What makes a good beat-em-up?
Beat-em-ups, brawlers, hack-n-slash, belt scrollers: whatever you want to call ’em, this genre is host to some of my all time favorite games. But it’s also a genre that’s thought about as outdated, shallow and repetitive — a style of game that’s too simple to exist today. Modern brawlers tend to lean on RPG elements to make up for this perceived simplicity, while 3D entries continued to influence and evolve into games like Devil May Cry, God of War (ugh) and even Yakuza. You could even trace a direct lineage from certain arcade games to the Yakuza series.
But that’s getting ahead of myself. My point is that brawlers, and in fact a lot of arcade games and genres, are often deeper than they’re given credit for. So what exactly makes a GOOD brawler? That’s dead simple, and extremely complicated.
Because the genre is so stripped down, a lot of the work happens behind the scenes. These design elements are often so immaterial and abstract that it’s much harder to pinpoint the design sensibilities behind creating a good entry in the genre. It’s much easier to latch onto say, the way stamina mechanics and character builds affect how you play in Dark Souls, or the elaborate combo systems of character action games, than it is to grok the abstract ways health and damage numbers affect the pace and feedback of a game.
To give us a starting point for understanding these invisible dynamics, let’s look at the brawler’s shared history with fighting games. After all, it’s not hard to trace the influences from games like Karate Champ to Kung Fu Master. Kung-Fu Master’s designer, Takashi Nishiyama, even went to work on the original Street Fighter, which wraps around, becoming the starting point for landmark title, Final Fight. Brawlers frequently share the varied movesets and martial arts focus of fighting games, and many have their own elaborate combo systems, and even lift special move inputs directly from fighting games.
Fighting games take place between opponents whose abilities are relatively symmetrical. Nominally, each character has a set of tools that counteract each other and keep it competitive. As part of this competitive focus, fighting games balance attacks so that higher damage requires higher risk — weak attacks either lead into weaker follow ups or otherwise require more difficult execution for big damage, while strong attacks can lead to big damage but leave you wide open if you miss.
What makes brawlers different is that they apply similar systems towards asymmetrical situations. They don’t need to worry about being fair to your opponents, so they can throw this balance away. Basic brawler attacks come out fast and recover fast, and often lead into big, damaging combos simply by pressing the same button. In addition, brawlers often have long input buffers, which allows commands to be input long before they can be performed, simplifying the timing. And unsafe follow ups are made safer by other universal mechanics: traditional brawlers only do follow up attacks when the first attack hits, and character action games often allow you to cancel an attacks by blocking or dodging out of the animation.
The lack of risk is part of why the genre got a reputation for button mashing. If you miss an attack, you’ll be able to act again quickly, but if you hit all the previous attacks your input turns into a powerful combo. You could almost argue that you’re encouraged to be sloppy and aggressive with your attacks. And because popular perception often equates difficult execution with depth, brawlers are often also written off as shallow games.
But like fighting games, depth isn’t measured by execution complexity alone. The depth in brawlers comes from understanding situations, how they change your relationship with their spaces, and how you apply your powerful tools to them.
SLAP HAPPY RHYTHMS
To help visualize these situational dynamics, let’s take a look at the underlying rhythms of brawlers. Personally, I find that action games generally have a certain rhythm and tempo to them — good action games often feel like catchy songs. They’ve got strong beats that drive them, crescendos and choruses, and enough variety to keep me interested throughout.
Brawlers just happen to be songs that are very percussion heavy. You apply that percussion through your basic attacks and combos, and the tempo is set by the enemy patterns. Once we look for the rhythms of a brawler, we’ve got a basic template for understanding it. There are games like Harmoknight and Muse Dash, that take this idea and run with it, playing out as rhythm games where you fight off enemies to the music.
A good brawler not only has a good core rhythm established by its combat mechanics, but a judicious application of them, giving itself space for downtime and knowing when to increase the tempo. Even the sickest drum solo would get tiresome if it went on for an hour. You can keep it simple, as long as the rhythm is engaging.
Of course, it’s also boring to play one note, so we add different moves to give us some variety. Punches and kicks are the easiest go tos, but then we can add in jumping variants, different stances and grabs, each of which can interact to create more variations.
HOT BLOODED DOWNTOWN SPECIAL
Alongside a varied moveset, we need varied situations to apply them to. And we begin creating these situations with the game’s low level, or fodder enemies. By definition, these enemies aren’t individually as important. If this were a martial arts film, they’d be the nameless guys who get beat up by the hero on the way to a big bad. But these enemies are some of the most important characters in establishing a brawler.
Fodder enemies are a key part of keeping that core rhythm engaging. These are the metric by which you judge other enemies, and by having them return throughout the game you can keep the player feeling powerful, or even emphasize their increasing strength as they become easier to deal with. That’s why games that have have fodder enemies with high HP, or scale enemy strength with player levels can sometimes feel off — the underlying beat has been bogged down, making it hard to keep momentum.
Once we’ve got that momentum, we need to keep it engaging, and layer our low level threats with more powerful ones that force you to respect them thanks to some clear advantage. This can mean the usual burlier, tougher enemies or smaller ones with different movement options and attack ranges. Mixing just a handful of good variations can create situations that force a new approach and lead to new dynamics.
Maybe the game’s general approach allows you to usually hit several enemies at once to keep them in check, but a ranged enemy forces you to cut your combos short, or go for a jump kick to score a knockdown on the group while you single out the shooter. Even basic enemies can do this if timed correctly — a group might appear from the other side while you deal with a previous group, forcing you to either stop engaging or find another option like a throw or back attack to respond to them.
WHEELS ON MEALS
Even basic brawlers incorporate these ideas. Let’s rewind back to Kung-Fu Master, largely considered the first beat-em-up, and see this in action. The game takes place on a single plane, with your character moving in a straight line as he advances each floor. You can see the rhythms more clearly here. Basic enemies take a single hit, and the ideal strategy has you continually moving forward, taking them out with careful timing and spacing of punches and kicks. Missing allows them to grab you, interrupting that momentum.
After this simple rhythm is established, enemies begin to approach from behind, forcing you to hold for a moment to intercept them. Special enemies begin to enter, starting with one that throws knives from a distance, requiring you to not only watch if his attack is coming high or low, but approach while controlling the flow of basic enemies.
At the end of each stage is a boss that takes several hits and again forces a new approach, thanks to powerful attacks that often have more range. Boss patterns need to be watched carefully for openings where you can attack, then quickly backed away from, all while dealing with the continued influx of other enemies. Boss attacks can be dealt with not only horizontally, by backing away, but vertically, by reading their high and low attacks, which puts you in more danger while rewarding you with another opportunity to attack if you succeed.
About 30 seconds into the game and you’re already juggling several dynamics. This is even before you get into the small nuances like how kicks feel powerful because of their reach, but score less points and are likely to get you grabbed if timed incorrectly against a tightly spaced group. Which then gives utility to the shorter range punches that can be situationally safer, and score higher.
Small details telegraph how enemies are going to attack, with basic enemies raising their arms for grapple as they approach, and knife enemies winding up to signal high and low attacks. The game even gives you a short proximity lock on to bosses, allowing you to back off while still aiming attacks in their direction, instead of forcing you to waste time turning back around.
All of this is in the earliest, and one of the most basic entries in the genre. Before we even get into multi-plane movement, omni directional scrolling, grappling, movement options, extended movelists, or even combos — one of the best known elements of the genre.
It’s also a great example of how little details can change how good a brawler feels. The NES version of the game is functionally the same as the original arcade game, but feels miles better thanks to being designed for the home. Enemies are a little less sticky and require less mashing to shake off, interrupting the rhythm less and allowing you to stay alive longer. The pace is ever so slightly relaxed, keeping the tension, but not feeling like it’s constantly overwhelming you.
I could go on forever about these microscopic details, but that’d risk getting even more into the weeds. Instead, I leave you with the hope that approaching the genre with these ideas helped you visualize the invisible complexities of these games, and understand the dynamics they create. Go dig into some brawlers, see if you can see beyond their reputation for button mashing, and begin to groove to the rhythms of their action.
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