The 'beat 'em up' is an absolutely classic video game genre. As a kid growing up in the late '80s and early '90s, it was arguably the genre of choice; these games were king when playing with friends. Even with the constraints of only two playable characters on home ports (lots of arcade titles supported as many as four players), we would all find ways to join in – hopping on and off between lives, barking directions when observing, or everyone just pitching in with strategies in real-time as a particularly ferocious boss battle raged. Nothing was as intense or rewarding as seeing the credits roll and knowing you had saved the day as a team. Couch co-op gold.
Perhaps their greatest strength is the inherent simplicity of their structure – move left to right (usually) and destroy anything that gets in your way. That’s it. Everybody can understand that. So, if these games are so simple, how is it that some are better than others? What makes a good beat ‘em up good and a bad one, well, Altered Beast (apologies, Centurian stans).
Here at Time Extension, we have strived to unearth the top 25 beat 'em ups of all time and seek to understand what makes them so great, taking a peek at their plot, how combat feels and that elusive ‘easy to pick up but tricky to master’ quality that adds an extra layer of satisfaction. With the genre seemingly enjoying a long overdue renaissance – plus accessibility at an all-time high thanks to some fantastic recent collections and dedicated hardware like the Sega Astro City Mini, not to mention exciting entries like Dickey Krime: Traveller of Time and Streets of Chaos on the horizon – now seems the perfect time to tackle this list head-on (or throw it over your shoulder).
This is not some free-for-all, though; there are rules for this list – we've tried to steer clear (where possible) of compilations, no matter how excellent (I’m looking at you, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection) and only one entry from a particular franchise is allowed – so you’re getting the best of the best from a wide range of series. It's also important to note that the following list isn't presented in any kind of order.
With that out of the way, let's begin!
A legend right from the off, Batman Returns is a SNES classic and – whisper it – perhaps one of the best movie tie-ins ever. The game controls as tightly as you’d expect, with the kicks and punches Batman rains down landing with satisfying thuds, and gadgets like the legendary batarangs being easy and satisfying to use. It’s excellently paced, with certain sections of the game banishing the z-axis to mix up how you approach combat (a canny technique implemented in some of the best new beat ‘em ups of this era) and even a thrilling (albeit slightly janky) ride in the Batmobile. Its devotion to the source material does wonders for its setting; the game takes place in a moody Gotham juxtaposed against a jolly Christmas atmosphere, which makes for a visual treat – but it also sadly constrains the game to being a single-player experience. A cardinal sin for a beat ‘em up, but Batman Returns has just enough quality to overcome this fault.
By the middle of the 1990s, Capcom had achieved mastery over beat ‘em ups, and this is reflected in its two Dungeons & Dragons brawlers – Tower of Doom and Shadow Over Mystaria. Both are included in this Japan-only Saturn double pack (yes, we know we said no compilations, but we're allowed to bend the rules) and both were more recently released digitally on PS3, 360 and Wii U. While both are worth a look, the latter of the pair is unsurprisingly the best. There were many qualities that set this game apart from other arcade entries in the same vein, including gaining experience to unlock new spells – something much more common in RPGs you would play at home. This is a blessing and a curse, as while it does add depth to the gameplay, it can be frustrating not to have all tools at your disposal from the off. Another inclusion that seems obvious but was uncommon at the time is the ability to play as the same character – so if you and a friend both wanted to be a cleric, no arguments would ensue. The story is deep and rich, with multiple paths and endings to discover, and the enemies and world are a joy to discover.
There’s something strangely comforting and nostalgic about The friends of Ringo Ishikawa, like a fist wrapped in a warm hug. And certainly, it’s one of loosest fits of the genre in our rundown – with far more introspection and nuance to its story as the game’s centre, with the side-scrolling action more of a passenger on the journey. It’s also another single-player-only venture, but unlike Batman Returns, we think co-op would detract from the experience. You play as the titular Ringo, a teen finishing high school, and the game examines the tedium of existence for him before he heads off to college. It’s very open-ended and rarely tries to push you down a specific path. You can head to lessons to collect experience if you want, you can roam the streets looking for trouble – holding R to activate delinquent mode – making this firmly a conscious decision to engage in combat. You can work a job, hit the gym, or just explore Ringo’s life. The game is far from perfect but does a wonderful job of defying expectations and making you question what you expect from this kind of game. For that reason, it certainly deserves a spot on this list.
Ah, the great console war of the '90s – what a time to be alive. Nintendo’s SNES had an iron grip over platformers, but for side-scrolling beat ‘em ups, the Mega Drive was the place to be. Sadly, this quality output didn’t continue with the same consistency on Saturn as the popularity of the genre diminished, but one of the best of that time period, Guardian Heroes, did have its home there. Absolutely stuffed with content, it’s a beat ‘em up with a compelling storyline revealed through branching paths and different endings based on your actions. The action itself is split across three planes in the foreground, mid-ground and background that you can jump between, and though the transition between these could be smoother, it’s an enjoyable mechanic that rewards tactical thinking. The levelling system here is deep, with experience points gained from levels used across a set of six attributes, lending the game a very strong JRPG feel. Its GBA sequel sadly failed to capture the same magic.
The original arcade / Mega Drive classic will always have a special place in our hearts – with the revelation you could mount and use the creatures left behind by foes being a thrilling memory that is forever seared into our childhood brains – but for the best of the best of this series, it’s got to be this arcade classic. It takes the strongest elements of the earlier games and turns them up to 11. One thing Golden Axe does very well are genuinely menacing, hulking opponents – and this game doesn’t disappoint. The animation and art combined with the music create a wonderfully strange and scary Conan-style land to battle your way through, and it’s a longer and more satisfying experience than its console counterpart – even if the difficulty curve feels a little skewed sometimes. The protagonists are all new, too – though fortunately, our beloved Gilius Thunderhead is still present, riding piggyback on another character's back. Oh, and those rideable beasts we mentioned? Well, they went and outdid themselves, didn’t they? Move over Breath of the Wild, this game had you riding weird, skeletal horse-type beasties while your series was still in its infancy. Four-player co-op and branching paths too? Hand me that joystick.
Do you like the Splatterhouse series? Then you’ll love this. Streets of Red is one of the finest horror beat ‘em ups to date, with an utterly mesmerising art style that can’t help but draw you into its grim world. It’s also a game with rogue-lite elements and packs a lot of brains with its brawn. Health management is key to victory more so than in any of the other beat ‘em up listed here – you are equipped with a special meter that is used up as you attack, and depending on how you deploy this, you can force enemies to drop more money than usual or a vital health pick up. Clear a boss, and you can spend your hard-earned cash on upgrading your character with a selection of items that are randomised each time – but use this wisely, because if you are KO’d, you will need to splash out to revive yourself. And if you don’t have enough? Too bad, it’s permadeath for you. Purists of the genre might scoff at this idea, but for games that can sometimes be accused of being glorified button-bashing, this very real threat hanging over the gameplay makes for a tense, thrilling playthrough.
Alongside Double Dragon, Capcom's Final Fight series is one of the finest the genre has seen, and its cast has gone on to star in other titles, including the Street Fighter franchise. The third entry – a console exclusive – introduced new characters, special techniques pulled off with button inputs akin to Street Fighter and the option to have a CPU-controlled partner for the play-through – a wonderful addition that really should be included in more games of this type. Final Fight 3 was derided in its day for not doing enough new things with the genre, but time has been somewhat kinder and it effortlessly ranks as one of the best brawlers of this period. Sure, the difficulty spikes a little viciously in some places – to the point where it starts to feel unfair and impacts the enjoyment – but this entry is arguably the apex of the series itself.
The quality of the River City franchise is so consistent that it was a tricky task to pick a standout for this list, with River City Ransom: Underground and the latest entry River City Girls 2 both running a close second. Really, you can’t go wrong with any game in the series, but it is the super-polished presentation and personality that’s packed into this game that sees it emerge as the victor. Play as either Kyoko or Misako as they fight to rescue their boyfriends from a kidnapping, battling through school hallways and various aesthetically gorgeous locales. The controls are easy to pick up, and the game itself is home to some neat mechanics, including the ability to recruit defeated enemies to call into battle for a helpful assist. It’s certainly the most personality-packed entry on this list, with enemy dialogue splashed across the bottom of the screen as you dole out punishment and the girl's charming interactions with each other an ever-present overlay to its excellent soundtrack.
The Streets of Rage series is the absolute king of beat ‘em ups, and its latest entry only strengthens its claim over the genre. It captures a raw, visceral quality with the combat you can virtually feel through the screen, combined with a flawlessly designed grimy city, interesting enemies, tough but fair bosses and an absolutely killer soundtrack. Each iteration has built to this masterpiece (special mention must, of course, go to Streets of Rage 2, which would be occupying this slot were it not for the brilliance of the fourth outing), with the choice of ageing beloved characters and moving the story on a brilliant one. Its formula is so successful that its core elements have been aped by several other games in the genre – some of which are genuinely excellent, but absent from this list purely because none have bested their inspiration. It may not have an overworld, collectables, or RPG elements, but frankly, it doesn’t need them. Streets of Rage 4 is to the point, with a perfectly-weighted difficulty curve building to a triumphant finale. It is the purest distillation of what a side-scrolling beat 'em up is, and with all the fan service the game manages to pack in, it would take something very special indeed to overcome it. In fact, we want to tell you a little secret – we hope the streets of Wood Oak City never calm down. Sorry, Axel.
It was agonising deciding between this and the newer Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge, but for us, the SNES classic just about pips it. Though the newer spiritual successor may be packed with fan service and replayability, for us, it doesn’t quite do enough to emerge from the shadows of its progenitor. And in truth, that’s probably because it doesn’t have to. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time did so much perfect that any game following its blueprint would be hard-pressed not to be superb. For so long the unicorn of the beat ‘em up scene, this terrific game is now easily accessible through the excellent Cowabunga Collection, and you owe it to yourself to give it a play because it lives up to the eulogising it has been afforded over the years. It’s balanced wonderfully, with all the titular turtles behaving as you’d like them to, all played out across a whimsical storyline in keeping with the nature of the cartoon. Hurling members of the Foot Clan toward the screen was such a giddy thrill back in the day, and it still feels satisfying now.
Dragon’s Crown Pro (an update of the earlier PS3 / PS Vita release) is one of the more modern entries on this list, and also the most RPG-like. You operate from a central base, home to many of the story elements of the game and where you can upgrade your character before venturing out across a variety of dungeons. Each location contains various different paths and hidden areas which are accessible after a first run-through and reward the player for going back and exploring further, with side quests opening up which are necessary to progress deeper. The six character classes you can call upon offer great replay value as they all feel very different but crucially work very well together, too – with co-op proving hugely entertaining. Endgame content is as stuffed as you’d like it to be, with access to a tough, procedurally-generated dungeon and a multiplayer battle option opening up potentially limitless play. This is very much the thinking person’s beat ‘em up – if you want a hefty dose of cerebral activity and consequential decision-making with your side scroller, then this one is for you.
Castle Crashers is an absolute blast and one that demands to be played via local co-op. Released at a time when beat ‘em ups had fallen out of vogue, it’s a high-energy, zany and hugely entertaining game with tons of content and replay value. The cartoon art style is striking and instantly recognisable, with the knights you control distinguished by a simple colour change. Each playable character controls the same way but wields a different magical power, and as you traverse the land, you gain experience, which can be used to bolster these magics or other attributes of your character. If playing in co-op you’ll be working as a tight team but will also want to be the one to gain the most experience – as the end of each level sees you battling your comrades to the death. The light RPG side is simple but helps you to form a powerful bond with your knight, and the simplicity of the control scheme being utilised across the board makes Castle Crashers an easy game for anyone to jump in on, and always guarantees a good time.
We love the visuals for Fight’N Rage, with its fantastically detailed dinky characters and brilliantly-rendered world. The buttons are standard – with attack, jump and special being your options – but the fighting system itself is very deep. You can chain combos or execute special attacks, parry or counter – and this depth carries through to the enemy AI, too. As you progress, you will start to realise that you can’t just blindly mash your way through; you’ll have to put some thought into your attacks. Enemies and bosses are clever and will come at you in force, making quick work of you if you can’t use the vast array of attacking options at your disposal correctly. This pushes experimentation within the game, but can also be a little frustrating when you can’t crack exactly what needs to be done. It’s a great game, though, and very reminiscent of early '90s beat ‘em ups; in a nice touch, there are plenty of nods to Capcom and other developers which will certainly delight fans of the genre.
At first glance, Alien Storm may seem quite generic, but there’s something special about this whimsical band of burger van operators, clad in '80s spandex and accompanied by an ass-kicking robot. The game plays with convention, eschewing the usual beat ‘em up trope of knocking over items to pick up questionable health meat, instead having the aliens pop out of said environmental objects. Postboxes, phone booths, vending machines – nothing’s off limits here, and anything could be hiding an enemy. Not that power-ups don’t have their place, of course; your weapon is powered by energy tanks – not scattered as liberally as one might like – and when they’ve depleted, a real sense of panic creeps in. The aliens themselves are genuinely disturbing, pulsating with skulls beneath their oddly-coloured surfaces. First-person shooting galleries where you lay waste to supermarkets and high-octane run-and-gun missions break up the action and keep the gameplay fresh. The Mega Drive port has some shortcomings but is the easiest to access and worth checking out if this series passed you by – but the definitive experience is the arcade version, with its option for three players (it's on the Astro City Mini). It’s criminal that this series has been dormant for over 30 years. Who knows, maybe we’ll see a revival? (Please, Dotemu?)
Let’s be honest, a lot of beat 'em ups back in the day were angry, beefy, glistening muscle-fests with insane difficulty spikes that we're sure resulted in a few kicked arcade cabinets or a controller or two being embedded in television screens. For those that loved the genre but were getting a little bored of the aesthetic, Pretty Sailor Soldier Moon was the best tonic, and we love it for that. The gameplay itself is quite typical of the genre; dash attacks, grabs, and throws are all present here, and the generous character count of five, all with slightly different attributes, allows you to experiment to find your favourite. You pick up crystals during your traversals of the game’s eight worlds, and these can power up and vary your screen-clearing special moves – each accompanied by a fantastic animation very much in keeping with the anime. In fact, everything about this game looks good, and it is easily one of the most gorgeous beat ’em ups of its time. The game certainly doesn’t do anything mind-blowing, but if you want tight beat ‘em up gameplay with a gentler vibe, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more enjoyable time than this.
The Alien vs. Predator concept, on paper, should always be a slam dunk. Immovable object, meet irresistible force. But time and time again, it has disappointed, weighed down with plodding exposition and poor execution – literally. Luckily this lovely little game doesn’t worry about any of that. Aliens are attacking Earth, and some Predators decide to help a couple of human cyborgs stop them. Go! No fancy mechanics or tricky inputs to memorise, just a very, very satisfying slog fest. The cyborg characters are admittedly pretty rubbish compared to the Predator Hunter and Warrior, the latter pair having the most well-rounded arsenal at their disposal, and although Dutch comes close (he is loosely based on Mr. Universe, after all), there’s no escaping the fact that the Predators are noticeably more powerful. We don’t see this as a shortcoming, though – quite the opposite. For a game with limited replayability, this adds a de facto 'hard mode' – a little extra challenge for the player to flex their skills as a human fighter, and it’s particularly satisfying to see the game through with them. Lovely big sprites, frenetic, heavy-hitting combat and an IP showing its strength – it's little wonder that people have so much love for this one. Sadly out of reach for most people unless you resort to emulation, it was given a rare official release on the Capcom Home Arcade system.
Who doesn’t love big, chunky mechs? For vehicles that seem custom-made for this gaming genre, there’s a remarkably small number of them around. Thankfully we have a quality title in Capcom’s Armored Warriors, and here customisation is the name of the game. You play as one of four pilots (including Sarah White, a French, pink-haired woman – inspiration for Street Fighter 6's Manon, perhaps?) tasked with vanquishing a military threat against an ally with whom you have a precarious treaty. As you plough through mechanical enemy hordes you can augment your vehicle from their wreckages, gaining new legs, arms, and weapons. It’s a genius mechanic, one that adds a sprinkling of strategy to the title, not to mention replay value to experiment with the pickups. Don’t be fooled by the size of your machines either; the game goes at quite a lick, and although we could do without the time limits and mission objectives on some stages, they do add a sense of urgency to proceedings. When played with three participants, Armored Warriors can be very chaotic – sometimes too chaotic, but it always recovers. This ran the risk of being a lost gem before its inclusion in the fantastic Capcom Beat ‘Em Up Bundle.
A classic fighter that has recently been re-released on modern systems – saving it from being lost in a digital wasteland – Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game is one of the most frenetic and amusing beat 'em ups you'll find on any platform. Based on the movie (which is in turn based on a comic book), it mixes light RPG elements with some truly sumptuous hand-drawn artwork and a beautiful soundtrack courtesy of Anamanaguchi. While we'd argue that there could be more depth on display, this is fantastic fun in co-op.
Yet another Capcom entry in this list, and another in a fantasy setting with experience to be earned and simple controls effectively implemented. On the surface, there are a few odd decisions here; the game looks fantastic and has brilliant set pieces, but the characters you pick are nameless – being referred to as 'Cleric' or 'Fighter'. We quite like this blank slate, though; it lets you imbue the characters with your own personality – very much in step with other fantasy RPG games. The King of Dragons is quite gentle in its implementation of these mechanics, but it is solid – the levelling system is well-balanced and isn’t too intrusive in terms of gameplay, nor is it a burden to lose when reset. The different classes of characters have different attributes, as you’d expect, but are tuned nicely to each other so that three-player co-op feels very fluid and intuitively strategic. We wish there were a few more boss fights, but when you do have them, they are up there with other memorable encounters and can be intense and thrilling. All in all, this game creates an unfamiliar world of mystery and does a good job of making you want to explore it.
As with previous entries on this list, such as Batman Returns or Alien vs. Predator, one could argue that the IPs these games are based on have helped them endure and allowed their popularity to persist. And to that, we would say - so what? It’s the X-Men. Who doesn’t want to fight as the X-Men?! And this game is still one of the best that the prolific comic has to offer. There’s a wide range of iconic characters at your disposal – Colossus, Cyclops, Dazzler, Nightcrawler, Storm and Wolverine – with six-player co-op available across two screens (awesome!) dominating early '90s arcades. The characters all complement each other nicely, with attributes distributed as you’d expect and standard attacks bolstered by individual mutant powers. These powers look fantastic and can very quickly clear out hordes of enemies but at the cost of a small portion of your character’s health, adding an 'easy-to-pick-up' element of risk verses reward that carries real jeopardy with it – a feature that would become standard in many beat ‘em ups down the line. Smashing through Sentinels and other iconic villains of the series as you battle your way to Magneto has never been so satisfying. Sadly, Backbone Entertainment's port for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, iOS and Android is no longer available.
The sequel to Konami's Crime Fighters (it was even called Crime Fighters 2 in Japan), Vendetta is one of the best arcade beat 'em ups of the era, combining superb visuals, a cast of varied characters and some reasonably innovative gameplay mechanics. Players are able to attack prone enemies on the ground and even smash them into walls using baseball bats, giving the game an additional wrinkle when compared to other examples of the genre. Never afforded a home conversion at the time of its release, Vendetta would later be released on modern systems thanks to Hamster's Arcade Archive series, and is well worth a look.
A bit of a cheeky entry this, but we'd be remiss not to include either of these series. Double Dragon is the grandfather of modern beat ‘em ups, paving the way in the late '80s and early '90s and setting up many of the conventions of the genre. But first doesn’t always mean best, and those early games really show their age now. Battletoads is a beloved fan classic from Rare – a company infamous for creating its own IPs in the same vein as other games and then besting them with superior mechanics. The Battletoads games are indeed legendary, but also brutally difficult, which can be off-putting for modern audiences who don’t necessarily want to memorise a game’s patterns to get through it. Luckily, this crossover game seamlessly blends the two worlds together, unshackling Double Dragon from its archaic routes and curbing the difficulty of Battletoads to create an excellent entry point for either series or just a fun, well made one-off. There’s debate over the best version, but for our money, the purity of the NES edition swings it for us. Interestingly, there’s no handheld game on this list (for good reason), but if you can try the Game Boy version as a curio, make sure you do. It’s an incredibly good port. Also, be sure to check out Rare's 1994 Battletoads arcade game (it's on Rare Reply) and the excellent modern update, as well as WayForward's Double Dragon Neon.
The arcade exclusive sequel to Denjin Makai – which was ported to the Super Famicom as Ghost Chaser Densei – Guardians: Denjin Makai II isn't as renowned as some of the other games on this list, but nonetheless ranks as one of the best beat 'em ups of all time. A whopping eight playable characters are on offer, each armed with a wide range of attacks. However, what makes the game really stand out is that it's perhaps the absolute apex of the '90s coin-op fighter in terms of presentation; it looks and sounds utterly stunning, sporting some of the most gorgeous 2D graphics you would have seen in any arcade at the time. Because it was released in 1996, just as arcades were waning and side-scrolling fighters were very much out of fashion, Guardians: Denjin Makai II didn't find the audience it deserved.
While Irem is obviously most famous for creating R-Type, it was also responsible for Kung-Fu Master, one of the foundational entries in the whole fighting game genre. Undercover Cops is another notable contribution from the company, albeit one which perhaps got less attention than it deserved. Set in a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-style landscape, the game's visuals are incredible – largely due to the fact that the same core team would leave Irem to found Nazca Corporation, which created Metal Slug for SNK – and the fact that you can pick up some usual objects (such as a concrete column) and use them as weapons makes it surprisingly brutal. The Super Famicom port – which is now worth a lot of money in its original form – removes the two-player mode and scales things back.
Sengoku is one of the longest-serving side-scrolling fighting series on the Neo Geo, a platform that is surprisingly light on the genre. This third entry – released a full decade after the first in 2001, when both the console itself and the genre were all but dead – is a real love letter to this type of game; bold characters, amazing music (composed by Toshikazu Tanaka, who previously worked on Fatal Fury), six playable characters (two need to be unlocked) and a horde of demons to slay make this a must-have release.