"A goal is not always meant to be reached; it often serves simply as something to aim at." - Bruce Lee
Fighting games and beat-'em-ups have been a staple diet of many gamers for 25 years. But they've also carved out a dichotomous genre that sits alone on one side of a gulf separating it from the rest of the gaming community.
Often regarded as overly austere, and perhaps even too lowbrow for the serious gamer, beat-'em-ups suffer the stigma of being the idiot cousin of the gaming industry - an unwelcome and vulgar relative who turns up at family parties drunk, does briefly entertaining elephant impressions then starts a fight with the neighbours. Inherently shallow and restricted by the very genus it was born into, the beat-'em-up seems to contradict what many users consider being a worthwhile application of a computer or console.
Despite unashamedly enforcing the stereotype that videogames are a socially irresponsible pastime that encourages aggressive behaviour in the players, the genesis of beat-'em-ups signified a profound evolution of the industry that belied the superficial nature of the games themselves.
The genre sprang up in a number of different, and apparently disconnected, sources all at once, but the purpose for its arrival is more significant than its founding titles. While most early games delved into more outlandish fantasy concepts like piloting spacecraft or adventuring through some dark Tolkienian world, the fighting game was the first attempt to explore, and digitally recreate, the human form. A new realm of macho caprice was realised that placed gamers on the screen in a very real sense, and allowed them to sample the fringes of heroic possibility - fighting without fear, pride or pain; becoming Bruce, Jackie, Bronson and Eastwood for a few intense moments.
Coupled with the sheer, unabashed entertainment value that beat-'em-ups offer in quantities no other gaming genre can come close to achieving so immediately, fighting games quickly came to represent a vital industry anchor point which connected developers with the gaming audience.
"All fixed set patterns are incapable of adaptability or pliability. The truth is outside of all fixed patterns." - Bruce Lee
The first games to attempt the task of portraying human combat didn't actually set the standard for the prolific genre that was to follow. If anything, SEGA's 1976 arcade machine, Heavyweight Champ, and Vectorbeam's 1979 coin-op, Warrior, came closer to proving the incapability of a game system to represent hand-to-hand fighting (or sword-to-sword as it was in Warrior's case) than it did toward establishing a new sphere of arcade potential.
SEGA, at the time, seemed to concentrate more on developing imaginative control systems rather than gameplay (something which has certainly worked for Nintendo recently, it must be said). The black and white boxing game employed two "boxing glove" controllers (one each for the two players) which moved up and down for high and low punches, with an inward movement for striking. While the controllers were a decent enough gimmick, the actual on-screen match wasn't much more than an unresponsive cross between a Punch & Judy performance and a pixellated episode of the Black & White Minstrel Show.
And, although Warrior was something of a technical accomplishment in its own right, it wasn't a title that could be classed as the progenitor for the forthcoming fighting game revolution either.
Vectorbeam adopted a bird's-eye view of two armoured knights, duelling it out in a treacherous, pit-riddled dungeon. In many ways this was a wise premise for a new style of game to adopt, even if it didn't inspire the impending genre directly. At the time, the race was on to visually realise the wealth of fantasy adventure games that dominated an entire corner of the games market, and the medieval setting, complete with dark, dank and dangerous dungeon, was perfectly in keeping with this graphical race.
The vector drawn knights were equally exciting; expanding on the limited, yet renowned accomplishments of Atari's line drawn games. Unfortunately, the rest of the technology let Warrior down, and unstable electronics coupled with the need for two simultaneous players meant a short and uncelebrated life for the coin-op. Naturally, the volatile nature of the machine's innards and relatively small production run makes Warrior a prized possession of modern games collectors.
A depressing five-year gap followed in Warrior's uneventful wake. All at once, a host of new games appeared across different systems that shared little in the way of obvious inspiration. Quite what signifies the relevance of 1984 to the fighting game it's difficult to comprehend - suffice to say this was the year that technology crept past some minor, intangible milestone that unlocked the potential for digitised combat.
""I don't fear a man who's practiced 10,000 kicks once. I fear the man who's practiced one kick 10,000 times." - Bruce Lee
Although the beat-'em-up genre has never needed separating into a great many sub-categories (how many different ways do we need to visually describe kicking someone in the throat?), there's one significant division that helps to establish a fighting game's style. The established definitions prefer to classify brawlers as "beat-'em-ups" or "fighting games", although this leaves an undesirable amount of ambiguity surrounding the actual mode of play.
The "fighting game" is a vague generalisation usually employed for the one-on-one tournament match seen in Street Fighter, while the "beat-'em-up" often goes to signify the scrolling, multiple adversary style of Final Fight's gameplay.
By chance, this division also works to demonstrate the early evolution of fighting games which began that fateful year in the 1980s with a few iconic tournament fighters. Most notable (and well known at the time) was undoubtedly Karate Champ, from fledgling arcade developer Technos.
Released in 1984, the colourful and highly accessible coin-op karate simulator rocked the arcades graphically, imaginatively and literally. The dual joystick control system gave players the handles they needed to really throw a six-foot tall cabinet around the arcade floor while living out their new desires to mimic Daniel-san's cinematic, karate-kicking antics. The brilliant control system, wonderfully responsive gameplay and encyclopaedic list of martial arts moves set an immediate and lofty benchmark for the tournament games that would follow, and still holds its own in the one-on-one arena to this day.
Meanwhile (in the Bat Cave), two other game systems were also discovering the possibilities of martial sparring action - the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64. 1984 heralded the arrival of two other tournament fighters on the home computers. Kung Fu for the ZX Spectrum came from Yugoslavian developers Damir Muraja and Dusko Dimitrijevic, featuring two impressively sized line-drawn combatants in a colourful dojo; trading a remarkable number of slightly stilted blows.
The C64's Black Belt more closely mirrored Karate Champ's Japanese martial arts, though the differences in play, appearance and the actual development times suggest there was little in the way of inspiration provided by the coin-op. This was evidently another early exploration of a new gameplay style, and while not massively responsive or playable, it achieved a superb rendition of two karate-ka facing off at a martial arts tournament - and that's all the industry needed to see.
These early pioneers launched an entire, highly prolific gaming genre in less than a year, and by 1985 the arcades were alive with the sounds of kung fu fighting.
"To know oneself is to study oneself in action with another person." - Bruce Lee
The scrolling beat-'em-up saw a considerably more organic evolution, rather than the overnight appearance of the tournament fighter. Indeed, it's only in scholastic retrospect that it's possible to decipher quite which games provided the raw ingredients for the sub-genre. Platform games and shooters were in abundance and, desperate to fathom new and imaginative ways to present these increasingly tired concepts to the jaded gamer, considerable liberties were taken that closed the gulf between shooting and punching.
1982 and 1983 both saw the industry unconsciously lean toward on-screen combat, with games like Swashbuckler for the Apple II featuring close-quarters swordplay (which was mimicked on DOS by the superior Bushido game) and a tedious Chuck Norris license called Superkicks for the Atari VCS, C64, ColecoVision and Vic20. But none of these games quite captured the essence of a genuine martial encounter or glorified street brawl; none waded into the murky waters of the feral psychology that celebrates the savage nature of humanity.
As if 1984 hadn't done enough to propel ass-kicking games into the melting pot of arcade exploration, another title appeared that laid the foundations for the scrolling beat-'em-up - the esoterically named Kung Fu Master from Nihon Bussan. Once again, this early experiment in videogame violence wasn't massively enjoyable, but its clever basis in Hong Kong cinema (taking particular inspiration from Game Of Death) not only endeared it to the kung fu loving gamer, but presented this new concept of multiple adversaries and scrolling action in an immediately recognisable style.
It was also re-released that same year to help promote a new Jackie Chan film in Japan, called Spartan X (better known as Wheels On Meals over here) despite clearly being inspired by Game Of Death and having sod all to do with the Spanish-based events seen in the Golden Harvest movie. But what this immediate rebranding demonstrated was the enormous potential that the whole entertainment industry (and not just the games one) saw in the interactive action of a beat-'em-up.
Around the same time, Brøderbund Software combined the freedom of movement seen in Kung Fu Master with the extended fight sequences of Karate Champ tournaments with its 8-bit title, Karateka. Initially released in '84 onto the Atari 8-bit and Apple II computers (with a NES version for console gamers quickly following), Karateka successfully experimented with adding plot to the ass-kicking action. Far superior to the hurried Kung Fu Master conversions, Karateka eventually saw a steady trickle of ports to most major systems of the 1980s, and can reasonably claim to be one of the first successful attempts at a scrolling beat-'em-up on the home machines.
Ultimately, however, the demands on a home game system to represent not just two fighters against a stationary backdrop, but a multi-screen level with lots of assailants was still prohibitively difficult and developers focused their attention on expanding the horizons of the one-on-one fighter.
"I will not allow myself to indulge in the usual manipulating game of role creation." - Bruce Lee
By 1985, the parameters of what made a good tournament fighter were becoming well established. Most every developer and software house was naked without some form of fighting extravaganza under their banner, and the heat of competition encouraged a wealth of improvement in gameplay, characters and availability of videogame violence.
The tournament fighter was king of the ring; infusing arcades with the kind of rabid passion not seen since Pong and embellishing the home systems with the hard and fast gratification that only ferocious fighting antics can bring.
Way of the Exploding Fist from Melbourne House crashed through the 8-bit barrier without care or consequence - making all other titles released that year seem sedate in comparison. The superb array of moves, realistic graphics, visceral sound effects (featuring a wonderfully shrill Bruce Lee sound sample from Enter The Dragon) and flawless cross-platform performance brought the tournament fighter into people's homes with a vengeance.
The scrolling fighter struggled to translate as well as the tournament games, however, and just as the arcades had done, most of the home system's code was put to work on player-versus-player titles. Bringing home the coin-op fighters became the most desirable option for software houses, and the tide of dynamic, violent and wonderfully engaging beat-'em-ups was just coming in.
In the arcades, the one-on-one continued to ingratiate itself with the kung fu movie fanatics in Konami's 1985 camp classic, Yie Ar Kung Fu (translated from Mandarin as "One Two Kung Fu"!). Pitting Oolong against a variety of diverse antagonists (including the first female characters to appear in a tournament beat-'em-up - long before the famous Chun Li) perfectly exemplified the kitsch frolics of '70s Honk Kong cinema, and provided a damn entertaining fighter to boot.
Yie Ar Kung Fu marked yet another highly significant, if indefinable benchmark in the fighting game's steady evolution. Kung Fu Master had found its way (somewhat lamentably) onto the majority of 8-bit systems, but it's universally lacklustre gameplay didn't do much to progress the genre. Yie Ar Kung Fu, on the other hand, was a categorical success - supported by a wealth of faithful conversions that, coupled with the growing critical success of Way of the Exploding Fist, pushed the beat-'em-up's cause to new heights of respect and recognition.
By 1985, the fighting game genre was fully propagated, ready to complete its gradual evolutionary process and over the next five years beat-'em-ups would rule the gaming world. The fight had begun, but the battle was far from over.
"The key to immortality is living a life worth remembering." - Bruce Lee
When following the sparse chronology of beat-'em-ups, fighting games, one-on-one tournaments and scrolling fighters - whatever you want to call them - there initially appears little to see. But this is a genre that's developed slowly and carefully; biding its time until the technology and audience were harmonised and ready to tolerate its presence.
For the cynical and sectarian, the fighting game genre proves most negative arguments against the value of computer and videogames to be true, but makes no apologies in doing so. Its guttural expression of the raw human animal - free from manmade restrictions of guilt, morality and mercy - is the reason gamers have immersed themselves in the violent, crude, irrational and savage fantasies these games unabashedly deliver.
From our now-distant perspective we can follow a bloodstained breadcrumb trail back through our gaming heritage and see that fighting games were an evolutionary inevitability, and a vital part of gaming history that has supported both players and developers through 25 years of supreme entertainment.