It’s kind of hard to come up with a top ten best beat ‘em up games of all time because so many people have a different perspective of what a beat ‘em up actually is. Does a beat ‘em up have to be in 2-D? Can it be in 3-D? Does it have to involve fighting sub-enemies and then getting to an ultimate boss? In that case, would Mega Man be considered a beat ‘em up? Of course not, that’s a platformer! But what about Michael Jackson’s: Moonwalker (which actually IS on this list)? In that game, he doesn’t throw a single punch, but instead, shoots magic out of his feet. Wikipedia lists it as a beat ‘em up, but would you?
And while it might not seem like that big of a deal to you, some people take their beat ‘em up’s VERY seriously, even in this day and age when they’re not all the rage anymore. So below, I’ve singled it out like this—to be a beat ‘em up, it has to involve a stream of enemies that you have to defeat and also, the main weapon can’t be a gun. Also, to be a beat ‘em up on this list, it doesn’t have to be 2-D, nor, does it have to have a screen that travels from left to right once you defeat all of the enemies, hence my choice for number 10. Also, I’m sure some of you will get on my case for not including a couple of beat ‘em up minigames, such as the one in Tekken 4 or the one in Guilty Gear for PSP. But I’m talking about full-FLEDGED beat ‘em up’s here. And finally, since I only have ten picks, I couldn’t include the (in)famous Simpsons Arcade Game. Don’t get me wrong, though, I LOVE that game. But enough of my yammering. Below are my personal top ten fave beat ‘em ups of all time.
10. Pit Fighter
Okay, it looks like I’m already fudging my way through this list (As always). But it’s true, Pit Fighter IS a beat ‘em up, as it certainly isn’t a fighter. Pit Fighter is an interesting concept, really. If anything, the best way I can describe it is Smash TV meets Mortal Kombat, and even that’s a pretty glib description of it. The plot of Pit Fighter is that you’re some oiled up, shirtless guy, who beats up anybody who steps into the pit, as it were. But instead of constantly moving across the screen to the right, you’re instead pretty much isolated in the middle of the screen where spectators on either side can either hurt or help you, depending on how close you get to them. And hey, there’s even a boss as at the end of each level in typical beat ‘em up fashion. It’s not the most sophisticated game in the world, and it gets hella repetitive after awhile (Like ALL beat ‘em ups), but this one’s still pretty enjoyable. I played it the other day, and it felt like 1991 all over again.
9. Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker
No, I’m not just feeling sentimental for MJ, I actually really liked this title as a kid and I still like it today. The whole plot is that you walk around various locations and rescue little kids. Yes, I think it’s kind of a strange concept given his later court troubles, and no, I don’t think it’s too soon after his death to bring that up. What’s really fun about it though is that it’s TOTALLY MJ themed. You can even use up a bit of your life meter to make it so everybody in the room starts dancing along to one of his greatest hits. And at the end of the game, if you can actually make it that far, you can even turn into a robot and kick some serious bad guy ass. The only problem I have with this game though is that it gets SERIOUSLY hard near the end of it. But I guess that’s the price you have to pay if you want to be the legendary MJ.
8. X-Men: The Arcade Game
Okay, this one is just SCREAMING to finally be brought to X-Box Live Arcade. What was awesome about this one was that this, depending on the arcade unit you were playing on, could hold six people at one time. The characters were some vintage X-Men shiznit: Cyclops, Nightcrawler, Storm, Colossus, Wolverine, and…gulp, Dazzler. Just pray you didn’t get Dazzler because she SUUUUCKED. Other than the X-Men theme, though, it was just your regular, old fashioned beat ‘em up. You hit smaller versions of sentinels, you get to the boss, you proceed to the next level , wash, rinse and repeat. It really wasn’t all that special except for the fact that you could hit enemies when they were down, which introduced a whole new level of play to the genre. That was pretty cool.
Okay, here’s where it gets a little tricky. Some people might even go the length to say that Battletoads isn’t a beat ‘em up at all, as a lot of the game (If you can even MAKE it past the speedbike section) is more like a platformer if anything. But for anybody who fondly remembers the ‘toads, besides the amazingly hard difficulty level, they’ll probably most remember that giant fist that comes out whenever Pimple or Wart slams it home. The enemies, when they come, are streaming, and ultimately, at the end of each level, there’s some kind of a boss fight. Sure, Battletoads and Double Dragon is probably a better representation of the beat ‘em up genre, but people don’t remember that game as fondly as I do, so I’m putting this one on the list instead.
6. The Splatterhouse Series
Splatterhouse has changed quite a bit from its humble beginnings. What started out as a straight up, walk from left to right, kill the baddies kind of game, has turned into a 3-D brawl-a-thon with this next one coming out. But, being the sympathetic, nostalgia junkie that I am, I want to talk about the middle two Splatterhouse games because that’s where I think the real money is. Walking up and down, and left and right around the screen, Splatterhouse actually DID become a house in the later titles where you actually travel from room to room, discovering shortcuts and secret entsances the more daring you were to stray off the direct course. Sure, the story was the epitome of lame (Something about an evil mask and a missing girlfriend). But throwing a cinder block at a creature’s face, knocking their head off and seeing it erupt into a seizure is something that has to be seen to be believed. It took the beat ‘em up genre to a whole new level and slapped it in the head with a two by four. Not many other beat ‘em ups can live to that claim.
5. TMNT IV: Turtles In Time
Now we’re talking. All of the TMNT games before this one were okay, combining various signature things from the comics and cartoon to each game. But never had they coalesced like they did with this one right here. All of the characters are pretty much the same, really, and their only real difference lies is which one you personally prefer (I always had to be Raph, as he’s my fave). But the gameplay was pretty fast and fun. Foot soldiers could be slammed back and forth to rack up major points, or they could be flung right into the screen, with some of the bosses even being beaten that way. And speaking of the bosses, they were a true shout out to the fans as Baxter Stockman, The Rat King, and Krang, were all there. But this time, in different time periods. Sure, the game was WAY too easy, even on hard mode, but it’s a real winner in terms of gameplay and fun factor. I’ve DEFINITELY wasted more than a few hours on this classic.
4. Final Fight
A Capcom classic, this beat ‘em up introduced us to almost a quarter of all the characters in Street Fighter Alpha 3. What I love most about this game though is how DIFFERENT the three characters are. Haggar, the mayor of Metro City (How badass is that, by the way? A mayor who literally cleans up the streets of crime), is a wrestler while Cody is the middle of the road brawler. Guy was always my favorite, though. He was the ninja of the gang; he’d get in there, pow, pow, pow, and then flip out of there. Many people consider this to be the BEST beat ‘em up of all time, but they’re wrong. There are three better.
3. The Double Dragon series
What many consider to be the grand-daddy of them all , the DD series totally changed the concept of what a beat ‘em up could actually be, with simple but endearing levels, great bosses (I still love Abobo the most), and a fun-factor up to wazoo that only gets better when another character comes into the fray. The story-line from the first game is pretty simple but amazing. Billy and Jimmy Lee are brothers and one of their girlfriends apparently gets punched in the stomach and carried off, and that’s it. It’s a classic, and if you’ve ever owned an NES, then I’m SURE you’ve played it before. Take a look.
2. The Streets of Rage series
Okay, so this might upset you that this is not number one, and why wouldn’t it? It has awesome music (Possibly the best video game music EVER), great characters, and killer bosses. And it only got better the longer the series went on, with SoR3 DEFINITELY being the best in the trilogy. The regular enemies in each game are varied enough that they don’t get tiresome and the stages are fun to navigate around. And while I’ll admit that the stories were pretty ridiculous, they were actually pretty inspired for a beat ‘em up. The third one had some sort of a political spin to it if I can remember correctly. Anyway, SoR is a classic and the fans clamor for another one. Sega, let’s get working on that one, okay? The fans want a sequel, dammit!
1. Dynamite Cop
Known to many as the inspiration for Die Hard Arcade, Dynamite Cop is far and away a better title than you could ever imagine possible. I mean, seriously, DHA merely touched the SURFACE of what DC has to offer. What makes Dynamite Cop so special is that literally everything in the game is a weapon. And I mean, EVERYTHING - even some fallen enemies can be picked up and flung into other characters. Everything from DHA is also here, the combos, the random, press JUMP, sequences, the blocky animations, etc. But having the ability to pick up pretty much anything just lying around the screen adds a whole new level to the genre that you’d be hard pressed not to call ambitious if nothing revolutionary. I’ve played this game on five different occasions, and on each time, I always find something new to love about it. You MUST play this game if you can find it. Seriously. I hope this clip below can whet your appetite enough for you to go out and find it. It certainly would for me.
Honorable mentions: Golden Ax, Altered Beast, MadWorld, and Castle Crashers
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Rich is a Jersey boy, through and through. He graduated from Rutgers University (Go, R.U.!), and thinks the Garden State is the best state in the country. That said, he’ll take Chicago Deep Dish pizza over a New York slice any day of the week. Don’t hate. When he’s not watching his two kids, he’s usually working on a novel, watching vintage movies, or reading some obscure book.