The beat ‘em up, or “brawler”, is a classic video game genre, and at PAX West I played two distinctly modern takes on the brawler: Streets of Rage 4 by Guard Crush Games, Lizardcube, and Dotemu, and Young Souls by 1P2P Studios. While the spirit of the brawler lives on in big, 3D action games like God of War, 2D versions of the beat ‘em up are constantly being refined and evolved by smaller, often independent studios.
The beat ‘em up genre got its start in the 1980s arcade scene, defined best by games like Double Dragon, Streets of Rage 2, Golden Axe, and various licensed-games like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Simpsons. They focus primarily on using hand-to-hand combat to mow through a large number of enemies, who get progressively more difficult.During the heydays of arcades, these games were purposely designed to get players to spend more money.
Video games have come a long way since the days of the arcade. Modern innovations have delivered 3D action/brawlers like God of War and Bayonetta. But indie devs are taking these lessons of modern game design and merging it with the classic 2D brawler format.
“First we analyzed several beat ‘em ups (yes, even the obscure ones) and we tried to understand what are the good things, the frustrating things, and is that frustration necessary to make the game work etc;” Dotemu game designer Jordi Asensio explained to IGN.
Asensio says in order to evolve the beat ‘em up genre — while keeping true to its arcade roots — the Streets of Rage 4 developers needed a good foundation. “We really worked on the original feeling of 90’s brawlers. That single punch, it must feel good.” Once the hits were solid, the team added modern game elements, like regenerating health through hitting enemies with special moves without getting hit.
1P2P Studios is taking a slightly different approach. Its own RPG brawler, Young Souls, mixes the modern social elements of Persona with a deep fantasy world. Playing as a pair of siblings, players can visit shops and customize their characters with the latest fashion trends, that then become their armor in an underground fantasy world.
Jerome Fait, co-founder and developer at 1P2P told IGN how Young Souls borrowed a lot of inspiration from other genres, before integrating them into its 2D world.
“We took inspiration from modern 3D brawlers – more flexible and smoother gameplay – and mechanics from other close genres – stamina management, careful use of shield and zoning – and mixed them with the traditional codes of 2D beat ‘em ups.”
These careful refinements and hybridization efforts showcase how even 2D beat ‘em ups that designed to emulate the brawlers of the 90s can also be fresh and modern. New technologies also open up the possibilities for modern 2D games even further.
Cyrille Lagarigue, the main programmer at Guard Crush Games says that thanks to modern hardware, “making a 2D game, we can do basically what we want in terms of graphics, so we are trying to push the envelope.” Lagargigue says that new tech lets Streets of Rage 4 to “have backgrounds that never repeat, so we can tell an always evolving story with level design.”
Lagarigue also highlights the analogue stick as a major advancement over the d-pad controls of old, which, “allows for more fluid and precise movements.”
1P2P is also utilizing modern technology to push their 2D beat ‘em up RPG. “[There are] no more limitations on the number of characters on screen or their size. In our case, we use 3D backgrounds, which allows us to have interesting camera work with original angles, depth of field, etc. We’ve also been able to develop a unique artistic direction and animation style while setting up a complex customization system,” Fait says.
For both the Streets of Rage 4 developers and 1P2P, the beat ‘em up revival is a pleasant coincidence rather than a coordinated industry shift. “We often see this kind of movements in video game with the return of a particular genre,” Fait says. “It probably reflects a certain lack of a generation of fans that matured enough to develop new ones. This time it’s for the 2D beat ‘em ups and we’re happy with that!”
When asked why now’s the right time is to bring back the beat ‘em up, he laughs and says, “We do not know if it’s the right time, but it seems that many of us thought about it at the same time!”
“In recent years, there has been a small revival of the genre, but I think this is because it has been too long a forgotten formula,” Lizardcube creative director Ben Fiquet added. “And beat’em ups are always cool to play.”
Both the team behind Streets of Rage 4 and 1P2P Studios agree that the brawler lives on in 3D action games. But 2D efforts like Streets of Rage 4 and Young Souls, show that there is a space for more classic beat ‘em up experiences that still feel uniquely modern.