Where Have All the Brawlers Gone? (Swords Just Aren’t the Same)

We’re now several years into the current generation of gaming, and something is missing. We’ve got shooters, puzzlers, fighters, RPG’s, sports, and even rhythm games featuring huge, guitar-shaped controllers. But where have all the brawlers gone? I feel like we are missing a game in the rich tradition of Double Dragon, Final Fight, Streets of Rage, and even, yes, Bad Dudes.

Isn't it time they came back?

Isn't it time they came back?

Before you start screaming about the God of War or Ninja Gaiden series, Devil May Cry, or anything on those lines, please stop. Those are all fine action games, and are very close to what I’m talking about, but they aren’t there yet. Why not? Weapons. I’m not talking about using ancient ninja katanas, or swords forged in the blood of a demon. I’m talking about Cody and Haggar using their fists and feet to stop a gang of street toughs and madmen. That’s what’s missing.

There are a few games from the last gen that gave me hope for the Brawler genre. If memory serves, the PS2 kicked things off with a little number called The Bouncer. Later, the Xbox brought the surprisingly fun and faithful Buffy The Vampire Slayer games. The first one of these was just about spot on. It featured combos ranging from quick and easy to deep and complicated, throws, environmental interactions, and a decent camera. Although it was marred a bit by platforming, it was still very solid. From there, it was all downhill, skidding to a stop with Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu. That game was almost a textbook example of everything that is wrong with Brawlers. Poor camera, poor controls, frustratingly difficult, invisible walls, and repetitive levels, and stale combos. Boo! There were some bright spots, such as God Hand. Mostly, this genre has lain untapped. I hope to see that change, and change for the good.

Godhand shows off excellent stomping technique.

Godhand shows off excellent stomping technique.

There are five things that you need to do right in a game like this to really make a go of it: Combat, Control, Camera, Story, and Environment. They all mesh together. Even if you included every hand to hand fighting style ever dreamed of by a thousand monks, no one would touch it if you couldn’t control it easily. Likewise, even a great camera system would be hampered by a bad environment that is so bland you could puree it and feed it to infants. Everything works together.

So based on those five characteristics of a good game, here’s some things that I would love to see in a brawler, and what points they cover.

1. Environmental Interaction (Combat, Control, Environment)
Ever since we fired infinite rockets into boring, rocket-proof walls in Doom, gamers have wanted more environmental destruction. And ever since Red Faction half-assed it, we have wanted it done better. Sure, we’ve seen people kicked into barrels before. Or flame hazards, spikes, that sort of thing. But let’s go further. If I’m fighting someone in a house, let me put him through a wall. It’s about time for a brawler where, if I kick someone into a wall, and then hold them there and kick them again and again, we see that wall buckle, fail, and break.

Near a telephone pole? Ram someone into it. Inside an office? Pick up a water cooler or a printer and shatter some bones. In fact, a good brawler could take a lot of cues from the recent wrestling games in this department. Picking someone up, tossing them through a table, and then picking up a table leg to finish the job would be great. The Buffy game did that a bit – you could pick up a wooden chair, beat someone with it until the chair shattered into pieces, and use a chair leg as a stake. More of that, please.

That stake had a valiant life as a chair leg before Buffy came along...

That stake had a valiant life as a chair leg before Buffy came along...

2. No more Super Bosses (Combat).
Stop me if you’ve heard this before; you’ve battled your way past every junkie, psycho, gangbanger, and ninja in the Lower East Side using every attack in your arsenal. Finally, the boss stands before you. You begin your assault on him…and half of your attacks are either blocked outright or do no damage. What’s the point of grinding out enough points to purchase the Screaming Tiger Ultra Fist when all I can do is land a jump kick before I get smacked away? Lame! Make them tougher, make them stronger, make them smarter – but stop making bosses invincible just because they are at the end of the stage. If the Supreme High Overlord of Death-Fu just requires spamming X and running away before he hits you back, I’m bored.

3. A Compelling Story (Environment, Story).
Sure, there are a lot of games out there that this applies to. But you know what? I’m tired of rescuing my girlfriend from a rival gang. I don’t need to avenge her death either. Or my Master’s untimely demise at the hands of the Shadow Frog Clan. Let’s please see something new!

There was a PC game that came out a long, long time ago. I had a demo of it from a copy of PC Gamer. It was a very early 3D game, where you explored a medical facility and fought your way out, using the number pad to base where your swings went. What happened was you were a soldier (or maybe a criminal, forgive my memory, I was only twelve) who was wounded and brought back to life pretty well ‘borged up. With no memory of how you got there, and your nerves screaming in agony, you awoke on the operating table and went from there. That would be different, and would be enough to justify all the amazing things you can do to people. Think of the things you could do in a pure sci-fi setting, too. Sega’s upcoming Mad World has promised a huge level of violence, but a robot or cyborg protagonist could rip jagged metal limbs free from the fallen droids and beat more people as well.

They tried. They also failed.

They tried. They also failed.

4. No More Platforming (Environment, Control).
Delicious Reese’s Cups aside, mixing two great tastes doesn’t always work. Mass Effect nearly ruined the enjoyable tactical shooter/RPG gameplay with a clumsy, overly bouncy driving section that became mandatory in almost every solar system. And despite how much fun it was to run around City 17, Half Life 2‘s vehicle sections were typically viewed as the weakest part of the experience. So please, let’s see a Brawler that stays Brawler. Hey, I wouldn’t mind seeing a shift from side-scroller-esque exploration to arena based combat or something in the middle of a level. Conan did that in an early stage, and it was cool. But keep your platformers away, please. No gamer has ever said “Oh my God! I love how well this arcade racing game plays, even though it was dropped into the middle of my sports management sim!” A great Brawler with a great combat system will already be hard enough to implement. I don’t want to add to the issues with something like Prince of Persia showing up in mid-flurry. Neither do I want to spend five minutes scaling a wall or building to get to the next fight. If I must get to a roof, how about a cutscene? Or take an idea from Resident Evil-My hands grab a pipe, I start to haul myself up, show a transition sequence, and then I’m on the roof. Done! Keep the platforming, racing, shooting, flying, whatevering out. Thanks.

5. A New, Exciting Control Scheme (Combat, Control).
There have been a lot of innovations in control, motion capture, and camera work since brawlers first came on the scene. So how about taking some of that innovation and plugging it into this genre? Sure, bullet time has been done to death, but properly used, it is still a blast. Remember the first Max Payne, where every few firefights you would see the final two or three rounds and follow that path from weapon to target? Let’s grab that. We don’t need to see every fight end in super slow mo, nor do we want to see this only on the boss fights. So how about every once in a while, when we are finishing up with three punks, we could see the final blows re-imaged, maybe from the perspective of the fists and feet?

Super moves have been done to death. How many games have you played where a series of one or two hit combos filled a bar, and filling the bar all the way let you unleash a super move? Boring. Let’s borrow something else. Let’s borrow. VATS. The Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System may seem out of place in a brawler, but Fallout 3 wasn’t only a shooter It made great use of unarmed and melee attacks as well. Here’s the kicker-VATS will let you switch not only between body parts, but attackers also. So let’s imagine we’ve built up our meter enough to activate the…let’s call it the Human Assault Rampage Meter, or HARM. Two guys are left coming after you, and you enter HARM and select two quick punches to the head and a kick to the knee for the first guy, and the second gets a shot to the gut, a knee to the face, and then an elbow slam to the chest to drive him into the pavement. With everything queued up, you hit confirm, stand back, and watch the action unfold. It’s like a quicktime event without being distracted by the quicktime buttons.

Now, imagine yourself a master of K'un Lun

Now, imagine yourself a master of K'un Lun

Now let’s borrow something from an actual fighting game. When Mortal Kombat made the move from 2-D to 3-D, one of the new ideas it brought with it was multiple styles for the Kombatants. You could really trick an enemy by swapping from Hapkido to Shotokan in the middle of a Kombo. So let’s add that to our bag of tricks also. Suddenly an enemy fighter who has a very strong guard against slow, close in attacks can be weakened by a flurry of long range kicks. Mix and match as needed. This would also go some ways toward adding more user control to the inevitable upgrade system. Do you upgrade the direct assault style, or work more for the clever, subtle attack system? Or even more interesting, what about a MMA-style warrior? Sure, there are some fierce kicks and punches, but what about an actual submission move? Out in the street, there’s no ref to stop a fight if your opponents tap out. Let’s be a little brutal and take that to the extreme. Takedown, armbar, splintered bones, next!

We have some games to look forward to in 2009 that might fit the bill in what I’m hoping for. Mad World is one. The Batman: Arkham Asylum is another. Certainly, big budget does not guarantee big success. It can’t hurt though. I would be thrilled if 2009 ends up being the year that brought dangerous, exciting hand to hand combat back to the consoles in a big way.

10 Comments
  1. Matt Yeager
  2. Matt Yeager
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