The beat em up chronicles.

Arcades in the early 90s, ah yes, the world was full of possibilites. For a kid with enough quarters in his pocket it mean a good afternoon of videogame recreation. There was plenty to choose from in those days, but there was this genre, this type of games, that pretty much anyone could get into it: beat em ups. Just put a coin in the machine, grab the character you like the most and go out and punch and kick people. No rocket science involved here, no ellaborated combos (not in the early ones at least) or anything too complicated, just go a beat up everything you see. It was a simple yet fun concept that was milked for all it was worth, and after the mid 90s it pretty much vanished from the arcades, never to be seen again.

Sure, you could say the genre morphed into the modern hack n slash/action games of today: God of War, Devil May Cry, Dynasty Warriors, among others. But this traditional template of beat em ups was, for the most part, completely abandoned save for some exceptions here and there. The genre is considered “obsolete” by many, and while it’s true that a lot of the early games haven’t aged well at all there are plenty of titles who have resisted the test of time, games that are still a lot of fun to play and deserve plenty of praise for doing great things in the genre.

So, this is the first in a series of articles where i’ll talk about this genre that has given me so much fun, and sometimes rage moments. A genre i grew up with, a genre that deserves more that just some vague nostalgic-based articles. Damas y caballeros, this is the beat em up chronicles, let’s get starting:

Kung Fu Master (1984)

Starting as chronologically correct as possible, Kung Fu Master is considered by many to this day as the very first beat em up ever made, or at least the first game that set the bases for what would become the shape and form of the genre. Created by none other than Irem, Kung Fu master got a bunch of ports, but i will be talking mostly about the arcade and nes versions.

The gameplay is as basic as it gets, you have a punch, a kick. You can jump and attack at the same time, you can attack while crouching, and you jump by pressing up. That’s it, nothing more, nothing less. The story is the template of almost every beat em up that would come in the next 10 years: kidnapped girlfriend, beat the crap out of a lot of people to rescue her, the end.

Taking a huge influence from Bruce Lee’s game of death you ascend floors on a tower, defeating a different boss at the end of each level. The enemy selection goes from kung fu goons that will simply run towards you, knife-throwing enemies, dwarfs, little dragons and snakes. Once you defeat the final boss of the game, Mr X, the game starts again, this time a bit more challenging, but basically remaining more or less the same in terms of enemy patterns. After that is just finishing the game over and over, trying to improve your score, doing it faster, maybe with just punches, then with only kicks, and so on.
As for the presentation, Kung Fu Master on the arcade looks as good as it gets for it’s time, nothing fancy in terms of visuals, the gameplay while remaininc quite accesible to this date feels a bit too clunky. The nes version looks and plays very well, and i would even say that it plays a bit less stiff than the arcade counter part, of course, this might be just me talking about out of fuzzy nostalgic memories. I grew up with the nes version after all, and played that one till the cartridge almost melted, so take it as a grain of salt.

Kung Fu’s sucess will create a wave of games in a similar style, slowly improving the gameplay mechanics. The genre will still not form it’s identity completely until a couple of years later. Kung Fu itself would get some spin-offs in the future, but more of that in future entries.

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2 Responses to “The beat em up chronicles.”

  1. Around the Sidebar in 120 Seconds « Waxing Erratic Says:

    […] *Kung-Fu (the Irem arcade classic, not the, um, ‘classic’ TV show) gets the once-over from an updating at least twice a week Wanderer. *I catch Thoughts of Fei with his pants down on […]

  2. ECM Says:

    It’s been ages, but I recall the C64 version being a pretty amazing port for the time.

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