The Link-Up Spell: 3 Fantasy Beat’em Up Recs for a Retro-Gaming Weekend
Hail, Retro-Warriors! Grab your controllers, kidnap your comrades and prepare your snacks. Let’s spend a weekend night with some ass-kicking and truly old-school fantasy beat’em up titles!
In the late 80s, arcade machines still reigned supreme in so many countries. The home consoles lived peacefully with the coin swallowers and the two formats constantly exchanged different media and platforms. This was the time of Street Fighter II dominance, where large colorful sprites, more complex gameplays and primitive voice-overs changed the way we enjoy video games.
Besides the money-making machine that was Street Fighter II (and its numerous iterations), Capcom also released another hit in 1989: Final Fight. Borrowing the faux-3D side-scrolling movement of the technical achievements from Kung-Fu Master, the intense Battletoads first stage, the wacky Kunio-Kun series and the extremely popular Double Dragon trilogy, this was a title that made all the kids who played it scream loudly, “THIS IS SO R A D”.
In Final Fight, players choose between three street brawlers to… Uhh… Brawl some streets, of course. Spin kicks, somersaults, and knife throwing were part of the recipe for this successful debut. You could punch everyone; even the doors were totally destroyed instead of being opened like boring regular people do. The game was challenging, and it became one of those cult hits where the best players were the kings of the arcade, until another person dethroned their highest scores.
Final Fight was not the pioneer; it was just the popular and simpler game around this crazy bunch of titles thanks to the technical marvels inside the chip, and thanks to its massive following, this style saw more titles coming, like the acclaimed Streets of Rage saga, made by Sega, or the extremely fun Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games, from Konami.
But, the rabid fan base of the beat’em up subgenre wanted new twists on the formula, and then some developers had to use new mechanics or stories to express new gaming experiences.
My favorite niche of this style is what I call “fantasy beat’em up,” a tiny group of games that diverted from the modern streets settings to return to the high fantasy tropes from sources like Dungeons & Dragons, Conan The Barbarian or the Arcturian myths to support some changes on the gameplay.
The premise of the genre is, mostly, the same: go to the right, kill everything in sight smashing the attack button, get to the boss, figure the movement pattern and kill it. There are no complicated puzzles or riddles. This is the 90s sprite-based game equivalent of an 80s movie; and the fantasy beat’em up is the cheesy cousin of it that painted miniatures and read mythology books in his free time.
The illustrations and lore of these games are reminiscent of the old-school RPG media. Hand-painted draws depicting giant dragons, valorous warriors and proud magicians clash together in endless battles. The chiptune songs reflect this mood too, ranging from dungeon synth-like gloom to heroic upbeat marches, and sound triumphant along these short, but fun, stories.
Want to put your claws in one of these arcane tomes, adventurer? Let me recommend to you these 3 fantasy beat’em up retro titles, and let’s embark on a new journey!
First, we have the Golden Axe games, created by the Sega team who developed the classic Altered Beast. This fantasy beat’em up hit landed first on their arcade hardware and then ported to their sucessful home consoles, becoming another landmark for the blue company. Influenced by the high fantasy style from the Conan the Barbarian universe, the story is set in the fictional land of Yuria, where an evil being called Death Adder found the Golden Axe, the magical relic of the Kingdom, and captured the King and his daughter until the good people of the realm accept him as a their ruler. However, three vengeful young warriors join forces and prepare themselves for the difficult quest of overthrowing the wicked overlord. Gilius Thunderhead, the dwarf; Ax Battler, the barbarian, and Tyris, the amazon, are their names and they come as the selectable characters.
In Golden Axe, the player must defeat hordes of enemies with their weapons and bravery in the prototypical side-scrolling faux-3D. The action is packed, with responsive controls and fast moves, kicks, throws and charging attacks. Players also had the chance to use funny steeds, like a wacky chicken!
One of the distinct aspects of this series was the introduction of magic spells, which were some sort of ultimate bombs that wiped the whole screen from the pesky enemies. At this time, the animations of the spells were not that great, but the characters movements were correctly drawn, and the stages had a couple of cool details in the background.
The sound was revolutionary as well, using rudimentary screams and different sound effects to compliment the atmosphere. And, of course, the music jams hard.
The Sega Genesis version had some technical issues with the sound, but this was compensated with a new game mode, titled “Duel”, and a new ending. Besides these details, the conversion was pretty faithful and, like those simple times, is packed with some hilarious bad translation choices.
The game is pretty short, since it was created for the arcade style, but it is totally worth it to play with a 2nd player. Also, remember to kick off the “green buglars”, they delivered weed in those bags.
Later on, Sega released the sequel, Golden Axe II, in 1991, for the Sega Genesis, which was not that cool anymore, so I recommend sticking your axes to the first chapter!
You can find Golden Axe on the Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft Virtual Console systems. You can also buy it on Steam for the PC.
The King of Dragons
With the success of Final Fight, Capcom did not cross their arms waiting for their competition. Instead, this behemoth of the video game industry crafted new secrets in their Japanese headquarters.
In a loose trilogy of arcade hits, my favorite is the second game of this string, a piece aptly titled The King of Dragons.
Players could choose between five character classes, from warriors to mages, in order to try to stop the awakening of the red dragon Gildiss and his malefic horde of monsters that plagued the peaceful realm of Malus.
The archetypical classes, correctly influenced by the Dungeons & Dragons manuals, are not only a cosmetic favor. Each one had different traits to their attacks and movements, so it was required that the player should practice with each to master their skills, gaining some replay value at the same time.
Interestingly, the multiplayer had way more depth than the usual titles of the era, so the teamwork required a little bit more strategy than the common, “I will take the bad guys from the left, you take the bad guys from the right.”
Besides that, The King of Dragons had a simple level advancement system, akin to that of RPG’s, in which the players were rewarded with new weapons and stats with higher scores.
The setting was highly colorful, with big sprites and many different monsters and locations in each stage. While some magazines at the time criticized the short length of the areas, the game ran smooth and was very varied with the ambience.
The gameplay also featured the traditional multi-strike attack that consumed part of the character’s health and a new blocking system, partially taken from the Street Fighter series, for the classes with shields.
The arcade version could be played by three people at the same time. The successful port to the SNES had to cut this option down to two players, but the game length did not suffer from the edit, and it remained practically intact in the home console, besides some sprites’ size reductions. At the same time, the great Yoko Shimomura soundtrack was complete too!
The King of Dragons was presented again to the public on a PlayStation 2, PlayStation Portable and Xbox compilation with other Capcom classics. Sadly, it has not been re-released lately. If you own (or find) the SNES version, I really recommend to dust it off and play it with a partner!
Also, in case you are curious, the first part of this loose trilogy was Magic Sword, more akin to a platformer, and the last one was Knights of the Round, based on the Arthur tales. The third part was the most technically accomplished of this trio, but I think The King of Dragons had an undeniable charisma.
Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara
My final recommendation in this retro gaming gathering is the incredible Dungeons & Dragons combo from 1996: ”The Tower of Doom” and Shadow Over Mystara, probably the best titles of this niche style and two of the best beat’em up games ever made!
Developed by Capcom with a team that included real D&D followers and writers, these arcade titles accomplished the mission of merging the RPG elements with the ass-kicking action of the beat’em up formula, without making it overly complex for the audience.
Like in The King of Dragons, the D&D games put the players in the skin of a class-based archetypical character that conditioned the play style to focus the game design into teamwork.
The role-playing elements were built into a more immersive narration that let players decide between different dialogues and options in some parts of the story, in order to include the party in choosing how it developed in the whole game. These forking paths also branch into different endings.
Also, the hardware let the development team create a gorgeous hand-drawn game that features large sprites with multiple animation frames. This was paired with tight controls that let the player move the character with total ease and response. It is clearer the dev team pushed the CPS-2 arcade board to its limit with all the experience accumulated during all those years using it as a base for their games.
Both titles form a whole story, and the new inclusions did not stop on the radical narration. Characters could also equip items, earn spells, find hidden objects and gain new levels with the revamped game engine.
If you find flaws in the early mentioned recommendations, then get this, since the two games were re-released as combo titled Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara on Steam and the Virtual Consoles of Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft.
Chronicles of Mystara is, perhaps, the Holy Grail of the “fantasy beat’em up” micro genre!
By the end of 1996, the classic beat’em up genre ceased to be produced. Developers and companies had to run in order to embark into the 3D boat, and the last titles were becoming derivative of the big titles. In fact, one of the safest routes to promote a TV show, a comic book or a movie was by doing a beat’em up, since the formula was very simple to follow.
With this stagnation, the “fantasy beat’em up” niche practically died too. Casting aside the Dynasty Warriors series and the new “hack’n’slash’ format spearheaded by God of War and Devil May Cry, there is not too much of this genre left. The Virtual Console services revived some of these titles, so the only thing left is to check them to travel once again to the time where the quests were simpler and the fun was at the touch of a coin or a button.
Did you like some of these titles? Do you have an anecdote to share with us? Want to recommend more retro beat’em up games? Want us to cover and research other retro games? Cast your Link-Up Spell in the comments and let’s talk for a while!
The Link-Up Spell is a weekly Toilet ov Hell column about music, movies, books, retro video games and guaranteed Elfic nonsense. If you want to contact the author to send your material, mail us at toiletovhell [at] gmail.com with the subject “The Link-Up Spell” or message him on social media.