I’ve been kicking this thought around from time to time, wondering to myself if the Brawler genre truly died. It was one of the grand staples of the 90s arcade scene with games like Final Fight, Streets of Rage, the D&D brawlers, and Double Dragon. In the jump to 3D, these games stuck around, but didn’t quite have the lasting appeal of its predecessors. Games like Die Hard Arcade and Fighting Force tried to fill the void, but it looked like the genre was on its way out. Or at least that’s that some in the media and community had proclaimed when less and less of these types of games were being released both at home and in the arcades. When games like The Warriors and Viewtiful Joe were released in the early and mid 2000s, some would even say that these games had revitalized the genre. But was there anything to really revive? Simple answer really: No. In fact, the genre was alive and well, it just took on a different name.
The general idea of the Brawler (also called Beat ‘Em Ups) was that you would go down a stage and beat up a bunch of enemies along the way, usually with your fists (and the occasional weapon). What made brawlers stand out was that you would go down a stage and be stopped by some enemies. You couldn’t advance forward until all foes onscreen were downed. When done, an arrow would come in and tell you “GO!” In the transition to 3D, progression was a more or less natural, where you’d be moved to the next set piece or the next area opens up after taking out some dudes.
After the transition, brawlers looked to be dying. Enter games Devil May Cry and the birth of the modern Action game. The emphasis on these games were on more faster paced action and less exploration. The more common name for these was the “Hack ‘n’ Slash,” and were much faster than any game that came before it. Fast reflexes, crazy combos, and more enemies to take out was the name of the game. The genre was on the rise. Dynasty Warriors 2, Onimusha, and the new Ninja Gaiden were making the rounds and getting praise. And yet when games like The Warriors and God Hand came out, they had moniker of “reviving a dying/dead” genre, or not seeing many like it. It was more noticeable when games like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Castle Crashers came out, with headlines saying that the genre has made a comeback.
So what am I getting at here? Well, it all comes down to foundation. Like I said earlier, the brawler sees you going from Point A to Point B, and being stopped along the way by some goons. Only when you take them out can you progress. You’re usually stopped by the screen itself for 2D brawlers or a locked door for 3D. As for Hack n Slashers, it’s the same setup. You’re moving down corridor, something blocks the door, and the only way to take it down is to beat up the enemies that showed up. Devil May Cry, Bayonetta, and God of War have this setup (my memory’s fuzzy, but in the case of God of War, it’s prompts not showing up for doors). All the tenets of the brawler are still there, but only had a name change.
It’s from here though that we begin to see what exactly defines the Brawler and the Hack n Slash. Brawlers are more methodical and slower paced, focuses mostly on hand to hand combat, lower combo counts, and there usually a handful of enemies at any given wave. But for the hack n slash, the action is much faster, you usually attack with a weapon, combos are long and even go up in the air, and there’s probably a lot more enemies to face at the same time. So it’s the same setup, but with different gameplay styles and methodologies. As such, games released during the 7th generation had clear identifiers as to what was called a “brawler” and an “action” game.
But now there seems to be a small change happening that could catch on if enough people notice. Recently I played Dragon’s Crown and Senran Kagura Burst, and it was interesting to see, at least gameplay wise, where they pulled their influences. These are essentially brawlers, and are even identified as such thanks to their sidecrolling nature. However you can draw a line right in the middle and measure how far in one direction the games go in their gameplay. Dragon’s Crown leans more toward the classic style. While the action is frenetic, the movement of some of the enemies and player characters is still slower. Air combos are only possible because the player sets it up and follows through manually. And the amount of enemies on screen is on the lower side (though it looks higher since it’s 4-player). With Senran Kagura Burst however, it leans more on the tenets of the hack n slash, or Dynasty Warriors to be specific. Character movement is fast, there are lots on enemies in a wave, and combo counts can easily go into the hundreds.
Nowadays you see the term “brawler” mostly used to define sidescrolling beat ’em ups, like Senran Kagura, Aeterno Blade, and Fairy Bloom Freesia. Interestingly, Hack n Slash seems to have fallen out of use, as quite a few in the media just use Action to define games like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta. Free roaming games with a heavy emphasis on fisticuffs, like Yakuza and The Warriors, will still be defined as brawlers. More or less, the two terms now define the kind gameplay these games feature. So next time a game like comes around and is said to revive a dead genre, tell them the genre never died to begin with. As LL Cool J said, don’t call it a comeback, it’s been here for years.