Beat-’em-ups are an enduring part of videogame culture. Bitmap Books offers a comprehensive look at their history with a lavish guide compiling over 200 games.
Friends, lovers, and enemies alike often ask me one single thing. “Dave, you who are gifted with swan-like grace, the stature of an Olympian, and fists of unforgiving adamantine; how can I soar to such lofty heights?” Invariably, I consider the question while reclining against a nearby wall, the building behind me crumbling under the weight of my gigachad body. Lighting a match on my calloused sasquatch hands, I ignite a cigarette and answer them with the cruel veracity of a Jerry Springer pregnancy test. “You need only spread your wings and beat them. However, first, you must forge your wings in the crucible of combat! Know that Icarus’s waxen plumage melted in the face of the Sun: you must condition your fight-frenzied feathers in the heat of the streets, my fledglings! Hone your grit and wit with sidescrolling beat-’em-ups”. Thus far, they’ve all walked away halfway through this explanation. Fortunately, Bitmap Books offers a more digestible endorsement for games about literally painting the streets red.
Go Straight is a non-fiction book by the award-winning comic book author and video game journalist Dave Cook (no relation) that serves as the definitive compendium of the sidescrolling beat-’em-up genre from its inception in 1984, all the way to 2021. Named after the iconic theme from the first level of SEGA’s Streets of Rage 2 it both teaches and celebrates the art of walking around and assaulting a colourful assortment of goons. It’s a rather impressive undertaking; there are hundreds of games in the genre, and each contribution gets at least a page dedicated to it. Dave was aided in his quest by other accomplished gamers: Chris Scullion, SEGA Lord X, and Steve Gregson.
The presentation is exceptional. The cover features artwork by Jorge M. Velez that captures the gritty but absurd nature of the typical beat-’em-up. The interior features visuals from almost literally every beat-’em-up, some of which are given their own detailed infographics. The high-quality lithographic print brings out the life in the sprite work, the text is legible and well-edited, and the spine of this hardback book is sewn bound which ensures longevity even when opened wide. Overall, the aesthetic is very clean.
The book was made with both a love and respect for the genre and its place in both the video game industry and popular culture. This is made abundantly clear in the preface and opening chapter where the quintessential qualities of beat-’em-ups are discussed at length. At the core of these games is the overall realisation of distinctive protagonists and villains using graphics and sound design, as well as the feeling of catharsis that comes from overcoming the increasingly absurd odds the game throws at you. These elements make for a gameplay loop that served as the foundation for various other genres. It’s difficult to play combo-oriented action games like Bayonetta, God of War, and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (as a quick aside the genre has a frustrating amount of non-specific unofficial names like character action/stylish action/spectacle fighter), Musou games like Dynasty Warriors, or all but the most recent Yakuza entries and not see where they drew inspiration from. The most prominent successor of sidescrolling beat-’em-ups might be the Souls games, which require an exploratory approach to overcome the unrelenting difficulty of their oppressive environs and enemy encounters.
Every game gets at least one page describing it and what it brought to the table, with notable titles receiving more. Games are discussed in release order and divided by decade. Each title is framed in the historical context of the decade, the year of release, and that title’s place in its series if it is in one. The book also makes sure to say what consoles the games are available on at the time of publishing. It’s very thorough, and engaging enough that reading it in order is not unlike instances in the genre where you wouldn’t be able to progress until you defeated every enemy on screen.
However, it doesn’t answer some of the more obscure questions I have about beat-’em-ups. Like, why is Streets of Rage called “Bare Knuckle” in its original Japanese release despite so many of the characters clearly wearing gloves? Yeah, some of the gloves have holes for the knuckles, but it seems kinda disingenuous to name the game after that. The localisation team knew what they were doing. On a more serious note, if you have a looser definition of what constitutes a beat-’em-up, you might find yourself wondering why some titles weren’t included, despite Dave also acknowledging how much plasticity there is to the genre. I would make a case for the Viewtiful Joe series, for example, which I assume didn’t make the cut because of its platforming elements or its proximity to combo-oriented action games. The book also doesn’t include the shovelware that inundates digital storefronts, but that is to its benefit.
I would be doing a disservice to imply the contents isn’t exhaustive, however. The book is a veritable goldmine of trivia, includes interviews, and has entire pages dedicated to bestiaries, stages, and movesets. I can honestly say I’ve never heard of Ninja Clowns, and I was especially delighted to see that Shinji Mikami’s overlooked and severely under-ported God Hand gets pride of place in the 2000-2009 section. The book even opens with a foreword from Yoshihisa Koshimoto, the creator of Renegade (Nekketsu Kouha Kunio-kun in Japan) and Double Dragon, who still offers his expertise to the Double Dragon series from time to time as a consultant.
Go Straight also comes with a pdf version, so you’ll always have access to the contents even if the worst should happen to the physical copy. The pdf has high-quality scans of all the pages, though make sure to use the recommended page-viewing settings—the double-page spreads can lose some of their effect because of how the cover staggers the page order.
All in all, Go Straight: The Ultimate Guide to Side-Scrolling Beat-‘Em-Ups is informative, accessible, funny, and certifiably cool. Game developers, publishers, and investors could learn a lot from the victories of the more successful beat-’em-ups; it seems like there’s always a future for companies that possess an enthusiasm for experimentation. But before them comes the player, and Go Straight‘s a welcome addition to the bookshelf of anyone who’s a beat-’em-up fan, fancies themselves a gaming historian, or is looking to learn more about the genre. You can grab a copy from Bitmap Book’s website …or learn karate, storm their headquarters, and hope your wings when work when the CEO throws you off the roof of their 100-story penthouse.
Consider also checking out The King of Fighters: The Ultimate History for a book detailing the history of SNK’s premiere fighting game series!
A flamboyant ultra nerd, Dave participates in the Underlevelled Tournament both for the thrill of the fight, and to avenge the orphans lost in the climax of the previous tournament.
Hobbies: street dance, collecting manga volumes, reading, editing
Likes: short-to-medium walks on the beach, pointing out how things can and will be misconstrued as racism, fighting games, RPGs, anime, Hades, alternative hip hop, conscious hip hop, Mara Wilson, overly long bios, ice-cream
Dislikes: insincere media, his own uncanny resemblance to Richard Ayoade, mayonnaise