There’s a lot of different terms for video game genres that are often thrown around through ubiquity and then discarded shortly after. I can recall a time when games like R-Type and Gradius were referred to as shooters.
Such a sweeter innocent time it was.
Recently there’s been resurgence of another type of game known as the beat-em up or arcade brawler. Now, you would think that of all the genres to die with arcades that it would be the great quarter (and sometimes dollar) drinker, the beat-em up genre. Which I’ll call brawler from here on out.
But if I claimed that then I’d be ignoring the success of titles like Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: The Game (yes I still hate this franchise), Castle Crashers and the integration of elements of these games in titles like Dust: An Elysian Tail. Never mind the 3D renditions of the genre with titles like God of War.
Now I’d like to pretend that I wasn’t a fan of this genre due to the fact that it uses gameplay elements that, theoretically, I should find boring. There’s the idea of waves of enemies continually coming at a player while constantly getting stronger. There was the fact that the player always has the same move set and relative power despite the fact that the enemies only got tougher. Then there was the fact that you can strike an entire area for a whole minute and completely whiff it because an enemy because you were one millimeter too low.
GOD THAT PISSED ME OFF!
But all the same, I still have titles I fondly remember. There’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time one of the first games I ever beat. On a birthday at Chuck E Cheese’s no less. Damn that was kickass. The Spider-Man arcade game that gave you wall crawling segments. Also beaten. And there was the Dungeon’s and Dragons arcade games.
I’ve only played the one Shadow over Mystara but it always felt like a game that had too much content in it to simply stand as an arcade tower. The use of a level system, the possibility of branching quest paths, even the simple opportunity to change equipped items seemed like more than an arcade brawler was capable of. It certainly seemed like it would require more time than a normal arcade trip allowed.
Of course; now I know there’s a history of such things but to a eight year old me killing time with the spare change in his pocket it seemed like I would never be able to access all of that content.
But in looking at the positive elements from brawlers with more advanced gameplay mechanics I find myself drawing comparisons to another gameplay style.
That is the Metroidvania game.
This is also known as the dungeon explorer made popular with eponymous games like Metroid and Castlevania. In a game like this you have a character traversing a two dimensional side scrolling environment but rather than a linear progression, the player traverses a map and often returns to areas to explore places he could not access previously. It’s like a side scrolling Zelda game.
Among titles in this style Metroid Fusion, Castlvania Aria of Sorrow and Order of Ecclesia are my personal favourites. I’m not even so presumptuous to say that there aren’t others equally good in the genre for different people. It is my favourite for a reason.
I might, miiiiiight have played this game a lot.
And I know the Splatterhouse franchise attempted a brawler that could traverse an area to area map though there really wasn’t much of an inventory to speak of, or any way to earn new abilities or moves.
I do think that the more features one adds to a brawler the closer it brings them to a dungeon explorer game. The virtue of most brawlers, due to their arcade origins, has always been superior graphics and processing power. Now, of course, that’s no longer relevant in the modern era. I do feel that the dungeon explorer is more relevant than ever though.
With a lot of games focusing on an area map that massive and often open world, the idea of a more nuanced, smaller map with much more detail, interactivity and personality is vastly more appealing. That’s why I love Dishonored as much as I do. There may be small maps for a Triple A game but you’ll be damned if you won’t spend hours combing them for everything of value, let alone alternate paths, hidden secrets and optional text.
This touches a bit on an earlier article when I mentioned how I liked classic pen and paper RPG adventure modules because of how much unique content was stuffed into every room regardless of difficulty.
I suppose if I had to put a point on this whole thing I would comment mostly on the evolution of genres, especially the brawler. We can say what we like about a game that is mostly littered with combat but if you can find ways to make gameplay stimulating instead of repetitive. It’s obvious what my preference is but when you have alternate successful means then really there’s no strong singular solution.
And in the end that’s probably the best outcome. That there is no one way to make a game genre viable. Just as there’s many niche audiences in gaming there are many ways to make a game. You just have to find it.
So too does this work exist.