While beat 'em ups may not have the storied history of, say, RPGs, they are just an intrinsic part of gaming as any other genre.
In fact, the first beat 'em up game (or at least one that employed fist-fighting) was 1976's arcade game, 'Heavyweight Champ'. For the most part, boxing games with relation to arcade cabinets haven't changed all that much. The next leap forward came in 1984's 'Karate Champ', which 'Mortal Kombat' creator John Tobias cited as a direct influence on his game.
With that in mind, here's 20 of the best examples of the fighting / beat 'em up genre. For clarity's sake, we're also including side-scrolling beat 'em ups like 'Final Fight', 'Streets of Rage' and 'Double Dragon' as well as the typical one-on-one fighters.
20. 'Comix Zone'
Out of all the side-scrolling beat 'em ups on this list, 'Comix Zone' has the distinction of being one of the most original. It's hard to make beat 'em ups original, especially side-scrolling ones - but 'Comix Zone' used the actual features of comic panels themselves as framing devices for each level. It was a smart move back in 1994, and it's still original to this day. Games like 'Hotline Miami' did something similar with the VHS tapes acting as game levels.
19. 'The Simpsons Arcade Game'
If you go into Token in Smithfield, Dublin, you can still play 'The Simpsons Arcade Game'. It's loud, way too fast for you to pick up on the dingy graphics, but it's so much fun and so wickedly smart with its references and nods to the show that you can't help but love it. Also, Bart fighting with his skateboard and Marge with her hoover is just perfect.
Yes, 'Clayfighter'. It's a what you could call a bad game. That's fair. But you have to include it in a list like this because there are so few games on this list, or in the genre as a whole, that actively lampoons itself. That's what 'Clayfighter' was, in essence. It was actively embracing how crap it looked, filled it with stupid characters like Bad Mr. Frosty and an Elvis impersonator Blue Suede Goo who used his hair coif to block your attacks. Come on, like.
17. 'Fighter's Destiny'
One-on-one fighting games normally work off a case of trying to beat your opponent's life bar down to zero. 'Fighter's Destiny', a Nintendo 64 exclusive, was truly original in how it approached fighting. For one, you couldn't just throw fireballs / hadoukens / whatever at your opponent. The points system for each round meant you had to get in and fight your way through, and it relied so heavily on strategy and involved thinking that it's no wonder the game's become something of a cult hit with beat 'em up players.
16. 'Virtua Fighter'
Let's be clear - 'Virtua Fighter' and its polygonal graphics look ridiculous, especially when you consider how far the technology with graphics has come. Yet, in 1993, it was revolutionary. 'Street Fighter II', with its pixel-based graphics looked almost trite in comparison. That being said, 'Virtua Fighter' didn't have the same fluidity, but it does hold the distinction of being the first 3D fighting game ever made.
15. 'Double Dragon'
'Double Dragon' walked so 'Streets of Rage 2' could run. It's that simple. Again, like so many games on this list, you have to think of them in context. 'Double Dragon' had a richness to it that was unlike any other NES game at the time, but with a simplicity that meant a child could pick it up and play it. Better still, get two of them playing it and you've got one of the first on-screen two-player games of its kind.
'Rampage' was a game designed that there was, essentially, no wrong way you could play it. The game's bracing simplicity means you simply move the joystick left or right, smash buildings up, and that's it. There's no leaden backstory, no sense of strategy or skill to it, you just button-smash your way across the screen. There's an elegance in that kind of simplicity. Not every fighting game has to have a decidedly arcane encyclopedia of story to it. Some can be just about a giant gorilla smashing things up.
13. 'King of Fighters '98'
'King of Fighters '98' is definitely a connoisseur's choice, as it wasn't officially released in Europe until 2013 on the Wii Virtual Console. It had, of course, had a release on its original console - the Neo-Geo - and the PlayStation in Japan a year later in 1999, but was never released here or in the US for the same console. Using three-player teams and a much more advanced combo and grappling system, 'King of Fighters '98' was an intriguing spin on a familiar genre, but not so original as to be completely unfamiliar.
12. 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game'
As arcade ports go, 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' was up there with one of the best. The NES port - which was erroneously titled 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game' - was as frenetic and enjoyable as the arcade original, with a really memorable soundtrack to go along with. Not only that, getting to pick whichever one of the Turtles you wanted was pretty cool.
11. 'Killer Instinct'
You could very well argue that 'Killer Instinct' simply cherry-picked elements from 'Street Fighter II' and 'Mortal Kombat' to craft its own thing, and you'd be right. 'Killer Instinct' mixed the horror elements of 'Mortal Kombat' with 'Street Fighter II' and its energetic combo system to craft something admittedly familiar, but intensely addictive nonetheless.
10. 'Final Fight'
Yes, this is placed higher than 'Streets of Rage 2' when you could argue - maybe even successfully - that they're the same thing. They're not, but it's not to denigrate 'Final Fight'. It's a fast-paced, well-designed game that has a far more fluid sense of animation than 'Streets of Rage 2' did and it's also much more colourful than 'Streets of Rage 2'. Still, it comes up short in terms of atmosphere, but it's a cracking game nonetheless.
9. 'Injustice 2'
Single-player modes in beat 'em up games - whether they're side-scrollers or one-on-one - often tend to have threadbare story. Sure, you can read the manual in order to get all the dense layers of text if you want, but so little of it actually impacts how you play the video game. Maybe because it was using familiar characters like Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, but 'Injustice 2' had one of the most richly detailed story modes in any beat 'em up game, ever. The reboot of 'Mortal Kombat' kicked off the idea of fighting / beat 'em up games having a story mode that you'd actually want to play, but 'Injustice 2' made it so much more.
8. 'Mortal Kombat X'
Just as 'Injustice 2' made itself unique with its story mode, 'Mortal Kombat X' brings it back. The story mode is unsatisfying, but the animation, the background imagery, and the playability of 'Mortal Kombat X' just takes it all to new heights that the franchise has never reached before. It's gloriously violent, to a point where you're going to be howling with laughter at how gross it is, but it's what you'd expect from a gaming franchise to pretty much invented the gaming moral panic of the '90s.
7. 'Marvel Vs. Capcom 3'
There are so few games based on comic books that actively embrace its origins. Looking at the 'Batman: Arkham' series, it seems to blend influences from the movies, the animated TV series and the comics. With 'Marvel Vs. Capcom 3', however, it's so fully drenched in the comics' look that it looks like one come to life. Throw in a slick combat system that's forgiving to beginners, but punishing to masters, and you've got one of the most enjoyable beat 'em ups of the past ten years.
6. 'Street Fighter IV'
Although (spoiler alert) 'Street Fighter II' tops this list, 'Street Fighter IV' is the first sequel to it that genuinely feels like a step forward. Yes, that might be sacrilege to people who played 'Street Fighter Alpha' or 'Street Fighter III', but the fact is that 'Street Fighter IV' was the first real attempt by Capcom to do something different with the franchise. More bolder visually, and more complex mechanically, 'Street Fighter IV' was the sequel that saved it from stagnation.
5. 'Super Smash Bros. Melee'
That 'Super Smash Bros. Melee' is still played as an esports staple some 18 years after it was initially released tells you what kind of impact the game has had. If impact isn't enough to get it into anyone's Top 5, actually sit down and play it. You'll see a game that despite its cutesy, cartoony visuals and sound effects, therein lies a game of deep strategy and complex maneuvers that rewards and respect a serious mind. Or, y'know, you can just play it and laugh at seeing Super Mario kicking the crap out of Pikachu all day long.
4. 'Streets of Rage 2'
Compared to 'Final Fight' or any other side-scrolling beat 'em up, what 'Streets of Rage 2' had was atmosphere. Pure and simple. Each of the levels were drenched in neon lights and darkness over the horizon. The music was sharp and aggressive. You were armed only with your fists and whatever you could pick up. It was you (and a partner) against a city that was desperately trying to kill you at every step of the way.
'Mortal Kombat' might have had the guts, but 'Streets of Rage 2' was one of the few games that made you feel like you were close to being overwhelmed and out-fought at any point, and pushed you to fight back and fight dirty in order to win. That it still holds up nearly two decades after its release shows you how good it is. You can pick it up now and play through and it hasn't lost any of its spark or grim delights.
3. 'Tekken 3'
So few games actively try to get you to play better like 'Tekken 3'. It was a game that required you to get better in order to win. With some games, it's easy to simply figure out a combo or a special move, bash it out and dodge attacks. Not with 'Tekken 3'. You had to step in, move around, duck, dodge, parry and strike in order to beat your opponent. You could play technically, using strategy and misdirection, or you could smash buttons and hope for the best. If you were smart, and you know how to fight, either could win. 'Tekken 3' was that widely playable that it allowed for it all.
A game so violent, so utterly controversial in its intent, that it started a moral panic and shocked parents into thinking their kids were going to be raving violent psychopaths. What's gas is that the children who played 'Mortal Kombat' either on the Sega or in arcade cabinets are now mostly responsible thirty-somethings who fondly remember driving a flying spike through their friend's face and uppercutting them across a screen. 'Mortal Kombat', and the two sequels that followed, are some of the most enjoyable moments in gaming you can have. It's violent, it's over-the-top, it's loud and it isn't for everyone - but it's such a singular experience playing it that almost everyone reading this can remember the first time they saw a fatality being performed. That's the mark of a great game.
What can be said about 'Street Fighter II' that hasn't already been said? In unambiguous terms, it is the blueprint for all modern fighting games. All of them sprang from this. The variations in characters and their styles, the backgrounds, the combo system, the health bars, the timers - these may not have begun here, but they crystallised here.
Think of it like the black monolith in '2001: A Space Odyssey'. It was the leap into what we know today. Without it, you wouldn't have 'Soul Calibur' and its ridiculous costumes, you wouldn't have 'Injustice 2' and its story mode, you certainly wouldn't have 'Tekken 3' or 'Super Smash Bros. Melee' because the success of 'Street Fighter II' helped to ensure that beat 'em ups / fighting games was a viable genre for developers. It could be done, done well, and done with style and panache.
Everyone who ever picked up a controller has played 'Street Fighter II' and if they haven't, they've played a game directly inspired and influenced by it.