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.
5. The Simpsons (1991)
As The Simpsons rose to prominence and began to become popular around the world, merchandise in the form of toys, clothing, furniture, electronic media and confectionary (I could go on) were practically impossible to avoid.
Cue the release of a fantastically playable arcade beat ’em up.
The Simpsons Arcade Game revolved around a plot in which the Simpson family inadvertently stumble upon Waylon Smithers and two accomplices robbing a jewellers in Springfield. A diamond from the stolen haul ends up in Maggie Simpson’s mouth and, instead of just grabbing the diamond, Smithers takes Maggie. This results in Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa heading off to rescue Maggie from the possession of Smithers and Mr. Burns.
Up to four players could play this game at once. As Homer, the player would simply punch and kick. As Marge, the player would use a vacuum cleaner as a weapon. As Bart, the player would use a skateboard as a weapon. And, as Lisa, the player would use a skipping rope as a weapon.
The family had to battle through eight stages – set in different Springfield locations – against Mr. Burns’ employees and goons, until ultimately facing off against a bomb-throwing Smithers and Mr. Burns in a plutonium-powered armoured vehicle. Once defeated, Maggie would appear and the Simpsons could return to their family home.
The game featured a number of innovations, including the ability to execute double-team moves – the different combinations of characters would produce different attacks.
Overall this was a highly addictive enjoyable game that did The Simpsons franchise justice. I recall playing it extensively at the time of release and have played it many times more recently on arcade emulators.
4. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1989)
When the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (or Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles, as they were known in Europe) were the ‘in-thing’ amongst kids in the late 1980s and early 1990s, an arcade game was released that took the gaming world by storm.
With its pioneering 4-player simultaneous gameplay, this was co-op coin-op at its finest.
Having seen their mentor Splinter and friend April O’Neil kidnapped by their arch-enemy Shredder, the turtles had to battle through five stages to save them – coming up against armies of foot soldiers and bosses that included Bebop, Rocksteady and Baxter Stockman – ultimately ending in the Technodrome where they must defeat Krang and Shredder.
The human player could play as Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo or Raphael (or any combination of the quartet) in their quest and the game was alot of fun. It was teaming with turtle-based humour and the sound, animation and gameplay were damn impressive – especially for the time it was released.
I remember playing this on the cross-Channel ferry to keep myself occupied on the way to a camping holiday in France. A true arcade classic.
3. Double Dragon (1987)
This 1987 side-scrolling beat ’em up is often the first one that gamers who were around in that era think of – and with good reason. Double Dragon is an absolute classic.
It also happens to be the first one I ever played in a local seaside amusement arcade.
Taking control of either of two twin brothers – Jimmy or Billy Lee – or indeed both simultaneously, the human player would fight their way through three different stages (a slum, a factory and a wooded area) in to the fourth and final stage – the main turf of the dreaded ‘Black Warriors’ gang – in order to rescue Maria, their common love interest.
Moves range from basic punches and kicks to hair-pulling and elbow strikes, whilst weapons could be acquired from enemy hands (baseball bats, knives, whips etc).
Upon completing the game in single player mode – by defeating the final boss – the game was over and the controlled character won the girl. Upon completing it in two player mode, the two players would then have to fight each other in order to decide which one of them won the girl’s affections.
2. Golden Axe (1989)
Set in the fictional land of Yuria, Golden Axe tells the tale of how the evil ‘Death Adder’ has kidnapped the land’s King and his daughter and is holding them captive in his castle.
It is then down to the human player (or players, as there was a two player mode), playing as either the male warrior (Ax Battler), the female warrior (Tyris Flare) or the dwarf (Gilius Thunderhead), to battle through various stages – filled with warriors of varying kinds, including men armed with clubs and maces, skeletons and knights – to reach Death Adder’s castle and defeat him, rescuing the King and his daughter and obtaining the golden axe; a weapon which would imbue them with immortality.
Each of the playable characters had a reason to want Death Adder dead; The dwarf’s twin brother was killed by Death Adder, the male warrior’s Mother was killed by Death Adder and both of the female warrior’s parents were killed by Death Adder.
The game had a number of interesting aspects, including the ability to ride steeds (such as dinosaurs and dragons) and the ability to obtain little pots of magic from imps to use to launch mystical attacks on your opponents.
The arcade version of this game was fantastic, but the Sega Mega Drive version – which I owned and played the hell out of – came pretty close and also had a survival mode reminiscent of the format seen in the likes of Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat style fighting games.
Golden Axe is another genuine classic with great graphics and thrilling gameplay that will long be remembered.
1. Final Fight (1989)
Originally intended to be a sequel to the original Street Fighter game, Final Fight was undoubtedly the best side-scrolling beat ’em up in the arcades of the 80s and 90s. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that it is the ultimate side-scrolling beat ’em up.
Based in the fictional Metro City, the premise of Final Fight is that Mike Haggar (an ex-wrestler and current mayor of Metro City), Cody (a martial artist) and his friend Guy (a fellow martial artist) are on a mission to rescue Jessica from the ‘Mad Gear’ gang (Jessica is Mike Haggar’s daughter and Cody’s girlfriend).
The player(s) must take control of Haggar, Cody or Guy (or any two of them in co-op mode) in order to fight through six stages filled with Mad Gear’s most violent thugs. Utilising knives, metal pipes and swords (amongst other weapons) along the way, the player(s) must defeat the thugs and a boss at the end of each stage in order to rescue Jessica and bring order back to Metro City.
The graphics in Final Fight were second to none back in the day and the gameplay was absolutely unrivalled. I remember the villains being so massively varied; from fat men who would literally bowl you over, to seven-foot-tall wrestlers and from women with whips to generic punks. I also recall bonus rounds between levels which included smashing up a car as much as possible.
I vividly remember that my Mother worked in an office next to a leisure centre when I was younger and that there was a Final Fight arcade machine in the leisure centre. Whenever it was the school holidays, often I would have to accompany my Mother to work and the amount of money I blew on this game doesn’t bear thinking about!
A truly iconic game (I still occasionally play it on an arcade emulator to this very day!).
So, did this bring back any memories? What were your favourite coin-operated side-scrolling beat ’em ups back in the day? Please feel free to let us know in the comments below!
Subscribe to the Thumbsticks newsletter to get a weekly round-up of our articles.
Want more neat stuff?
If you want to keep abreast of the latest news, features, reviews, guides, and sales, we can send all our latest articles and great content straight to your inbox. You know, collated together, once or twice a week, in a newsletter. We wouldn't send them one at a time – that would be weird and annoying!
Recommended for you
Latest from Thumbsticks
New PlayStation Store releases: October 18-22, 2021
This week's lineup of PlayStation Store releases includes the long-awaited remaster of Toy Soldiers and House of Ashes.
New Xbox releases: October 18-22, 2021
House of Ashes – The Dark Pictures and My Friend Peppa Pig are among this week's new Xbox Series X|S...
New Nintendo Switch releases: October 18-22, 2021
Dying Light and The Caligula Effect 2 are among this week's lineup of new Nintendo Switch eShop releases.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons to get a huge free update and paid DLC
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is getting an enormous free content update and a new paid DLC expansion.
Back 4 Blood review
Back 4 Blood is a rip-roaring zombie killing time, but without the right zombie slayers by your side, it's an...
Batman returns to Rocket League today
Batman returns for this year's Rocket League Haunted Hallows event, which begins today.
New Nintendo Switch releases: October 11-15, 2021 (Updated)
Disco Elysium – The Final Cut and The Good Life are among this week's lineup of new Nintendo Switch eShop...
This week’s Xbox Deals with Gold and Sale Highlights
Aliens: Fireteam Elite and games from the Fallout series headline this week's crop of Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S discounts.