Some researchers imagined it on the way out, and yet the beat ’em up genre today seems as indestructible as some of its legendary end bosses. Nearly 40 years after the release of a certain Kung-Fu Master (or Spartan X for scholars), the publisher Bitmap Books looks back on a story made of stuffing-Pifs and colorful sprites.
Like a blow to the face, The Ultimate Guide to Side-Scrolling Beat-‘Em-Ups announces its ambitions as soon as it is taken in hand: with its 456 (!) pages and its three well-packed kilos, the new book from Bitmap Books is intended to be as comprehensive as A Guide to Japanese Role-Playing Games released last year. Its title, Go Straight, borrows directly the first level theme of Streets of Rage 2, to pay homage to the 1992 classic, as well as to its illustrious composer Yūzō Koshiro. To put a spell on the genre king of the years, Dave Cook, who signs his first book here with the British publisher, immersed himself in the history of beat’em up, made up and down (up, down, left, right, left-right, B, A, but that’s another story).
The street school
Before reviewing several hundred titles, a preamble by Yoshihisa Kishimoto, the creator of the classics River City (Kunio-Kun) and Double Dragon recalls the episodes of his life that inspired him to work for the genre:
At the time, shoot ’em ups were at the top, and I wanted to come up with a game that could de-stress players. When I was in high school, I fought a lot: my family situation was complicated, and my girlfriend had just dumped me. It was the spark that pushed me to fight daily. So, I thought of a game centered around high school fights.
With Go Straight, Bitmap Books changes gears a bit. Unlike many books that have already appeared, this guide ignores the many interviews with the protagonists of each era, to better let the pen of Dave Cook tell a journey that begins in 1984 and ends in 2020, with the oh so noticed release of Streets of Rage 4. And too bad for the many anecdotes that usually dot the reading.
The Ransom of Success
We must also take The Ultimate Guide to Side-Scrolling Beat-‘Em-Ups for what it is: a very exhaustive guide, which brings together alongside timeless classics some oddities and other rarities reserved for the Japanese arcade. If each title benefits from a minimum of half a page balanced between text and screenshots, the big names also benefit from a double-page to unfold, an exercise that forces the reader to sit on his couch to appreciate the layout. , reading in transport being therefore particularly discouraged.
The “cult moments” (the twist of Double Dragon, the end screen of Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja, or the astonishing meta outcome of Golden Axe) also punctuate the reading and offer a welcome breather. It must be said that Dave Cook’s approach is not always the most relevant, and the advice for overcoming the enemies of this or that title sometimes takes up too much space, to the detriment of the analysis or the repercussions that a title major has little to do with the genre… The completeness of the task was perhaps at this price.
But make no mistake about it: despite an editorial line that is undoubtedly more subjective than usual, Go Straight draws the turbulent history of a genre that had its hour of glory between the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, before entering a more difficult period. The transfer of a good number of licenses to Game Boy Advance is also a reminder of the obvious: in terms of beat’em up, it is still the big sprites that do best, as evidenced by the low number of games 3D here mentioned.
The succession that ensures
Dave Cook thus offers time travel to peck according to his desires, but also allows shining a spotlight on certain titles almost fallen into oblivion since their release. Beyond the revolutions brought by Final Fight, Die Hard Arcade, or, closer to us, Castle Crashers, this block will allow the most curious to discover titles that are sometimes unequal but certainly “different”, such as Bucky O’Hare, or Metamorphic Force. by Konami, or to giggle in front of the visual catastrophe that is Guardians of the Hood by Atari…
No matter, in the end, since the author only seems to have one idea in mind: to restore the honor of Cadillacs and Dinosaurs and Battle Circuit (a title fortunately available in the Capcom Beat ‘Em Up Bundle compilation), two games signed by Capcom, a challenger that the genre misses a lot,…