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Revisiting the Golden Age of Brawlers

There’s a subtle simplicity to the video game genres of yesteryear. If today’s generation of consoles will be remembered for anything it’s that as well as their ability to build highly-detailed and expansive worlds in which we can explore and roam around in, they also seem intent on tapping into a certain kind of nostalgia and recreate said simplicity.

No video game genre represents this sentiment more so than brawlers/beat ‘em ups. Final Fight, Streets of Rage, and Double Dragon all excelled at providing players with the thrill of fist-fighting their way through waves and waves of oncoming enemies, often occurring on a 2D plane. This perspective was ideal as it kept every ounce of forthcoming challenge in full view, always making it feel fair even when the going got tough.

Popping up first in the early 80s in video game arcades before eventually making the leap to home consoles, despite how fondly we think of them, they are scarcely seen today. And when they eventually are, modern day side-scrolling brawlers are often little more than half-assed remakes. Between 1985 and 1995 arguably acts as the golden age of brawlers, with the power of 16-bit consoles capable of doing a better job at detailing the various martial art attacks that played out on screen.

Most beat ‘em up games during this brief 10-year period were purposefully punishing, most likely due to their need to eat up vast amounts of pocket money at any given chance. Often only by buddying up with a friend in two-player co-op would you be able to reach the end of this challenge, another reason why brawlers are attributed with so much nostalgia and good memories.

If the sense of euphoria after beating, well, a beat ‘em up, or playing alongside a pal didn’t entice you enough to want to duke it out with the likes of Haggar, the Lee brothers, or Skate, you wouldn’t have struggled to find a licensed genre entry that spoke to you. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Simpsons arcade and X-Men all found relative success by introducing audiences to their own unique flavour of beat ‘em up style gameplay. Unlike the poorly licensed games that plagued the 360 and PS3 era, these games were actually good, wholesome experiences that you knew how to play, but gravitated to easier because you recognised them.

Today, most developers seem intent on providing players with a waves and waves of metroidvania-inspired video games to surf upon, and for as long as they continue to enjoy success, the more we’ll see. I’m hopeful that in a couple years the same love, care, and attention will be spent in re-creating a couple of familiar 2D side-scrolling beat ‘em up styles of play. All in the hope of treating us to a second golden age of brawlers.

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