Side-scrolling beat ’em ups have always been near and dear to my heart. It’s one of my absolute favourite genres of games, but also one that’s had some major ups and downs over the decades. Ever since the late ’90s, I feel there’s a fairly pervasive view of beat ’em ups as a “dated” genre; a style of game made obsolete by the transition from arcades to consoles, repetitive quarter-munchers that have no place in the current era – unless wholly reinvented for modern audiences. Personally, I couldn’t disagree with this more!
Rather than beat ’em ups becoming dated, my view is more that the genre really fell off the wagon once people started attempting to “reinvent” it instead of respectfully iterating on it – and it’s only very recently that we’ve started seeing more successful attempts at new takes on the classic template.
While I’m happy to see games like FIGHT’N RAGE and STREETS OF RAGE 4 bucking the trends of the last decade and change, the fact remains that in the eyes of many people – developers and players both – the key to making a good beat ’em up appears to be adding a ton of time-wasting cruft that dilutes the experience. But in my mind, there are simply a number of fundamental design principles that go into a quality, compelling entry in the genre. So as a PSA, here’s my attempt at outlining what makes for a good beat ’em up – or at the very least, some things I’d like to see more of them do well!
While I do think there are modern game design conventions that could be applicable to the genre – frankly, Capcom really nailed it with FINAL FIGHT in 1989. It’s a timeless masterpiece, and much like its followup STREET FIGHTER II, it still serves as a beautiful template for how to make a good game 30+ years later. I wouldn’t claim to be any kind of expert on the genre, but playing them since their heyday, and especially in applying a more critical lens in more recent years, I feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on what the components are that make for a great, compelling beat ’em up – in my mind, anyway.
Pacing, rhythm and tempo
Over the years, I’ve come to see pacing as the most important factor in deciding how much I enjoy a game. And given how many examples there are out there that get it wrong, I think it’s easy to see just how crucially this applies to beat ’em ups. Detractors of the genre will complain that it’s a repetitive, mindless kind of game, where you do nothing but hold right and press the punch button over and over.
There is of course a kernel of truth to this statement, but you could just as easily apply this hopelessly reductive mindset to any game with a primary verb. SUPER MARIO WORLD is a game where you do nothing but jump, DOOM is a game where you do nothing but shoot, GRAN TURISMO is a game where you do nothing but drive a car. Where these games – and most good games – make something compelling out of a simple premise, is by presenting the player with peaks and valleys of intensity and challenge – ie “pacing”.
The thing is, I do think that reductive mindset does apply to quite a few beat ’em ups – the bad ones, to be specific. Games where you spend far too long wailing on the same 3 dudes over and over and over, walking from screen to screen of the same unchanging backdrop, with absolutely nothing to set one encounter apart from the next. You’d see a lot of this in console-only beat ’em ups of the ’90s (THE TICK perhaps being one of the most infamous examples), but it’s pretty pervasive in modern games as well – sadly.
“Pacing” is a nebulous expression. It can mean a lot of things, and I suppose I’m using it to conflate a couple of different aspects as well. Maybe the simplest way of defining pacing is making sure no part overstays its welcome; keeping things fresh before they have time to get boring. The overall length of the game is worth considering – I’d say ideal length for a beat ’em up is roughly somewhere in the 30-90 minute range – but it’s far from a hard rule, let alone key to good pacing in itself. There are definitely hour-long games that are boring slogs, and I think STREETS OF RAGE 4 manages to stay engaging for its 2 hours or so playtime. So more than sheer length, pacing ties in closely with several other aspects (which we’ll get to), but I think at its core I can break it down into two main aspects: macro and micro pacing.
By “macro pacing” I’m referring to the overall pacing of the game, but more specifically the flow from stage to stage, from encounter to encounter. A good beat ’em up will utilize its environments, enemy types, stage gimmicks, boss fights, and whatever other means at its disposal to create unique situations with a clear beginning and end – and usher the player from one to the next before it wears out its welcome. This doesn’t have to mean over-the-top set pieces, or BATTLETOADS-style complete genre switching between levels, but I think there should be something to make each level distinct enough to stand out beyond pure aesthetics. If I can’t recall what stages are in a game, which order they were in, how they were structured or what were in them – that could be sign of any number of things, but I think chances are good that poor pacing is one of them. Samey levels that blend together, with the same fights repeated ad nauseum, and no discernable peaks or valleys – all hallmarks of a tedious, boring beat ’em up.
“Micro pacing” then, refers to how individual encounters are paced. The two biggest sins that beat ’em ups tend to commit in this regard are giving enemies too much health, and stacking too many of them into a single encounter. Of course it’s fine for beat ’em ups to feature the occasional tanky midboss, or even a particular reoccuring enemy type that takes a serious beating – but the minute your game stops doling out “popcorn” enemies for the player to take out quickly and efficiently, it risks turning into a real slog, real fast.
As a general rule, giving the player an army of weak enemies to take out is a good way of empowering them; conversely, having even the lowliest of grunts take several full combos to go down will make the player (and their character) feel weak and ineffectual. Good beat ’em ups throw different constellations of varied enemy types at the player, and even though the frequency of tougher foes may increase later in the game, the weaker enemies still fulfill their own niche and should never really be made irrelevant.
So if having tanky, damage-sponge enemies is a no-no, is it not then hypocritical to also complain about there being too many enemies in a single enounter? Well, the issue I have isn’t strictly with the number of enemies, but more so being stuck on a single screen fighting wave after wave of (often the same) enemies before being allowed to move on. This can of course be greatly exacerbated by also having enemies with too much health – but even if they don’t, having to fight too many enemies in one place with no sense of advancement or progression really makes a game grind to a halt.
Basically, ideal beat ’em up encounter design to me is facing a mixed group of enemies, and once they’ve been dispatched, quickly moving along to the next. Even just inching forward slowly with new thugs dropping in more or less instantly will still feel better than just standing around waiting for them to come to you – especially if the background changes slightly, enemies spawn in novel ways, or something else is done to make it feel like a separate encounter instead of the same one dragging on. Of course, it’s not like spawning multiple waves of enemies on the same locked screen is completely taboo or anything – but it should be done with caution, and the idea of having each successive wave be distinct in one way or another still applies.
Lastly, “rhythm” and “tempo” comes down to the balancing of the macro and micro pacing; keeping a steady momentum, while making sure the pace isn’t entirely rigid. Present shorter, easier sections to give players a breather after a harrowing gauntlet, make judicious use of rare enemies who must be fought in specific ways, punctuate levels with memorable and challenging boss fights – in short, keep things fresh.
This extends beyond the gameplay itself, for that matter. The way a player’s engagement and momentum is maintained (or isn’t) throughout screen transitions, after boss fights, between levels, etc is a crucial aspect that I think a lot of modern beat ’em ups especially really tend to overlook. This is a big reason (but far from the only one) that I tend to dislike beat ’em ups with non-linear, RPG-inspired structures, as well as ones that put an undue emphasis on narrative – especially if the latter is done through repetitive, static dialogue boxes. Regardless of how they handle encounter design, they often manage to introduce other ways of killing the momentum.
Don’t get me wrong – I love seeing beat ’em ups infused with a light touch of storytelling and world building – but it all comes down to how it’s done. Games like THE PUNISHER and CADILLACS & DINOSAURS respect the need to maintain momentum, and keep their story scenes just as snappy as the levels, to great effect. But on the other end of the spectrum you have games like ASTERIX & OBELIX: SLAP THEM ALL! which intersperses each of its boring, samey levels with tedious, drawn out, unskippable(!) dialogue scenes presented in the least exciting way imaginable. It sucks.
I mentioned the need for varied encounters; keeping up a solid pace by presenting the player with different enemy patterns to avoid a sense of rote repetition. In order to make this work however, you need to have a solid lineup of different enemy types, each with their own distinct and learnable behaviour – and by extension, counter-strategies.
This is something that I feel gets grossly overlooked, in particular by critics of the genre who incorrectly assert that beat ’em ups have no depth beyond just pressing the punch button over and over. What they may fail to realise is that there can be an incredible amount of depth to when, where and why you press that punch button – and that all comes down to enemy behaviour.
This is one of the key aspects that I feel FINAL FIGHT truly evolved beyond its contemporaries. Of course games like SUPER MARIO BROS, MAKAIMURA and countless others had multiple enemy types that had to be dealt with in different ways, and other beat ’em ups like DOUBLE DRAGON and GOLDEN AXE featured enemies with different abilities. But FINAL FIGHT pushes the concept above and beyond, with every enemy type essentially having movement and combat abilities completely unique to them. Two.P is super fast, Axl can block, Poison somersaults across the screen, El Gado brings out knives, Andore throws you, and squashes you on the ground if you don’t get up quickly enough – and so on.
Each of these distinct behaviours means that the player will need to approach each type of enemy slightly differently. The tactics used to deal with each enemy aren’t necessarily all that difficult to apply in isolation – but get exponentially more complex as more variables are added to the equation. Just dealing with two Breds gets significantly more challenging than fighting one, since you have to start watching your back. But throw in a Poison or El Gado and you now suddenly have to figure out how to apply your various counter-strategies to each of the enemies all at once – and as anyone who’s ever played FINAL FIGHT can attest: that shit can get pretty damn overwhelming.
But that is, of course, the beauty of it! Each possible combination of enemy types, each layout of enemy spawn points, each obstacle or stage hazard – even something as simple as the unusually narrow belt in that outdoors section of the final stage – make for a distinct encounter. A distinct challenge, and a distinct puzzle to solve with your fists.
Plenty of beat ’em ups fail to live up to this tenet, in a number of ways, even. The most basic, of course, is by simply lacking enemies who are meaningfully diverse. They might look different, and even have unique abilities – but unless they force players to engage with them differently, it ultimately won’t mean much. As an example, DOUBLE DRAGON does feature more enemy variety than some games, but it’s rendered moot by the utter dominance of the elbow attack – using any other attack is essentially meaningless, and the game’s only remaining challenge are the instant-death traps in the later stages. Arguably this issue is more to do with the design of the player’s move set than the enemies per se, but the end result is the same – with no need to change up tactics, every fight feels the same.
But even if both player and enemy abilities are well thought out, a game can easily suffer if the encounters themselves are not. Putting enemies together in different constellations is key in keeping players on their toes, and a disappointing number of games fail to do this – be it for design or technical reasons. The former can be an issue when a game leans too heavily into tying enemies to locations or story beats – street punks in the street level, ninjas in the dojo level, robots in the factory level, etc. Connecting an enemy or boss with a location is great when introducing them, but if someone is designing a beat ’em up and they explicitly don’t want the player to fight street punks, ninjas and robots at the same time… well, let’s just say I don’t trust their judgment.
Technical limitations are more understandable, and perhaps more forgivable. This is less of a thing in arcade games for natural reasons, but something that almost every beat ’em up game on NES, SNES and microcomputers had to deal with – with very very few of them ever managing to put more than 2 enemies on screen at a time, it’s obviously going to be tricky to compose encounters. Some hide this deficiency better than others, making sure to stagger enemy spawns so the player at least keeps having to fight two different enemies as often as possible (FINAL FIGHT TOUGH handles it quite well, as an example). Others are incapable of even putting multiple enemy types on screen at the same time to begin with – combine this with a tendency to make up for small enemy counts by raising the amount of enemy waves, and you might start getting an idea of why a lot of console beat ’em ups aren’t thought of very highly.
A balanced move set
I’ve explained how having a range of enemies for the player to face is an important component in creating varied combat encounters, but equally important is the player’s ability to make strategic decisions in how to tackle them. I believe that the ability – and indeed, need – for the player to make meaningful decisions is the absolute core of game design. To that end, the player’s vocabulary has to allow for such decision making.
When I was younger, I used to put a lot of stock in the sheer size of a beat ’em up game’s move set – I felt that STREETS OF RAGE 2 was superior to FINAL FIGHT more or less solely due to how the former gave the player a wider range of moves, with more options for grabs and throws in particular. Make no mistake, the wide arsenal at your disposal does make SOR2 really fun to play, and having more options can make otherwise dull games a little more enjoyable. But in the end, I think it comes down to how the player is expected to make use of their full move set. Or if, as the case may be.
FINAL FIGHT has a rather stripped down move set; not by 1989 standards but certainly compared to many of the countless games that would build on its foundations. Crucially however, the moves at your disposal offer you a number of strong – if mutually exclusive – options. Your regular combo can deal damage to multiple enemies quickly, but leaves your back exposed. Jump attacks can clear big crowds, but don’t deal a lot of damage. Grappling can lead to big damage and versatile positioning, but is dangerous when there’s a group of enemies. Combo throws give you extended invincibility frames and are one of the most powerful offensive tools because of it (especially with Haggar), but lack of control over throw direction can split up the enemy crowds, leaving you surrounded.
Not every move in every character’s repertoire is equally important, but you do have options that are very strong in the right situation – yet none of them are the go-to, obvious choice for any situation. High level play is all about identifying enemy patterns, manipulating enemy movement, memorising spawn points – using any means available to orchestrate the battle and make it more predictable, and in the process making it easier to figure out what strategy to apply when.
Needless to say, this doesn’t work as well if you do have an obvious answer to every situation (ie DOUBLE DRAGON’s elbow attack), but it also doesn’t work if the attacks in your arsenal lack a distinct purpose. If it’s not clear to me when or why I should use a combo over a jump kick, or a headbutt over a suplex, what incentive do I have to even think about it? Granted, from a design perspective the player’s move set offers an enormous room for hidden depth, and just because the specific use for each attack isn’t obvious, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
Still, I’d argue that it’s a good idea to intentionally design beat ’em up move sets to have at least some obvious strengths and weaknesses, and perhaps more importantly, surface them to the player. Tactical applications of all the different options will inevitably be a more complex matter (hopefully, anyway), but giving players some sense of what their options are – even the idea that they have options, for that matter – will allow them to more easily engage with the game on a deeper level.
As I’ve outlined in the past, this is one of the areas where I felt STREETS OF RAGE 4 really meaningfully iterated on its predecessors. Kid me loved SOR2’s bigger move set, older me appreciates the elegance of the more restrained FINAL FIGHT – but SOR4 kind of gets to have its cake and eat it too, by making tweaks to a lot of SOR2’s formula to ensure that every move has a clear and explicit purpose. Again, certain moves will naturally be more useful than others, but almost every move is really useful in some way, and none of them are completely useless.
The latter might sound silly, but you’d be surprised how often you come across beat ’em ups that give the player options that are either rendered obsolete by the presence of more powerful options, or in more extreme cases, moves that are straight up useless. The infamous elbow is far from alone in the former category – if anything the DOUBLE DRAGON series is rife with similarly degenerate moves; DD2 on the NES has the jumping knee, RETURN OF DOUBLE DRAGON has the charged hurricane kick, and DOUBLE DRAGON IV has the leaping headbutt.
Other times, you get moves that end up hard to use effectively, for hitbox/timing reasons, or some mechanical quirk or another. RIVER CITY GIRLS was a game that frustrated me greatly for a number of reasons, but a big one was how a lot of moves felt hard to use, if not straight up designed to be useless. Grappling and throwing is slow and confer no invincibility whatsoever, nor can it be used to clear crowds by tossing one enemy into others – making it unsatisfying, weak, and frankly, a liability. Thrown items are similarly unintuitive; characters lob them into the air in a parabolic arc as if to purposefully avoid hitting anyone standing in front of them. It’s bizarre!
This is an interesting one, if only because this is an area where otherwise great games can be a bit lackluster – and on the flipside, it’s rare for a game with fundamental flaws be elevated to greatness purely on the strength of its boss fights. So one might argue that good bosses aren’t nearly as crucial to making a quality beat ’em up as well-balanced pacing or combat design. Still, if I were to envision my ideal beat ’em up, it would undoubtedly feature a unique battle with a memorable villain at the end of each of its stages.
Not to be a complete broken record here, but once again FINAL FIGHT really set the template. The DOUBLE DRAGON games had of course featured a few bosses who were memorable in their own right (albeit more so with repeated appearances in later games), but Capcom added a lot of little things to make the Mad Gear members truly stand out. Every boss battle in FINAL FIGHT is its own little set piece – there’s unique music, each fight is set in a location distinct both from each other but also from the level that preceded it, and much like the basic enemies – each of them is completely unique mechanically.
Even if you have a good handle on how to deal with each of the game’s enemy types, the bosses are extremely tough (if not unfair), unless you happen to know the particular tricks to cheese them. At the same time, none of them break the game’s rules in any egregious ways. That’s not to say that the key to good beat ’em up bosses is to make them really hard – just that giving them unique behaviours and mechanics to accompany their unique looks goes a long way towards making them stand out as something more significant than just a regular enemy.
The latter is something I always felt was one of the GOLDEN AXE series’ weak points – although the games have a great atmosphere and some really cool character designs, aside from the final boss showdowns, their boss fights are largely very forgettable. Defeated bosses returning as later-stage midbosses (and/or as part of a final stage boss rush) is a tried and true tradition of the genre, but the way GOLDEN AXE does it feels kind of backwards – enemies who are first introduced as bosses come across as pretty underwhelming, and once they start popping up as regular enemies (often in the immediately following stage), that’s where they feel more at home. Nothing about them feels worthy of being elevated to boss status.
Beyond the purely mechanical aspects though, it should go without saying that the aesthetics and personality of beat ’em up bosses is crucial to making a lasting impression as well! In the best of worlds the two sides are closely connected, with a character’s personality being expressed through animation and gameplay – but it all starts with a strong visual design. The value of strong visual design of course extends beyond just a game’s bosses – but I do think there’s a case to be made for boss characters being not just important, but the most important as far as impactful character design goes.
Boss characters in a beat ’em up play a particular role; mechanically as well as narratively. These are the big guns, the centerpieces of each of the game’s levels, and the greatest obstacles for the player characters to overcome. As such, they need to make a splash, and they need to pose a credible threat to the heroes. It’s a bit of a cliché to say that a hero is only as good as their villains, but I think there’s some truth to it – triumphing over a difficult boss feels satisfying, and that effect is only enhanced further if the player is made to feel like an underdog.
This is a philosophy that I think works best when applied holistically; boss characters should obviously be mechanically strong, they should be physically (or otherwise) imposing to convey that strength, but they should also possess some amount of… pizzazz, if you will. To put it another way: the player characters in a beat ’em up ought to be cool – but the bosses should be badass. It’s like, Mad Max is cool, sure, but he doesn’t hold a candle to Toecutter, Wez, Lord Humungus, Master Blaster, Auntie Entity or Immortan Joe, you know? Same deal.
Even beyond the psychology of being pitted against overwhelming odds, I think it’s also worth keeping in mind that beat ’em up games, by definition – even the ones incorporating more elaborate storytelling – have a very limited canvas on which to paint its characters. There is simply no room for subtlety, so the more vividly a character’s personality and demeanor can be conveyed visually and physically, the better.
Sick wrestling moves
OK, so this one is a lot simpler. I’m a firm believer that no video game exists that could not be materially improved by the inclusion of pro wrestling moves. And as the last 30-odd years have shown us, this is rarely demonstrated as well as by the beat ’em up genre at large.
If I’m playing a beat ’em up, I am going to want to suplex dudes – plain and simple. I am going to want to suplex dudes into a bunch of other dudes. If I can pile drive them, too? Even better. Y’all got some of those DDTs, frankensteiners, and brainbusters too? Now we’re talking!
There is scarcely such a pure joy as performing sick wrestling moves in a video game, and beat ’em ups are the perfect vessel. A wrestler character is a natural inclusion, but why limit yourself to that? Give everyone wrestling moves! Hell, the more improbable, the better. DYNAMITE DEKA is an excellent game for many reasons, but officer Bruno Delinger’s ability to dish out giant swings and tombstone pile drivers are undeniably chief among them.
With the recent success of STREETS OF RAGE 4, and with classically arcade-style beat ’em ups like TMNT: SHREDDER’S REVENGE and FINAL VENDETTA on the horizon, I’m very excited that we’re finally seeing a shift away from the tedious RPG-laden brawlers that have dominated the genre since the 2000s. That said, even if those types of games tend to be the worst offenders in terms of pacing issues, plenty of modern beat ’em ups of all kinds are sadly plagued by poor pacing as well – as well as lackluster combat design, questionable difficulty balance, a lack of sick wrestling moves… and so on.
I don’t mean for this article to come across as the ramblings of a know-it-all convinced they could do a better job – I know making games is hard! I’m just a little dismayed to see so many attempts at one of my favourite video game genres fail to acknowledge concepts and principles that have been established for so long. My point isn’t to say “I could do it better”, or for that matter, “conventions must be strictly adhered to”. But there are undoubtedly a lot of lessons to be learned from studying the greats – and many modern games seem either incapable or unwilling to do so.
Even then, beyond venting some pent-up frustration, I wouldn’t say this is necessarily directed at developers in the first place. This is just my attempt to verbalise (and in the process, concretise) some of the thoughts that have been percolating in my head. I think a good deal of the frustration I feel with the genre isn’t so much about individual games being subpar, but more that general understanding (as well as appreciation) of what makes a good beat ’em up seems very lacking.
In my experience, documentation on the inner workings of beat ’em ups (be it general or game-specific) seems nigh-impossible to come across on the English-speaking internet. I would really love for there to be more authoritative guides and such out there, similar to what’s available for VS fighting games, arcade shoot ’em ups – two similarly mechanics-heavy niche genres – but unfortunately, I’ve never really been able to find much. If you happen to know of any, please do let me know!
I definitely don’t feel qualified to write any such a thing (at least not yet?), but I figured I could at least put some of my thoughts out there. If that can help someone gain an even vaguely deeper understanding or appreciation for beat ’em ups, great! Hopefully, the next time I feel compelled to write a lengthy screed on beat ’em up design, I’ll be able to provide some more targeted analysis – and maybe even some hopeful observations on more new games taking the genre back closer to its arcade glory. I guess maybe we’ll find out once FINAL VENDETTA drops in a couple of weeks.