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Punching with purpose: The resurgence of beat 'em ups continues to offer a welcomed respite from reality

(Image credit: DotEmu)

There's nothing more satisfying than landing that first punch in a beat 'em up. A solid jab that staggers your opponent, leaving them open for repeated strikes. The follow up isn't as grand. Several knees to the face, hip toss into random objects, a risky hurricane kick – they all get the job done. But none of them can compete with that first punch. 

This has always been the case. Since the first time I dumped quarters into Double Dragon. Grabbing the sticks with my dad and moving right off the starting point, we’d go on to assault various gang members in hopes of rescuing Billy Lee's girlfriend. The first goon I ran up on seemingly got it the worst though. Slapping the large "punch" button as hard as I could, I sent the white, muscle shirt-wearing foe reeling. I was hooked. 

Fighting chance

(Image credit: SEGA)

My early experiences playing beat 'em ups were exciting. The reasons are varied, with some being more impactful than others; spending time with my dad after his deployments (thanks to being on active duty in a foreign country) was certainly a highlight. 

One of the things that resonated with me the most though, was the opportunity to be heroic alongside him. We were there to right a wrong and that first punch set the tone. How dare these meatheads assault and kidnap Billy's girlfriend! You ruffians! En garde or some such. Basically, we wanted all the smoke.

Years later and that sentiment remains. I adore the genre, and the recent influx of beat 'em ups tells me that I'm not alone in that regard. Fans have been enjoying the hell out of games like River City Girls and Mother Russia Bleeds. Judging by the love garnered for the new Battletoads game in some circles, it would seem that the desire to punch random bad guys is stronger than ever. 

(Image credit: WayForward)

"It would seem that the desire to punch random bad guys is stronger than ever in 2020"

This renewed interest in an older genre isn't new though. We saw the same thing happen with survival horror after Amnesia. That said, I don’t think this resurgence of beat 'em ups was necessarily due to developers capitalizing on a missing genre, at least not entirely. Let them tell it, and they'll say they’re just fans of Final Fight, Streets of Rage, and so on. That makes sense, given the risks involved; developers have to be pretty confident that people would want to play these retro-inspired games without any pre-existing connection to the genre, considering its perceived faults. 

Beat 'em ups are rather simplistic in design. Repetitive punching and kicking take precedence over things like plot, nuanced characters, and even logic. The genre's staples struggle to evolve, then, though there are outliers to the pattern, especially nowadays. Treachery in Beatdown City's menu-based combat system, for example, presents a notable change to the well-worn formula, even if the core experience is still centered on the moment to moment fighting. Everything else comes second, after all. 

Placing the combat above the other aspects of play isn't a bad choice. Quite the contrary, it's actually a positive characteristic in most cases. For one, it allows these games to be accessible to just about anyone. This is punch. This is kick. That person over there is the bad guy. Take 'em out! The happenings onscreen would be understood within moments of stepping up to the arcade cabinet or sitting down on your couch. 

(Image credit: Microsoft)

Being repetitive isn't so bad either. Again, this goes back to being accessible. One of the reasons playing Double Dragon with my dad was so entertaining was because we both were able to hold our own. He didn’t have to explain the rules or stress which buttons did what.

All I had to do was continually hit the enemies until they fell over and blinked out of existence. Upgradable abilities, intricate combos, RPG elements – all of these modern trappings are welcome. My brother and I will often indulge in the complexities of combat. These things aren't what I look for when sharing this genre with my oldest daughter though.  

Typically, the narrative beats aren't important. That’s not to say that beat 'em ups don't have stories worth telling (the Yakuza series is known for its elaborate storyline); it's just that most of them tend to paint with broad strokes. Everything is black and white. We're the good guys, they’re the bad guys. In doing so, developers negate some of the moral implications of being a vigilante. 

Justice served

(Image credit: DotEmu)

Beat 'em ups often cater to a dangerous side of valor, where the ideal measure of crime fighting is overshadowed by a visceral sense of justice. This is evident in Streets of Rage 4, where Axel and his crew must stop a criminal organization from taking over their city using hypnotic music. The premise is silly, yet having to battle a corrupt police force is anything but. While I'm not one to advocate for a violent response to the systemic issues plaguing our justice system, it doesn’t take much to understand why some of us wouldn't mind throwing hands with a few of them. 

All bets are off when it comes to Wood Oak City. As Axel, I can freely right a wrong by knocking some sense into a hooligan. A corrupt police chief isn't so scary when I can summon flames from my hands. I'm not worried about the repercussions or of a nuanced set of characters, with realistic motives and such. Nope. I can simply be on the right side of things, satiating a strong desire to fix some of the world's deep-seated problems. 

That's why I always lauded that first punch. When I was younger, it was because it set the tone for what's to come – a reckoning for evil doers. Fast forward to today, however, and I no longer assume to know what it means to be the hero in every circumstance; we all have the capacity to be wrong, after all. All of that is thrown out when playing video games, though, and while other genres can elicit the same feelings, not many of them also provide this gritty form of entertainment. It felt good saving Hyrule as Link and putting an end to Rafe Adler as Nathan Drake. But neither of them afforded me the pleasure of beating the snot out of a ruthless criminal in his own penthouse.

Many of the beat 'em ups listed here are available through Xbox Game Pass and will be playable on Xbox Series X and Series S. You can read our Xbox Series X hands-on preview here.