Some researchers thought it was the end, and yet today the beat ’em up genre seems as indestructible as some of its legendary bosses. Almost 40 years after the publication of a certain kung fu master (or Spartan X for scholars), publisher Bitmap Books looks back on a history made up of darning whistles and colorful sprites.
Like a slap in the face, The Ultimate Guide to Side-Scrolling Beat-‘Em-Ups announces its ambitions as soon as it is picked up: with its 456 (!) pages and its three well-packed kilos, Bitmap’s new book Books aims to be as comprehensive as A Guide to Japanese Role-Playing Games, which was published last year. Its title, Go Straight, borrows directly the theme of the first level of Streets of Rage 2, a tribute to the 1992 classic as well as its famous composer Yūzō Koshiro. To captivate the genre king of the years, Dave Cook, who here is signing his first book with the British publisher, dove into the story of beat ’em up, made up and down (up, down, left, right, links right, B, A, but that’s another story).
The street school
Before several hundred titles are discussed, a foreword by Yoshihisa Kishimoto, creator of the classics River City (Kunio-kun) and Double Dragon, recalls the episodes in his life that inspired him to work for the genre:
Back then, shoot ’em ups were all the rage, and I wanted to make a game that would take the pressure off the players. I struggled a lot when I was in high school: my family situation was complicated and my girlfriend had just left me. It was the spark that made me fight daily. So I thought of a game centered around high school fights.
With Go Straight, Bitmap Books switches a bit. Unlike many books already out, this guide ignores the many interviews with the protagonists of each era to better let Dave Cook’s pen tell of a journey that begins in 1984 and ends in 2020 with the oh so critically acclaimed release of Streets of Fury 4 And too bad for the many anecdotes that usually characterize the reading.
The ransom of success
We also have to believe The Ultimate Guide to Side-Scrolling Beat-‘Em-Ups for what it is: a very comprehensive guide that brings together some oddities and other rarities reserved for the Japanese arcade, alongside timeless classics. If each title benefits from at least half a page balanced between text and screenshots, the big names also benefit from a double-page spread, an exercise that will force the reader to settle on their couch to appreciate the layout therefore particularly discouraged.
The “iconic moments” (the twist of Double Dragon, the ending screen of Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja, or the amazing meta result of Golden Axe) also punctuate the read and provide a welcome breather. It must be said that Dave Cook’s approach is not always the most relevant and sometimes the advice on how to overcome the enemies of this or that title takes up too much space, to the detriment of analysis or impact that a title major has little to do with the genre … The completeness of the task was, perhaps, at that price.
But make no mistake: despite an editorial line that’s undoubtedly more subjective than usual, Go Straight chronicles the turbulent history of a genre that had its heyday between the late 1980s and early 1990s, before heading for a more difficult period. The transfer of a large number of licenses to the Game Boy Advance also reminds us of the obvious: when it comes to beat ’em up, it’s still the big sprites that do best, as evidenced by the small number of 3D games mentioned here.
The successor that ensures
Dave Cook offers a journey through time to peck according to his wishes, but also puts the spotlight on certain titles that have almost fallen into oblivion since their release. Beyond the revolutions that brought Final Fight, Die Hard Arcade or, closer to us, Castle Crashers, this block will allow the most curious to discover titles that are sometimes dissimilar but certainly “different”, like Bucky O’Hare or Metamorphic Force. by Konami, or to giggle at the visual disaster that is Guardians of the Hood by Atari…
Regardless, in the end the author seems to have only one idea in mind: to honor Cadillacs and Dinosaurs and Battle Circuit (a title that’s fortunately included in the Capcom Beat ‘Em Up Bundle), two Capcom-signed games, one challenger , which the genre very much lacks, despite all the talent of the French, who today embody a real successor. No, the beat ’em up isn’t dead, and it even seems to have had a little reserve.
Go Straight: The Ultimate Guide to Side-Scrolling Beat-‘Em-Ups is available at Bitmap Books website for $34.99.