Popularized in the good old days of the 1980s and 1990s, Beat ‘Em Ups were all the rage in the arcades. The genre itself started out as your typical fight the local street gangs to save the city and/or the girl, but it eventually spread to the worlds of fantasy and sci-fi with their own distinctions.
The controls are pretty simple where you mostly move a character from one end of the screen to another and you can go up and down. They averagely have three buttons, attack, jump and super attack. Though mostly remembered as a 2D genre, Beat ‘Em Ups would evolve to 3D and some say the present day Hack and Slash genre such as Devil May Cry, are the next phases in Beat ‘Em Ups. For some of you American gamers of the 16-bit era, you’re likely to have very fond memories of Turtles in Time. Or some of you enjoyed playing the arcade versions to X-Men and The Simpsons by Konami.
So what about games that are Japanese in origin with artistic roots in connection to anime? So knuckle up and get ready to beat down on our Top 10 Beat ‘Em Up Anime Games.
10. Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon (Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon)
- System/Platform: Arcade
- Publisher: Banpresto, SEGA
- Developer: Gazelle
- Release Date: March 22, 1995 (Japan)
As ridiculous as this may sound to all of you, Sailor Moon happens to have its own Beat ‘Em Up. Though Sailor Moon herself may not have been all that combative throughout the duration of the original series, in this game, you to kick ass as her and the four remaining Sailor Senshi. The graphics upon its release are an accurate representation of the quality of the original series and any fan can instantly get into it and experience what it's like to fight the evil forces of the Dark Kingdom. The stages are taken straight from the anime such as Azubu-juuban, the OSA-P jewelry shop, Tokyo Tower, and even up to the North Pole where the final battle of season one takes place.
The controls are in tune with the genre as described. But when the going gets tough, Tuxedo Mask can come to the rescue as a support character who can restore health and damage the enemy. When executing a special move, the screen will pause and an animation from the series will play while the characters set up their attack. Since Takeuchi Naoko supervised the development of this game, fans can get the Sailor Moon experience they wish for.
9. Denjin Makai
- System/Platform: Arcade, Super Famicom
- Publisher: Banpresto
- Developer: Winkysoft
- Release Date: February 1, 1994 (Japan)
With the character and posters designed by the legendary Nagai Go (creator of Devilman and Cutie Honey), we have Denjin Makai. Taking place in the year 2079, the world is run by computers and has a criminal database. For those that are not registered, they are called ghosts and are taking over the country. A special police force consisting of Makai, Iyo, Belva, Kurokishi, Zeldia, and Tulks is assembled to stop this threat. For the Super Famicom release, the last three listed characters would not be playable and would become bosses instead.
The game itself takes its sci-fi settings to creative extremes that are beyond the imagination. With the characters, you can play as Makai who is a Kenshiro (from Fist of the North Star) influenced character with his martial arts and you have some humanoid dragons and magic using elves at your disposal. And the enemies you will be fighting in this game are very hard to describe which you have to see for yourself from demon ninjas to giant slugs. So if you want something that is creatively balls to the walls and you want to destroy many cars and arcade cabinets in your sight, this might be the game for you. Its gameplay is typical for the genre but its visuals are just beyond distinct.
8. The Peace Keepers (Rushing Beat Shura)
- System/Platform: Super Nintendo
- Publisher: Jaleco Entertainment
- Developer: Jaleco Entertainment
- Release Date: December 17, 1993 (JP), March 1994 (NA)
The Peace Keepers, or Rushing Beat Shura, is the third installment of this franchise by Jaleco. The American releases have been properly westernized but the Japanese installments take a lot of influence from the macho action titles of the 80s and 90s such as Fist of the North Star, which you can say is a Beat ‘Em Up anime. In the far future, evil corporations control the world after contributing to the recovery of the world through their mechanical and medical technology.
The game offers a selection of six playable characters: Flynn (the all-rounder), Echo (the speedster), Al (the powerhouse), Prokop (the strong grappler), with Norton and M-Frame being the two secret characters. The Japanese versions of the game give players the option of changing character names as well as customize the color of the costumes.
The gameplay has the standard attack commandos in addition to blocking and taunting, which are never featured in a good majority of Beat ‘Em Ups. The special attacks are very reminiscent of what you see in Shounen such as super hurricanes and lightning attacks. The game gives players multi-paths and in result various boss fights and numerous endings. Last, there is a fighting versus an option that can go up to 4-players via a multi-tap. So if you want a bit of everything, this is the game for you.
7. Kenka Bancho Badass Rumble (Kenka Bancho 3 Zenkoku Seiha)
- System/Platform: PlayStation Portable
- Publisher: Spike (Japan), Atlus (NA)
- Developer: Bullets
- Release Date: November 27, 2008 (Japan), November 10, 2009 (NA)
In the spirit of the Kunio-kun series, players assume the role of a high school delinquent with the aim of becoming bancho. The word bancho in Japanese means to be the top delinquent. In this game, you play as a high school punk ass who is on a field trip to Kyoto and it just happens other schools from around the country are there each with their top bad boys and it's up to the player to show they’re number one. Even though this game is primarily a beat ‘em up, it does share some old school RPGs elements of leveling up and making parties.
Players get to customize their bancho and choose their hometown in Japan. Depending on the chosen hometown, the player’s bancho will have a special set of moves that will vary. In addition to its combat mode, a QTE trash-talking feature can initiate fights. Upon the beginning, you are to put together some fighting words and if you can correctly phrase it within the appropriate time period, you can initiate the first punch. Due to the nature of the game being delinquent oriented, if you cause trouble, you may get arrested!
6. Guardian Heroes
- System/Platform: Sega Saturn, Microsoft XBox 360
- Publisher: Sega
- Developer: Treasure
- Release Date: January 25, 1996 (NA), January 26, 1996 (Japan)
At number six is a golden gem, Guardian Heroes. Even though the Saturn was weak with 3D, it shines with 2D and this game is one of many quality representations of that! It even has a really nice anime intro with a style that is very representing of the style of its release with the sharper edges and wider eyes. Though it is primarily a Beat ‘Em Up, it uses RPG elements such as magic points, hit points, and leveling up to be more in tune with its fantasy setting, which the RPG genre is known to use.
The characters you can play are a ragtag mix of knights, ninjas, and magicians. In addition, in certain situations, you the player may have to make compromises. If some place is in trouble, you can either go there or go on with your present decision. Depending on the performance in the game, it can impact the ending you get. The design of the levels allows you to either fight on the front plane or the back plane like in Fatal Fury 3 for a unique sense of multi-layer playing. So if you want something colorful and explosive, this might be the game for you.
5. Captain Commando
- System/Platform: Arcade, Super NES, PlayStation, PlayStation 2, Xbox, PlayStation Portable
- Publisher: Capcom
- Developer: Capcom
- Release Date: November 1991
Though the Captain Commando (in fact, take the first three words of his names and what do you spell?) character may be more famous from Marvel Vs. Capcom, he happens to be the star of his very own game! Even before his own game, the character made his debut as a novelty mascot (posted on game boxes and manuals) whose original design was even different from the design we know today. His original design resembled a space swashbuckler like Space Adventure Cobra, and in some designs, he is meant to take influence from Flash Gordon. But with his breakout game, he is given the design with the buzz cut, sunglasses, and the blue armor.
In addition to Ninja Turtles, this is one of the first arcade games to have a four-player simultaneous play. In addition to the titular Captain Commando, you can also play as Mack/Jennety, a blade-wielding mummy; Sho/Ginzu, a ninja that uses the same ninjitsu style as Guy from Final Fight; and Hoover/Baby Head, a baby who controls a mech in order to fight on the battlefield. While most Beat ‘Em Ups at the time took place in modern day streets, this game would take place in a futuristic Sci-Fi setting where our Commandos can take on some really crazy villains like a mad scientist, a kabuki actor, and a green monster.
Thanks to the Sci-Fi backdrop, as opposed to using lead pipes and chains, characters can use bazooka rays and mechs that have the options of either freezing or flaming your enemies. Unfortunately, its SNES release is toned down not just graphically, but many of the weapons are taken out and have been subjected to significant censorship. However, if you can find this game, play it!
4. Double Dragon
- System/Platform: Arcade, Sega Master System, NES, Genesis
- Publisher: Taito Corporation, Technos, Tradewest (NES)
- Developer: Technos Japan
- Release Date: June 1987
Coming in at four is the product of Kishimoto Yoshihisa is Double Dragon. In fact, this game is seen as the technological successor to Technos’ and Kishimoto’s previous cult hit, Kunio-kun. In reverse, Jimmy and Billy Lee (the Lee was inspired by Bruce Lee) would serve as the inspirations for main characters of River City Ransom, the North American version of the third Kunio-kun game. The plot of this game is typical of the genre, the girlfriend of Billy, one of the main characters has been kidnapped and he and his brother Jimmy must go off and save her.
The controls are pretty basic and in co-op mode, you can even do basic double teams where you grab one guy and your partner can throw in some cheap shots. However, the reverse is true when fighting the enemy. This game also allows you to use weapons such as bats, whips, knives, dynamite and even barrels! Unfortunately, the NES version could not have two players due to technological limitations at that time and did the alternating turns method as Super Mario Bros does between Mario and Luigi. However, Billy is the sole playable character for the NES version while Jimmy became the leader of the Black Warriors in that version. However, if you and your friend make it to the end, you must fight each other for Marian’s hand!
3. Streets of Rage (Bare Knuckle)
- System/Platform: Genesis, Master System, Game Gear
- Publisher: Sega
- Developer: Sega
- Release Date: August 2, 1991 (JP), September 18, 1991 (NA)
Just like how River City Ransom paved way for Double Dragon, which in turned paved way for Final Fight, Final Fight paved way for Streets of Rage. As praised by our top 10 Sega games list, this game is highly remembered for its music and how it, in turn, has come to influence some of the club music of today, it was also one of the games that defined the Genesis console.
Like Final Fight, the players have the option to play as one of three characters, Adam, Axel, and Blaze. While the individual abilities of the three characters from Final Fight were implied as you played, the character selection screen would give players the stats of the characters from the start. If you want power, you’d go with Adam. If you want speed, you go with Blaze. If you want a good balance of both, you pick Axel.
The game gives its players a very dark and gritty world run by Mr. X. But what makes this game stand out not just from the rest of the genre but the rest of the franchise itself is that when you make it to Mr. X, he actually offers you to join him! If you play two-players and one-person joins and the other refuses, you must fight each other! Depending on what happens, you can either save the city or become the next crime lord.
Though the game spawned off two hit sequels for the Genesis console and having re-releases on the Wii network, it never got any continuation despite its popularity. Attempts have been made, but none came to fruition. Maybe someday, long time fans can get a true sequel. If it can happen to Shenmue, it can happen to Streets of Rage!
2. River City Ransom (Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari)
- System/Platform: Nintendo Entertainment System, Game Boy Advance, PC Engine
- Publisher: Technos Japan (Japan), Taito (North America)
- Developer: Technos Japan
- Release Date: April 25, 1989 (Japan), January 1990 (NA)
At a very close second is the OG of Beat ‘Em Ups, Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari, or River City Ransom to non-Japanese audiences. In Japan, this is the third game of the Kunio-kun (named after Taki Kunio, then president of Technos Japan) series. Though heavily Westernized as River City Ransom, the original Japanese takes influence from the delinquent mangas of its time period such as Bebop High School and Kyo Kara Ore Wa, when delinquents would perm their hairs and wear longer versions of the coats from their school uniforms. While the Western versions feel like a cheesy martial arts movie knockoff of the eighties and nineties, Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari is a pure yankee game.
In this game, the player assumes the roles of Kunio/Alex and Riki/Ryan, who were rivals in the previous game. While old school Beat ‘Em Ups are known for being straight and non-linear, the game has some freedom of exploration in conjunction with action/adventure games. Since the game shares the creator of Double Dragon, its fighting system is largely the same where you just punch, kick, and jump. You can pick up foreign objects as weapons such as sticks and chains like a real gangster. The game is very straight to the point, simple to pick up, but can be demanding depending on the level of difficulty you choose to play it on. If you manage to get a copy of the PC Engine version, the graphics are smoothed out and includes some voice acting.
1. Final Fight (Final Crash)
- System/Platform: Arcade, Super Nintendo, Sega CD, Game Boy Advance
- Publisher: Capcom
- Developer: Capcom
- Release Date: December 1989
Though the Kunio-kun saga may be the OG, but if there is any game that solidified the standards of Beat ‘Em Ups, it would have to be Final Fight, which in fact was conceived as a sequel to Street Fighter. Upon the success of Double Dragon, Capcom decided to make it into a Beat ‘Em Up, while it would be part of the Street Fighter mythos. The plot of the game is more or less the same as it is with most other games but combines some of their archetypes, save the girl and the city. Though the game is two-player co-op, players can choose one of three characters, Cody, Mike, and Guy who each have their own strengths and weaknesses. The controls are very straight to the point, which gives players immediate comfort.
Though the arcade version was fun, the SNES releases of the first game were rather weak in comparison because for starters, they were one player and a majority of the appeal of Beat ‘Em Ups were because they were two players. Plus, you had to buy two versions of the game (one version to play with Cody, and another version for Guy). The game would also find its way to the Sega CD and include voice acting. However, we recommend playing the Japanese version, not because of its superior acting (gaming voice acting in the 1990s in English were terrible) but have a longer ending that makes more sense.
Granted the genre may seem repetitive on the surface by sharing many foundational similarities, each game still has their own features that make them distinct from one another. Though the genre has evolved to something different since its debut, it can never be forgotten. Many games still hold up to this day for many reasons beyond nostalgia whether it would be its comedic features, special move novelties, unique use of endings, or colorful graphics for its time.
Each character you play as is different from another and each has their respective abilities that can get you through the game. They are straight to the point and if you don’t have to be distracted by side quests or leveling up and just want to have a good time, these are the games for you. And let’s end this list with some honorable mentions, Dynamite Deka, Nekketsu Oyako, Burning Fight, Viewtiful Joe and Golden Axe.