zophar53's Blog

Posted on Jun 3rd 2021 at 08:00:00 AM by (zophar53)
Posted under Beat em ups, Brawlers, coop

I recently received my copy of Scott Pilgrim vs The World: The Game from Limited Run Games and gave it a go for the first time in several years. I was quickly reminded not just how much I love the game, but how much of a love letter it is to games of its kind from the NES and SNES. In those days, I played pretty much every game I could get my hands on, but as much as I loved racing games, shooters, and the occasional RPG, the vast majority of my game time was spent with platformers and beat-em-ups (aka. brawlers).

One of the reasons for this, of course, was that these were among the easiest types of games to make in the 80s and 90s, for better or for worse. Thankfully, there were plenty of excellent games to choose from, and while platformers provided some of my most fond solo gaming memories, my favorite co-op gaming memories in my youth are overwhelmingly from the brawler genre.

Back in the day, I considered it a personal failure if I didn't defeat Abobo by pushing him off the end of the conveyor belt.

I don't really remember what the first beat-em-up I ever played was, but the Double Dragon series definitely stands out as one that hooked me early. For some reason, I discovered the NES game quite a while before I learned of the arcade original, and thus have always had a skewed view in my mind that the NES version was what Double Dragon was supposed to be. Misguided though I was, my brother and I played the heck out of that first game. I never found a good way to avoid the wall blocks in the final level, so I never was able to finish it, but I can always go back to it for some nostalgic fun.

In my youth, I was an unapologetic turbo abuser, and brawlers were particularly vulnerable to such a tactic. When Double Dragon II hit the NES, my brother and I once again dove right in. Once I discovered that using turbo made it super easy to execute the overpowered jumping knee attack, we pretty much were able to cheese our way through the entire game, thinking we were the best Double Dragon II players of all time.

Once you master the flying knee kick, there's really no reason to play any other way.

When I was 10, my cousin Josh and I picked up River City Ransom. We didn't really know anything about the game, but the goofy aesthetics in the screenshots intrigued us, and once we played it we fell in love. Looking back, it was a bit of an odd game for the time (at least in the US). The music, story, and boss dialogue all seemed to take the story really seriously, but then you had low level enemies saying things like "BARF!", and the animation seemed tailor-made to make you laugh. I still remember when Josh and I went to the spa for the first time and saw our characters' butts while they scrubbed themselves with a towel; we thought it was the funniest thing in the world.

Before long, we'd powered up our characters with special moves like Dragon Kick and Grand Slam, equipped ourselves with lead pipes, and developed a winning strategy of trapping the bosses in between us while we wailed away on them with our turbo controllers before they even finished their opening monologues. Occasionally one of us would get caught off-guard and take a beating while the other was on the other end of the screen, but we always ran to each other's rescue, and more often than not managed to avoid dying. When we finally reached the end of the game, and the Dragon Twins showed up while the Double Dragon theme played, we lost our freaking minds. There was much celebration when we beat the game together, and River City Ransom is a game and an experience I'll never forget.

It was a revelation when we found out you didn't have to wait for the bosses to stop talking to run up and get the jump on them.

A little later, my brother and I lived with my mom in an up-and-down duplex house. The lady who lived below us was our babysitter, and we became good friends with her son Sean. The three of us bonded over many video games, but two of the biggest that stick out in my mind were Battletoads and Bad Dudes. The former was maddeningly difficult past the first couple of stages, and as frustrated as we got, we just couldn't stop ourselves from repeatedly trying to beat the jet bike level. I don't think we ever managed to complete it as intended, but we did get close enough to the end to catch the warp in front of one of the final walls, jumping us forward a few levels. We never finished that later level, but we sure tried our best.

Bad Dudes was another game that I found first on the NES, and with Sean's help (and my trusty NES Maxx's turbo buttons), managed to complete without too much difficulty. We got a big kick out of seeing Karnov as the final boss, as we'd both played his self-titled game. For some reason, Bad Dudes kicked off my odd love of games that had both an upper level and a lower level. I'm not sure what it was about that kind of play field, but whether it was Shinobi, Rolling Thunder, or more abstract examples like Elevator Action and Bionic Commando, it's something I've always liked in my retro games.

Side benefit of finding game ports on the NES first? You don't know how disappointing they look when compared to their arcade versions.

Finally, there's The Simpsons Arcade Game, one I've written about here before. I don't have a specific memory from my youth of playing this game with a particular friend, but there were plenty of times my dad would take me to the arcade and I'd dump as many quarters into it as he would give me, sometimes playing on my own, sometimes playing with whoever happened to show up and join in. Little did I know then that close to three decades later, I would play The Simpsons with my dad in a local barcade while sharing a couple of beers with him and talking with him about how these games have influenced and shaped my life. It remains a memory I hold near and dear to my heart.

Beat-em-ups aren't as prominent as they once were, and that's probably a good thing. Even the titles that implemented RPG and adventure elements only had so many hours in them before they became repetitive. That's not to say that there's no place in the modern era for a good brawler. Recent examples like Guacamelee!, Castle Crashers, and yes, Scott Pilgrim vs The World: The Game prove that even in the 21st century, a well-made brawler can still be a ton of fun. I'm happy they're still around, and look forward to any more that come down the pipe in the future.

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Good write-up! Looking back, there's a surprising number of quality beat-em-up games on the NES, given its limitations. I think I enjoyed almost every game you mentioned, except the couple I haven't played, like the Scott Pilgrim game (still waiting on my copy) or Castle Crashers. Still a fun genre for pick up and play gaming shenannigans.

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