The objective of this genre of game is easy enough for anyone to understand. How titles in the beat ‘em up genre distinguish themselves, however, is through their unique integration of other concepts into the move forward and beat the heck out of everything formula.
Whether it is a fantasy theme, a popular IP from mainstream media, or even two horror franchises fused into an interesting brawling game, the beat ‘em up genre’s rules are pretty much anything goes. That’s probably why we have such a variety of styles in this top 10 list.
Here we’ve compiled our ten favorite beat ‘em up games from all times, spanning home consoles as well as the arcades. If you’re looking for the best of the best, you’ll find them here, there’s no doubt. Of course, if we’ve left any of your favourites out, let us know in the comments section below or on social media… but we’re certain that these ten beat ‘em up games demonstrate the best of the best the genre has to offer:
10. Double Dragon
Billy and Jimmy Lee are the original dynamic duo when it comes to beat ‘em up games in the minds of many gamers. This game has appeared on pretty much every system and spawned a legion of sequels and spin off properties – even a movie, albeit a bad one. The formula here is classic beat ‘em up which means you will move forward and even up, smashing everyone’s face that gets in your way. There is a story, and it is pretty dark, which just makes the gritty feel of the game that much cooler. A great introduction to the genre, Double Dragon has withstood the test of time and it is not hard to see how.
9. The Simpsons Arcade Game
The Simpsons were a cultural phenomenon like nothing before them so it is no surprise that it spawned an arcade game. But no one could have predicted that it would have been a beat ‘em up game featuring the iconic characters from the show. Whether it was Marge’s vacuum or Lisa’s jump rope, Konami’s ability to capture the spirit of the show in an innovative and organic way still stands as a case study in how to treat a licensed IP right. There’s really no part of this game that doesn’t click and, aside from the eventual monotony that sets in, it’s a rousing good time through and through. It is almost mind boggling to imagine what an updated version of this game could be like given the new gameplay mechanics and conventions that have developed since its release. Some people call this the best The Simpsons game ever made, and there’s more than enough reasons to back up that moniker.
8. Cadillacs and Dinosaurs
A beat ‘em up game based upon the comic book Xenozoic Tales, Cadillacs and Dinosaurs comes from the other big name in this genre, Capcom. A weird yet really interesting setting combined with simple game mechanics makes this button mashing extravaganza an experience. Of all of the games on this list, this title has the most unique presentation and, depending on where your tastes in games lie, that could be a good thing or a bad thing. Beyond that, the title is a must-play for fans of Capcom’s work and gamers who want something a little looser than the older side scrolling beat ‘em up games.
7. Golden Axe
Take the beat ‘em up genre to a fantasy setting, add magic, and Sega’s trademark arcade style, and you get Golden Axe. Choose one of three combatants that look like they were ripped directly from the pages of a Dungeons and Dragons book. A few interesting game mechanics introduced by Golden Axe include magic attacks and ranged weaponry. For example, the dwarf Gilius Thunderhead’s axe almost puts the game on easy mode while the screen clearing magic attacks help relieve the pressure in those situations where your character is getting overwhelmed. On top of all of this is a truly epic story that involves a Sauron-like figure called Death Adder who is terrorising the mythic world you journey through. And we do mean mythic: One stage takes you on a journey through a village located on the back of a gigantic turtle as it swims through water to ferry you to the other side. How’s that for fantasy?
6. Knights of the Round
A more traditional fantasy setting than Golden Axe, Knights of the Round is another Capcom arcade title that does a great job of capturing the magic of the Arthurian saga in a beat ‘em up game. It came out much later than Golden Axe and can be likened to that game on steroids. Like most of Capcom’s arcade games during this period, you can expect epic graphics, sound, and a story told through text and cut scenes. Pretty much everything else we got out of Capcom during this era was a bonus as the company was wrapped up in the Street Fighter II craze which printed money for them. If you want to see their prowess at making a solid arcade brawler using a classic saga as the backdrop, give Knights of the Round a playthrough.
5. Alien vs. Predator
Again, Capcom can do no wrong when it comes to shoehorning various series into the beat ‘em up format. Alien versus Predator combines two 1980s horror franchises into one amazing romp through sci-fi inspired landscapes that evoke both HR Geiger and Capcom’s other arcade titles. This is the company at their peak and this game is absolutely why arcades were such awesome places. This game is intended for co-op play and it really comes to life the more players you have on the screen. There is some slowdown but you won’t really notice it. Alien vs. Predator is a wild game that fans of the movies should not hesitate to play.
Konami’s X-Men took a somewhat unknown Marvel comic book IP and exploded it onto the arcade scene. A lot of gamers’ first experience with X-Men was through this game and, if you know anything about the 1990s, you know how huge the X-Men became. The art style is distinctly late 1970s, early 1980s X-Men and the storyline is a bit nonsense but everything else you expect is there. Mutant powers, martial arts, acrobatics, and endless waves of Sentinels that work for Magneto now for some reason. Classic villains make an appearance, there’s a vague storyline that is somewhat engaging, but the vibe and spirit of the game is pure Marvel comic book action.
3. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Arcade Game
Another example of how Capcom knows how to take a popular comic book IP and transform it into something absolutely magical for the beat ‘em up genre, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Arcade Game is another game that makes use of ranged mechanics but eschews screen-clearing magical attacks or mutant powers like in X-Men. This game is about pure button mashing and it shows. You won’t notice that, though, because it is so darn fun. Another game that is made to be played with friends, TMNT Arcade Game didn’t exactly kickstart the turtle craze but it certainly solidified it. It also spawned a slew of console ports that were extremely faithful to the arcade original – something many of the games on this list failed to do (which is still a shame).
2. Final Fight
The game that would have been called Street Fighter if not for a last minute change, Final Fight uses huge sprites, detailed backgrounds, and a gritty street crime storyline to put players in what can only be classified as a pure arcade beat ‘em up game. You can see how this game presaged Street Fighter II in many ways. From the graphics to the way the characters are styled and move, the early bones of the SFII graphics are present and accounted for in Final Fight. What will probably shock modern gamers most about the Final Fight arcade game is just how unforgiving it can be. This game is not easy. It was built to eat your quarters. If you were the rare person who actually beat this title in the arcades, you were either out of a lot of money or a true master of the genre. This holds true in every port of this game since. If you want something old school tough but beautiful, Final Fight is the game for you.
1. Streets of Rage 2
This was not a hard choice. Streets of Rage took the formula that Final Fight perfected and made it console ready. On top of that it introduced screen clearing mechanics like in Golden Axe and a storyline that was somewhat more compelling than many. The second game in the series took everything great about the first game and made it that much better. So what makes Streets of Rage 2 better than Final Fight? Because Streets of Rage was developed for the consoles and not the arcades, its challenge is real. It isn’t cheap and it doesn’t care about destroying your wallet. This makes the challenges organic and fair. It also makes your lives and continues more weighty. The sequel also added new characters with different fighting styles that gave gamers more options when it came to how they played the game. Streets of Rage 2 shows why console was such a potent force in both the arcades and the console market even though it never appeared in an arcade box.