"Use only that which works, and take it from any place you can find it." - Bruce Lee
There was a palpable sensation of change permeating the arcades and game shelves in 1985. Fighting games, of all varieties, were a proven entity and we waited impatiently for the digital realisation of kung fu cinema and cheeseball action flicks. Once the lull turned into the torrential bone-storm of videogame violence we so desperately anticipated, the industry would never be the same.
Arcades had transformed from family amusement centres into ruthless gladiatorial arenas, while home systems saw an influx of peripherals designed to accommodate the untamed nature of the new fighting gamer. Joysticks boasted superior strength, extra buttons and tactile grips, and games veered tensely away from delicate keyboard controls lest the fury of a fighting game destroy the entire computer.
The genre was blue hot; a pinnacle not only of hard and fast gameplay, but of technical achievement. Rendering the human form onscreen was a hugely significant milestone, and its influence began to spread across the entire gaming sphere. Given leave to experiment in more mature, less socially responsible themes by the fighting genre's public acceptance, shoot-'em-ups adopted a personal, close-quarters approach to destruction while platformers took a hands-on, brutal tactic when dispatching enemies.
Behind the scenes, developers were acutely aware of the gaming public's need for genre expansion, and everyone from cassette-based budget labels to the industry leading coin-op manufacturers forged ahead with a new season of beat-'em-up titles. As it was, this next leg in the race would be won by the company who first helped pioneer fighting games; cross-breeding the one-on-one tournament with the multiple adversaries and unexplored possibilities of the scrolling beat-'em-up.
"I dare not say that I have reached a state of achievement. I'm still learning, for learning is boundless." - Bruce Lee
The eponymous, treacherous setting for most every scrolling fighter - ambiguously referred to as "The Street" - began with veteran fighting game developer Technos, in its 1986 groundbreaking beat-'em-up hybrid, Nekketsu Kou-ha: Kunio Kun (translating as Kunio: The Hot Blooded Bad Boy). Stripping away the sporting, honourable nature of Karate Champ, the action was turned out onto Tokyo's merciless Street, where gangs felt the raw-knuckled fury of a brother scorned.
Regionalised that same year as Renegade, the small, scrolling levels took the rough pattern of Kung Fu Master's multiple assailants and cultivated it. While the Japanese version focused on schoolyard squabbles, the Western adaptation provided a far more severe premise. A nameless rebel took revenge on the underworld of an entire city for the kidnapping of his girlfriend - remorseless and unquestioning, the Renegade made the criminal class pay. He was one of them, but for a vague moral code, and placing gamers in the shoes of a character more aggressive and sadistic than the enemy was a stroke of industry-changing genius, and the principled gameplay of the tournament fighter was suddenly cast in a pallid, anaemic light.
But until this new concept trickled down the evolutionary ladder and into our homes, the tournament fighter still reigned supreme. In many ways, the home systems carried the torch for the one-on-one fighter longer and further than the arcades ever managed. While Renegade brutalised the coin-ops, Archer MacLean was picking up where Way of the Exploding Fist left off on the domestic market.
The C64 fighter was a phenomenal hit and propelled the machine into fighting game history. A degree of controversy courted the game, as Data East attacked System 3 for similarities between Karate Champ and International Karate, but gamers cared nothing for legal blood-sucking - all that was important was the magnificent, slick gameplay and awesome sound at the centre of MacLean's celebrated game. Besides which, there was no home version of Karate Champ worth pointing a joystick at, so no amount of court room solicitation was going to pry the new breed of beat-'em-up fanatic from a game like International Karate. The only alternative litigious developers had was to create new and better games - not squabble over tedious copyright in some oak-panelled old-boy's club.
So while Data East and System 3 wasted time making their lawyers rich, Technos once again delivered an uncompromising back-elbow to the gaming industry in its spiritual successor to Renegade.
"Not failure, but low aim, is the crime. In great attempts it is glorious even to fail." - Bruce Lee
The graphics were a bit cartoony, the hardware a little underpowered, the levels a bit short and maybe it didn't even play all that well, but the breathtaking innovation at the core of Double Dragon made it an instant classic.
The outstanding two-player co-operative gameplay sanctified the scrolling beat-'em-up and ushered in the Golden Age of the fighting game in 1987. The arcades trembled beneath the resonant thud of 10,000 digital punches landing at once, and a torrent of scrolling beat-'em-ups flooded into the neon dojos.
The videogame market - which was still reeling from a US economic collapse in 1983 - was in a position to suffer once again. A glut of fighting games fought for shoulder space on the busy arcade floor, but operator takings still hadn't recovered and profit margins were thin. Development times were cut with a rusty hacksaw, and trite tedium began to sneak into the fighting game's realm.
Despite the legacy it founded, Capcom's terrific yet badly executed design for 1987's Street Fighter was a depressing failure. Gamers wanted to like it, and when a fireball first flew inadvertently from Ryu's kung fu grip it was a rapturous event, but the pressure-sensitive (and usually knackered) button, coupled with stilted, awkward gameplay turned fighting fans off the tournament games and toward the scroller.
It was precisely this kind of swollen industry baggage that had pushed the US games market into such severe recession, but the beat-'em-up managed to survive dangerously similar mistakes thanks to a steady supply of high quality titles balancing out the scales. For every Dynamite Dux, there was a Final Fight; for every DJ Boy, there was a Golden Axe. The genre walked a razor's edge for almost five years - teetering on the verge of collapse with a protracted glut of banality, then wrenching itself back into glory with another instant classic.
Naturally, such a tumultuous existence spilled over into the home market, which played equally cruel tricks on the addicted beat-'em-up punter. As 16-bit machines began to filter through the technology barrier, the home games market unleashed the true fighting experience into our living rooms while 8-bit campaigners compiled their years of experience into squeezing every last possibility from the limited silicon.
"Moving, be like water. Still, be like a mirror. Respond like an echo. " - Bruce Lee
The wealth of arcade fighting titles put gamers on pins as they waited for conversions, only to be smacked in the face and reverse-suplexed like a generic punk thug when it finally arrived. Ports of the immortal coin-op classic, Double Dragon, were an insult to the impassioned gamers, while others failed to appear at all. The only hope for front-room fighting games was in the new intellectual property of a few dedicated developers - ones who understood the thrill of unconscionable simulated violence.
A few average experiments in 8-bit fighting, like Uchi Mata and Way of the Tiger, kept the genre on a low heat, but there was little to contest the arcade's year of resounding success. Then, just as Technos had returned to the arcades in triumph, Archer MacLean leapt back into the home computing ring. His sequel to the pivotal one-on-one game International Karate (which, to be fair, saw a success that was pretty much restricted to the C64), took a similar step toward gameplay revolution that Double Dragon had just achieved - a third combatant in the typical tournament fighter.
Of course, everyone knows there was nothing remotely typical about IK+. Let's face it, any game that factors in the ability to have the characters drop their trollies on command was going to be a success among violence-addicted nut cases. But MacLean crafted a magnificent work of tightly refined code kung fu, liquid smooth animation and emphatically playable action - one of the rarest of fighting game experiments that paid off immensely.
The success of Ocean's Renegade conversion, coupled with the dismal failure of the Double Dragon ports (and the developer's astute contract clause which granted it the rights to make its own sequel) paved the way for the finest example of an 8-bit scrolling beat-'em-up. Where the C64 had International Karate, the Spectrum had Target: Renegade - a superb, and decidedly UK-centric, two-player fighting game that simultaneously saved the sanity of beat-'em-up fans while robbing them of any spare time. The home computer-only sequel to Technos' arcade classic was timed perfectly to reassure 8-bit owners that beat-'em-ups were possible - even if the classics weren't coming home.
By this point, consoles were being designed with fighting games in mind, and were ready to join powerhouse computers like the Amiga and ST in filling our homes with wonderful, unrestrained violence.
The gaming industry had been dominated. It was now a fighting game industry, with a few platformers and shumps thrown in for the kids. It had risen to a deafening, deadly crescendo of breaking bones, pummelled flesh and a million 10p pieces hitting an overfull coin box.
"We all have time to spend or waste, and it is our decision what to do with it. But once passed, it is gone forever." - Bruce Lee
Every eventuality was explored, exploited and executed. From brilliant re-imaginings of the original Kung Fu Master (such as Splatterhouse and Vigilante) to 16-bit computer-based extravaganzas like Body Blows and Panza's Kickboxing - the gaming world was throwing punches in every direction.
SEGA delivered the first genuine coin-op quality beat-'em-up to the Mega Drive with the sequel to the already awesome Streets of Rage - a follow-up that was so intensely playable (successfully designed to combat Nintendo's annex of the Final Fight licence) it was actually ported to the arcades.
The sheer weight of beat-'em-ups populating those arcades by the beginning of the '90s cannot be over-exaggerated. It pulsed with fighting thrills ranging from decent, yet mediocre titles like Altered Beast, Crude Busters, Street Smart and Bad Dudes vs Dragonninja (in the 80's, tough guys were born wearing shades, and calling someone a "bad dude" was the manliest of manly compliments), that served as acceptable pastimes while waiting for the awesome games like Final Fight, Shadow Warriors, Aliens Vs Predator and Golden Axe to be vacated. Which they never were.
Even traditionally disastrous TV and film licences looked toward the beat-'em-up for a suitable platform, and unexpected success stories blossomed from the usual manure pile of tie-in games. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Simpsons and even Michael Jackson's Moonwalker (which was right up kid's allies due to the singer's big release at the cinema) provided exhilarating fighting experiences.
Once again, as we consider the glut of games all vying for space in such a narrow genre, the potential for a popularity crash seemed imminent - the scrolling beat-'em-up was overdue for a catastrophe, and on the verge of being shunned by the inherently fickle gamer. But, just as Double Dragon had stepped in to rejuvenate the fighting game when it first threatened to wither, the lacklustre Street Fighter returned to catapult the arcades into an age of prosperity not seen since Pac-Man. A sub-genre that seemed to have burnt itself out only a couple of years ago was completely reinvigorated. The illustrious life of the fighting game once again deftly sidestepped market collapse and prolonged its own existence for one more round.
Fighting fans had almost forgotten about the tournament game - their attention focused intently on the scrolling beat-'em-up for nigh on five years - and its triumphant homecoming was like an old friend returning from war, a hero. Corner shops and laundrettes cleared space for Street Fighter II machines, and just as the scrolling beat-'em-up began its organic decline, the one-on-one returned for a second bout.
This time, technology wasn't an issue. It was a simple, aggressive battle to be the best, the bloodiest, the fastest, the biggest, the loudest, the hardest and the meanest. Pit Fighter might have tried it first, but Mortal Kombat captured the limitless bloodlust of the fighting fans unlike any other, while SNK's Neo Geo console used the tournament game to establish itself as the electronic authority on hand-to-hand, grudge match mêlée.
Just as suddenly, and without warning, it all ended. Some damn fool thought it'd be fun to release a 3D driving game, and stole the coins from the fighting game's boxes. Almost overnight, 2D was dead - beaten to an ironic pulp by the heavyweight 3D revolution.
"You must free your ambitious mind and learn the art of dying." - Bruce Lee
Steering wheels began to replace the joystick as the 3D uprising swept across the arcades like a plague of locusts - devouring the fertile, diverse landscape and replacing it with monolithic cabinets with little inside. The spectacle of graphically immersive driving games was, briefly, awe-inspiring, but the solemnity and sobriety of their gameplay couldn't follow the raw and unabashed adventure of a thousand different beat-'em-ups. It was (quite literally) a tough act to follow, and gamers began to drift away.
All was not lost, of course. Virtua Fighter began the story of the fighting game all over again - a solitary, sparse one-on-one tournament game attempting, successfully, to prove to the world that videogames were capable of recreating the human form on screen. But by 1993 the genre had matured significantly - it was a veteran of the industry it had supported through mediocrity and crisis; it's continued evolution was slower, more refined and contented to exist in the background.
There was never any reason to believe the golden age of fighting games would last forever. In many ways, a sudden death was fitting for the 2D beat-'em-up. It was an amazing time to be a blood-lusting, cavalier gamer, and there's no genre that doesn't owe some debt or other to the uncouth fighting game - the life-blood of an entire entertainment industry.
You can find part one of EG:Retro's history of beat-'em ups elsewhere on the site.