A little while ago, we put up a list of our favorite shoot-em-ups in Hamster’s Arcade Archives line-up. There are hundreds of games available thanks the weekly releases, so it can be a little hard to find the cream of the crop if you’re coming in a little late. Shooters were of course mainstays in the arcade heyday, but in the mid-80s another popular genre rose up: the beat-em-up. The brawler. The belt-scroller. So many names, but the important thing is that it involved one or more people beating the stuffing out of a veritable army of opponents as they made their way through various locales. There are many of them in Arcade Archives, but these are the ones we like the best.
Let’s start by paying some homage to the grandfathers of the genre. By adding some depth to the proceedings, Renegade essentially added one of the last major component the beat-em-up genre needed. It spawned the Kunio-kun/River City and Double Dragon franchises. And despite being such an early example of a brawler, it’s still a lot of fun to play. The enemies are merciless and you don’t have a lot of room to maneuver, but your extensive list of moves is no joke, either. Sending enemies sailing off the edge of the subway platform or into the water never gets old.
Double Dragon ($7.99)
And here’s the last big piece of the beat-em-up puzzle: simultaneous multiplayer. Double Dragon is an icon of the genre, and for good reason. It takes you on an impressive journey through the streets, a construction site, a forest, and a wild enemy hideout, throwing all manner of bizarre foes at you along the way. You can go it alone or bring a friend, though be prepared for some heavy slowdown if you take the latter route. Still, it’s worth it just to see what happens if Billy and Jimmy manage to take down the last boss together. I really love the way the basic punches feel in this game, and just the way hits land in general.
64th Street ($7.99)
Zipping ahead a bit, we have an effort from Jaleco that doesn’t do a lot to hide its inspirations. For the most part, 64th Street follows the template established by Capcom’s Final Fight. It has a cool 1940s gumshoe vibe to it, and the set piece that makes up the climax is definitely worth seeing. But the real fun in this game comes from its key gameplay twist: you can throw enemies into the background. Sometimes it damages or breaks objects or walls, revealing items. Sometimes it sends enemies sailing into the water. The bosses are incredibly cheap, but the game ends up being a blast anyway.
Sengoku 3 ($7.99)
Releasing in 2001, Sengoku 3 is one of the later NEOGEO releases from SNK. It’s also likely the pinnacle of the genre on SNK’s unique console, offering up a nice selection of characters, excellent graphics, some interesting stages to go through, and wild boss fights. There’s an emphasis on building combos in this game, which isn’t something you tend to see in arcade games in this genre. You can also pick up an assortment of throwable objects and make use of them to defeat your foes. While it loses the unique character-switching mechanic of earlier Sengoku games, this is still the best in the series.
Crime Fighters ($7.99)
Konami created some of the most popular, celebrated arcade brawlers to ever exist. Unfortunately, most of them have licenses attached to them so the Arcade Archives selection is a bit more limited. Still, if you want to see where Konami really got the ball rolling on its particular brand of beat-em-up, here is Crime Fighters. It has many of the characteristics of later Konami brawlers like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Simpsons, but in a more prototypical form. A tough one, but worth playing.
A couple of years later, Konami followed up Crime Fighters with Vendetta. Only a short span of time, but it was huge for this genre and Vendetta shows it. Choose from expies of Mike Tyson, Hulk Hogan, Mr. T, and Jean-Claude Van Damme and head out to defeat the Dead End gang. This game makes the bold choice to remove regular jumps which forces you to think differently about crowd control. In exchange, you’re given a wide array of surprisingly brutal moves to dispatch your enemies with. Up to four players can join in on this one, too.
Zero Team ($7.99)
Most of the games on this list come from familiar names like Technos, Konami, SNK, and Tecmo. Unless you’re particularly well-versed in arcade history, you probably haven’t heard of Seibu Kaihatsu. It’s largely known for its Raiden series of vertical shooters, but it made a few other games that don’t seem to get much attention. Zero Team is its entry into the brawler genre, and it’s another one with four-player support. The gameplay is easy to pick up and very enjoyable, and it’s one of the more colorful and silly games on this list.
Mutation Nation ($7.99)
Mutation Nation is a guilty pleasure of mine. It’s not like it does anything particularly fancy with its gameplay, though its assortment of cool super moves aren’t too shabby. Mechanically, it does what you would expect and not much more. But it leans into its theme really well, with some wild enemy designs that sometimes mutate mid-fight and really cool bosses. It looks really good for a NEOGEO game, and the soundtrack has some nice kick to it as well. This is another really fun trip to take with a friend, but cracking mutant heads solo is a good time, too.
Ninja Gaiden ($7.99)
Of the three games carrying the name Ninja Gaiden, this is probably the least successful and least remembered. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad game. It’s actually quite good, albeit a little different in feel from most other beat-em-ups. You have a set of moves appropriate to a ninja, and your journey through a pop culture view of America is hilarious and interesting. Put on your ninja duds and find out the one story of Ryu Hayabusa that you probably don’t know.
P.O.W.: Prisoners of War ($7.99)
Before there was NEOGEO, SNK mostly made games about war. It was a popular thing in the 1980s, and SNK made almost as much bread from it as Capcom did. The biggest hits were vertical run-and-guns like Ikari Warriors, T.N.K., and Guerilla War, but there was one side-scrolling beat-em-up that managed to break through a bit. You play as a P.O.W. who takes matters into his own hands and not only breaks out but actually brings down the whole enemy operation. Another early example of the genre, but a great one all the same. Bring a buddy for maximum carnage.
And that’s the lot, friends. I hope this list helps you find some new games to play, and if you have any Arcade Archives beat-em-ups you would like to recommend, please comment below. We’re all looking for more good stuff to add to our libraries, after all. Thanks again for reading!