Wednesday, March 30, 2016
The Abridged History of the Brawler, a pre-rumble...
Over the next few weeks I'm going to be looking at one of my favorite all-time genres, the Brawler. This was originally a series that I ran on 1UP but I decided to revisit it and update a few entries. Now note that I call the genre the "Brawler." Other people and game sites call the genre "Beat-em Ups." But those people often call fighting games beat-em ups as well. I would contend that the fighting game and the brawler are actually two completely different genres. A fighting game is traditionally a one-vs-one game. Whether it's two martial arts masters, or a robot versus a demon or two dinosaurs going head-to-head, there is always one player versus another (sometimes a PC opponent instead). That is by my definition a fighting game. There are usually a few things that most fighting games have in common. There is a scoring system, a way to track health and often a time clock or ring out rule as well. Again the fight is usually one on one. There is the rare exception where the original Fatal Fury actually allowed two versus one battles and it would still be considered a fighting game. For the most part however a fighting game is one vs one. A Brawling game however is one or more versus many. The Brawling game usually revolves around unarmed combat. In some cases a character may pick up a bat, knife or gun along the way but a weapon usually does not last after a few uses. The difference between a Brawler and an action game, such as the Capcom arcade classics Black Tiger or Strider, is that a Brawling game allows two or more people to fight against waves of opponents. In at least one arcade game there was even a chance for six teammates fight against the bad guys or a single bad guy. This game would still be considered a Brawler. There are other genres that are cousins of the Brawler, the Run-and-Gun, also called the Action Shooter features characters that fought with guns and modern weapons instead of bare hands. Also the Hack-and-Slash game is a brawler featuring classic swords and melee weapons instead of bare hands. In terms of popularity the Brawler had a quick climb to the top, in fact of all of the games I will be talking about the majority happened within a few years, from 1990-1993. Then they all slowly faded away. The brawler was eclipsed by the rise of fighting games. The genre never completely faded away but instead it slowly evolved. It would find waves of popularity in countries with developing PC markets like Korea and China. The core mechanics of the brawler would even become adapted into other genres. I will highlight many games and try to point out some things that made each game unique.
The Brawler, just like every other genre, came from somewhere. The early generation of arcade hits were inspired, if not outright stolen, from comics and movies. These games would then become adapted to the home consoles as a sort of faded copy of a familiar idea. Star Wars, Star Trek, various anime shows, manga and comic books all had a hand in shaping the history of game designs. The developers on the first batch of action titles often looked at action movies for inspiration. There was a lot of crossover to influences for the early action games, fighting games and brawlers. The action movie star was often a kung-fu expert. After all if you are going to have a story where one person can take out an army of opponents then they better know how to fight. There was no bigger star on the planet than Bruce Lee, at least this was the case back in the '70s. The young developers in Japan and the United States would have been greatly influenced by the man and his movies while growing up. When they started working on the first wave of action arcade games, almost a decade later, then there was usually one person they all looked to. It didn't matter how the artists colored or animated the early sprite heroes, there was something very familiar about the way they appeared...
The presence of Lee actually worked in favor of these early games. We had an actor and martial artist that dressed in very clean and easy to read costumes in his films. The shirtless hero with dark pants would pop up on various character designs. When the early arcade and console systems had limited memory to work with then simple two-color costumes were perfect designs. Of course Lee's signature yellow jumpsuit with black stripe from the film the Game of Death would become iconic as well. The costumes that Lee wore, his haircut, stance and moves would influence character designs for the next few generations. From some of the earliest 2D fighting game characters to some of the first 3D fighting game characters, even the Flash-based fighting games and hybrid 2.5D fighters all had a Bruce Lee clone. Some of these were subtle nods to the actor but the majority stole his likeness.
Lee moved with a quickness that had never been seen before. He punched and kicked so fast that it was a blur on screen. These would be elements that would become adapted in the early brawlers. Resources were very limited on the arcade machines at the time, especially memory. Perhaps a character had two frames of animation between a punch and kick. This would have seemed impossible on a bulky character but a skinny fighter like Lee actually did strike that fast. Even the trademark yell of Lee, his facial quirks and mannerisms would be reproduced on many characters in fighting games and brawlers. The godfather of the brawler, the one that I believe started it all was Kung-Fu Master by Irem. It was released in 1984, a pivotal year for arcade games. The title was a subtle nod to Lee's final film, the Game of Death. Players had to climb a tower filled with various fighters, and it got progressively more difficult the higher you went. The main character "Thomas" was searching for his girlfriend "Sylvia." Of course the names were changed from the original title, Spartan X. What didn't need translating was the lighting-quick strikes and familiar yell of the hero.
The US didn't really have a connection to martial arts cinema in the '60s or '70s. The action movies that the USA enjoyed right through the '80s had a different type of violence, one which was rooted on guns and revenge. The anti-hero was a popular subject in many of the movies. As it turned out the settings were a character all to themselves. The fictional version of New York in the John Carpenter film Escape from New York lit the imagination of the Japanese studios. Cities in western-themed games had to be big, dirty and overcrowded. The walls had to be covered in graffiti and colorful gangs patrolled every corner. Japanese studios began creating impressions of these cities, based on cult films like Death Wish and Streets of Fire for the earliest and often most successful brawling franchises. Double Dragon and Final Fight were two of the biggest sellers and they introduced audiences to a modern "western" metropolis overrun with gangs.
The setup for most of the games was simple. A person of interest was usually kidnapped, often a girlfriend, a finacee and at least in one case it was the President of the United States. Seeing as how the Japanese were shamelessly pandering to Western audiences they would drop names like pop singer Madonna and Ronnie, the nickname of President Ronald Reagan, into their games. If the brawler could be compared to a film genre then it would be the cult action film. Not quite a summer blockbuster yet not lowbrow enough to be a "grindhouse" picture (with the exception of Splatterhouse that is). The Brawler was nothing short of mindless action, it was like the perfect summer movie for eating popcorn, drinking soda and turning off your brain for an hour. After all, the payoff after saving President Ronnie was getting hamburgers. It was hardly Oscar-caliber material the Japanese were interpreting.
Of course for most of these movies audiences would wonder why the cops didn't stop the bad guys. There was usually two reasons for this. The cops were either too afraid of the gangs or they were being paid off not to do their job. The gangs often had leaders and these were not the typical thug. They were instead rich crime bosses living in the lap of luxury. Sometimes they were politicians or even heads of corporations. Players figuratively and literally fought their way to the top in many of the games. As dirty subways gave way to abandoned amusement parks and crowded alleyways the player would find themselves fighting in nicer and nicer neighborhoods. Eventually they would end up in the suite or penthouse of a millionaire. It turned out that the person that was pulling the strings was often the richest person in the city. They could have had it all but instead messed with the wrong people. The punishment for kidnapping or putting a city at war was often a long drop for the bad guy.
There were many other plots to explore, many more heroes to become and many more villains to throw through windows. The brawler was and continues to be a fun genre. I hope there are a few games mentioned in this series that rekindles some memories. Perhaps I'll highlight a few that you may not have played and give you a reason to track them down. Whatever the case I hope you stick around and as always share a comment.