As someone who was born in the early 1980s, I was around when gaming really started to get serious.
I began actually playing video games in the late 1980’s (mostly at home on platforms like the Commodore 64 and Atari ST) and, for the first ten years or so of my gaming life, coin-operated arcade games were the pinnacle of the gaming industry.
My favourite genre was undoubtedly the side-scrolling beat ’em up. This type of game generally featured melee combat between the protagonist (human player) and an improbably large number of varied NPC enemies (mostly very weak flunkies).
Although this kind of gaming has now evolved to feature more open, three-dimensional environments, the traditional side-scrolling beat ’em ups take place in right-to-left scrolling, two-dimensional levels.
This side-scrolling beat ’em up dominated the industry and, in particular, the video game arcades of the 80s and 90s and were enjoyed by millions.
With that in mind, here are 10 great side-scrolling arcade beat ’em ups of the 80s and 90s…
10. P.O.W: Prisoners of War (1988)
Playing as ‘Snake’ or ‘Bart’, up to two players could play at once in this 1988 classic.
The aim of P.O.W: Prisoners of War was (as you would expect, judging by the title) to escape from the enemy’s prisoner of war camp, fighting your way through four stages, as hordes of opposition soldiers attempt to prevent you from doing so.
The game’s four stages were a P.O.W camp, a warehouse, a jungle and the enemy’s base of operations. Enemies you had to fight against included foot soldiers, commandos and green berets.
Controls were pretty basic and bog standard for this type of game – essentially you could walk, jump, punch, kick and headbutt, while machine guns and knives could be picked up to utilise against your foes.
My main memory of this game comes from playing it on a daily basis in a 7-Eleven convenience store whilst on holiday in Florida in 1993 – five years after its initial release. It was still comparatively decent when put up against the more recently released titles at the time.
9. Renegade (1986)
Taking on the role of a streetwise vigilante whose girlfriend has been kidnapped, Renegade is undoubtedly one of the more influential early games in this particular genre.
Although it is indeed a side-scrolling beat ’em up, the playing area of each playing zone – separated in to four stages – was limited to the width of two screens and didn’t scroll continuously.
In the first three stages, the player would fight the enemies – namely street thugs both on foot and on motorcycles and both male and female – until only three remained. At that point, the stage boss would appear. If the boss was killed before his/her underlings, said underlings would retreat.
The fourth and final stage sees the player fighting a wave of knife-wielding thugs who could kill with one hit, before entering a building on the far right of the screen for the final fight – against three more knife-wielding thugs and the mob-boss, who wielded a gun which could also kill with one hit.
After defeating the final boss, the player rescues his girlfriend and is rewarded with a kiss, before returning to stage one to replay the game on an increased difficulty level.
I recall playing this in a local arcade and proceeding to purchase the Commodore 64 version from a local toy store. The Commodore 64 version being, obviously, quite inferior.
8. Cadillacs and Dinosaurs (1993)
As far as gaming concepts go, this was certainly one of the more… imaginative (for ‘imaginative’ read ‘crazy’).
I actually only played this a couple of times upon its initial release, but I remember it being a lot of fun. It is only in the past few years, having played it on an arcade emulator, that I have become fully accustomed to it and it is still very enjoyable to play to this day.
Essentially, Cadillacs and Dinosaurs was based on the comic book series Xenozoic Tales by Mark Schultz – an alternative comic in which the Earth of the future has been ravaged by pollution and natural disasters. As a result, humans built vast underground cities in which they lived for approximately 600 years to escape the situation above ground. When they re-emerged, the humans found that the world had been reclaimed by previously extinct lifeforms – including dinosaurs.
Playing as either Jack Tenrec, Hannah Dundee, Mustapha Cairo or Mess O’Bradovich (each of whom had their own advantages and disadvantages), up to three players at a time took up the mission to defeat the thuggish hordes of Dr. Simon Fessenden – a mad scientist who wanted to populate the world with dinosaur-human hybrids.
Occasionally, the titular Cadillacs could be driven by the players during gameplay, whilst the titular dinosaurs were neutral NPCs who could potentially attack either the human players or their thuggish NPC opponents.
Cadillacs and Dinosaurs was a weird but brilliant game with vibrant graphics and crisp gameplay.
7. Captain Commando (1991)
Another vibrantly coloured futuristic game with crisp gameplay was Capcom’s wonderful Captain Commando. It’s another game that I only played a small number of times around the time of its initial release, but have recently revisited via an arcade emulator.
Set in 2026 in a future where criminal activity is rife, Captain Commando revolves around the titular character and his ‘Commando Team’ – a team of heroic misfits who have banded together to fight the crime that has gripped our planet (and indeed our galaxy).
The band of misfits include the Captain himself, Mack the Knife (a mummy-like alien being who uses sub-sonic knives), Ginzu the Ninja (a highly trained ninja who utilises a very sharp sword) and the very weird Baby Head (a super-genius baby who fights inside a mecha-suit that he designed himself.
Human players could play as all four characters at the same time in co-op mode on the arcade version, as they fought their way through nine stages of enemies to ultimately defeat ‘Scumocide’ – the diabolical genius who had genetically engineered his own army of super-criminals.
The final battle sees the human player(s) going up against Scumocide himself, in his laboratory – the hulking enemy floats around, firing balls of energy at the player(s).
Following the defeat of Scumocide, it is announced to the world that the villain has been defeated and the titular hero appears on screen to address the people. The government official who is making the announcement asks who the man on screen is and he simply replies…. “Captain Commando” (in a very monotone, 1990s computerised voice).
6. Kung-Fu Master (1984)
This was the original side-scrolling beat ’em up and one that was past its best by the time I first played it – but it was a classic and highly enjoyable nonetheless.
The human player takes the role of Keiji Thomas – a simple man who wears a Keikogi training uniform and slippers. Keiji’s girlfriend, Sylvia, has been kidnapped by the man known only as ‘Mr. X’ and Thomas must fight through five side-scrolling floors full of martial artist enemies and, in the later levels, dragons, snakes and poisonous moths to rescue her.
Each level has a boss (who will laugh in a very annoying manner if they beat you) and must be completed within a specified time limit, otherwise the player is adjudged to have failed and it is game over. If a player wins, Keiji rescues his girlfriend and the game restarts on a higher level of difficulty.
Controls were pretty simple in this one; you could punch with one button, kick with another and jump and crouch with the joystick.
Kung-Fu Master was certainly not as good as the other entries in this list, but it was enjoyable enough and paved the way for the other games. For those reasons, it is undoubtedly a classic.