Saying that brawlers are having a moment in videogames would be a disservice. Deck-building games had their moment in the past few years. Space horror games are having a moment in 2023, by the looks of it. In 2022, however, brawlers are having a reckoning.
You only need to look back a couple of years to see how the genre came back swinging its feet and throwing trash cans through the air like never before. Streets of Rage 4, River City Girls, The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa: Each brought back the nostalgic feeling of fighting dozens of enemies at a time, but through a modern lens. After all, while the genre stopped being as popular as it once was as arcades continue to fade into obscurity, the influence permeated dozens of different examples since. The lessons learned in recent times, as well as the technological freedom that have liberated developers from the limitations of the ‘90s, all intertwine with each other.
It’s no surprise, then, that it’s mostly independent developers who have been in charge of bringing back a genre that spent years fighting in the underground to keep the prestige alive, as the rest of the industry shrugged them off until they became too successful to ignore. Shank wouldn’t have happened without Castle Crashers. Madworld wouldn’t be the same without Godhand preceding it. There’s a lineage of fingerprints in the boxing ring that the genre stands on today, each set of hand wraps covered in blood contributing to its history.
2022 kicked off with Sloclap’s Sifu, introducing its carefully refined combat reminiscent of the studio’s often overlooked Absolver. With its issues around cultural appropriation notwithstanding, it stands as a showcase of a modern brawler that stays close to its roots. Progressing through the game means unlocking more movements and attacks, not fancy powers. You learn to trick the enemy with a bait and switch combination, or to kick environmental objects at anyone who dares to attempt to attack you. There’s a strong foundation that benefits from practice, and hitting the ground time and time again until you’re comfortable enough to do it all over again, succeeding on the next run.
But while Sifu leans heavily on martial arts, games like Midnight Fight Express stand as a hybrid of influences. For one, it’s not ashamed to include fire weapons into the mix. Shank dealt with this fairly well back in the day, with weapons feeling like an extension of your move set in a way, instead of an overpowered replacement. They are more prominent here, but the focus remains on close-quarters combat using your body, with a certain urban brutality akin to The Warriors. You’re a witness of the showdown from an isometric perspective, which helps to truly account for how many enemies are coming towards you at any given time, making the “all against one” premise more intimidating and satisfactory to overcome.
In the midst of all of this, Dotemu released Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge, which gives a big middle finger to the bells and whistles of modern technology, and even the refinements of Streets of Rage 4 before it from the same publisher. It embraces button mashing but without restricting itself, giving just enough room for you to breathe and do combos while presenting the fundamentals as they are: Punches that feel good, enemies that are easy to kick up to the air, and a pulsating soundtrack that never lets you go. Both Sifu and Midnight Fight Express share the same elements to some degree, but Shredder’s Revenge opts for the arcade nostalgia as the main pillar.
It seems the genre isn’t planning to stop sparring with ideas, perspectives, and fundamentals anytime soon. It’s no coincidence that Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game got an unexpected relaunch after 10 years since its original release. River City Girls Zero is being released outside of Japan after 28 years, while River City Girls 2 is well underway. Just a few weeks ago Klei announced Rotwood which, while presented as a hack-and-slash dungeon crawler, seems eager to marry the DNA of Shank with Castle Crashers. All the while ACE Team is hard at work on Clash: Artifacts of Chaos, the follow-up to the crude and relentless Zeno Clash.
This isn’t the first time that new projects of the same genre have all lined up together in some way. And while it’s safe to say that the resounding success of Streets of Rage 4 must have gotten people excited to put their own spin on the genre, I believe the appeal to keep the flame alive resides within its fundamentals, especially in our current times. You fight through concrete, through establishment, through oppression. Hope is maintained one punch at a time, each successful parry an uplifting feeling, each “continue?” screen a chance to get back on your feet. Skill trees and complex attack combos can’t get in the way of your fists.
Brawlers thrive in the power fantasy of overcoming the odds, regardless of how increasingly harder they get or how many try to stop you. After all these years, nothing has been able to stop that flame.
Diego Nicolás Argüello is a freelance journalist from Argentina who has learned English thanks to video games. You can read his work in places like Polygon, Washington Post, The Verge, and more, and he’s usually procrastinating on Twitter @diegoarguello66.