Technos Japan’s Renegade in 1986 is often cited as the granddaddy of beat ’em ups with features passed down to epic greats ranging from Double Dragon to Capcom and Konami’s titles like Final Fight and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, respectively. But would you be surprised to know that there was another game that preceded it by a year that could lay claim to the same thing?
In 1985, Taito (who was also responsible for distributing Renegade in North America) licensed and released a game by Seibu Kaihatsu called Knuckle Joe which does a lot of things that even the biggest beat ’em ups today take for granted — and it did it roughly a year before Renegade had come out.
Seibu Kaihatsu might be better known to arcade fans as the company responsible for the famous shmup, Raiden, in 1990 and Dynamite Duke in 1989. But they also dabbled in a variety of genres including this early beat ’em up.
Knuckle Joe’s gameplay has many elements that beat ’em ups would later take for granted – enemies that take multiple hits to knock down, punch and kick attacks (like the classic beat ’em up forerunner, Kung-Fu Master, in 1984 by Irem), a weapon pick up, bosses, story screens, and even bonus stages. But while Renegade had a few faults, it was somewhat more forgiving than Knuckle Joe’s urban jungle. This is a game released without any regard for play balance.
The story seems borrowed from bits of the Japanese manga series, Fist of the North Star, which started in ’83 (finally coming over to NA via Viz Media in 1989) pitting a lone wolf with mad martial arts skills against gangs led by a series of ever increasingly brutal bosses. There’s no damsel to rescue here, no revenge to take — Joe’s apparently out to wipe the post-apocalyptic world with these fools just because.
The game stretches across fifteen stages (including three bonus stages on motorcycles). Each fighting stage is actually more of an area that the player can move left and right in as enemies pour in from both sides. Players need to defeat a set number of these guys before time runs out — and that includes a boss fight for specific stages — to keep moving through the game.
Control-wise, it’s simple stuff. There are punch and kick buttons allowing Joe to mete out punishment as fast as players can mash them. Jumping is handled with the joystick in three directions — straight up or leaping left and right. Blocking is handled by holding down both the punch and kick buttons. There are also platforms like ledges, the top of tanker trucks, etc. that players can jump onto. Dropping back down is as simple as pulling back on the stick.
Knuckle Joe’s bad guys also introduce a decent variety into the mix. You’ve got your usual thugs that act as cannon fodder, armored guys that can charge you and can take a beating, more armored guys that can take even more of a beating, guys with rifles, grabbers that you have to break free from, and then you have the bosses. There are also no continues just like in Renegade, so dying essentially puts you back at the beginning no matter how far you’ve made it.
Kung-Fu Master in 1984 kept things simple and was a challenging game on its own. Double Dragon is a tough beat ’em up. So is Renegade, but these and others like them are because of different reasons that often try and leave it to the player’s skill. Yet they can’t match Knuckle Joe’s complete disregard for being remotely fair, mainly because the different elements don’t mesh well.
Joe’s got spring-loaded feet that make jumping feel like a crapshoot while blocking does little else other than waste time on a clock that never stops ticking. Those armored charging guys can knock Joe halfway across the screen wasting valuable seconds, juggle him when combined with environmental dangers like rolling barrels and crates, and Joe has to balance both blocking and fighting through a quota of enemies while fighting the clock all at the same time. On the surface, it sounds great, but in practice, it’s a different story.
It can be argued that a game can be hard but fair, though in Knuckle Joe’s case, it’s tough to justify it on the same level thanks to the advantage enemies have with stuns, damage, not being able to continue, and its massive length. Did I also mention the bosses? And a clock that leaves little room for doing things like blocking to buy time since you don’t have a lot of it? It’s probably why the person playing the game in the video below set the invincibility flag on just to get through the game.
At the same time, while the implementation wasn’t that great, Knuckle Joe’s core concepts would be part of a blueprint to the future for beat ’em ups. Its rough nature heralded improvements to come through the work of later designers found at Technos Japan, SNK, Konami, Capcom, and even Taito, in balancing fun with challenge while expanding on the ideas started by early beat ’em ups like this one.
It’s also somewhat mysterious. Unlike Seibu Kaihatsu’s Raiden, Knuckle Joe didn’t seem to get the same kind of response in the arcade and remains something of a forgotten chapter in beat ’em up history. Its dodgy gameplay mechanics and and control probably didn’t help enamor it to players, either, likely adding to the reasons why Knuckle Joe has become one of those unheralded heroes of the early beat ’em up scene.
Even today, Taito or Seibu Kaihatsu haven’t released Knuckle Joe to modern consoles either as part of a collection or as a classics download. Seibu Kaihatsu’s arcade division folded in 1999 after running into financial difficulties though it’s still around. However, its developers had since moved on to form a new company called MOSS which continues to hold the Raiden flame aloft for new generations (and which became something of a franchise for Seibu Kaihatsu since its first game).
Knuckle Joe may live in obscurity, but it’s still incredible to see it come within spitting distance of the things that would make those beat ’em ups after it great.