Aztez – A Game of Conquest and Brutality

The History Of Beat ‘Em Ups

I was compelled to put this timeline together after someone told me that they were under the impression that a specific beat 'em up was more seminal than it actually is. So instead of offering a lengthy explanation I put together the chronological facts. As it stands, it's the cursory data that is easily available on Wikipedia (all of the timeline's articles link to the corresponding Wikipedia entry) but I may supplement it with more interesting information about mechanical evolution if enough people show interest.


A little bit of information on the "ages" in the timeline; the different ages are, for me, about design and aesthetic sensibilities, and not about mechanical properties, although these tend to dramatically change between the ages.

The First Age

The First Age obviously encompasses the birth and early childhood of beat 'em ups. Contrary to what many people believe, I don't feel like Kung Fu Master was the first beat 'em up, which is why the first age starts with Renegade in 1986. The rest of the age is comprised of traditional beat 'em ups that took place in side scrolling levels. This age is noted for its simple gameplay and simple graphics; technology constraints enforced the simplicity.

The Second Age

The Second Age began with Aliens Vs Predator, which brought a marked increased in mechanical sophistication and nuance. Every aspect of the beat 'em up experience was improved by a substantial margin. Most of this select handful of high quality games were created by Capcom on their CPS2 hardware. This brief period was the golden apex of the arcade beat 'em up. While 2nd age beat 'em ups would continue to periodically emerge, I consider Capcom's 1997 Battle Circuit the formal end of the age.

The Dark Age

Unfortunately, the very promising Second Age was decapitated by the advent of 3d gameplay on the home console. This brief Dark Age is comprised of a few remarkably poor titles that were produced and marketed on the excitement of early 3d gameplay. These games are cumbersome, stiff, and underdeveloped as combat experiences. Before you yell at me and tell me how much you loved one of these games and that I'm a dumb jerk, just know that I'm not negating their nostalgic value. As beat 'em ups, they were definitely the awkward teenage years of the genre.

The Third Age

The Third Age was ushered in by Devil May Cry 1 and put the beat 'em up back in the spotlight with 3d gameplay that finally looked and felt good. While I'm not necessarily implying that the games in this age are all great (I personally find DMC1 very stiff and unenjoyable at this point and plenty of these games are just ok), they are built on more mature design principles. The third age has been a 10+ year renaissance, only losing momentum in recent years. There are games in all ages I have left out, but I intentionally left a lot of them out because I don't believe they contributed to the timeline. But by all means, let me know if you'd like a game inserted by telling me why you feel it belongs. And besides, I might have just forgotten it. ;)

  • John Polson

    Will Aztez usher in a new age?

    • I’m hoping it does; it’s WAY past time for beat ’em ups to grow up a bit and contain game structures that are actually interesting. Fingers crossed we can pull that off!

  • John Polson

    Digital distribution brought local co-op back, which is super fun on its own (having someone to play), but having us do more than button mash or use tag-team moves, or share loot would be great indeed. of course, if you are making a single player beat em up, you can arguably do more no? Do you think co-op is restricting in any way?

    is it better to think what’s good for the future beat em up vs whats good as a co-op beat em up mechanic?

    • I’m not sure what digital distribution has to do with local co-op; sure, Castle Crashers was digitally distributed but I believe it would have been a remarkably good local co-op experienced regardless of how it got to gamers.

      I realize there have been some digital re-releases of seminal first age beat ’em ups in the last couple years but it doesn’t appear that anything is being “brought back”, so to speak. Have these re-releases sold at all? Is anyone even asking for local co-op in beat ’em ups? I sincerely don’t know but I do know that the only 3rd age beat ’em up with any sort of multiplayer is Platinum’s upcoming Anarchy reigns, and that’s skirting the line between beat ’em up and fighting game. Although I’d be willing to bet that Anarchy Reigns is going to do poorly regardless of whether it has multiplayer in it or not. :(

      And I don’t understand your question. Can you elaborate?

  • What made you put Castle Crashers or Shank in the Third Age? I’ll agree they’re recent and good, but I’m wondering what specific aspects of its design you feel were informed by the earlier Third Age titles. To me, they feel like they owe a lot more to Second Age beat ’em ups, but it’s also possible that I missed the depth entirely.

    To elaborate: They felt solid to me, but not particularly expressive. When I look at Third Age games like DMC/GoW/Viewtiful Joe series, I feel like they are uniquely informed by DMC’s expressive combat system. I don’t quite feel that in either Shank or CC.

    • For me the ages are more about the sensibilities employed. While Shank and Castle Crashers bear a strong resemblance to the previous ages, subtle implementation differences distinguish it from its predecessors, from high level properties like advanced enemy behavior and sophisticated mash flows to lower level properties like animation curves and audio cues. They’re just more mature than the games of the Second Age.

      An exercise I used when trying to determine the age (cuz it definitely happened at the time of writing) was to anachronize those games; what would Shank or Castle Crashers look like as coin op in a second age arcade environment? They would be leaps and bounds beyond their siblings in every way.

  • Daltronica

    Great work. Did you miss the Bouncer (square), also violent storm from way back in the day (taito i think)

    • I did! Will add right now!

      Completely forgot about The Bouncer. :)

      • Yeah easily done. The Bouncer had a lot going for it. Despite the high production values, cool character design and RPG/customize options, it played pretty bad. The endless parade of shiny cutscenes and mental rag doll physics didn’t help.

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  • Oscar Ramirez

    what do you think about including “no more heroes” which tried to include the wiimote mechanisms to the gender, and did a few other experiments.

    • I didn’t consider it because frankly, I found the combat very unenjoyable. I appreciate the fact that a couple earnest attempts have been made to make combat more interesting with the wiimote (NMH, Muramasa, Madworld, Red Steel, etc.) but in my opinion it just makes it more cumbersome and tedious.

  • Oscar Ramirez

    I was wondering about including TMNT arcade to the list based on two arguments: 1. The game was the first to extend the amount of players to four. 2. It was the first Beat them up based on an IP and boosted the creation of other beat them ups based on IPs.

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  • gojiguy

    Cool list, and I know it can’t include EVERYTHING but I still believe the Warriors series deserved a mention… All in all good list with nice structure.