Punching bad guys in the face has long been a staple of video gaming. Since the earliest home computers, the act of crossing one screen after another whilst taking down an army of generic villains has entertained multiple generations.
Throughout the 80s and 90s, as video games became a mainstream form of entertainment enjoyed in homes across the world, titles like Renegade and Double Dragon solidified the beat-em-up as a lucrative genre with mass appeal. Over the years, we’ve had plenty of series based around repetitive-but-glorious punching and kicking – and some have spawned stone-cold classics.
Picking 10 of the best might sound easy, but when you take a look at the number of classic titles out there, you may well realise just how tricky it actually is. Still, we’ve done our best – take a look and see what you think …
One of the most famous beat-em-ups ever made, Final Fight is a big, colourful, dynamic example of the genre at its finest.
Starring the legendary Mike Haggar (a man with a wrestler’s physique and a very odd choice of outfit), Cody, and Guy, Final Fight boasts a slick combat system, a decent amount of challenge, and plenty of moves to play around with. Playing as a politician (Haggar is the mayor of Metro City) is another of the game’s cool touches, and makes us wonder why more action games don’t allow us to take on the role of a butt-kicking hero who live as much in the gym as in the office.
Final Fight’s a beautiful game, and rightly revered by those who remember it.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time
Whether you’re a fan of TMNT or not, we’re pretty sure you’ll know of Turtles in Time. Classed as one of the greatest beat-em-ups of the 90s, and certainly one of the best to star the awesome foursome, Turtles in Time is a fast-paced gem with slick gameplay.
Sent through a time warp by the villainous Shredder, the turtles find themselves fighting through numerous periods in their quest to get home and stop Krang, Shred-head, and the Foot’s nefarious plans. Playing as any of the turtles is a joy, thanks to the diverse move-set each has, but getting four friends together to play as all four in the arcade version was a major thrill for fans. There’s nothing quite like taking on armies of the Foot as the brothers, watching those iconic masks and weapons together on-screen.
There have been plenty of TMNT games since, but this classic from 1992 is still at the top of the pile.
Featuring Golden Axe on this list may prove somewhat controversial, as it’s generally considered a beat-em-up and / or a hack-and-slash game. However, we feel it definitely leans more towards the former, with the weapons-based action including kicks and shoulder-barges; you might get to fight with swords and axes, but the game feels very much like Final Fight etc.
So, with that out of the way, let’s celebrate the wonder that is Golden Axe. While the sequels might have added new, smoother elements, the original remains an undisputed classic. Players can choose to battle through the fantasy landscapes as either a barbarian, an amazon, or a dwarf, taking on all kinds of bizarre villains with a variety of attacks and magic.
Golden Axe is still a blast to play today, and kicking thieving elves around a burning campfire never gets old.
Streets of Rage
What else is there to say about Streets of Rage that hasn’t already been said? Nothing, we’re sure – but that doesn’t mean we can’t still heap praise upon it.
You know the story: in a city overrun by crime and corruption, three former cops take the law into their own hands to take down the villainous Mr. X. Axel, Blaze, and Adam each have their own unique moves, and while these are limited, the game never feels dull or repetitive. Taking down wave after wave of street punks is kept fresh by the wide variety of locations, different character models, and an awesome soundtrack.
This isn’t the only Streets of Rage game in our list, though …
Bad Dudes VS DragonNinja
While this might not have been well-loved by everyone, there’s no denying it was one of the defining titles of the late 80s / early 90s beat-em-up golden age. After becoming a hit in arcades, DragonNinja was ported to most computers and consoles (including the mighty NES), with some faring better than others.
DragonNinja is beautifully simple: playing as the token muscular hero in a vest, you punch and kick your way through various urban environments, facing acrobatic ninjas, dogs, and more. The game was tricky, but always fun and addictive. Love it or hate it, it’s a classic.
Okay, okay – we know you’re surprised to see this on our list. Anyone who played the SNES version, though, will no doubt remember just how much fun this game is, and how well-made – even if this weren’t based on a Batman movie, the gameplay is fast, fun, and exciting enough to make the license a bonus rather than the major draw.
Batman has a huge range of moves, some of which are context-sensitive: pressing attack whilst standing between two thugs will cause Batman to smash their heads together, for example. Everyone’s favourite cape-clad orphan can also glide, use gadgets, and even drive the Batmobile.
Let’s be clear: the SNES version of Batman Returns was the slick, cool, exciting beat-em-up – other consoles were less fortunate. Especially the Sega Genesis / Mega Drive, as those who tried that version will remember (somewhat painfully, no doubt).
Streets of Rage 2
See, we told you there was another Streets of Rage game in this list, didn’t we?
Not without good reason, either. Streets of Rage 2 is the strongest of the trilogy, keeping the best aspects of the original but adding in enough new elements to make it an improvement. With Adam missing but Skates and Max in his place, players have four characters to choose from (including returning heroes Axel and Blaze).
Streets of Rage 2 pits players against plenty of new enemies, sends them through new environments, and boss battles include a jetpack-wearing fool and a wrestler. It still looks gorgeous today, too.
The third game is the least impressive of the trilogy, and while it’s great fun, it’s not quite good enough to qualify it for the list.
Still, two out of three’s not bad, is it?
While this awesome beat-em-up made it to the Sega Genesis / Mega Drive, its arcade version remains the most impressive. Starring Frank Castle AKA the Punisher, with a little help from Nick Fury (in two-player only), this is a fantastic example of how much fun a well-made beat-em-up can be.
Big, colourful, chunky sprites, a wide move-set, and a visual style true to the comic books, with onomatopoeic sound effects flashing on-screen. The game is fast-paced, and the environments pop with interactive features, while guns and other weapons can be used alongside Frank’s fists. Anyone interested in the character after watching Daredevil’s second season would do well to check this out.
This update of the classic 2D beat-em-up is an explosion of colour, action, and bizarre heroics. Starring Joe himself (a little guy in a cape and cool helmet), the game involves platforming too, with hordes of enemies to fight.
While it’s not quite as gripping or timeless as the likes of Streets of Rage 2 or The Punisher, Viewtiful Joe featured an innovative movie-centric episodic structure that helps it stand out.
Of course this is on here! It has to be, right?
The classic. The original. The beat-em-up that helped to launch a thousand imitators. Starring the Lee brothers, Double Dragon puts players on a mission to rescue an abducted girlfriend – all via the magic of punching and kicking endless bad guys over and over.
Double Dragon started in the arcades and has made the transition to multiple consoles, as well as mobile platforms. You can now download the Double Dragon trilogy on your phone or tablet for a song, and have a little bit of video gaming history right there in the palm of your hand. Even if you’ve never played them before, they’re worth trying to see where so much began.
What are your favourite side-scrolling beat-em-ups? Let us know!