Gaming

The 20 greatest beat’em ups of all time

By Jack Yarwood

There have been many unforgettable beat ‘em up experiences over the year, treating players to the opportunity to slam and smack their way through hordes of villains - or ruin a perfectly good friendship.

In order to show our appreciation for the genre, we’ve decided to put together a list of our favourites below. If we didn't include yours... wanna fight about it?

  • The 20 greatest beat'em ups of all time

    Street Gangs

    Known as River City Ransom in the States, Street Gangs is a title for the Nintendo Entertainment System that inserts classic roleplaying elements (such as levelling and towns) into the brutal beat ’em up genre.

    In the game, food acts as a way of levelling up your character, while books teach you brand new moves to perform. Both of these can be purchased in the towns spread throughout the map, and increase your overall effectiveness in battle.

    Available now on the Nintendo eShop, Street Gangs holds up remarkably well, in spite of its age. 

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    Altered Beast

    If you happened to own a Sega Mega Drive growing up, Altered Beast likely took pride of place in your collection, alongside other classics like Sonic The Hedgehog and Disney’s Aladdin.

    Taking control of a centurion raised from the dead, you punch and kick your way through hordes of foes, collecting orbs and other item drops. These allow you to transform into mythical beasts, and grant you satisfying new abilities to change the style and pacing of the game.

    On the surface, Altered Beast may appear to be just another side scrolling beat ‘em up, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find plenty of ingenious ideas worth celebrating.

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    Final Fight

    Originally envisioned as the sequel to Capcom’s Street Fighter, Final Fight is the quintessential beat ‘em up for the Super Nintendo, boasting tons of action and mayhem.

    In the game, you control either Haggar or Cody as they travel through several distinct environments, clearing the screen of enemies. How you dispose of these foes is entirely up to you, with a variety of moves and weaponry at your disposal: you can power bomb enemies with Haggar, perform devastating roundhouse kicks with Cody, or assault thugs with lead pipes and other objects. 

    Frequently fun and sometimes unforgivingly difficult, Final Fight stands out as one of the best games the beat ‘em up genre has to offer. 

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    Battletoads Arcade

    Crude and consistently violent, Rare’s Battletoads Arcade bombed badly when it was initially released, failing to capitalize on the success of its console predecessor.

    Nevertheless, it’s since developed somewhat of a cult following, forcing many to reassess their views on the game.

    Featuring detailed animations, balanced design, and gorgeous retro graphics, Battletoads Arcade is an underappreciated gem of a game. You can now pick it up as part of the Rare Replay collection on Xbox One. 

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    Viewtiful Joe

    The next entry on this list came out at a time when the side scrolling beat ‘em up was considered a relic of the past, briefly giving the genre a new lease of life.

    Developed by Capcom, Viewtiful Joe tells the story of the titular hero Joe, who must travel into the fictional Movieland to defeat the Jadow (the game’s bosses) and rescue his girlfriend Silvia.

    Playing as Joe, you’ll have to become a master of VFX (Viewtiful Effects), which are special abilities that manipulate the action on screen. These allow you to slow down and speed up events, to let you tackle different enemies and dodge projectiles.

    Colourful and creative, Viewtiful Joe is an undisputed classic. Just play it already.

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    Double Dragon 2: The Revenge

    When talking about the best Double Dragon game, the conversation usually turns to the first two on the Nintendo Entertainment System.

    With not a lot between them in terms of quality, it was incredibly hard to choose which one would feature on this list, but we’ve ultimately settled on the sequel. This is because it reintroduced the multiplayer option that was missing from the NES port of the original Double Dragon.

    Though it may be dated in some areas, Double Dragon 2: The Revenge still makes for an amusing two-player game. 

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    Golden Axe

    Designed by some of the same staff that worked on the incredible Altered Beast, Golden Axe is a Conan the Barbarian-style game that pits players against an evil spirit known as the Death Adder. Don't pretend you're not a massive fan.

    Unique features include the ability to mount steeds, known as Bizarrians, and cast magic attacks to clear the screen of enemies. These fantastic additions help to provide some excellent variety beyond just basic hack and slashing. 

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    Streets of Rage 2

    Explosives, knives, and katana – these are all weapons that made readily available to the player in Streets of Rage 2, as they walk along cleansing the city of criminals.

    A vastly superior title to its predecessor, the game expands upon the ideas of the original by adding two new characters (Max and Skate), as well as powerful, special attacks.

    With its detailed stages and addictive, action-orientated gameplay, Streets of Rage 2 is rightfully considered one of the best video games ever made, being celebrated pretty much anyone who's picked up a controller. Find it, play it, love it.

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    Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles In Time

    During the 1990s, Konami were the masters of creating arcade games based on TV shows, developing a number of incredible titles from a bunch of well-known properties.

    Perhaps the most famous of these was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles In Time, inspired by the popular animated TV show by Murakami-Wolf-Swenson.

    Packed with awesome boss fights and spectacular music, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time saw Konami master the beat ‘em up formula. If only they still made good Turtles games...

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    God of War

    God Of War is a game where you can literally rip people in half with your bare hands, as well as mutilate mythical beasts. Awesome, right?

    While we eagerly await the newly announced title, it's worth digging out the old console and tracking this down on eBay to get yourself acquainted with Kratos.

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    Renegade

    Released a year prior to the original Double Dragon, Renegade is responsible for transforming the beat ‘em up, adding to the mix four-directional control and more resilient opponents.

    It may be a slow and monotonous experience for modern players, but its importance cannot be understated. This guarantees it a spot on this list.

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    The Simpsons Arcade

    Another TV-based title from Konami, The Simpsons Arcade surprised players with its quality when it first arrived in arcades.

    Following pretty much same the formula as the developer’s other beat ‘em ups, it’s a magnificent brawler, which lovingly recreates Springfield and its residents for its players to appreciate.  

    Whether you’re a fan of the TV show or just looking to dish out some cartoon violence, The Simpsons Arcade doesn’t disappoint.

  • The 20 greatest beat'em ups of all time 12

    The Warriors

    Combat can make or break a beat ‘em up. Simplify it too much and the audience will get bored. Overcomplicate it and you risk the player getting confused. The Warriors video game, based on the 1979 movie of the same name, sits comfortably in the middle of these two extremes.

    It’s easy to pick up and has loads of variety, with cool weapons, a deep grappling system and a rage-meter spicing up its combat.

    These elements conspire to create an overall experience that - if you pardon the pun - packs a punch. Probably the best game-of-the-film ever made.

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    Guardian Heroes

    The Sega Saturn isn’t a console that comes up in conversation much - primarily because of the system’s short lifespan and its troubled launch.

    We still have a soft spot for it though, and there are numerous Saturn games that deserve our attention. Guardian Heroes is one title to fit this description. It’s super fast, action-packed, and absolutely gorgeous to look at. Just look at it. Gorgeous, right?

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    God Hand

    There are few games as divisive as God Hand. Released back in 2006, the action title had a polarising effect on critics, with some declaring it the best game of the year while others dismissed it entirely.

    Clover Studio’s final game before its dissolution in 2007, God Hand demands an inclusion on this list for its advanced combat system, bizarre tone, and adaptable difficulty level. It also has one of the best video game covers ever printed. They don't make them like this any more.

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    Castle Crashers

    A contemporary throwback to classic side scrolling beat ‘em ups, Castle Crashers will be familiar to anyone who has ever played Golden Axe or Guardian Heroes.

    As in those earlier games, players advance from left to right, hacking and slashing their way through enemy hordes. This earns them more experience and helps them to gain levels to unlock new combination attacks.

    Designed by The Behemoth, Castle Crashers is one of the more visually striking games on this list, as it contains the magnificent artwork of Dan Paladin.

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    Dead Rising

    Do you ever desire to annihilate masses of undead with everyday consumer items? If you answered yes, then Dead Rising was designed specifically with you in mind. You weirdo.

    Giving you an assortment of devastating and often stupid weapons, the game puts you in the shoes of the photojournalist Frank West, who must battle through a mall that’s overrun with zombies.

    Deliriously fun, it ranks among Capcom’s most outrageous and enjoyable titles. 

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    Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game

    Adapted from Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novels of the same name, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game is another example of a game paying homage to earlier beat ‘em up titles.

    Lively and incredibly faithful to its source, it’s a game that’s crying out for a rerelease on modern consoles. 

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    Madworld

    You’d really be hard pressed to find a game as violent as Madworld. Trust us, we've looked

    A heavily stylised and excessively gory game, it follows a chainsaw-wielding character named Jack who’s competing in a brutal game show that pits fighters and civilians against each other for sport.

    It may be cartoonish and silly, but we love it. 

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    Devil May Cry

    Let’s be honest - you expected Devil May Cry to make an appearance somewhere on this list.

    Super stylish and stunning, this hack and slash beat ‘em up was a true game changer, prompting several sequels, a reboot, and a spiritual successor in the form of Bayonetta. What started out as a Resident Evil sequel became one of the most influential titles of the PlayStation 2 era.