Kung-Fu Master (1984)
This is like being in a 70’s Kung Fu movie complete with cool “haiyaaa”” sound effects. You play professional Bruce Lee impersonator Thomas who is out to rescue his girlfriend by kicking ass over five side scrolling levels, each with an end-of-level boss. Simple controls, fun gameplay and hoardes of baddies to punch, kick and sweep (and flying kick and flying punch although the latter rarely seemed to connect).
Double Dragon (1987)
The original side scrolling beat ’em up and the one that made the genre massively popular. A single 10p credit would go a long way on Double Dragon if you stuck to the Boring and Predicatable and elbowed your way through the levels. The sound effects and animation are what really made this a great game. You really felt a sense of beating people up and being in a fight. The additional weapons were also a big draw back in 1987 although seasoned players would ignore the baseball bat and whip and just get on with the job. If two players made it all the way to the end, you had to fight each other to decide who got the girl. Genius!
Bad Dudes Vs. Dragon Ninja (1988)
Two hard-as-nails dudes clad only in string vests, jeans and sneakers set out to rescue President Ronnie (Reagan natch) against an army of ninja’s. This is like a cooler and faster version of Double Dragon. Same side scrolling concept, same two player mode, although you couldn’t beat each other up, and very similar gameplay with end of level bosses and weapons to pick up. Great levels, including one set on a moving juggernaut, and plenty of them too so lots of solid replay value. Unlike Double Dragon you had to be reasonably good to progress on a single credit and the action was played on a single plane without any foreground or background field of depth.
Final Fight (1989)
Big huge characters, signature moves and loads of assorted villains to beat up, Final Fight takes all the best points from Double Dragon and massively cranks up the action. With only three characters to choose from, but each different and with their own abilities and skills, plus lots more weapons to use, Final Fight was also a lot harder than Double Dragon. Unusually, all the villains have their own names and energy bars so you can see how much of a pasting they need. As with Double Dragon, the sense of connection and accompanying sound effects when beating someone up is second to none and you really feel that you’re kicking ass.
Golden Axe (1989)
The other big beat ’em up draw in the arcades at the same time as Final Fight, Golden Axe has you choosing one of three fantasy fighters and then setting off on a quest to defeat Death Adder. Golden Axe was unique in that you could mount various beasties to use for battle and each character had a special magic attack based upon either lightning, thunder or fire. The weakest character, Tyrus Flare, had the most devastating magic that required the most power ups and let me tell you, after scrimping and saving to collect all the magic potions to reach maximum strength and then letting loose at full power, seeing that huge dragon’s head appear and toast everyone was a sight to behold. There was quite a dark story behind how and why our heroes/heroine were fighting Death Adder along with plenty of violent scenes but this was made up for with a quite marvellous end sequence to lighten the mood. Special mention to the soundtrack which is just fabulous.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1989)
TEEEEEEEEEEEEIIIIIIIIIOOOOW …… Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, heroes in a half shell, TURTLE POWER! TMNT demanded your attention no matter where you were in the arcade. Not only was it a huge cabinet that dominated the floor, but when that theme music kicked in, it drowned out every single other game in the place. Better still, I think this was pretty much the first four player beat-em up. Everyone had their own favourite turtle but they all played largely the same. My usual was Donatello at first but then I switched to Raphael who was the only turtle with a different special attack to the others. There’s a lot of enjoyment from all the funny interactions and animations as well as the fantastic soundtrack and effects which makes playing Turtles just like being in an interactive cartoon.
Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker (1990)
Surely one of the most unique beat-em ups and a great game in its own right, Moonwalker has you playing Michael Jackson, dressed up in his Smooth Criminal gear, as you battle gangsters and rescue children across scrolling isometric levels. Michael can fire magic, charge up a bigger energy attack by moonwalking and even collect Bubbles the chimp to transform into a giant killer robot. Best of all, Michael’s special attack sees him dancing his signature moves under a spotlight with all the other villains copying him after which they all blow up when the routine ends. Of course, the soundtrack is pure MJ so you have all the classics including Bad, Smooth Criminal, Beat It and even Billie Jean. The Megadrive version was quite different and more of a platformer but still shifted bucketloads of Sega consoles.
Pit Fighter (1990)
Notable for having digitised graphics which scaled when moving between planes, Pit Fighter played firmly on realism and was real eye candy back in the 90’s. The premise was simple; pick one of three pit fighters (kick boxer, wrestler or karate expert) and enter a one-on-one underground brawl (or two-on-two) played for cash and prestige. Each character had a signature move with Ty the kick boxer proving to be the most popular simply because he looked so cool. However, the actual fighting action was very scrappy with no sense of landing any blows but it was worth the higher cost of a single credit just to ogle those photo realistic graphics.
My favourite scrolling beat ’em up and a little obscure (at least, there was only one in the whole town and I rarely saw it anywhere else) this took all the best elements from other scrollers and put them together to make the finest of the lot. Four selectable, and very different characters, four player simultaneous action, the right amount of difficulty without being unfair, lots of weapons and objects to interact with, a diverse set of baddies to beat up and a wicked sense of humour with lots of funny animations to giggle at. The Western versions were censored for some of the more fruity characters (humping trannies and PVC clad call girls) and the game rewarded skill so unlike Final Fight, a single credit could go quite far. This Konami classic never really got the recognition it deserved which is a bit like all the baddies in the game; criminal.
Street Fighter 2 Champion Edition (1992)
This one needs no introduction. If I had to choose just the one game to take with me on a desert island, it’d be Street Fighter 2. Superbly balanced opponents with easy controls that reveal a depth of gameplay that has yet to be bettered, Street Fighter 2 CE is THE definitive one-on-one beat ’em up. Pick from one of 12 characters (including the 4 bosses) and fight your way around the world. There is not a single element of this game that isn’t honed to perfection. The stellar graphics, sublime gameplay, distinctive soundtrack and delicately engineered difficulty level that is pitch perfect along with easy to master combos that don’t need a degree in dexterity, Street Fighter 2 was by far the most popular arcade game around and spawned a huge number of inferior clones. The reason I bought a Super Nintendo is to play this one game and I still remember the day I bought it (American import with adaptor for £60). The SNES was switched on at 12 noon and we didn’t switch it off until 8pm the same day. Street Fighter 2 is THE game that sold the SNES. More than 20 years later, I still collect various incarnations of Street Fighter on any console I have and whilst the series has mushroomed hugely, crossed over into other franchises and had the core gameplay messed around with, the simplicity of SF2 is still the one to beat. Huge round of applause for Ryu, Ken, Blanka, Zangief, Chun-Li, Dhalsim, E. Honda, Zangief, Balrog, Vega, Sagat and M. Bison. We salute you all!