Sunday, May 1, 2011

Editorial: The Decline of the Brawler

The Decline of the Brawler
May 1st, 2011
By: Nate

I got thinking about Brawler titles and how generally underappreciated they were last night when I was writing about Dynasty Warriors 7. Poor example, I know – but I am going somewhere with this, and I hope someone at Tecmo-Koei reads this because it presents arguments that they can learn from.

The Brawler genre started in the late 1970's with a boxing game made by Sega called Heavyweight Champ.

This was a Vs. fighter – which the brawler ultimately spawned from – but like Wolfenstein 3D to Doom, this didn't really kickstart the genre. That didn't happen until Kung-Fu Master was released in 1984 by Data East, and from there, things started to evolve.

In 1987, Technos released Double Dragon and the rest is pretty much history. Right?

Golden Axe

Not exactly. Hot on Double Dragon's heels were Golden Axe, Ninja Gaiden and Final Fight. These all offered new takes on the genre; Golden Axe changed the scenery from urban to fantasy and incorporated attack animals, dynamic combos and a selection of characters. Ninja Gaiden included new ideas, such is using the environment (you could hang from stuff and kick at the baddies). And Final Fight...Actually, Final Fight did a lot less than it was given credit for. It stole a crapload of my quarters, though.

The original Ninja Gaiden

Final Fight

To be honest, I view Final Fight as point where the genre was starting to decline, as it has nothing on Streets of Rage (which actually borrows heavily from it). In retrospect, even the sacred X-Men cow wasn't much to sniff at – nor were most comic-based brawlers aside from perhaps The Punisher (which wouldn't be released until the 1990's).  But I didn't put this together to insult peoples' taste. The point is actually to demonstrate a cyclical effect. Final Fight streamlined the genre that Double Dragon had actually made so deep. This is mostly due to the fact that there are fewer moves per character. This would be rectified in the early 90's with Knights of the Round, which borrows a little from Golden Axe. There are a few other points, though. Most of these games have something in common – lack of perspective. No matter the scenario, it always felt flat and two-dimensional – graphics aside. While you could move up and down, there was rarely a variation in height. River City Ransom changed all of this and more, but it was such an odd duck because it included everything but the kitchen sink, so it didn't influence the genre at this time at all. Which is a shame.
X-Men Arcade 4-Player Cabinet
Streets of Rage - Sega Genesis


Knights of the Round

The Punisher - Arcade

River City Ransom - NES
As the 90's moved into the 2000's, the games became 3D, but before they did, they started to get a lot deeper. Jaleco released brawlers that incorporated multiple characters, unlockable characters and multiple mission paths. The Peacekeepers would be the culmination of the best ideas of their brawlers.  And sprite-based arcade brawlers would reach their pinnacle with Capcom's Dungeons and Dragons titles Tower of Doom and Shadow over Mystara which would incorporate multiple charactes, special abilities, multiple paths and even the ability to buy equipment.

The Peacekeepers - SNES

Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom - Arcade

Dungeons and Dragons: Shadow over Mystara - Arcade

Die Hard Arcade - Arcade

As the 90's came to a close, Die Hard Arcade hit with a vengeance just as arcades were getting hit with vacancies and Dynasty Warriors had hit the Playstation, although it was a fighting game in its infancy. Dynasty Warriors 2, however, was pretty much a very rough version of the Dynasty Warriors we all know and (sort of) love, and it incorporated a lot of ideas from River City Ransom – upgradeable characters, environments with varying degrees of height and perspective – and introduced tactical combat to the brawler genre. And this is just the cherry on the cake.

Dynasty Warriors 2

Devil May Cry - PS2

Devil May Cry came out in 2001, and brought the adventure element to the genre. In 2004, Ninja Gaiden was remade for the XBox. This is very significant because Ninja Gaiden incorporated the Dead or Alive 3 fighting engine with platforming, puzzle solving and combat that really made you think (it was hard as hell until you figured out when to attack). God of War was released for the PS2, although this really didn't add much new. It was very well received because of its intelligence, brutality and reduced linearity due to multiple possible endings.
However, things started going downhill from this point.

God of War - PS2

Ninja Gaiden - XBox

Beatdown: Fists of Vengeance - PS2 and XBox

Capcom started releasing redundant brawlers – first Beat Down: Fists of Vengeance which is as numb as its title, and then Final Fight: Streetwise. While the gameplay of each was competent, the games felt very two-dimensional and the story elements were questionable at best. And neither game was very polished. To make matters worse, Capcom licensed music for Final Fight: Streetwise in a pithy attempt to make you feel like you were in the “ghetto”.

Final Fight: Streetwise - PS2 and XBox

Samurai Warriors 2 - PS2 and XBox 360

Koei started expanding the Dynasty Warriors universe by first creating the Legends expansion (which added some more characters and missions) and then creating the Empires expansion. Expansions are nice, but when you start making them after each iteration (which was being released almost yearly), your habit gets expensive and you start questioning the point when the gameplay receives few upgrades. An exception is the Empires expansion because it adds some strategy elements (think Risk with battles in real time). Furthermore, Koei spun off from their strategy series Nobunaga's Ambition to create Samurai Warriors. The second title in the series actually makes it worthwhile, but it's a lot of the same. While I don't mind that, it does kind of halt progress. Just a little.

God of War never really changed, and neither did Devil May Cry, but both series maintained a great deal of polish.

The Warriors - PS2 and XBox

A movie-based title also came out during the PS2 and XBox Generation, The Warriors. This was made by Rockstar, and it's more in a similar vein as Final Fight Streetwise, except the 3D world actually felt three-dimensional.  The game's structure is mission-based, but I personally found the content to be uninteresting.

Ninja Gaiden 2 - XBox 360

Ninja Gaiden took a turn for the worse with its sequel. This is more because of lazy design, which I really think is the recurring theme here.  The reason for this is because after the level design keeps getting more and more two-dimensional as you progress through the game, and parts of it begin to feel as lackluster as Beatdown: Fists of Vengeance - which is quite a condemnation.  To compensate, the designers made the game much more violent and gruesome.

Bayonetta - PS3, XBox 360
Bayonetta, by SEGA, seems to have scratched this itch for many gamers and was well received not only as a great game, but a breath of fresh air. Since its release, developers seem to have gotten the message that the brawler genre needs as much TLC as any other.

Warriors Orochi - PS2, PSP and XBox 360

The first case in point is Dynasty Warriors. Dynasty Warriors actually became even more shallow after the fifth game. This is because the combat system was horribly simplified as a pathetic attempt to shut reviewers up. Then, Koei put out three spin-offs – Warriors Orochi, Dynasty Warriors: Strike Force and Dynasty Warriors: Gundam.

Dynasty Warriors: Gundam - PS2, PS3 and XBox 360
Dynasty Warriors: Strikeforce - PSP, PS3 and XBox 360

And if that didn't make matters worse, everyone was trying to clone Dynasty Warriors after the fifth one despite the critical panning. So, you have 99 Nights and its sequel, Sangoku Basara and its sequels (Japan only), Dead Rising and its sequels and spinoffs, Onechanbara and its sequels and finally, Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders, Heroes and Circle of Doom.

99 Nights - PS3, XBox 360

Sangoku Basara 2 - PS2, Wii

Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes - XBox

Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders - XBox

Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom - XBox 360

Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad - XBox 360

Dead Rising - XBox 360

Dynasty Warriors 7 - PS3, XBox 360

Some of these titles are good while others not so much. The quality of them is not the point so much as the fact that the market is flooded with a specific subgenre, and has been for quite some time. So much so that even Dynasty Warriors is starting to change; for instance, you are now able - and often required to use siege weapons, and the characters are now much more customisable.

Spikeout: Battle Street - XBox

About time, too. There are more brawlers in the same vein as Dynasty Warriors than there are like Ninja Gaiden. Heck, I think even a return to something like Double Dragon might be welcome as it would pull the genre in a slightly different direction. I do remember liking Spikeout: Battlestreet very much; it was pretty much what Double Dragon might be like if it were in 3D.

Bladestorm: The Hundred Year's War - PS3, XBox 360
Unfortunately, Spikeout was critically panned.  Maybe the critics themselves are trying to say something; in the pretensious world of video games being perceived as art, 32 year old genres have to put more effort into being seen.  And it isn't to say that there's no versatility when it comes to brawlers, because that's a cop-out. You can have all sorts of characters, there's dozens of existing martial systems, all sorts of different melĂ©e weapons and plenty of time periods to choose from.  In fact, Koei tried this (another critical failure, however) and placed a game during the Hundred-Years War.  The sky's not the limit here.

But I think Koei had it right. I mean, maybe that's what the genre needs – a new historical or fictional shot and the arm. It could be the Volsung Saga or it could be a whole new fantasy altogether. Heck, it could be based off of A Song of Ice and Fire, Wheel of Time or Krondor. It could be a sci-fi property (a little risky, there, with the guns and all), or it could just be an urban brawl.

A Song of Ice and Fire Book 1

Wheel of Time Book 10

Artistic representation of the Volsung Saga

Krondor Riftwar Series Book 1

And I think I can safely say that we're still waiting for a proper River City Ransom sequel.

So Tecmo-Koei, Sega, Konami and Capcom:  Show us what you've really got.  We're tired of your old franchises and older ideas.  And to Bethesda, iD, Activision and EA - get into the game!. Koei clearly got it when they finally redesigned Dynasty Warriors.  You guys need to read the reviews to learn your technical mistakes and listen to your fans to figure out what's cool.  Then maybe you can come up with titles that do this genre justice again.


The Dread Pirate Guy said...

Others that should be taken into consideration are the brilliant Castle Crashers and Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World from this gen, and the excellent Lord of the Rings: Return of the King from last gen,

For the late 1980's, I think Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles changed everything about brawlers, and the Simpsons arcade kept the tradition up with yet another hot property. I liked X-Men, but it was such a weird combo for where the X-Men really were, and how Japanese it turned out being. Other than the bosses, it could have been any game, any where.

Player_1 said...

Actually, Guy, I'm pretty lukewarm on Castle Crashers. Not sure why, but it's actually not one of my favourites. Bias aside, I rank it alongside something similar to Shadow over Mystara, which was also a great game in its own right.

I never played Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, so I can't comment one way or the other, and Return of the King is not much different than The Two Towers, but at least it has multiplayer.

TMNT was a deliberate omission. It's too similar to (The Uncanny) X-Men.

But you're right, I did miss the much more innovative Simpsons, and even worse, I missed Teenage Mutant Turtles: Turtles In Time. I also missed Battletoads (Arcade and NES), but that's between you, me and the blogosphere :p

There's a lot of other titles I could have touched on - Double Dragon 3 for the NES, Mighty Final Fight (which, imo, beats the arcade version), Rastan, Golden Axe 3 for the Genesis and Golden Axe Death Adder's Revenge for the arcade, Ninja Brothers (what a piece of crap), The Last Ninja, the list goes on.

While I did miss some titles (two crucial ones, even), I'm very satisfied with the end result because the history lesson was just a backdrop.