Beat-em-ups didn't die with the arcade, but they did enter a recession after the heyday of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Final Fight. After the rush in arcades, with classics pouring in from Konami and Capcom, they slowed to a trickle as interest in walking right and punching faded. But they didn't die. On Steam, the beat-em-up lives on. There are still gang-laden streets that need to be cleared by the fists of heroes.
With Streets of Rage 4 coming, we decided to dig into the surprisingly vibrant selection of indie beat-em-ups on PC that have kept the genre’s stylistic violence going. The best of them manage to channel the pure bliss of the arcade days, or add something novel to a genre famous for its 90s simplicity.
Sega Genesis Classics
It’s a small cheat to open this list, but among the 59 games included in this compilation sit both the Streets of Rage and Golden Axe trilogies. Each entry in the Streets of Rage series is worth owning (they can be purchased separately as well), beginning with the dour original, into the brightly saturated sequel, and the oddball third game. In terms of the Genesis, these three represent the best of the genre on that hardware, and then by default, some of the best on PC too.
Don’t rule out Golden Axe either. The mystical, swords & sorcery aesthetic presents a morbid clash of weapons. The first two games follow similar paths, hacking away at the minions of Death Adder. The third game—a Japanese exclusive for decades—is worth a look, refining the mechanics, plus adding new characters and tighter action.
Streets of Fury EX
Before taking the Streets of Rage 4 gig, developer Guard Crush Games worked on this kooky and irreverent brawler. In an alternate timeline where Mortal Kombat’s digitized sprites never went out of style, Streets of Fury EX is the standard. With technological progress, the dev team uses expanded animation possibilities, goofing around with the sprites. Characters acknowledge the screen, perform nunchuck skits, and slowly roll over and die. It’s nonsense.
Comedy aside, there’s a competent game underneath. Combos lift enemies up, up, up into the air and the range of attacks (oddball as they often look) keeps repetition at bay. Plus, there’s a bevy of characters to unlock and choose from, including YouTubers like Nostalgia Critic. They all set off to clear London of gang activity—even if not a single one of these people make a convincing street thug.
The best at capturing the true spirit of the arcade era, this beat-em-up is a furious and sprite-based game that just came out in 2017. It’s full of sleaze, and done in the form of an animal world. The foes? Rats, pigs, wolves, and others, reminscent of some of the enemies in the arcade Battletoads or TMNT brawlers. That set-up is done with a gorgeous, glossy glaze that emphasizes shadows and highlights. And you can bet there are CRT filters.
In action, it’s superlative. While the movesets don’t aim for depth, impact feels sold from every hit. The weight of the combat—and even better the speed—push Fight’N Rage to the top of Steam’s beat-em-up roster.
Mother Russia Bleeds
Embracing the adult part of the M rating, Mother Russia Bleeds revels in exploitation-level violence. Weapons include syringes and knives and hits connect with plenty of blood. Punches hit like rapid fire tanks, mauling enemies as they slowly lose teeth and clothes the longer they hold on, like the after-effect of too many street drugs.
It all fits a cynical setting, set during a time of high post-Soviet Russia drug use. Fights happen in dreary alleys and prisons, but break out later inside a sex club where people “engage” each other in bondage gear, while others just watch. Mother Russia Bleeds has no morals. This genre is a suitable one.
River City Ransom Underground
A reboot of an iconic NES game (and extension of the winding Kunio series that started it), River City Ransom Underground uses an open world where Japanese gangs run the streets. The heart of the series remains: It’s still about pummeling rivals, taking their cash, and upgrading your character. The Scott Pilgrim beat-em-up took great inspiration from River City Ransom with RPG-like experience and unlockable movesets, and those features are back here.
Underground fuels itself with a deluge of animation, extending combat and forcing strategy. Each punch counts, and slew of playable characters offer unique ways to execute even base combos. Better still, this all connects to the original game (or at least the American adaptation) where the original River City stars return, now aged and grizzled. It’s a smart reset, both different and advanced enough to feel new. And yes, *Barf still remains.
The modern tentpole of the genre is this wacky four-player weapons-based beat-em-up. Doused with an eclectic sense of humor and coupled with a catchy leveling system, this is, like River City, the rare beat-em-up worth losing a dozen or more hours to.
Castle Crashers uses a delightfully cheery color palette and wild bosses (including a memorable river cat) to keep itself interesting, and if you obsess over leveling and unlocking characters there are multiple difficulty levels to progress through. The chaos of multiplayer with up to four people is a joy, and there's enough depth here to really sink your teeth into. Catching low-level foes in a combo trap only adds to the sense of melee. And the scenery is drizzled with low-brow humor, which really brings out the laughs when among friends.
Double Dragon: Neon
WayForward revitalized the Double Dragon brand with a remarkable do-over. It’s part parody, playing to an audience of nostalgia-rich 30 year-olds who grew up on hair bands and Saturday mornings. The level of detail (including individual songs playing for every power-up) goes beyond expectations. Not only colorful, the dialog is pure glee, and holds up on multiple playthroughs as the screechy villain Skullmageddon realizes his failing plot.
And really, this is no straightforward update. Neon demands mastery of an accessible counter system and timing, rare in an often brainless genre. It works. Heroes Billy and Jimmy Lee sport all of their classic moves, and the enemy roster? That’s an update of the classics too. Note the original Double Dragon Trilogy is available for download too (along with a recently released fourth entry), but Neon is that rare reboot better than the original.
Big Action Mega Fight!
With the tempo and simplicity of a mobile game and the look of something from the modern Cartoon Network, there’s little special about Big Action Mega Fight! Not even the exclamation point counts.
However, it’s snappy, and the restrained combat system opens up as levels get cleared. Each stage only lasts a minute or two, breaking up the small time action to make everything digestible. Each punch connects with a tight pop, and a small assist by the way of auto targeting adds the right amount of aggression in the fight. Seeing what Big Action Mega Fight! has to offer down the line makes dealing with the routine early levels a worthy endeavor.
Published by Worms developer Team17, Raging Justice brings back pre-rendered sprites at high resolution to embody a cruel, pro-police spectacle. There’s a choice though: Either punch enemies into submission to play bad cop or make an arrest for good cop. Both earn points, and stages offer awards no matter which route you choose. In the middle of a fight, playing good cop is a challenge, so a perfect run is something to strive for.
Raging Justice isn’t pouring out depth. It’s routine. Punch, kick, and grab, and that's about it. It’s even a little stubby in terms of strike impact. However, that unique look, so rarely employed as traditional pixel art or low count polygons dominate the indie scene, gives Raging Justice a memorable quality.
Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara
This list is intentionally light on classic ports, but Capcom's Dungeons & Dragons beat-em-ups arrived on PC in rare form: two games in one, with modern updates including online play and leaderboards. An achievement-style system with fun goals, modifiers and new modes give you a lot of new ways to play, but you could also ignore it all and simply play two of Capcom's best, and certainly deepest, 90s beat-em-ups.
These D&D games combined Capcom's penchant for great-feeling walk-right-and-punch action with weapons, items, magic, and classes. If you crave depth in a classic beat-em-up, look no further.
Bonus: Streets of Rage Remake
If you know where to look, this fan remake (once eight years in the making) is a celebration of everything Streets of Rage. Sadly, Sega’s cease-and-desist rendered this unavailable on any fan-official channels, but it’s out there and worth tracking down.
Each Streets of Rage offered a unique combat system and this remake used and combined them all. From the outset, it’s possible to choose between your favorite, and every character is playable, including their alternate costumes. Locations, enemies, and weapons come together in a massive beat-em-up. Although hardly using any new assets (nearly everything is pulled from the original Genesis games, with some from the Master System/Game Gear editions), this is—or was, rather—a gloriously all-inclusive celebration of a 16-bit icon.