Brawler Week Industry Retrospective
In a perfect world this article would have gone up on Wednesday, but due to some unforeseen circumstances it was delayed. Over the past week we have looked at some amazing games and the genre that links them. It’s amazing to watch how far the genre has come.
We had the opportunity to talk with our good friend Joe DeLia of the Big Red Potion Podcast. An industry veteran, Joe spoke with us on the history of the brawler genre from a press and fan perspective. We also had the opportunity to speak with Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes of Team Meat. These two talented developers have a unique perspective and were able to cover the genre from the perspective of a game developer.
We also received contributions from friends of ours throughout the game industry. Some saw the Brawler as a guiding light in the industry, while others felt it had been overplayed. The opinions are diverse. We would love to hear your thoughts on the genre in the comments below.
The modern brawler is the genre’s own worst enemy.
You see, I live next to one of the nation’s premiere retro arcades, a place called Ground Kontrol. It combines Portland’s retro chic vibe with videogames and booze. While I may occasionally indulge in a game of pinball or their new 4-player Pac-Man, I have to admit to being an insufferable killjoy when it comes to hopping on a brawler under my ultra logical philosophy, “why would I pump quarters into that when I have Shank, a much better brawler, at home?” I’m not much fun at parties.
When it comes to the confines of my gaming den, however, I can’t resist Klei’s contemporary take on an old genre. While I can’t sustain any interest in Marge’s simple vacuum attack or Bart’s skateboard swing in The Simpsons Arcade, I find myself absolutely taken with Shank’s machetes, chainsaw, katana, pistols, and shotgun. It also cribs my favorite element from Devil May Cry where shooting keeps you up in the air. There’s a fair bit of strategy to the mix too, where Shank can pounce a guy, start shooting other foes, then resume stabbing the indisposed prey like a bartender chopping ice in the goriest of cocktails.
Shank contains the immediacy of classic old arcade games with the depth and strategy that’s come with modern times. Call me a spoiled brat, but I just can’t be bothered with those older titles anymore. Also, Shank won’t eat your quarters. If you’re willing to brave hard mode you’ll be thankful for that.
As a critic, I find it very interesting that the brawler, a genre so popular on more primitive consoles, seems to struggle so much in current times.
Back in the days when arcades were still the place to go for serious gamers, there were always a large number of brawlers to be found. The initial transition carrying the kicks and punches to homes was rough since the consoles at that time could hardly handle all that action, yet rather than grow and flourish as processing power increased, brawlers seem to have all but died off.
In hindsight, I can’t help but wonder how much of the brawler’s popularity had to do with being limited to a 2D plane and the relatively low expectations players had at that time. Now that gamers have been exposed to so much more (and by extension, expect so much more) it seems as though keeping this genre alive is a much greater challenge than anyone would have expected.
Although I think it’s true that the players these days wouldn’t be content with the same level of simplicity that kept them happy in the past, I can’t help but think that some clever developer with nostalgia for days gone by holds the key to bringing the brawler roaring back to the forefront.
The modern era has seen the scrolling beat-‘em-up genre diversify considerable. While the obvious contemporary releases such as Castle Crashers and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: The Game continue to push the genre forward thanks to the advent of digital distribution technology on consoles, it’s the bigger budget releases such as God of War, Devil May Cry, Bayonetta and Ninja Gaiden that are pulling in truly new directions. Building upon the foundations of solid combat mechanics and adding in logic puzzles, chaotic scoring systems and a grand sense of wonder when tackling some of the bigger enemies, dwarfing our heroes, the genre certainly isn’t going away any time soon.
Brawlers were my first experience with cooperative play, and inspired “A Virus Named TOM” to be cooperative. “Double Dragon”, “Streets of Rage”. How fun was it to grab someones hair, knee them in the face, and then throw them at your buddy? I’ll posit an answer: way more fun than doing it alone. Then when “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” came along in the arcade it was insane, 4 players! Being the pre-facebook days, I only had 3 friends anyway, and we could all go crazy up on some foot soldiers. And no, I was in fact *not* to old to be idolizing Mutant Ninjas at the time. It’s great that we now have great games that carry on the tradition, like “Castle Crashers” and “Scott Pilgrim vs the World”. And I can now play them online with my friends, of which I now have 4, thank you facebook! (Please be #5, friend us on facebook!)
Side-scrolling beat-em-ups peaked in 1992 with Streets of Rage 2 for Sega Genesis. With all due respect to Shank and Castle Crashers, this is a genre that doesn’t need combo-based juggling and RPG elements. Just give me Max’s arsenal of suplexes, mule kicks and clotheslines, and combat that emphasizes the right move at the right time, and I’m all set.
The Xbox Live Arcade has been home to some past gems, present day innovations and it’s bound to usher in some revolutionary future titles. One game within the side-scrolling brawling genre that caught my eye for being a true mix of old-school brutality and red-thumbed fun is Shank, which also infuses a lot of new-school storytelling tactics and flash-style animations. I’m sure there are some gamers out there like myself who would love to see an animated game like Shank adopted for use with Kinect, which would truly bring in a whole new kind of evolutionary progress for XBLA side-scrolling brawlers. I’m definitely looking forward to that next step, whenever it arrives.