You don’t see too many arcades anymore. Most are flagging dinosaurs, nostalgia fuel, or on fire. These days, the best arcades are made of cardboard. But there was a time when arcades were the place to go if you wanted to get your gamer on. They were the land of giants, sleek and sexy arenas where women wore evening dresses and men took their martinis shaken, not stirred.
To my mother, I imagine the arcade represented a tax placed on people with children. It was impossible to go to the mall without a detour to the arcade. These were the days before jogging in place while listening to Jpop constituted dancing, before cabinets took dollar bills because every game costs more than 75 cents. My mouth still waters when I think about sliding a five dollar bill into the change machine and listening to the music as twenty quarters tumbled into the dispenser. I would wander the aisles, on the lookout for any new machines, while the stack of quarters jangled in my pocket. There were motorcycle games and driving games, shoot-off-screen-to-reload games like the wannabe ’80s cop movie Lethal Enforcers, and the eyegasm that was Dragon’s Lair, but the games that always lured me in – the games that I would revisit time and again – were the beat ‘em ups.
Beat ‘em ups have been around as long as video game characters have been able to punch, but the games that really defined the genre were Kung Fu Master and particularly Renegade, which established many of the elements fans associate with beat ‘em ups, like the urban environments, 2.5D graphics, street gangs, mullets, and a girlfriend in jeopardy.
Though some scholars consider Double Dragon to be the Super Mario of beat ‘em ups, in my era, Capcom owned this genre. The title that put them on top of the beat ‘em up pile was Final Fight, the timeless tale of ex-professional wrestler turned mayor of Metro City Mike Haggar, who teams up with his daughter’s boyfriend Cody and Cody’s sparring partner Guy to take down the Mad Gear Gang who has kidnapped the daughter. Haggar, Cody, and Guy clean up the city literally one thug at a time, beating people senseless with lead pipes and samurai swords, and chowing down on whole hams found in trash cans. It’s a fantastic game.
But there are a number of other games that blew my mind. There was The Simpsons, which has recently been released as a download on the PSN and XBOX Live. There was the epic X-Men (TWO SCREENS! SIX PLAYABLE CHARACTERS!) and that venerable classic, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game. That game was hard. They were all hard. I remember one time I sank all five bucks into the Ninja Turtles game, fought my way to the boss of the second level, only to get my shell handed to me by Bebop. But even as a boy, I was not a quitter. As I watched the flashing pink letters count down from 9 to Game Over, I thought to myself, I’m going to need some more turtles.
Enter the greatest social innovation since road trips, the arcade birthday party. Nothing rivaled the awesomeness of the arcade party. Pizza, party rooms, and unlimited tokens ( unlimited for me and my friends, anyway, I can only imagine what these indulgences must have cost my parents). Because what was the best part of these classic, awesome games? Co-op multiplayer action. No waiting your turn here, unlike in the classic Mario games. In the beat ‘em ups, everyone is running all over the screen fighting enemies and saving each other and ganging up on the bosses. It’s an insane spectacle to watch, one that really evokes a complicated fight scene in a movie. And remember, this was multiplayer co-op more than a decade before your friends could yell at you for failing out during the guitar solo in “Green Grass and High Tides” three times in a row. It’s the way the games were meant to be played, you and your buddies, each with their own weapons, taking on the forces of evil.
It was at these parties that I finally slew Shredder, massacred Magneto, and bashed Mr. Burns’s robo armor into oblivion. There is a profound sense of accomplishment after slogging through endless bad guys and achieving victory. It has to do with climbing that ladder until you beat the final boss. In the cases of the Ninja Turtles or X-Men, they were better than any episode of the show, or issue of the comics, because they covered so much more ground. In one game, the turtles fight Rocksteady and Bebop (twice!), Baxter Stockman (twice!), General Traag and Granitor, Krang, and of course, Shredder. Try cramming that into a 22 minute episode of television. If you play to the end, the heroes conquer the villains and acheieve a sense of victory, and more importantly, finality. It’s better even than the feature film versions of some of these media properties, because you really can cram everything in.
These games may not seem like they have the most compelling storylines. For the most part, the plot is “go right, press the attack button.” But these games were right at home in the late 1980s/early 1990s, when movies like Die Hard, Under Siege, and Hard Boiled had similar plots. The recent success of The Raid: Redemption indicates that this movie trend is still going strong today.
Beat ‘em up video games haven’t been so lucky. As 3D games became more popular, interest in these 2D sidescrollers waned. And it’s a pity. The last few Capcom beat ‘em ups were lightyears ahead of their predecessors. Take a look at Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom and its direct sequel Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow Over Mystara. These games adopt several RPG mechanics, making them much more intricate than the earlier beat’em ups. Players can level up. Monsters drop loot, which you can spend to buy weapons and power ups in towns between levels. Best of all, a branching storyline leads players to different levels, allowing for several unique playthroughs.
I can only imagine how much more elaborate and beautiful beat ‘em ups would have become had they been allowed to continue evolving. Instead, all we have are our memories of the arcade, and teaming up with friends to save the world. Not a bad deal, but it’s still nice to think about what it would be like if companies had continued to develop games like this. Let me know if you have an idea in the comments section for a great beat ‘em up game. My picks would be Star Wars, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead. Zombie beat ‘em up, anyone? Anyone?