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Game Review

by Todd Ciolek,

Capcom Beat 'Em Up Bundle

PS4, Xbox One, Switch

Capcom Beat 'Em Up Bundle
Packing together arcade brawlers from a company better known for fighting games, the Capcom Beat-'Em-Up Bundle features Final Fight, Captain Commando, The King of Dragons, Knights of the Round, Warriors of Fate, and two titles never before released on consoles: Armored Warriors and Battle Circuit.
Brawlers. Beat 'Em Ups. Belt-Scrollers. Double Dragon Clones. Punk Punching Parades. Those Arcade Games That Mom And Dad Always Said Were Too Violent For You Back in 1988. Whatever you call them, they never quite got their moment on top.

True, they were staples of arcades in the late 1980s. Whether at the town's sketchiest bowling alley or a spacious Chuck E Cheese's, you could find a few games all about marching to the right and beating down an entire street gang, usually to rescue some provocatively imperiled maiden. Yet brawlers didn't rule arcades with a firm grip, and the fighting-game mania of the 1990s dethroned them easily.

The CAPCOM Beat-'Em-Up Bundle comes straight from this lost age of arcade extravaganzas. It opens with the recognizable Final Fight and packs in six of its varied descendants: Captain Commando, Warriors of Fate, The King of Dragons, Knights of the Round, Armored Warriors, and Battle Circuit. The set doesn't have every CAPCOM arcade brawler, but it's a remarkable run through the genre in all its glories and pitfalls.

Final Fight's shadow stretches longer than one might think. It's now just another piece of the Street Fighter series, and yet it defined the arcade of 1989. It stole Double Dragon's premise of battling thugs to save a woman in a red dress (a premise pilfered, of course, from Streets of Fire) and then added a now-familiar choice among the heroes who set out to dismantle the Mad Gear gang. Mayor Mike Haggar is strong but slow, ninja-like Guy is fast but weaker, and Cody is well-balanced but...boring.

It's easy to see why Final Fight impressed: the characters are huge, the stages are built with nicely atmospheric grime, and the controls give satisfying weight to the jumpkicks, the swinging lead pipes, and the throngs of Mad Gear members turned punching bags. It's worth playing partly for its simple savagery and partly for its cultural echoes throughout nerd culture, from the destroyed car in that episode of Gravity Falls to the point-boosting trick in High Score Girl.

Yet Final Fight reveals that ubiquitous flaw of arcade brawlers: repetition. Even the label of “belt action,” applied to the Japanese release of this compilation, suggests an assembly line where you're beating up lowlifes instead of riveting together cars. Final Fight's procession of street scum starts to repeat by the second stage, and by the game's end they're monotonous, interrupted only by memorable boss fights. It's a problem the entire genre rarely escaped. Like summer blockbusters, these games were built to grab your attention, get your money, and scratch that itch for constant, familiar action.

Captain Commando never really made it as CAPCOM's mascot, though the company certainly tried. His self-titled 1991 brawler builds on the Final Fight mold with a little more of everything. For one thing, the roster's now at four characters: the Captain, Ninja Commando, Mummy Commando, and the delightful Baby Commando, who pilots an adult-sized robot. The game's full of weird superhero theatrics, including a lab mutant seemingly escaped from the Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind manga. Studies show that three-fourths of the video games made in the early 1990s referenced Nausicaä somehow.

The characters of Captain Commando are smaller than those of Final Fight, but there's more to do overall. Handguns and rocket launchers place greater emphasis on projectiles, the heroes can dash, and you're free to commandeer a lumbering mech as you cruise through amusement parks, museums, and the tellingly named Ninja House. It recycles foes as all brawlers do, but Captain Commando is a memorable little jaunt.

How common were brawlers in the arcades of 1991? Well, CAPCOM released two fantasy-themed games within months of each other. The King of Dragons came first, offering a solid genre outing once you're over the disappointment of not actually playing as dragons. Instead, you'll pick out an archetype, from cleric to elven archer, and quest through a realm of orcs and goblins and, yes, dragons.

Good pacing drives The King of Dragons. The large playfield allows plenty of room to strategize, characters gain levels as in an RPG, and magic spells are orbs that bump around the stage until you want to use them. The King of Dragons seems a trial run for CAPCOM's superior Dungeons & Dragons beat-'em-ups (which had a new collection a few years ago), but it stands on its own well enough.

Knights of the Round is CAPCOM's second fantasy brawler from the heart of 1991 arcades, and its obscurity is partly deserved. Thrusting Arthur, Lancelot, and Perceval into the Cody/Guy/Haggar roles, the game marches them through a quest against numerous knights and monsters. Oh, and a demonic samurai.

It's altogether less inspired than The King of Dragons, with enemy repetition kicking in by the first stage. Knights of the Round's heroes lack interesting moves, and the game takes too long to unveil its few interesting bosses. At least it lets characters gain levels and commandeer steeds from unhorsed soldiers.

The CAPCOM Beat 'Em Up Bundle includes both Japanese and North American versions of each game, and nowhere are the differences starker than in Warriors of Fate. The Japanese edition is entitled Tenchi wo Kurau II, being based on the Hiroshi Motomiya manga about the Three Kingdoms period. CAPCOM renamed all of the characters in vaguely Mongolian fantasy fashion for the West, stripping the game of any name recognition. Naturally, Tenchi wo Kurau II remains much more popular in Asia than North America.

Unnecessary alterations aside, Warriors of Fate is a sturdy beast, plucking the best ideas from its two immediate predecessors. The five heroes range from archers to swordsmen, and all of them can toss enemies and ride horses. The plentiful foes get tedious, but the game seems quick and well-paced next to the overpopulated battlefields of modern Dynasty Warriors titles. Even for those unschooled in Three Kingdoms lore, it's well worth a try.

These five games were available on home systems in the past and with varying degrees of arcade accuracy. The same doesn't go for Armored Warriors or Battle Circuit. They've waited until now for console ports, and they're the best parts of this collection.

Armored Warriors is one of CAPCOM's underrated marvels, stunning as much in gameplay ideas as its tributes to mecha anime. The game follows four pilots through an interplanetary war, complete with the hallmarks of a recurring enemy ace and an ominous superweapon. Melodrama gets slightly more time than it would in other CAPCOM brawlers, though it's just another adornment for a game awash with loving homages.

From the scrapyard backdrops of a moon base to the varied enemy machines and the scurrying soldiers at their feet, Armored Warriors never wants for detail. The craft put into the characters, mecha, and the nicely tense soundtrack makes plain that its creators loved Gundam-ish space opera just a little more than Arthurian legends or high fantasy. Too bad no one really noticed back in 1994.

That deep-running affection gives Armored Warriors rare depth among brawlers. Each playable mech can swap out pieces of its chassis, trading conventional arms and legs for tank treads, beam sabers, drill arms, and hoverjets—all complete with special attacks. Robot-mounted guns encourage long-distance strategies, and brief shooter stages pop up between the regular brawler levels. The game erupts into astounding chaos with three players aboard, especially when they unite their mechs to form one large machine. Armored Warriors is a game crammed with fresh ideas, so much that CAPCOM reused many of the robots for its successor, a slightly less neglected 1995 fighting game called Cyberbots.

Where might CAPCOM have taken its brawler ideas if the genre hadn't faded away? Answers lie in Battle Circuit, the most recent and most obscure inclusion here. By 1997 the beat-'em-up faced arcade extinction, pushed to the margins by vast herds of fighting games. When Battle Circuit debuted that year it played a distant third to CAPCOM's Darkstalkers 3 and Street Fighter III, and the company didn't even bother with a North American release. Few saw the game in arcades, and fewer still encountered its full four-player configuration.

Battle Circuit picks up where Captain Commando left off, pitting five intergalactic bounty hunters against a bizarre crime syndicate. It's all vintage CAPCOM, loaded with wonderful details, catchy music, and memorable characters. The playable cast alone features a living plant monster, a stretchy-limbed superhero, a little girl riding a big pink ostrich, and a beast-woman whose most powerful move makes foes dance themselves into defeat.

The heroes of Battle Circuit begin the game with typical brawler attacks, but grabbing cash during stages lets you buy new skills, all of which are pulled off via fighting-game motions. It's an idea that other beat-'em-ups used sparingly, but Battle Circuit goes all out in these repertoires, stacking up so many combo moves and techniques that there's too much to see in just one playthrough.

Fantastic gameplay makes up for Battle Circuit's unfortunately compromised vision. The game starts strong and sprinkles in shooter intermissions, yet the later stages are truncated and the final bosses (one seen only by the most thorough players) are unremarkable. Battle Circuit is its genre compacted: it begins with a bang, builds into gorgeous innovations, and then sputters out as CAPCOM turns all eyes to yet another Street Fighter. Well, that doesn't matter now. Battle Circuit is widely available at last, and everyone's free to enjoy an amazing capstone to CAPCOM's brawler career.

The collection makes no effort to limit credits. As in the arcade, players can continue on the spot as often as they want. This technically leaves the games short and bereft of any challenge, though an uncommon breed of lunatic will play over and over until they can finish without continuing. Everyone else is welcome to credit-feed.

Yet that's a great way to enjoy these games: as the reckless and brief spectacles they are. Appreciate them as you would in the arcade. Spend half an hour rampaging through a city-wide street brawl or a roboticized space war alongside friends and complete strangers. Let everyone mash buttons and freely continue and argue over who gets to grab that roast chicken from a shattered oil drum. This collection lets you to do all of that both locally and via drop-in online multiplayer.

The CAPCOM Beat 'Em Up Bundle sports the typical difficulty settings, region switches, and galleries stuffed with design documents and the spectacular illustrations of CAPCOM's artists. Yet it's missing a now-standard option for old games revived: filters and scaling for the picture. While the image runs with borders and lets the pixels show, the aspect ratio isn't quite right for many of the games. Most players won't mind, yet devoted fans know that CAPCOM's arcade fare has some of the finest pixelwork ever, and it deserves more choices. The same fans will note the collection's tendency to lag, whether it's in very slight button-press delays or the occasional slowdown of an online game.

These students of CAPCOM history, a field cruelly unrecognized in academia, also will note the titles missing from this collection: The Punisher, Cadillacs & Dinosaurs, the original Tenchi no Kurau (aka Dynasty Wars) and what may be the best of all CAPCOM brawlers: Alien vs. Predator. Licenses prevented their inclusion, of course, and at least we know that this entire bundle won't vanish when CAPCOM loses that xenomorph contract. It's too bad CAPCOM couldn't sneak Cyberbots or the never-ported Red Earth (aka WarZard) into the set. But those are fighting games, aren't they?

Rigid presentation aside, the CAPCOM Beat-'Em-Up Bundle delivers grand enjoyment. Even the weaker of these seven games remain entertaining in their gritty slugfest ways, and the well-aged Armored Warriors and Battle Circuit are fine arguments that the genre had plenty of life right up to its abrupt banishment from arcades. Not merely a long-overdue game compilation, this is a fascinating look at an arcade legacy cherished too seldom.

Overall : B+
Graphics : A-
Sound/Music : B+
Gameplay : B+
Presentation : B-

+ A wealth of good old-fashioned arcade fun, Armored Warriors and Battle Circuit are excellent
Limited display options, frequent repetition

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