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Brawler games that innovated the beat em up genre

Posted by Jason on September 21, 2017 at 6:40 AM

The brawler game, featuring hand to hand combat like we've never seen before. The seemingly unstoppable hordes of enemies, the pressure to survive, and the sweet satisfaction of being a one-man army. Brawler games first hit the scene in the mid-1980s with Kung-Fu Master. Over the years, brawler games have gained massive popularity, with famous titles such as the Tekken franchise and God of War. For many players, there's an uncanny pleasure from unleashing all hell on the in-game foes, something distinctly primal. Maybe it's our inner super hero, our never ending drive to be a skilled fighter. Whatever it may be, we will be looking at brawler games that innovated the genre.

Golden Axe

Created by video game royalty, Golden Axe was released in May of 1989 by Sega. A medieval hack n slash, this side-scrolling beat'em up gave players control of one of three warriors. The goal in mind to enact revenge on the evil tyrant Death Adder.

You can choose to play as Gilius Thunderhead, a dwarf with a powerful axe, the barbarian Ax Battler, who uses a broadsword, or Tyris Flare, a long sword slashing Amazon.

There's around six stages, and the play through is pretty straightforward. You'll battle waves of enemies as you move from left to right. Be wary though, in Golden Axe you'll come across barbarians, giants, skeletons and much more. The battles are lightning fast and incredibly responsive. What sticks out with Golden Axe is the varying amounts of potential attacks, you can do jump attacks, combination moves and dash attacks, as well as magic attacks. The game also features ride able creatures such as the Lynth, Dragon and Abrax.

Golden Axe left a revolutionary mark on the brawler genre. The gameplay itself was nothing out of the ordinary, except the three playable characters offered a unique take to the beat 'em up genre. Ax, Tyris and Gilius each come with unique strengths and weapons, and this ultimately makes Golden Axe the addicting, retro gem that it is.

God of War

God of War set a quality standard for the beat-em up genre. A glorious tale of revenge paired fantastically with Greek mythology, players were stunned with the game's storyline and excellent combat system. Released in 2005 for the PlayStation 2, God of War received critical acclaim, with perfect or near perfect scores from nearly every major video game critic, earning a 9.8/10 from IGN and a 5/5 from GameSpy and GameRadar.

God of War is hands down one of the best games for the PlayStation 2. The production value is nothing short of amazing. Gamers play as Kratos, a Spartan warrior desperately trying to right the wrongs of his life. You'll work alongside infamous Greek god's such as Ares, Zeus and Athena, as you trek for the mythical Pandora's box.

A highly enjoyable part of God of War is the combat. Kratos is, for lack of a better term, a total badass. There's an excellent combination mechanics, and each attack is visually appealing. The default weapon of the game is the "blades of chaos", a pair of chained blades that are seared into Kratos' body. And players can acquire even more weapons along their journey. Without spoiling too much I'll say this, the various Gods of the game present Kratos with some pretty sweet weapons and abilities.

In addition to the kick-ass combat system, God of War has upgradable weapons and abilities, so players get a well rounded sense of progression as the game moves forward.

In terms of innovation, God of War does a phenomenal job at capturing the raw essence of brutal combat. The cinematic camera system is amazing, moving adeptly to properly capture all the action. The game itself is extremely polished as well. For a PlayStation 2 game, the developers really squeezed out every ounce of power the console could give, the animations are highly realistic and smooth, and the game has little to no loading time.

Combat wise, God of War remains one of the most violent games ever released, for the time. The brutal fights feature some serious gore and over exaggerations, for example, bloody decapitations and limb hacking. But all in all, God of War is innovative for mastering the blend of combat, puzzles and plat forming. The game is extremely addicting, and a very creative take on Greek mythology. What the developers managed to put together with God of War really pushed the envelope for what the PlayStation 2 could handle at the time, and this set the standard for video game quality.

Double Dragon

Beat 'em ups were forever changed in 1987 when Technos Japan released Double Dragon, a game that takes players on the ultimate journey. Controlling Billy Lee, a sensational martial artist, gamers must quest to save their girlfriend, Marian, from the Black Warrior gang. For Billy, this means punching, kicking and jumping to victory. Players will navigate through the levels, defeating the almost endless onslaught of thugs. With one button for kicking and one for punching, Double Dragon's controls are incredibly easy to learn. Moving around is no issue as well.

The game is a side scroller, and enemies will approach from either the left or right sides. The fighting mechanics are pretty smooth, although there are a few drawbacks to the system. You'll have to wait for enemies to return within the screen to continue attacking, you cannot actively pursue them. Not much of an issue. Each level has a boss at the end. The progressive skills system makes the game increasingly fun over time too, so gamers need not worry about boredom setting in.

Eventually, you'll be able to unlock more powerful attacks, such as the jumping kick and various grapples. And of course, the weapons. Double Dragon has a fair deal of usable weapons, there's whips, knives, baseball bats, and even dynamite. Although using them is still arcade-like; each weapon has a short amount of time that it can be used before it disappears. Still, there's nothing quite like firing up the NES and bringing the pain. You can also pick up weapons from defeated foes.

The graphics are superb, and coupled with the classic 8-bit arcade music, Double Dragon is a beautiful and comfortable game.

Hailed as the first truly successful brawler game, Double Dragon started out as an arcade game, before moving on to mainstream success with the Nintendo Entertainment System. It is noted by critics as being the game that launched the beat 'em genre. Double Dragon can provide hours of much needed combat entertainment.

Street Gangs (River City Ransom)

Released in 1989 by the same studio who made Double Dragon, Street Gangs is another beat'em up game for the Nintendo Entertainment System.

The game is a twist on the period's brawler genre, it's open world, non-linear and has heavy role playing themes. The game's controls are similar to Double Dragon, with individual buttons for kicking, punching, and jumping. The gameplay is more of an open world, sand box style. The combat system is easy to learn, addictive, and surprisingly satisfying. Items can be picked up, used and thrown if necessary, and enemies can even be tossed around. Street Gangs looks great on the NES system, and I enjoyed the option to play with a friend.

Graphically, the game is pretty solid. The characters are well defined and each have unique visual characteristics. The levels differ ever so slightly, so you won't be bogged down with playing levels that look exactly the same.

Although Street Gangs innovation comes from the role playing aspect of the game. Players can upgrade their fighter's skills by purchasing skill books with money earned from defeating enemies. The earnings can also go towards items that replenish health and increase overall stats. Street Gangs is also unique in that it was one of the first games that allowed players to monitor all of their fighter's progress.

The reception was nothing short of amazing. Street Gangs earned a 9/10 from IGN, a 10/10 from Thunderbolt, and a 93% from Player One. The gaming website Games Radar ranked Street Gangs as the seventh best game ever made for the Nintendo Entertainment System. For an 8-bit game, we couldn't agree more.

The Simpsons Arcade


This game defined co-op arcade beat'em ups. Developed and released by Konami in 1991, up to four players work as members from the Simpson's family to rescue Maggie, who's been kidnapped by an unlikely villain, Smithers. Like most brawlers, gamers need to fight through waves of enemies, and will encounter a boss fight at the end of each level.

Whether you pick Bart, Lisa, Homer or Marge, each character has their own unique weapon, which adds some character to an already well rounded game. Bart utilizes a skateboard, Lisa has a jump rope turned whip, Homer just goes bareknuckle, and Marge has a vacuum cleaner.

The combat system is basic, only two buttons are needed to walk, jump and attack. Diagonal attacks and power up attacks can be used granted the gamer executes some swift button maneuvers. Items can be obtained and hurled at enemies. Gamers will enjoy the variety of usable weapons, bowling balls, sling shots and trash cans are amongst some of the weapons that lie throughout the levels. The Simpsons Arcade has a pretty standard attack layout. Although the innovation here comes in the combination attack styles, which involves teaming up with another character to battle the bad guys.

The game has decent unlockable content, some of which include character and promotional art, and specific musical sets. The Japanese version of the game becomes available once you complete the game, but it only offers some changes to the score system.

The Simpsons Arcade boasts impressive animations and visuals, each level is well designed and wouldn't fail to amuse any Simpson's fanatic. The colors are eye popping and each character is very clearly recognizable. The audio is on par with the television series, and a good amount of noticeable characters make appearances throughout the game. Depending on the console, the game can be played online, which adds to the overall entertainment value. The Simpsons Arcade has held up well for being over twenty years old, gamers will certainly get a kick out for the nostalgic value if nothing else.

Although some reviews have hailed The Simpsons Arcade as the best cartoon based game of all time, the true innovation of this game lies in the team-up combat ability. Co-operative gameplay is more or less just having another player to play with on screen. The Simpsons Arcade showed the gaming world that true co-op requires team work, and did so in a way that we'd come to expect from the lovable television classic.

Dead Rising

Playing as Frank West, gamers are thrust into a zombie filled landscape with only one goal in mind, survival.

Released in 2006 by Capcom, Dead Rising is a masterful blend of open world gameplay and brutal brawling action.

The combat system remains the most innovative element of Dead Rising. The storyline puts players in a mall filled with every sort of store imaginable. Anything and everything can be used as a weapon, to fight off the army of slow moving zombies. The zombies themselves are not excruciatingly difficult to defeat, but the value here is in the quantity of zombies. There are hundreds! Additionally, it's incredibly fun and downright ridiculous at times deciding which weapons to choose from. There's guns and knives players can grab from hunting and sporting goods stores, then frying pans, flower pots, lawn mowers, weights, chain saws and anything else you can scavenge from the many stores of the fictional Colorado shopping mall.

Additionally, all these items can be used in hilariously creative ways. Dead Rising turns the horror genre inside out by offering this comedic element to the gameplay. And of course, there's a skill system in place, offering players the progression we all know and love from modern era brawlers. Dead Rising has decent replay value, and if you somehow find out every possible way to kill the zombies, there are multiple endings to the main storyline.

Beat'em up games are a solid piece of the foundation of gaming. Nothing really compares to being a one-man army, or defeating an impossible amount of enemies with a friend. For that, our hat's off the brawler genre, and the many games that helped revolutionize what it is to be a combat video game.

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