sewers, a battle on a train winding its way through the Wild West, and battling through the future among other venues. It even had the song, “Pizza Power”, from the TMNT Coming Out of Their Shells live tour in 1990 as a part of its teaser once again demonstrating Konami’s penchant for production showmanship.

Your Kung Fu is…Different

At this point, Capcom’s and Konami’s beat ’em ups had carved out distinctive identities for themselves. The differences between their games demonstrated a significant style and approach that carried on through their titles in the years ahead during the beat ’em up arms race. The real war had begun making 1991 – 1993 the Golden Era of Beat ’em Ups between these two behemoths.

Drop the licenses and what a few of Konami’s star titles in 1991 had in common gameplay-wise were characters that didn’t have any significant weaknesses or strengths with most of the novelty being in their appearance onscreen and how they looked while fighting. It was a trend peculiar to a small number of Konami’s beat ’em ups – any character could button mash their way to victory. No one had to worry about picking a character with a different fighting style because everyone was essentially equal leaving choice more of an aesthetic argument.

In other games, such as Vendetta, the characters each had distinctive fighting moves and specialty attacks that made players think on who they wanted to play as. In X-Men, the biggest distinguishing feature turned out to be each character’s specialty attack. Other title such as Metamorphic Force and Gaiapolis emphasized the use of unique characters even further, but it wasn’t quite as consistent as Capcom’s efforts.

The Turltes had a wide variety of reactions to certain attacks from betting burned...

The Turtles weren’t separated too much by any particular weaknesses or strengths. For the most part, it depended more on who you liked best from the cartoon series.

Capcom seemed to relish in making their chosen fighters stand out with significant differences that dove beneath their pixel skins, forcing players to incorporate a bit of thought into who they wanted to play. Capcom’s designers and artists were almost obsessively consistent in adding depth to whoever players wanted to play as in their arcade beat ’em ups.

While not all of their games emphasized this approach (such as Dynasty Wars and The Punisher), others such as Final Fight did whether it was as the tougher (and slightly slower) Haggar compared to the much faster (though slightly less powerful) Guy. And there would also be that one character that was balanced…such as Cody. It would be even more pronounced in their Dungeons and Dragons adaptations with classes and races.

Four mechs, four different pilots, all in to deliver an early Christmas to scrapyards everywhere.

Capcom’s designers created some of the best bosses and beat ’em up heroes in the business. This shot is from 1994’s Armored Warriors.

It was a design identity that would be oft repeated through Capcom’s history and eventually find adoption in competing clones such as SNK’s Burning Fight in 1991. This had even extended on down as to who had the best “special” attack, usually triggered on Capcom cabs by hitting attack and jump buttons at the same time at the expense of health. Konami would later distinguish its characters in the same way with their own special attacks adding to their uniqueness beyond just looks.

Smaller differences also distinguished a Capcom beat ’em up from a Konami system. For most of its beat ’em ups, Capcom used a bar gauge to indicate the health of players and bosses. The only exception to this rule in the arcade was Dynasty Wars which used numbers instead as a sort of hit point counter.

C'mon, it's a Capcom beat 'em up. You had to expect a giant haunch of meat from a barrel.

Finding giant meat bones in an arcade beat ’em up was a Capcom tradition. It didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense, but to players, it really didn’t matter as long as it meant they could keep playing.

Konami’s health monitoring was about as scattered as its hardware. They didn’t start using bar gauges for their arcade beat ’em ups until 1991’s The Simpsons, and even then, it was never on as a consistent basis as Capcom. Konami’s choices varied wildly between number-based gauges (i.e. Crime Fighters in 1989), segmented gauges using solid bars or blocks (such as in both TMNT games), or bar gauges like the ones seen in Capcom’s games.

Arguably, part of the reason may have been to maintain a certain consistency within specific titles such as TMNT and its sequel, or with a similarly-themed game such as 1992’s X-Men. Another may have been to avoid too many comparisons with Capcom’s own games. Asterix, for example, could almost be mistaken for a Capcom cab because of the GUI…and which might have gotten Konami in hot water.

Konami also wasn’t that big on too many extras like breakables or bonus stages whereas Capcom fans could almost expect a smorgasbord of exploding crates, barrels, vehicles, weapon and food pick-ups, and even rideables throughout their arcade run. Capcom also added in neat, visual touches like continue screens showing the player in a variety in situations whether it was in being tied to a chair with a stick of dynamite (a la Final Fight) or a medical tech trying to revive a fallen Frank Castle (1993’s The Punisher).

Capcom's continue screen for The Punisher was pretty creative (along with the credits). In 1989's Final Fight, it showed your character (and/or partner) tied up with a stick of dynamite. Putting in a token/quarter stopped the countdown and 'rescued' your character.

Capcom’s artists were really good at making even the most routine pieces of an arcade game seem like an experience.

Continues were handled similarly, though. Capcom’s games were pretty merciful on the default settings — players could continue right from where they had left off with their scores intact, something that would become pretty routine as long as you had the coins to keep feeding the machine. Konami would also follow suit with most of their beat ’em ups in cutting players the same slack.

Scoring, however, was handled a bit differently between the two. Capcom chose to use a traditional scoring system for most of their arcade beat ’em ups with a few exceptions. Their D&D adaptations tracked experience points instead of raw points assigned to bad guys or bonus items found.

For its part, Konami chose to register kills with more points awarded for bosses in most of its beat ’em ups. So while a Capcom player might score 200k in Final Fight, a Konami player boasting of 121 points in TMNT was about the same, relatively speaking. There were exceptions to this such as Gaiapolis which would tweak this formula (points were awarded per hit as well) and Violent Storm which actually fell back onto a traditional scoring system.

And after finishing the game, Capcom beat ’em ups normally ended the game right then and there. Konami beat ’em ups, for the most part, after the gratuitous ending, started right back up from the first stage in case you still had lives left from that last second credit you burned on trying to beat the final boss.

Konami’s Four-Way

In 1992, Capcom brought out only one arcade beat ’em up – Warriors of Fate. Warriors was a dramatically different game that it was the sequel to, Dynasty Wars, combining the feel of a medieval Final Fight the way that 1991’s Knights of the Round did. Capcom’s heroic stylings made each character stand out both in looks and fighting-skills wise. Players weren’t glued to a horse, either, the way they had been in Dynasty Wars. It was a solid beat ’em up entry in Capcom’s catalog.

Some stages start you off on a horse, but you're no longer nailed to it the way you were in Dynasty Wars.

Warriors of Fate was a huge improvement over Dynasty Wars and a lot more fun to boot with varied heroes, fighting mechanics, and other extras that its beat ’em up peers had long taken for granted.

Konami, on the other hand, flooded the year with not one but four releases all based on licensed properties: Wild West C.O.W. Boys of Moo Mesa, France’s Asterix, Bucky O’ Hare, and Marvel’s X-Men. All of these were animated stars in their own movies (such as in the case of Asterix) or series. With the exception of C.O.W. Boys, the other three started out as comics (though C.O.W. Boys was created by Ryan Brown who had worked as an artist on TMNT’s comics).

C.O.W. Boys was actually more like a beat ’em up with guns. It shared a lot of similarities with the formula – it was just designed around firearms instead, much like Knights of the Round’s and  King of Dragons’ slash ’em up gameplay with swords and such in 1991. Or Dynasty Wars’ horse mounted combat in 1989. The same with Bucky O’Hare and his crew of heroic misfits armed with laser pistols. Instead of weapon drops to augment empty fists, there were often weapon upgrades instead.

Moo Mesa took the Sunset Riders formula and cartoon'ed it up with a lot more explosions and cartoon villains.

Moo Mesa took the Sunset Riders formula and cartoon’ed it up with a lot more explosions and cartoon villains.

The stand out game from Konami’s beat ’em up lineup this year was clearly X-Men. Marvel was enjoying a kind of renaissance in the early 90s which made its fall from fiscal glory in ’96 all that much more bizarre. Before that happened, they were busy diversifying themselves.

An X-Men cartoon series was attempted with a 1989 pilot which aired. But the series itself suffered one delay after another until finally debuting in October, 1992. It also coincided with Konami’s licensed adaptation (hitting arcades earlier in the year) which was very loosely based off of the original 1989 pilot. In hindsight, that worked out as early PR by acting as a kind of preview of the cartoon series arriving later. It was also a monster co-op machine in its largest layout – six players each taking the role of one of the six available X-Men.

These Sentinel-minis got a little too close to Cyclops' optic blast.

These Sentinel-minis got a little too close to Cyclops’ optic blast.

Although somewhat underrated in comparison to the X-Men, Asterix, C.O.W. Boys, and Bucky O’Hare were also exceptional adaptations as well.

Asterix wasn’t quite as fun gameplay-wise like its peers, but production-wise, Konami’s artists deftly incorporated plenty of humor and personality into its two main characters and their battle against hordes of Roman legionnaires.

In this sequence, Asterix and Obelix make their way to India to rescue a princess. At the beginning, you have to stay on the carpet while trying to avoid lightning bolts from above. Falling off wasn't a good idea. Creative stuff, but there were other ways to drive players off of the machine than in throwing cheap tricks like this in their way.

Not the most exciting beat ’em up, but the game had a lot of creativity put on display with its level designs such as this one on a flying carpet and in capturing the humor of the French comic.

Bucky O’Hare’s amazingly cartoonish visuals, music, and solid gameplay came off like a missing episode finishing off what the canceled series couldn’t without a second season. And C.O.W. Boys had an amazing amount of variety and polish to it that made it incredibly fun even if you had no idea who these bovine heroes were. Like Bucky, C.O.W. Boys also packed four-way co-op. Konami’s artists leveraged the lessons learned from The Simpsons and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles into an adaptation machine without peer.

However, times were slowly changing. Consoles were slowly eating away at the power of the arcade. PCs were also proving themselves more than capable at doing things other than spreadsheets. Marching into 1993, no one really expected it to be the last big battle that Konami and Capcom would wage in the arcade’s beat ’em up arena.

Dinosaurs, Dungeons, and Demons

Konami’s lead in the licensing race for beat ’em ups remained unchallenged on any serious level by Capcom until 1993. In that year, Capcom did to Konami what Konami did to them in 1991 bringing three licensed properties to life in the arcades.

Konami, for its part, did the unusual by bringing in three beat ’em ups that weren’t licensed from anything. It was as if Capcom and Konami’s licensing departments had switched companies.

Cadillacs and Dinosaurs was an unusual license in that it wasn’t as widely known as TMNT or the X-Men, but it was a solid entry in Capcom’s arcade catalog if you can forgive the lackluster boss fights which is bizarre to say for a Capcom game. If there’s one thing that Capcom had proven itself really good at doing, it’s in creating memorable bosses for its games.

All of these angry dinos wander around the screen but will only attack you...which is just kind of weird.

Things could get pretty hairy in Cadillacs and Dinosaurs’ post-apoc world of nature gone wild.

But Capcom would also tap Marvel again in bringing The Punisher to life. Noritaka Funamizu, who designed the lackluster Dynasty Wars, was the director for The Punisher in an amazing turnabout.

It wasn’t based on any comic adventure. It was instead, like the mechanics of a beat ’em up, a distillation of who The Punisher was. Capcom adapted the spirit of the comics into a whirlwind tour of destruction, occasional shoot ’em up action, and cameo crushing excitement. It had snappy controls, hard hits punctuated with great sound effects and music with an epic fight at the end against the Kingpin. Even today, whenever talk about classic arcade beat ’em ups churns up a few names, someone always has to mention The Punisher. As for Funamizu, he moved on from this to help create and produce other titles such as Marvel vs. Capcom.

The game gratuitously sent over cannon fodder for your fists in every stage ranging from street thugs to martial artists and ninjas.

The phone booth? Yeah, things like that don’t last very long in The Punisher.

Capcom’s arcade magic had also transformed the pen ‘n paper world of Dungeons & Dragons into a slash ’em up of its own with Tower of Doom. Forget the dice rolls and the hit points – this only used D&D as a grab bag to create a fast paced arcade hack ‘n slash open to everyone. Displacer beasts, dark elves, orcs…it’s all here including a wicked lich at the end. It even had multiple pathing allowing players to occasionally select which objectives they wanted to tackle on their way to the final battle making the experience even more of a unique adventure.

As for Konami, after a bombastic 1992, 1993 would be the year their beat ’em up aspirations in the arcade would go out on the backs of a bizarre triumvirate.

Violent Storm was surprisingly great and it was as if Konami’s designers were finally let loose to do whatever they wanted to with a beat ’em up without worrying about having to work inside a licensed property.

It was also a lot like Final Fight right down to picking from three characters at the start, the health bars, and having to fight across an urban hell. Except, that is, for the part about it being in a post-apocalyptic world after World War 3. It was as if Final Fight and Fist of the North Star had crashed into each other while escaping from the asylum. It was crammed with snappy  action, a funky pop soundtrack, and had piglets would turn into throwable footballs.

Violent Storm never really took itself seriously. You could throw a lot of stuff at enemies ranging from barrels to footballs. In this shot, the footballs came from picking up one of the little piggies here. I'm serious.

That football used to be one of those little piggies. That’s Konami’s Violent Storm for you.

After leaving high fantasy beat ’em ups to Capcom for years, Konami finally fired back with Metamorphic Force which could have been mistaken for a sequel to Altered Beast. If Sega had taken that game and stuffed it into a beat ’em up factory run by anime fans, Metamorphic Force was what would probably come out. Konami’s art direction painted the game as an anime episode with high production values with plenty of voice samples, bosses that yelled challenges at the player and who often died spectacularly animated deaths, and solid action.

"Step back! This one looks like a gusher!"

“Step back! This one looks like a gusher!”

Last was Gaiapolis which was another slash ’em up in the beat ’em up vein, only this time, it was a top-down, vertically scrolling fantasy adventure. It wasn’t D&D, but it was tremendously fun with a great story told with minor cutscenes, stages that often surprised players with great visual effects, and familiars that could accompany players for added firepower against the creative bosses all done up as another anime-flavored feature the way Metamorphic Force was.

Unfortunately, after 1993, that was it for Konami’s beat ’em ups in the arcade.

Twilight of the Arcade Beat ’em Up

After Konami retired from the beat ’em up field in the arcade, Capcom continued to experiment and tweak their CPS hardware (having already developed the CP System Dash which then moved on to the CPS2, both replacing Yamaha’s sound chips with Q-Sound) and their beat ’em up formula.

Alien versus Predator in 1994 turned out to be another amazing effort with a big license behind it featuring three-way co-op. Players had a choice between two humans and two Predators and all of them started out with weapons in hand that they could repeatedly use (within reason for as long as they don’t overheat or have to reload). It was probably the most weapon-heavy of Capcom’s games and it threw hordes of Aliens at the player as a result.

The game could also get pretty gory. Headless Aliens and walking human corpses everywhere!

The game could also get pretty gory. Headless Aliens and walking human corpses everywhere!

Joining Alien vs. Predator was Armored Warriors featuring piloted robots as the main heroes, each looking and behaving very differently from each other. Capcom’s designers took the concept even further allowing players to swap out their legs for treads, robot spider legs, or replace an arm with a drill weapon. Capcom’s designers embraced the theme and made the most of it resulting in an incredibly fun and original beat ’em up. Longtime Capcom alum (she had also worked King of Dragons), Kinu Nishimura, did design work for Armored Warriors’ robots and was likely responsible for the amazing art on the arcade flyer.

Rash's mech used to have regular legs, a punching arm, and a cannon that fired bullets. But not anymore, huhuhu.

Rash’s mech didn’t start off looking like this. For one thing, it used to have legs of the walking kind.

Capcom revisited D&D in 1996 with Shadow Over Mystara which was the sequel to Tower of Doom (and which Nishimura had also worked on as an artist and is said to have been her favorite project) with more enemies, more branching paths adding to the replayability, hidden rooms, traps, and plenty of special effects. Shadow wasn’t necessarily a huge change from Tower’s gameplay, but it was still an amazing adaptation of the D&D world with the kind of gameplay focus that Capcom continued to demonstrate across its beat ’em up titles.

Battle Circuit in 1997 was Capcom’s last of the traditional beat ’em ups featuring 2D graphics that had long dominated the genre, but in many ways, it was also the magnum opus to their work in the field leveraging nearly everything they had learned over the years.

It had a new batch of original characters, was set in the distant future, had bizarre bosses of the kind that only Capcom could imagine, and an ending where players could decide whether or not to fight a climactic boss or just end the game. Almost as if by fate, Yoshiki Okamoto, who had started Capcom’s 2D beat ’em up run in 1989 with Final Fight, worked on the game closing out a chapter of Capcom’s arcade history that he had helped start.

These are two of the bosses you'll fight later in the game. I'm not even kidding, and neither are Capcom.

Still don’t believe me about Capcom’s boss building rep? How about these two? Right now, they’re chumming together in a cutscene. Later, they’ll unleash the pain.

In 1999, Final Fight Revenge hit the arcades as a 3D beat ’em up fighter and was generally regarded as a low point in the series despite its collectable value. It didn’t come over to the States and remained in Japan, but it really doesn’t matter. Because by this time, beat ’em ups and the arcades that they were a staple of were already replaced by what millions of players already had at home.

An End to an Era, the Start of Many More

Capcom and Konami both brought brilliance and innovative exchanges to the arcades with their beat ’em up rivalry with others following in their footsteps or in trying to outdo them. But as consoles ate away at all of the spare change everyone used to bring to the arcade, both had also begun shifting more and more resources into the new platforms oftentimes bringing exclusive beat ’em ups to the living room. Konami’s Batman Returns on the SNES was a movie tie-in that didn’t suck, as one example.

Batman's about to deliver a double clobbering.

Konami’s Batman Returns could’ve passed for an arcade port. It was also a chilling reminder of how quickly consoles were reaching parity with arcade machines.

But another reason, for Capcom at least, was the rise of the fighting game. The late 90s were a golden era for fighting game aficionados and though Capcom was light on the license-taking with their beat ’em ups, they weren’t as shy about it with their collaborations on fighting games such as Marvel vs. Capcom. Already having a ton of experience with their Street Fighter series, adapting Marvel’s heroes in with their own stable of battlers seemed like a no brainer.

Shakespeare for the arcades they weren’t, but both companies had also attempted to bring a sense of purpose other than scoring to the arcade with story-based elements which could be hit or miss depending on the game.

Konami, like with their other cartoon adaptations, pulled out the stops when it came to presentation with this animated and voiced intro.

Konami’s arcade teasers and game intros were often ridiculously good in the arcade and held the edge over Capcom’s by often employing voiced narration, custom music, pixel animation, scaling sprites, and a lot of theatrics. This usually extended to its endings, but not all of them.

Wait, a bad ending?! It was a pretty gutsy move on Capcom's part to make this a possibility if you failed to kill the last boss in time.

Capcom’s also knew how to story-up its endings. Warriors of Fate actually has this as the “bad” ending if you fail to kill the villain at the end within the time limit.

Konami’s titles relied a lot on visual presentation (and a heavy dose of sprite scaling) with their biggest games. Sound and voice were big parts of that approach as Turtles in Time and The Simpsons demonstrated. Capcom advanced its own storytelling formula in huge steps along the way especially within the multipath approach for their D&D adaptations or the choice of how to end the game in Battle Circuit.

You had to know this was coming.

In Alien vs. Predator, Capcom reached into the comic material and molded a story from it with all of the familiar trappings that fans would recognize.

They had also carved out identities for themselves with their own systemic approaches to the beat ’em up, though towards the end, Konami began liberally borrowing pages from Capcom before quitting the arcade beat ’em up scene.

Sadly, most of these games are also victims of the arcades. As those disappeared, so did accessibility to these cabinets relegating them to private collections, out of the way arcades in specialty areas, or the occasional retro convention. Capcom has, at least, made a strong effort to keep a number of these hits alive from D&D to Knights of the Round on consoles.

Doctor Saturn attacks with a remote control robot! Danger! Suspense! And a cat girl that tears up everything!

Everyone should get a chance to play Battle Circuit. Unfortunately, Capcom hasn’t really made an effort to bring it out to later generations.

Konami, on the other hand, hasn’t done quite as much, though I speculate that the reason why is because of the same reason that had provided so many of their titles in the arcade – licensing. While Capcom has re-released a number of its beat ’em ups, including licenses like D&D, the majority of their catalog were originals. What made Capcom seem backwards in the arcade had actually worked in its favor years later when it came to re-issuing its games in select collections.

gaiapols_thumb

Gaiapolis really deserves more than the beat ’em up footnote that Konami has left it as. It’s not even connected to a license.

Konami, on the other hand, had only gone ahead to re-issue moneymakers like X-Men or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. More obscure titles such as Gaiapolis or Vendetta haven’t gotten the same chances. Relatively speaking, they weren’t quite as famous, so it may be a case of Konami cutting its losses by picking its fights carefully in placing bets with titles it knows it can turn a buck over with. Renegotiating licensing for home versions of half of its arcade beat ’em up catalog is probably also not something that they want to invest too much into unless there’s a large potential upside for profit. But who knows? Maybe Konami may yet surprise everyone with a collection of classics that include its beat ’em up library. We can always hope.

The beat ’em up era between Capcom and Konami was an unbridled time of bold games, simple fun, and co-op excitement. These joined other arcade experiences as the action movies of the arcade – snapshots of chaos that made heroic superstars out of everyone. In some cases, they were short-form RPGs such as with Capcom’s D&D adaptation which incorporated leveling up, shops, and classes to pick from. Other times, they allowed players’ imaginations to run wild in joining animated royalty such as The Simpsons or the Turtles in adventures crafted exclusively for the arcade.

And they weren’t alone. Competitors from SNK to Sega to even Atari would all battle it out in the early 90s, creating plenty of variety to fill in the gaps, though with wildly varying levels of quality and success.

Ramaya's magic attack spun her towards the screen while arcane power demolishes everything else. As far as special attacks go in beat 'em ups, it was an incredibly great looking technique.

This isn’t an anime show. This is from Sega’s Arabian Fight in 1993. Competitors also did their best in making their games passports to adventure the way Capcom and Konami were doing.

But beat ’em ups were fun staples in the arcade and as the years went on, and as arcades began their slow decline, the irony is that they would get a lot better. Even today, the elements that they had been built with continue to live on thanks to die-hard fans that have kept the beat ’em up flame alive.

Efforts, such as those using the Beats of Rage open source engine, have created fan-crafted beat ’em up mash-ups incorporating everything from King of Fighters characters to the Cobra Commander. As a result of that, He-Man lives thanks to a fantastic artist on Deviantart with a love for the series and the action. Fans of Sega’s Streets of Rage had even developed and released a tribute to the series with a free game that was years in the making. Double Dragon had even gotten a modern-day makeover along with the Turtles.

Somewhere in this fracas is He-Man who isn't feeling the power at the moment. But look! Battle Cat!

This isn’t a mock up, this is real. Real He-Man. You can download a copy for yourself over at Game Jolt and check it out.

The formula has also continued to evolve across generations. Classics such as Grasshopper’s God Hand on the PS2 to Capcom’s own Devil May Cry series can trace their roots to the beat ’em up era. Instead of breaking open crates and barrels for goodies (though you can still do that), inventory systems allowed not only supplying yourself with healing buffs but expanding the possibilities for gameplay with a selection of other goodies with combos, upgrades, and a whole assortment of adjustments and additions to the beat ’em up basics.

The beat 'em up spirit is alive and well in games like Platinum's Bayonetta.

The classic beat ’em up spirit is alive and well in games like Platinum’s Bayonetta.

Other titles such as Platinum Games’ Bayonetta can also trace elements back to Konami’s and Capcom’s efforts in mixing things up within their own games using special stages to send players racing along a highway to flying through the air through a city’s missile defense network as breaks from all of the melee (Bayonetta’s designer, Hideki Kamiya, has a lot of love for the classics like Sega’s Space Harrier). It’s a far cry from beating down a car in a bonus stage from Final Fight or surfing through the sewers in Turtles in Time, but the concept is the same.

In the end, beat ’em ups are still alive and well…just dressed a lot more differently. And as long as they can keep fans kicking, punching, and eating their way to victory, Capcom and Konami can rest easy knowing that the legacy they have left behind in the arcade is in good hands. And fists.

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