Monday, May 23, 2016

The Abridged History of the Brawler, part 23

The mechanics of the brawler had been a part of the gaming history at least a decade before Double Dragon. Before arcade players could fight wave after wave of opponents with their bare hands they had to defeat wave after wave of aliens in a spaceships in titles like Space Invaders (Taito, 1978) and Galaxian (Namco, 1979). When those ships were replaced with humans, usually made up of a few pixels, the genre began to evolve. Starting with Kung-Fu master the "Beat-em-Up" was the earliest of the Brawler formats. A year later the "Run-and-Gun" and "Hack-and-Slash" formats were born. Really the only difference between the gameplay was that fists were usually replaced with either guns or swords. In some games players could use fists, guns and swords to combat opponents. What I would like to do in this series is highlight how the graphics, gameplay and genres were constantly evolving. How these titles borrowed elements from each other, explored different formats, visual styles and mechanics The first titles I would like to mention were among Konami's earliest arcade hits.

Largely forgotten by most arcade gamers, Rush'n Attack was the 1985 title that really established the side-scrolling run-and-gun action for Konami. In the game a special-forces agent could fight with his bare hands and take weapons from defeated opponents. From flame throwers to laser rifles, each weapon had its own advantage and ammo supply. This game laid the foundation for a more popular title and one which has received countless makeovers since its debut.

Contra became famous for the Konami code (up, up, down, down, left, right, left right, B, A) which allowed gamers to have scores of lives on the home console version of the game. The 1987 arcade gem featured two-player action which had improved on the Rush 'n Attack formula. Players could jump up or down on platforms and shoot in 8 directions now. In portions of the game players could even advance in a behind-the-back POV. The diversity of weapons and nonstop action made the title very popular in the arcades and at home.

Before Contra had taken off in popularity the run-and-gun had been experimenting with different camera points of view. One of the earliest titles was Commando by Capcom. This 1985 title was set in an overhead perspective. For many developers this approach made sense. The formula had been used with great success previously. The only thing developers had to do was replace the spaceship with a soldier and space with a battlefield for them to advance on. Players could move around the screen in several directions and shoot at opponents but the screen mostly advanced up.

In 1986, before they developed their own arcade platform, or became heavily invested in fighting games, SNK had released the Ikari Warriors. The game allowed two players to control the mercenaries Ralf and Clark as they made their way through some unknown jungle. The game introduced a joystick with an octagonal handle that could be rotated to shoot in 8 different directions. With commando players could shoot forward and to the sides but not behind them. Ikari Warriors proved popular and like Contra several sequels were made. Today most players are familiar with the Ikari Warriors thanks to the King of Fighters series.

Through the 80’s most of the studios would try to see which format worked best for the run-n-gun shooter. Data East tried a variation of the overhead shooter first with Heavy Barrel in 1987. The game also made use of the octagonal handled joystick. The “Heavy Barrel” itself was a super rifle capable of mowing down the strongest opponents. It was a precursor to the BFG 9000 featured in Doom. Players had to piece it together by locating keys from fallen soldiers and corresponding chests scattered throughout the levels. My older brother had played the game so many times he had the locations of all the keys known by heart. He could speed run through the game before that concept was even invented.

A couple of years later Data East released a sequel. The 1989 game Midnight Resistance was presented in a side-scrolling format, similar to Contra. It kept the octagonal handle on the joystick and allowed players to assemble the mega-weapon from the original game as well. Little by little the side-scrolling format began to shift away from the overhead view. The genre seemed to work better for run-and-gun as well as beat-em-up brawling.

In recent years several major and independent studios had been using the overhead camera to create remake or classic-inspired run-and-gun games. Capcom found great success updating the graphics by preserving the classic gameplay in Bionic Commando for Xbox Live and they Playstation Network. They also released Commando 3: Wolf of the Battlefield for the downloadable services. Developed by Backbone Entertainment in 2008 the game actually borrowed the full name from the original 1985 arcade hit. The game preserved many of the classic run-and-gun mechanics over improved 3D visuals. Unlike the beat-em-up brawler which mostly suffered the migration to 3D the overhead shooting titles worked well with newer technologies.

By using a fixed camera perspective several developers were able to create new gaming experiences with a moderate budget and release them across several platforms. Space Marine: Kill Team, released by THQ in 2011 showed that the gameplay could still be as entertaining as it was 26 years ago while the dedicated Space Marine console game used a third-person perspective and was designed for a more modern experience. The side scrolling format would still remain popular for many run-and-gun titles and the best of these would be the Metal Slug series, developed by Nazca and released on the SNK Neo Geo systems through the mid to late 1990's.

The Metal Slug games were a work of art, as difficult as the best side scrolling run-and-gun titles and more beloved than Contra, Ikari Warriors or any other long running title. The contributions of the game and team at Nazca to the run-and-gun genre were so profound that they deserved (and would get) a blog of their own someday… It turned out that side scrolling camera worked well for beat-em-up, run-and-gun and even hack-and-slash titles. We shall explore these transitional titles in the next blog.

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