Ah, the early-to-mid 90s. The silver age of gaming it may be, but a golden era it was. Video games were evolving from quaint pastime and pop fad status into full blown big-budget entertainment presentations, e-sports, and personal obsessions. Out with Pac-Man and Donkey Kong; in with Ken Masters and Johnny Cage. It was time to kick some ass.
In the 16-bit console era arcades were still a viable form of entertainment because the games were 32-bit, meaning you could play PlayStation quality games there years before PlayStation was a thing. Also, the multiplayer; if you really wanted to test your skills or team up for four player co-op action, the arcade was where you did that. Home consoles couldn’t compare at the time.
While 2D fighters were definitely the defining genre of the 90’s arcade scene, there were a surprisingly large number of excellent beat ‘em ups on display right alongside them, although one could argue the Double Dragon/Final Fight heyday was over.
Still, some of them became classics in their own right like The Simpsons and X-Men, and have since received digital re-releases on Xbox Live and PlayStation Network. But many of my favorites remain obscurities that were overshadowed by the fighting game craze and never got their time to shine in spite of how incredibly fun they were. Today, I’m sharing some of the funnest arcade games of all time with you.
Golden Axe: The Revenge of Death Adder
Remember Golden Axe, fellow old-schooler? Of course you do. Everyone remembers Golden Axe as Sega’s 1989 fantasy multiplayer side-scrolling beat ‘em up that set the standard and gave Genesis owners something other than Sonic to crow about. The one where half the time you ended up batting your own ally in the arcade because people are dicks. While that one is a true classic, it kind of pales in comparison to its arcade-exclusive descendant, released just three years later.
The Revenge of Death Adder featured an all-new cast -including a giant carrying a dwarf on his back, a trident-wielding elf (my favorite), a female centaur, and your typical barbarian- and featured four player co-op. In addition the game actually had branching paths, allowing you got to choose different routes through the level, adding replay value.
Oh, and did I forget to mention that you could ride on giant goddamn scorpions and praying mantises? The older Golden Axe games had fire-breathing dragons and those weird four-legged bird things, but having a giant insect munch a dude’s head or drive its stinger into his chest was a new level of cool, and hearing the exclamations of bystanders when you brutally finished an enemy that way never got old.
Cadillacs and Dinosaurs
This Capcom gem was based on a comic book and was made into a short-lived cartoon series, but I only know the franchise from the video game. Three players could choose from four characters and beat asses using their fists and a large variety of weapons.
But that’s standard procedure. What made this one stand out was the dinos. They weren’t just enemies to be defeated. In fact, they weren’t necessarily enemies at all. They typically wandered the screen for a while before leaving, but they’d often take a chunk out of the baddies before they went. As long as you kept your distance, you could use the wildlife to your advantage, which was really cool. I was partial to the sleeping T. Rex. When you woke him up, he freakin’ RAGED, typically taking out every enemy onscreen.
So there’re the dinosaurs, but what’s this about cadillacs? On occasion you could cruise through a level in style, mowing down all of the pedestrian losers as you went. All in all, it was one of the funnest games in the arcade.
Another Capcom game, this one starring Frank Castle (with Nick Fury as the optional second player!) laying waste to the hordes of organized crime. It came and went like most beat ‘em ups, but this one left a lasting impression for the sheer mayhem of it.
What set the basic gameplay apart this time was the huge amount of weaponry involved. Most games of the genre have you kick, punch, jump, and maybe do a special move or two by pushing two buttons together. On occasion you’ll get a baseball bat or something to smash through the fodder even more efficiently, but in The Punisher you had all sorts of items to deal death with.
Katanas, submachine guns, flamethrowers, pistols, hammers, and all sorts of other nastiness was laying around to help you lay waste. It was over-the-top and so very 90’s, but holy crap was it fun. One of those games you play with a friend next to you with both of you shouting the whole time about how much ass was being kicked before thine eyes.
Alien vs Predator
Chalk up three in a row for Capcom. Between this and the Street Fighter and Marvel fighting titles, there’s really no argument about which company rocked arcades the most in the 1990’s. If I had to pick just one of these games to get re-released this would be the one, and Capcom has stated that it is the game they get the most requests for from fans, so it seems likely.
First of all, it’s Alien vs. Predator, which is a concept that sells itself as the decades of comics, novels, films, and video games featuring the title can attest to. The variety of characters (two different Predators, and two different cyborg marines) and enemies as well as the depth of combat puts it ahead of most (if not all) beat ‘em ups of the era.
This is the first side-scroller I can think of that utilized fighting game special moves. There only one button for melee attacks, but combined with the joystick, you could pull off special moves like a Predator-style dragon punch in addition to the usual mashing combos.
There was also a button used for ranged attacks such as the Predators’ burners or the marine’s guns (which would overheat or need to be reloaded), which added an interesting and unique balance to the combat.
Naturally, there were other items to be picked up in addition to each character’s individual weapon, including the above-pictured grenade launcher. As you can see , the graphics were exceptional for the time and combined with the strong concept and exceptional gameplay, this was the gold standard.
Double Dragon 3: The Rosetta Stones
This could be my rose-tinted fanboy goggles talking, but I remember this game really blowing me away when I finally found it at a roller rink in a city thirty minutes away from my hometown. Roller skates? What are those even for? I can walk, damn it, and I hardly ever fall down doing that. When I went to Roller Town, I always ended up playing video games the entire time, and finding this one there was a memorable gaming highlight for me.
Maybe it’s because I was disappointed with Double Dragon 2’s odd control scheme after the perfection of the original classic, or maybe it’s because I played the hell out the 8-bit NES version of Double Dragon 3 and the arcade one was so much cooler, but I find it hard to believe that this game was not well received when it was released.
There were a lot of things about this one that I liked, but my favorite was the store system. During the level you could find a store where you would insert more coins and buy really cool new playable characters, power up your existing ones, or even buy a weapon for yourself.
It seems like bad DLC before bad DLC was bad DLC, but I found that it was extremely well-balanced. Pretty much anything you bought for your character for an additional quarter would double your lifespan, so it worked out great.
In addition to that interesting innovation that never caught on, there were double attacks two players could pull off together by standing back to back, and the variety of environments as the Lee brothers traveled the world was pretty killer. It was a definite return to form for a revolutionary series in my eyes. I figure players could accumulate points in-game to spend in a rerelease, but that seems unlikely since this game seems pretty forgotten.
One of the best things about the advent of the digital age is that smaller, older games like these can be released for mass consumption fairly easily and inexpensively where there is a demand. Right now a lot of these games can only be played in their original form at all via emulators on PC, and that’s not exactly legal or ideal. Games like Scott Pilgrim vs the World and Castle Crashers pay tribute to the genre and there are plenty of XBL/PSN ports and HD remixes going around so it only seems natural that these gems get their day in the sun as well. Keep your fingers crossed.