These beat-’em-ups are scrolling down the street, looking for a fight.
In the beginning, there were beat-’em-ups, and the Lord said they were good. As the punches flowed like wine across pixellated faces, eventually it became clear that brawlers could move off their restrictive one screen and batter far more than just one opponent. So was born the Side-Scrolling beat-’em-up. These titles combined epic quests spanning many different stages with plenty of hardcore face-punching action. Here are nine of the best side scrolling beat-’em-ups to ever have a camera follow them across the street as they beat up goons and eat turkey off the floor. Though our resident pugilist-in-chief, Francis DiPersio, wrote most of these entries, there’s a couple guest entries from the rest of us.
9. Final Fight (Arcade, 1989)
Capcom’s pioneering brawler may not have been the first of the side scrolling beat-’em-ups to arrive in the arcades, but it’s without a doubt one of the most iconic. When it released in 1989, Final Fight’s gritty brand of urban fisticuffs delivered a spinning pile-driver to the competition as heroes Cody, Guy, and the human tank, mayor Mike Haggar, cleaned up the streets of Metro City on a mission to topple the evil Mad Gear Gang and rescue Haggar’s daughter, Jessica, from the clutches of the gang’s wicked wheelchair-bound kingpin, Belger.
Final Fight was a tremendous success for Capcom, as countless arcadegoers flocked to their local bowling alleys, laundromats, and fun centers to satisfy their craving for face-bashing action and succulent phone booth turkeys. The game’s big, beefy sprites, unforgettable music, and satisfying blend of martial arts mayhem made it a hit that kept players coming back for more.
The Final Fight series has gone on to spawn numerous sequels, but none of them have quite managed to live up to the lofty heights of the original game. Still, the series’ impact is one that’s felt to this day like the impact of a lead pipe to the face.
8. Golden Axe 2: The Revenge of Death Adder (Arcade, 1992)
SEGA’s Golden Axe was a solid foray into the genre of fantasy beat-’em-ups, earning the former hardware manufacturer countless quarters from arcade gamers when it was released. In addition to the home port, the game also spawned number of sequels, including a pretty interesting weapons-based fighter offshoot, titled Golden Axe: The Duel, which saw release in the arcades on SEGA’s Titan hardware, as well as on the 32-bit Saturn console. Sadly, the best game in the series is one that’s hardly gone recognized since its release in 1992.
Golden Axe: The Revenge of Death Adder took the winning formula of the original game and polished it to perfection. The game introduced interesting new characters, such as Goah the giant, Stern the barbarian, Dora the Centaur, and Little Trix, an elf with a pitchfork that stabs at enemy soldiers and monsters like fleshy bales of hay. SEGA also doubled the number of players, allowing up to four heroes to duke it out with the forces of the evil Death Adder at once.
While the 16-bit Genesis did indeed see a Golden Axe II, it was more a half-hearted reboot of the original game than a true sequel. To this day, Golden Axe: The Revenge of Death Adder is an arcade exclusive, and a hard one to come by at that. And that’s a shame, because it’s without a doubt one of the best fantasy brawlers out there, and demands the attention of any fans of the genre.
7. River City Ransom (NES, 1989)
While beat-’em-ups thrived in the arcades and on Sega and Nintendo’s 16-bit consoles, there were more than a few solid 8-bit brawlers out there. And without a doubt, River City Ransom is one of the best. Developed by Technos Japan — who pretty much created the genre as we know it today with their smash hit Double Dragon — River City Ransom, known as Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari in Japan, is the third entry in the Kunio-kun series to make its way to the NES. Players take control of River City High tough guys Alex and Ryan as they beat back the gangs of the game’s titular town as they attempt to rescue Ryan’s girlfriend Cyndi from the villainous Slick. Note to parents: if you name your kid Slick, he’s probably going to grow up to be an asshole.
Sure, the “duo of dudes saves babe from murderous thugs” shtick is one we’ve seen time and time again in the beat-’em-up genre, but Technos Japan did some interesting things that kept River City Ransom’s action fresh and entertaining. Firstly, the city itself could be explored at your leisure (so long as you could brave the waves of jocks and frat boys standing in your way). As you pummeled your way through the various districts you would gain cash that could be spent on food and gear, as well as experience to make your duo of pugilists more powerful. These clever mechanics gave River City Ransom an almost RPG-lite flavor, and it really helped the game stand out from the countless other beat-’em-ups of the late 80’s.
If you’re a longtime fan of the series or a newcomer eager to see what all of the fuss is about, the fan-made sequel, River City Ransom: Underground, is set to release later this month on PC. You can visit the Steam store page here.