FOCUS: Beat’em ups

Time was when the beat ‘em up was king. In the early ‘90s, Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter shaped gaming culture with their popular multiplayer modes, crowd-drawing arcade cabinets and gory visuals.

Now the genre is bordering on the niche, with only a few high-profile franchises keeping it in the public eye – but this is changing.

Five years ago fighting games were close the brink of extinction,” says Capcom’s senior UK PR manager Leo Tan. I don’t think anyone would have expected a fighting game to chart well. Street Fighter IV changed all that.”

Storming the charts back in April 2009 and shifting 2.5m copies worldwide within a month, the game proved that the fighting genre was far from dead. But while a handful of strong titles have been released since, the category is just out of the mainstream’s reach.

This is because many fighting games are catering only to the hardcore tournament player and becoming too complex for the casual player,” says Ed Boon, head of Mortal Kombat makers NetherRealm Studios.

There are far more casual players than there are tournament players. In order for a game to sell multi-million units, it has to appeal to the casual player as well.”

Namco Bandai product manager Lauren Bradley agrees: Games like BlazBlue pushed boundaries in terms of complexity, but sadly didn’t get the mainstream sales it thoroughly deserved, which is perhaps indicative of the challenges the genre faces.”


According to Toshimichi Mori, creator of the hardcore-centric BlazBlue, the genre’s lack of casual appeal is because the basic gameplay has stayed the same – but the way consumers play has altered”.

To the uninitiated, the arguably archaic structure of beat ‘em ups can serve as a deterrent, preventing fighting titles to tap into the masses in the same way other genres have.

It takes real dedication to become skilful on a fighting game and perhaps doesn’t have the instant gratification many huge selling FPS titles have now,” explains Bradley.

Guity Gear creator Daisuke Ishiwatari adds: So many fighting games expect you to just jump in and compete. You wouldn’t put someone in a car for the first time and just say, ‘Off you go’.”

Arc System Works – the firm behind both Guilty Gear and BlazBlue – has reached out to casual gamers in its home market of Japan. Since BlazBlue was brought into other forms of entertainment, such as online radio and novels, two fifths of its fans are now female.

Fighting games have gotten less complex, technical and demanding in the last five years, and I think that’s a good thing,” says Boon. They were getting so complicated and difficult to learn that they were intimidating the casual player.

But today’s fighters are finding that balance between offering a game that the casual market will enjoy while burying features deep in the game for the hardcore players.”

Another method by which firms can reach new players is to tie their game into more widely known forms of combat – a strategy that inspired 505 Games’ Supremacy MMA.

Ricci Rukavina, CEO at the game’s developer Kung Fu Factory, says: MMA is somewhat new to the genre. There have been a ton of wrestling games, but few MMA titles.

Combat sports have risen dramatically in the UK with more and more televised fights on major sports outlets and pay per view. As such, MMA is spilling over to video games and gaining popularity.”


Looking forwards, publishers are keen to build on the momentum triggered by SFIV.

Next month sees the return of veteran franchise Mortal Kombat. Had this title landed on shelves a few years ago, its chances would have been considerably slimmer but the resurgence in fighting games means the ninth MK could well take the series to new heights.

As for the overall genre, publishers are thinking carefully about how they can restore it to its former glories.

There will be an ongoing test for developers to achieve the perfect balance between accessibility for the casual player and challenging the hardcore fans,” says Bradley.

It’s important to develop ways to bring new players in, such as incorporating tutorial elements and more instant gratification to keep newbies interested.”

The competitive aspect will also be crucial to growing the audience at home. Both Arc and Namco agree that online gameplay will have an increasingly important part to play in the genre’s future – although Boon warns that this still needs to account for a wider audience.

Of course, publishers are still being realistic. Many recognise that the ‘90s can never be recreated – the games market is just not the same beast any more.
Tan says: I don’t think you’ll see fighting games gain the kind of dominance they had ten years ago ever again. Call of Duty is the new Street Fighter II.

The rules for creating fighting games have changed. Products like Street Fighter IV have shown that it’s possible to be more than niche. Developers made that mistake ten years ago – appealing to a shrinking audience with increasing complexity – and I don’t think we’ll make it again.”

Some of the biggest beat ‘em ups heading to retail

Super Street Fighter IV 3D Ed
Formats: 3DS
Released: March 25th
Publisher: Capcom/Nintendo

A 3DS port of last year’s smash hit console game, featuring new 3D visuals and extras such as Figurine Mode, which uses the StreetPass function.

Mortal Kombat
Formats: PS3, Xbox 360
Released: April 21st
Publisher: Warner Bros

Warner’s first outing at the helm of the former Midway franchise, the new MK features high def visuals and even more brutal finishing moves.

Guilty Gear XX Accent Core Plus
Formats: PSP, Wii
Released: May 6th
Publisher: PQube

The latest iteration of the popular rock-themed Japanese 2D fighting series where players battle as living, biological weapons.

Supremacy MMA
Formats: PS3, Xbox 360
Released: Q2 2011
Publisher: 505 Games

The Cooking Mama publisher enters the fray with its unlicensed, unrestricted mixed martial arts title this summer.

BlazBlue Continuum Shift II
Formats: 3DS, PSP
Released: September
Publisher: PQube

The sequel to recent cult hits Calamity Trigger and Continuum Shift brings the BlazBlue series to 3DS for the first time in this anime-style beat ‘em up.

Anarchy Reigns
Formats: PS3, Xbox 360
Released: Autumn 2011
Pubisher: Sega

A fresh take on the genre from Platinum Games, the makers of Bayonetta. Anarchy Reigns is a third-person online multiplayer brawler.

Street Fighter X Tekken
Formats: PS3, Xbox 360
Released: TBA
Publisher: Capcom

One of two crossovers between Capcom and Namco Bandai, this title brings Tekken characters into the pseudo-2D Street Fighter universe.

Tekken X Street Fighter
Formats: PS3, Xbox 360
Released; TBA
Publisher: Namco Bandai

Fans will be able to pit their favourite Street Fighter and Tekken characters against each other in the latter’s larger, 3D arenas.

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