Shawn Alexander Allen an artist, game designer, and writer doing all of that for a game called Treachery in @Beatdown_City. He is also a co-organizer of the Game Devs of Color Expo, the first game conference in Harlem. You can follow him at @anuchallenger.
What a year 2017 has been. Rather than stew on the many things that keep me up at night, like potential tax bills destroying my ability to live, I’d prefer to reflect on some great personal stuff.
I was flown out to the magnificent German games event, AMAZE fest, to speak about the links between perceived lines between violence & non-violence surrounding the Civil Rights movement, Undertale, the politics surrounding boxing, Bruce Lee, and how all of that plays into the birth of beat em ups as a game genre. I got engaged to the best person on the planet. I put out my first Kickstarter backer build of Treachery in Beatdown City, which has been years in the making! I even got to demo the game to a bunch of cool people, including a chance meeting with the art director for the new ToeJam & Earl, and a personal demo session with SUDA51.
End of year lists are always strange to me regardless of the medium, but as the developer of a game about fighting, why we fight, and how these fights play out, I also take a lot of time poking around to find interesting games that allow you to beat things up, which 2017 had a significant volume of for once. The games I’m going to list off all have have something unique about them, even if they aren’t necessarily “best in class”.
Before I get on with it, though, I want to give a huge shout out to NOUR, a game about playing with your food, which made waves on the internet, has been featured at numerous game events, including an event I helped organize, the Game Devs of Color Expo 2017, and which was funded on Kickstarter earlier this year. Keep an eye out for it in the next year or so!
Now, on with the show:
Fight'N Rage is an over-the-top love letter to arcade beat-‘em-ups, with a whole mutant animals theme going on--think mid-'90s Capcom brawlers meets later year TMNT characters, like Monty Moose, or Halfcourt, the basketball playing giraffe. I know it sounds a bit dubious, but you won’t care while punching and kicking the hell out of chimp Bruce Lees, ninja pigeons (ninjeons?) and doberman pinschers who fight (and dress) like Dudley from Street Fighter III.
This game was clearly made with an overwhelming amount of love, because you have three completely distinct characters (and three-player co-op); a bunch of unique enemies rocking a variety of unique fighting styles; a bunch of extra content; large, bouncy, crunchy UI; huge, detailed sprites; heavily saturated colors (thanks to a lighting system that lends to the mood); and an excellent Guilty Gear-esque metal soundtrack that keeps everything feeling badass.
I tend to evaluate beat-‘em-ups on how they handle their “heavy” characters--Final Fight’s introduction of Haggar (and highly distinct player types) changed the game 28 years ago, so the first thing I do when playing a new game is try and find the heavy character, grab an enemy, and try to doing a jumping throw; if I can’t do one, the game immediately feels like someone doesn’t know what the fun of the heavy class is. In Fight'N Rage you can pick this big, double-lariating bull guy and get straight to doing jumping slams that take down multiple opponents at once. Hell, you can even juggle enemies, and punching a kung fu wolf so hard it explodes (into bones, not blood) feels very satisfying.
But, there’s an unfortunate downfall to this zeal for beat-‘em-ups--the cliches of the genre, which tends to favor hyper (toxic) masculine character design, present themselves in the terrible sexualizing of the stereotypically fast but weak woman protagonist. She’s drawn as if she’s naked, with barely any clothes covering her up, and her main art is that of her in a kick pose that would make Chun-Li blush, complete with a flagrant panty shot with a lot of detail paid to detailing her crotch.
And it’s a shame, really, because I’d like to be able to be fully down for this game, but every time a woman shows up on screen, she’s jiggly-boobed, and almost naked, which only distracts.
The Fire Pro series has been a favorite of mine since Fire ProWrestling D on the Dreamcast. That game and the community around it got me through some serious bouts of college depression, and seeing the series alive on the PC where it can basically live forever is nothing short of miraculous.
To be honest, I still haven’t dug into FPWW too far beyond spending 20 minutes building Brock Lesnar (his face is in there, and he’s among my favs, don’t judge.) But watching videos of create-a-wrestlers doing crazy stuff to hilarious commentary (simming matches is a huge part of “playing” Fire Pro), along with all of the new moves available, and the timeless Edit/CPU logic system that allows players to make a wrestler look and act pretty much exactly as they should (the CPU Logic system is so good I have cribbed quite a bit of it for my own game), I have gotten so much of the classic Fire Pro experience that I crave.
Fire Pro isn’t flashy, but there’s so many reasons why there’s a die hard contingent of fans who think it’s the best wrestling game series ever, and FPWW doesn’t disappoint.
While Fire Pro Wrestling World was an amazing return to form, Double Dragon IV was… not. I’m a huge fan of Double Dragon, and of course I scooped up DD IV day of release. Suffice it to say in many ways it continues the uneven, disjointed nature of the series (where Acclaim just legit made up versions of the series from time to time.)
It’s not as bad as many reviews say--I’ve seen it basically dismissed as being “bad” when the complaints people have are mostly around being disappointed that a new numbered Double Dragon leans so hard on NES style graphics, basically ignoring the gameplay.
While that’s a fair assessment to have, as visual/audio aesthetics can of course drive enjoyment as much as the physical act of playing, these critiques tend to ignore Double Dragon IV’s crowning achievement: It’s every bit as responsive as a game like this needs to be. Beat-‘em-ups rely on a lack of friction between the player and the game to make setups like crowds of enemies feel “fair”, and I think a beat-‘em-up has failed when button presses fail the player because of things like excessive animation frames, poor hitboxes, and the like. DD IV is the fast paced Double Dragon you know and love, leaving out the excess that games like Double Dragon Neon were hellbent on injecting (start up frames for a run, why?), and creates a nugget-sized, combat-focused title that deserves at least a look. On sale, perhaps.
Initially announced and funded back in 2013, RCRU was billed as a sequel of sorts to River City Ransom by the dev team, Conatus Creative. And as a spiritual successor, RCRU certainly scratches that nostalgic itch, and manages to make enough changes to meaningfully move the combat of the series forward.
RCR as a game can tend to be fairly repetitive. If you don’t believe me, fire it up! Enemies have minute behavior differences that can be exploited in speed runs, but there’s nothing more that is inherently interesting about them. The real fun lies in the wackiness of the almost physics-based weapon/object behavior, the introduction of large crowds of enemies, and the player upgrade system. RCRU avoids that by really differentiating how all of the players play, adding in a robust combo/juggle system, and by giving enemies wildly different designs, both visually and from a behavior standpoint. Glasses-clad nerds throw beakers filled with fire and ice, jocks tackle and throw you, and cops equip riot shields and stun rods.
Being able to switch between a number of styles--like luchador, complete with a poison mist juggle attack, a boxer, a break dancer, a regular old brawler (and more!)--makes it really feel like the devs were trying to make something truly special out of the base RCR mold.
The result is a really competent title that’s worth checking out, especially now that it’s been out for a while. I received the game for free from the producer, and I watched it grow all year with new updates, fan criticisms fixed, and lots of bug fixes (the bane of small dev teams.) Add that to the fact that it was removed from Steam for a time because of some dubious copyright claims--and as a result added an all-new (and better?) soundtrack--this game has been through the ringer, and has emerged all the better for it.
It’s interesting to see what two takes on the Kunio/River City Ransom series can look like when coming from both Japanese and North American sensibilities.
While Underground expanded the cast, pushing the old protagonists to the back-burner and introducing players to a more generic, less personal tale of bad things happen, team must now track down answer, and fight all the way there, River City: Rival Showdown takes a different route, focusing on the eponymous Kunio, and the player’s slow grind to level up enough over repeated play-throughs in order to become THE Kunio, legend of high school brawls.
I didn’t know this going in, but in Rival Showdown you have 3 days to solve the mystery going on, but you’re not meant to be even somewhat competent the first time you play through it. There were a number of times where I was shouting at this game because of a constant need to run away from everyone, or anything, without any discernible goals to do, and certain death lurking around every corner. I died, a lot. On my second play-through I died less, and so on.
The fighting has a rough progression curve. The difficulty, on normal, starts really hard (like, hitting most enemies for 1 HP damage, without much to discern who you should actually fight), and needing to run away from everyone. Eventually it switches to a heavy grind, and then becomes a piece of cake as you gain levels and acquire more moves.
I don’t feel like there was much of a time in between having to find a cheap dominant strategy in a fight (big boot kick into corner, pick up, throw back in corner, acro circus hit on the ground, rinse repeat) or when I was an absolute street fighting king, able to take out bosses in only a few hits, just like the legends of Kunio make him out to be.
Despite the obnoxious grinding, the story and the characterization of the denizens of the small city I was inhabiting had me coming back. The named gang leaders and their henchmen were funny, with unique animations, poses, and unique stories. And the people hanging on the streets and in the shops are genuinely funny, so kudos, Natsume.
In the end it was enjoyable, but a lot of the design choices were perplexing, and all I can really say, is don’t expect to be busting heads right out of the gate, which seems counterproductive to a game that is all about busting heads.
Playing NieR felt like a spiritual successor to Senko no Ronde, a vs. fighting game where players are ships battling in both shmup style, throwing bullets at each other, and in close quarters melee attacks. NieR felt like the natural conclusion to that idea, which also brings up an interesting look at how we got here.
The original Renegade (the beat-‘em-up that gave birth to Double Dragon) was a response to early games like Kung Fu or Bad Dudes, games that didn’t feel much like an actual fight. They were like shmups but with your fists--enemies ran at you in waves, and you quickly dispatched them, often with the tap of a button. Kishimoto’s impetus for making Renegade was he wanted it to feel like a real fight, so the game focused on animation, and setting up enemies that would surround, and overwhelm the player, while giving players the tools to fight back.
So it’s really cool to see the innovative PlatinumGames merge the two, after years of having guns in games (like Devil May Cry) that were fairly weak, and that tended to feel like a sidearm. NieR combines expert character action game mechanics with the option to awkwardly hold a couple of more buttons in order to shoot the hell out of anything at the same time.
The Yakuza series has been fascinating to view from afar and I have put off playing the games for a long, long time. When I saw Yakuza 0, a game set in the '80s, I knew this was the one I needed to jump into. Theme matters to me, and I was hoping that this would bring with it a sense of the world as it was back then--the world that Kunio-Kun and Double Dragon was born out of.
A bit longwinded for its own sake, much like River City: Rival Showdown, once you get into the fights, it becomes a really satisfying game where you find yourself wondering, why don’t more games have a fighting system this detailed? We tend to get all of these 3D shooters with “innovations” like area specific melee kills, and yet Yakuza gives players the ability to pull these off whenever they have the right amount of super meter to do so. What I would give for Mafia III to let me beat up everyone, instead of having to shoot or stab them.
Average fights on the streets of Tokyo are quick, and don’t outlive their welcome while giving players just enough time to play around with the space, pull off some cool finishers, and get a good sense of what is available to them in a fight. This is also the opposite of River City: Rival Showdown, where most enemies in the beginning take forever to take down, or are unwinnable fights designed to demoralize you.
Yakuza also has a great sense of humor, so the brutal beatings you hand out are a bit lighter on the conscience. In a lot of ways, you can see the similarities between Yakuza and the Kunio/River City series of games in how they lighten the mood, even in a dire fight where the hero’s honor and/or life are on the line.
This one came out of nowhere for me, and I still don’t know exactly why I decided to throw down the cash on it, but I am sure glad I did.
Playing Dead Cells has been great meditation--I know where I stand in this world, and there’s a serene calm in between fights that leaves me ready for more. It feels like ninja Castlevania, where the combat has ascended past the short bursts in CV of old, and doesn’t feel grindy like CV post-SotN--except every death has even more massive consequences, and every run through is unique.
Speaking of heavy, the giant hammer is gooood, and you can even add in a THIS IS SPARTA style kick to have a giant hammer stun > kick to certain doom combo.
The progression never feels unfair, and the game does an excellent job of offering risk/reward situations that make you feel awesome for taking said risks.
My only real issue is that I’m not sure my mind is nimble enough to remember all of the separate moves, along with the sub weapons I have to get out of some really harrowing situations, and I end up dead, a husk of my former self, crawling back into my body, ready to tackle the unknowns again.
A web based game that lit up the internet in some circles, Hair Nah is like that scene in The Matrix where Neo learns kung fu, except even more empowering.
Played simply by clicking to tapping arrow keys, the situations that Hair Nah portrays are equally absurd, like standing in the TSA line, and all too real simultaneously, like standing basically anywhere.
I’ve personally gotten more compliments on my hair (mostly by white dudes?) than forced grabs, but that’s also because I’m a 6’5” guy and I’m sure they enjoy keeping their fingers intact.
John Wick: Chapter 2
Speaking of Keanu Reeves, John Wick 2 is on this list because when I first left John Wick, I thought, “Man that’s the best video game movie I’ve ever seen! He even takes pills to heal his wounds!”
John Wick 2 was the rightful sequel that does so many things well, that I am hoping game creators making over-the-top games are taking note.