Friday, April 1, 2016

Editorial: The 3D Beat 'Em Up

Beat 'em up games were incredibly popular on 8 and 16 bit systems. They usually took the framework of an arcade like game and let you and your friends team up. There was a hesitation when the 3D platforms were coming out. What do we do with the Beat 'em up?

Some games just boosted the graphics and stuck with 2D like Iron Man and X-O Manowar in Heavy Metal. But some took the challenge of 3D on.

There was a period in 1996-1998 where 50% of Playstation demo disks had a demo for the first level of a 3D beat 'em up called Fighting Force.

Fighting Force was one of the first games where I truly realized the power of what the PlayStation was doing and how 3D would work.

I probably played that demo 50 times with my brothers and cousins. There was something incredibly satisfying about the way the guns had weight, about finding secret weapons (check those car trunks), and figuring out the enemies weaknesses.

Once I had a summer job that paid $40 a week, Fighting Force was one of the first games I bought with my own money. The first time my brother and I entered the building beyond the demo was like being shown this whole other world.

I played Fighting Force recently on my PS3. I would be lying if I wasn't a little worried that I was about to ruin a warm memory I had of the game.

Fighting Force didn't stray far from the 2D beat 'em ups like Streets of Rage and Final Fight. There were a lot of troupes that carried on: the generically named goons, the fast woman and the giant slow strong man characters were playable options, dominatrix ninja women enemies, and of course, there was an elevator level.

Crystal Dynamics had to figure out how to make a beat 'em up on a 3D plain. They took a lot of ideas from early 3D fighting games in which your character had a "soft" lock on the nearest character, but if you held down a certain button, you would hard lock on an enemy.

They didn't introduce true fighting game moves, which was probably the right choice. Instead they kept it simple. There's punch, kick, grab, throw, jump kick, and slide. That's all you really need.

The fighting doesn't work perfectly. There are many times where you wind up for a huge jump kick and completely miss or you fire pistol rounds past your attacker giving him a chance to punch you.

This is not a huge deal against 2-3 enemies. Quickly going back on the offense will land the next move, but when you're surrounded or there are many enemies, the miss can cause you to get beat down.

What happens when swarmed by larger groups is you generally start playing like you played Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game. When surrounded, you find yourself doing a ton of slides and jump kicks, just to keep moving until several of the bad guys are taken down.

Fighting Force does a great job of creating a challenging game, that rewards you with enough extra health to keep you going as long as you're smart about your encounters. And like many early PS1 games, Fighting Force can be beat in less than 5 hours easily, but you do feel the game compel you to come back. Each of the four characters plays differently enough to keep it fresh, and it's a crowd pleasing game with it's co-op abilities.

A later, largely ignored, beat 'em up took the bones of Fighting Force and made them better in Gekido. The graphics were better, the fighting was deeper, the enemies and levels were more varied.

Gekido also had the added bonus of an incredibly fun arena fighting mode where four players could beat each other up in a very Power Stone like environment.

I don't think I miss beat 'em ups necessarily. I had a great time playing Castle Crashers, but then other beat 'em ups like Scott Pilgrim failed to grab my attention.

I think a successful beat 'em up has to be easy to understand, feel fast, and absolutely needs a friend sitting on the couch next to you. With games straying away from couch co-op more and more, the beat 'em up may move into the endangered genre list.

But damn if we didn't have a great run.

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