The last quarter saw the launch of the much-awaited Injustice 2 and Tekken 7, the latest exponents of beat ‘em up gaming. It’s been 41 years since the release of Sega’s Heavyweight Champ — widely accepted as the first side-scrolling beat ‘em up game — and the genre has undergone a whole host of changes in the time.
In the mid-1990s, the genre saw a spike in popularity with over twenty titles releasing every year. The number of releases have been reducing since the 2000s, with only about six or seven titles releasing per year from 2015. Are fighting games still relevant, and what does the future hold for the genre? Two of our colleagues discuss.
Platform of choice
Karan Pradhan: There are always takers for the genre and there will continue to be, simply because it’s one of the most accessible formats around. Whether it’s a 10-minute bash you’re after or an extended session, there are very few games that require as little time to get into and get out of.
Aditya Madanapalle: This genre is the best to play with friends. Beat ‘em ups are one of the staples of console gaming, along with racing and sport titles. However, the beat em up genre is not so popular on touchscreens, where the button mashing is not as much fun without tactile feedback.
KP: But then, touchscreen gaming by and large — obvious exceptions like the offerings from Telltale Games apart — offers a poorer experience when compared with console or PC gaming.
AM: By and large, that is true. Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat titles on touchscreens are nowhere near their console versions in terms of the gameplay experience. However, some games built around the possibilities of the device, using gestures for example, do allow for hours of engaging gameplay. One example of a success story is the Infinity Blade series. Injustice could have been another, but it has an irritating energy mechanic and is a little too pushy when it comes to in-app purchases (IAP).
KP: Also, with touchscreens, the ability to swipe adds a whole new dynamic to the traditional button-and-direction orientation of beat ‘em games.
AM: Almost everyone who invests in a console is a dedicated gamer, but the same is not true for smartphones. There might be people trying out games on phones, who do not identify themselves as gamers. The developers are adapting their content to this new market, and not all the gamers are happy with that.
Advances over the years
AM: One of the most noticeable improvements is in terms of graphical quality. The Injustice series really pushes the boundaries in this department. However, excellent graphics are not really a requisite for such titles, and the older games are as much fun. The games are also becoming more casual, and at the same time incorporating more social features.
KP: In my view, the largest leap forward has been the expansion of the genre to include games that allow three dimensional movement. In other words, you’re not limited to sidescrolling combat; instead, you can move across the breadth and span of the arena — which lends a new tactical dimension to the fight.
Sports sim beat ‘em ups like boxing games, MMA games or wrestling games have also advanced the genre by allowing boxing or wrestling nuances (the variety of punches, kicks and grapples) to enter the picture.
Finally, you’ve got the brawlers that, much like Double Dragon back in the day, take the concept of beat ‘em ups and make it more fluid with storylines, missions etc. Take the Yakuza or Devil May Cry series for example.
AM: Street Fighter X Tekken and Injustice are among the ones I enjoyed more. The gameplay arenas in Street Fighter X Tekken have as much character as the fighters themselves, and Injustice offers various innovative ways to use interactive elements from the environment.
KP: In terms of conventional, side-scrolling beat ‘em ups, Injustice: Gods among Us and its RPG-esque (the ability to customise character costumes and a levelling-up system) sequel feature very high on my list.
AM: Yup, I really like choosing the costumes and cards in the series. Injustice offers one of the few, good, cinematic experiences when it comes to DC properties. The controls are precise and refined, and there are tons of easter eggs.
KP: In terms of non-traditional beat ‘em ups — the ones that allow you to move around the arena rather than just back and forth, Soulcalibur 2 and Virtua Fighter 4 are among my all-time favourites, and contain some of the most memorable characters. Astaroth and Jeffrey McWild, anyone?
Lastly, when looking at sports sim beat ‘em ups, 2003’s WWE Smackdown: Here Comes the Pain is my undisputed champion. Even though subsequent iterations of the franchise have long surpassed it graphically and in terms of roster depth, the gameplay remains unbeaten at the time of writing.
AM: I remember playing WWF Raw on a Windows 95 PC with friends. Two people could bash it out on the same keyboard. Usually the close proximity results in real-life wrestling over unsettled in-game disputes.
KP: I do think one area in which beat ‘em up games are stuck in a time warp is controls; the system of combos, to be precise. Memorising a list of ‘Up, Down, X, O, X, X, Left’-style moves was fine back in the day, but now with motion detection, analog sticks and touchpads (PS4 controller), there’s no excuse not to refine gameplay with gestures.
AM: Getting the timing right, choosing the appropriate moves and executing the perfect finisher are all pleasurable experiences in a typical title that requires button mashing. The timing is slightly different in each title, and learning the exact timing is what makes each game fun, and wanting you coming back for more.
KP: Touchscreen versions of beat ‘em up games do a good job when it comes to incorporating gestures into gameplay.
AM: Injustice is a good example of this because it is available on both touchscreens and consoles. The touchscreen version is bogged down by time sinks and the environments are not as interactive. While the gestures are fun, they do not provide the same precision as a controller.
KP: There’s also a case to be made for motion-detection controllers like the ones on the Nintendo Wii or Switch that actually allow you to punch.
AM: Motion controllers have a host of problems: You have to have a big enough room without furniture in the way. You have to make sure you are within the boundaries of the cameras, and cannot move too much. Also it requires so much physical exertion, a good physical workout, but then you play less.
KP: Well, it depends on what your definition of play is. To some gamers, the idea of running through a laundry list of combos for an hour might not constitute gaming as much as actually punching the air and watching their on-screen opponent take a battering for 15 minutes.
AM: Fighting games traditionally have always had all the action presented in a 2D stage, even if the characters and environment are modelled in 3D. I would like fighting games to explore action from a fresh viewpoint, maybe even top down. No fighting game has emerged as a top tier esport mainstay yet, although there are dedicated tournaments and the genre is popular on game streaming platforms. Nintendo’s Arms does look promising on that front.
KP: I imagine the dynamics of a MMO beat ‘em up in the format of a brawler would be as chaotic as it would be exciting; it would not surprise me if a handful of developers are already working on translating the experience of a Counter Strike to the world of beat ‘em ups.
AM: An insurmountable problem for the genre so far is allowing for remote multiplayer experiences. The lag is a big problem when it comes to the split second timing required for the moves in fighting games. The titles stand to get much more popular if this problem can be solved. Some games including Skullgirls and Injustice 2 try to anticipate the next move, and switch to a different state if there is an unexpected input, but this is not a real solution.
KP: VR is another area that beat ‘em ups can explore. Although I suspect the result might be a bit more traumatic than a lot of gamers would like. Imagine seeing fists thudding into your face. Bit crazy.
AM: Augmented Reality offers immersive experiences, and it would be fun to see what developers can do with the genre in AR. I am imagining experiences where people can actually transform into their favorite Tekken or Street Fighter characters. Expect the games to be short and casual, considering how exhausting it will be. I cannot imagine how player vs player combat with AR though, as the gamers will have to actually fight each other.
KP: Maybe the future lies in the past then? Move away from consoles and actually beat each other up. I sincerely hope not. [Editor's note: Are you sure about that?]