The Neo-Geo launched in 1990 with platformers, puzzles, shooters, sports games, and a few titles with the popular genre of the time right before Street Fighter II made 1-on-1 Fighting Games the Golden Goose of Arcade owners: Beat ’em Ups.
Launching in 1984, both Kung-Fu Master and Renegade made the genre popular, and a few years later Double Dragon and Final Fight became the hype in the Coin-Op business; so it only made sense that SNK started developing compelling brawlers of its own on its powerful new console.
Unfortunately, the first few brawlers it had were pretty mediocre games even at the time of its release…
And while The King of Fighters and Metal Slug became successful franchises even to this day, and the Advanced Video System had several great games of other genres, it got just a handful of Beat ’em ups, which are mostly forgotten by 90’s gamers.
So let’s take a look at some of the “punch every baddie on the screen” games that are actually worth a playthrough on SNK’s ridiculously expensive arcade board. This is the
5 Best Beat ’em Up Games For The Neo-Geo
Burning Fight (SNK – 1991)
In the library of its home system, average is enough to get on the top 5 (just play Ninja Combat and Robo Army and compare the quality to see what I mean)
Burning Fight feels like a watered-down version of Final Fight. It’s not really a bad game, it’s just that even when it came out there was a lot of competition, and as time went by the Super Nintendo and Genesis got better games than this.
Sega’s Street of Rage was made because Nintendo got hold of the timed exclusive Final Fight home port, and Bare Knuckle as it’s known in Japan, was made so they could have a Beat ’em Up before Capcom’s popular brawler finally made it to the Sega Mega CD. Thing is, the Streets of Rage trilogy is defining and fondly remembered by fans while Burning Fight is buried in the sea of similar games that came out around 1990.
So, what is it about? You take control of one of 3 cops who go around the city punching and kicking gang members until you reach their boss and pound him into submission. Sounds familiar? Well, this game takes place in Japan and you fight bad guys that look a little different than American Gang Members.
You have A button to punch, B for jumping, and C for kicks, but the problem here is that you can’t really combo an enemy, and striking a rival doesn’t feel as rewarding as in other games.
Sure you can pick up weapons, throw metal barrels and even pick up guns to shoot the Yakuza members, but doing this just feels much better in other games made by Technos, Capcom, Konami, and other companies that tried their best to design an unforgettable brawler and take away all your coins at the arcade.
Duke looks like Cody, Ryu is like Guy and well, Billy is not like Mike Haggar, but he’s such a bland guy.
The enemies are generic Japanese gang members, blonde Super Mario, Dick Tracy with a .22 magnum, a guy that looks like the knife and dynamite thrower from Metro City, and a generic thug wearing shades and wielding a metal chain.
Then there are the level bosses, the first one is Hulk Hogan, who later on becomes head swapped and darker skin to look like Mr. T, and that was common practice at the time. Just like the Level 2 Boss looks like Van Damme combined with Ivan Drago.
The other bosses actually look like they belong to a Yakuza family until you reach the end boss, and he’s a short chubby guy that fights with a cane gun, maybe based on Batman’s villain the Penguin?
Perhaps the most memorable character in this whole game is the “not so masculine” hobo you find on the dark alleys of Mission 3, who attacks by “sucking the life out of you”. And I will leave his description at that.
Is Burning Fight worth a playthrough nowadays? Well, yes, with a friend or if you’re a Neo-Geo collector, or Beat ’em up enthusiast.
It does have a few things going on for it., but it goes to show you just how lacking the Neo-Geo was with Beat ’em Ups. Don’t worry, things are about to get a whole lot better.
Mutation Nation (SNK – 1992)
A year after Burning Fight came and went, SNK got a “better-than-average” brawler that did try to have its own identity and to set itself apart from the late 80’s urban setting vigilante fighters. Or at least it doesn’t look like the heroes here are fighting the Black Warriors or Mad Gear.
Mutation Nation has 2 heroes beating up mutants created by a mad scientist, and while that particular plot wasn’t that original by 1992, in its overall presentation, feel, visual look, music, and gameplay, this game was at least a bit different, and certainly much more unique than the previous game made the same developers (BF)
Gameplay-wise, you have a button for attacks, and you can chain several strikes to perform a combo. What makes it a little unique, is a POWER Bar right below your life meter that fills while you press down the A button, and when you fill it and release it, you perform a special attack that can hurt all enemies on screen.
You can collect gems to restore your life and get a different death blow to use against the mutant soldiers trying to take over the world. The strategy involved to save your deathblows for the right time and place yourself where you won’t take a hit while filling up the Power Meter is the key to success, and a novelty in the beat ’em up genre, at least at the time.
The fighters you can choose from play mostly the same, but aren’t just a color swap, and their attire is sure different than the generic blonde guy with jeans and a white t-shirt that was becoming stale at the time.
How about a redhead with a leather jacket and blue bandana? Yep, that’s different. And someone that looks like Zack from the Power Rangers before that show aired. It was something fresh at the time.
The enemies also look different than general gang members and street thugs. You fight humans with snail faces, humanoid praying mantes, huge muscular men with deformed shoulders and kneecaps, green gremlin dogs, and even mutants with cybernetic parts that can fry you with electric weapons.
The bosses are huge and take up a lot of space on the screen, The animation is pretty good all things considered, since these kinds of games didn’t have that many frames of animation at the time.
Something that every beat ’em up needs, is a memorable tune to remember it. Double Dragon has the Title Screen and Mission 1 theme, Data East’s Bad Dudes has the super catchy Level 2 song where they beat ‘up ninjas over trucks going at high speed on the highway, and Streets of Rage has a whole original soundtrack made of great electronic dance music that gave it it’s identity. Well, the first level music in Mutation Nation is quite good and catchy in its own right, and the audio work done here as well as the graphics are a step forward from Burning Fight.
Of course, this game suffers from SNK’s boss syndrome and the final bad guy is cheap as F. But is not like other Arcade games weren’t guilty of this in design to make you pay more to see the end.
Is it worth playing now? Yes! Later on, some games had you beating zombies, aliens, and hybrid creatures, but by 1992 the Neo-Geo got the Beat ’em Up it needed that didn’t look like a cheap rip-off of a more popular arcade game.
EightMan (Pallas – 1991)
Based on the Super Hero Robot Manga of the same name, 8 Man is a sidescrolling Beat ’em Up where you can’t walk to the back or front of the screen, and instead can only move left, right, or jump, like in any platform game.
It is considered a Beat ’em Up since you can get overwhelmed by enemies and need to hit them several times before defeating them, unlike for example Spin Master, which feels more like a shooter, or traditional platformer, since most enemies are defeated with a single hit from your yo-yo.
EightMan has you throwing punches and kicks all the time. It does look funny how the cyborg you’re controlling is always running but moves very slowly on screen.
Once you start getting swamped by robotic weapons and Terminator wannabes, you start seeing why this is a brawler more in the vein of Spartan X (Kung-Fu Master in Japan) and its sequel Vigilante than action-adventure sidescrollers such as Strider.
8 Man has a unique visual look, art style, and OST that does set it apart from the rest of beat ’em ups, free-roaming, or only one-plane sidescrolling.
It’s certainly not to be confused with The Ninja Warriors which also had robots that could only walk left or right, and DC Comics The Flash is the most mainstream character you can compare EightMan to, but he didn’t have an Arcade Game at the time (or now for that matter)
In the regular stages, you walk and jump around while hitting everything that moves, because everything that moves is trying to kill you (or deplete your battery). Across the levels, you will find floating L-Capsules that restore one life point, P-Capsules that make your attacks stronger; and B-Capsules so you can use your special attack one more time.
You can attack in front of you, duck down and slide by pressing the jump button, and press the C button to activate a special bomb attack that hits evil killer robots around you. When 8 Man throws a punch or kick, you can see energy beams come out from his limbs, and this is what hits the enemies.
You have to be careful not to touch any antagonist robot, or you will lose a life point. And you have to be extra careful with the flying enemies since they’re covered in spikes and have laser beams. Those darn drones were available 30 years ago by mad scientists in games, but now any kid can have one as a toy (without the weapons to destroy cyborg hero-thingies, of course)
There are also high-speed stages where you are always running, and robot rivals are running at the back of your lane or the front, and occasionally jump to the highway to try to delete your hard drive. This looks pretty fast and cool, like a Sonic game. Pretty awesome since it was made in the early 90s when there were so many slow-paced games out there (including the first Sengoku for Neo-Geo, more on that later)
It’s also worth mentioning that the game has a very good soundtrack with sci-fi robotic sounds and mechanical voice-overs.
It can be played with a friend, who controls 9 Man, (8 Man’s partner) to fight off the mecha army that is trying to take over the world.
This is a game that truly stands out. It’s an awesome cybernetic adventure worth playing with the intention of using fewer credits each playthrough. Find a copy of 8 Man and save the world like in the manga!
Sengoku 2 (SNK – 1993)
Since one objective at the arcades is to make your game stand out from the rest of the cabinets by catching people’s attention, making another Turf War Beat ’em Up wasn’t gonna cut it.
Sega and Capcom tried a medieval fantasy setting, and it worked, and the futuristic setting was also becoming kind of crowded by the mid-90s. So how about a game in the Samurai Era?
The first Sengoku was a very slow-paced game. You move around like a turtle and we already had a game with turtles traveling through time at this point (and they were fast).
If it was supposed to show the Power of the Neo-Geo, it sure didn’t deliver, and while it had a few original ideas, like changing characters on the fly and having ancient Japanese swordsmen from the 16th century as enemies, it wasn’t a great hack n’ slash even by early 90s standards.
But two years later, when the sequel came out, the pace was turned up and it is a very enjoyable Beat ’em Up, pushing enough variety and fun factor to be worth playing to this day.
Here you have 2 different slash attack buttons (A and B), C for jumping, and D to change the character on the go. You can change the main hero to a dog wearing armor, a quick ninja, or a big strong tengu warrior with a long staff, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.
Also, you can block enemy attacks by pressing together A+B, and if you press down A+B+C, you charge an energy projectile attack of your own to hit far away.
According to the game’s story, you are from the future and must travel through time to stop a demon from controlling history or something like that. You get teleported to different areas and get to fight old samurai spirits, zombies with naginatas, armored dogs, dragons, and huge bosses.
You don’t really chain up slashes in a combo with most enemies, but for the most resilient ones, it is possible to cut them several times like slicing up a pizza.
If you attack at the same time as a rival, your swords will clash and then you have to move the stick around and tap the attack buttons to kick him away. Sometimes you will barely get to place your sword and will be thrown down while shielding yourself with your blade, in which case you can still escape unharmed by pressing everything like crazy.
Besides the normal cutting up spirits levels, you also have stages where you are riding a horse, and the controls change a little, since now you have a button to attack in front of you, and another to attack at 6 o’clock (like the controls from Double Dragon II) and pressing C button to do ducking attacks.
You fight off other horse riders and flying possessed masks. These transitioning levels aren’t as fun or cool looking as Eight-Man running at full speed hitting drones and other fast-running robots, but they’re a good addition to change things up.
After fighting in the Sengoku Period, you will travel to the 1940s and fight off soldiers commanded by a German Officer with a rapier, and then to the ’90s in a commercial district, where you will see regular people running away from the otherworldly beings that you are fighting.
Last you go to celestial islands and slash-n-dice your way to the final boss to cut him in half and save the world, past, present, and future.
Sengoku 2 did everything right, and while it may not be one of the best Beat ’em Ups at the Arcades, it was a very enjoyable brawler that tried to stand out; and on a system with just a couple of (mediocre) hack-and-slash games, it certainly deserves a spot at the top. But they made another one… and it’s better!
Sengoku 3 (Noise Factory – 2001)
Coming out right at the end of the Neo-Geo’s life cycle (which was over a decade) the third game in the series is the better looking and better sounding of the trilogy, and at a time when the Beat ’em Up genre was pretty much dead, it was a nice surprise to find this Ninja Brawler on SNK’s system.
Story-wise, it doesn’t seem to have started out as a Sengoku sequel, since here you control 4 Shinobi Warriors and the references to the past 2 games are vague.
What matters is that this is a very good brawler with a nice combo system, superb animation, big sprites, and 6 big levels to fight on. Overall just a great experience for any fan of the genre.
After Street Fighter II came out and SNK started to focus on 1 vs 1 Fighting Games, creating another Beat ’em Up just wasn’t on their minds. I don’t blame ’em, Capcom, Konami and other companies were crashing on the genre, and even getting licenses from comic books and cartoons to make their games more popular.
It is a shame that it took 10 years for the Neo-Geo to get a truly great title on par with those of other game companies.
In Sengoku 3 you have a button to attack with your sword, a jump button, another to attack empty-handed, and a projectile throwing button, which can be a shuriken (ninja star), kunai (the knife Naruto has tied to his leg), plates (yes like one for food), or bomb.
Besides the stick and button combinations, you can release 2 special attacks that cause greater damage, and after filling up your Power Meter you can summon a Death Blow to hit every enemy on screen.
Here you can strike enemies with many hits before sending them flying, and some characters can throw them around with ease after grabbing them. You can even perform a spinning pile driver like Zangief.
When you start playing you can choose which stage you want to start at. I have to say they’re pretty detailed and show what the Neo-Geo was capable of. With colorful, nice-looking sprites and backgrounds, and many destroyable objects along the way.
After defeating 2 bosses, they later join your party and you can select up to 6 ninjas to play with when you continue.
After finishing the 3 selectable missions, China, Italy, and Japan, you move on to Brazil and then to the USA, before going to the hellish final stage where you will battle the final boss, who suffers from SNK’s Boss syndrome and becomes invulnerable every 2 seconds while showering you with attacks from everywhere.
By the beginning of the century, when people were playing The King of Fighters 2002 or moving on to the 128-bit consoles at home, it was a good way to say goodbye to SNK’s Multi-Video System. Worth a playthrough by any fan of the Beat ’em Up genre.