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Important Distinctions Within Combat Heavy Games
by Ben Ruiz on 03/16/13 03:40:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

A fascinating subject that came up in the comments of one of my official blog posts about animation issues in Kingdom Of Amalur was about the key distinctions between beat 'em ups and its "cousin" genres. I wanted to quickly elaborate on those splits and changes and touch on the essence of each of them from a game play point of view. I mostly want to answer the question "What is a Beat 'Em Up?" out loud so we can all agree and move on. Haha! But first let's talk about a really important spectrum; the danger level of an individual attack.

On the left side of the spectrum in zone A are generally low danger levels on individual attacks. The animations come out quickly, do fatal damage, and your character is dumped back into their neutral state almost immediately. On the right side of the spectrum in zone C we have the opposite. Animations happen very slowly, do low levels of damage, and take a very long time to follow through and finish, dangerously prolonging the time it takes to dump your character back into their neutral state. The attacks of zone B are somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. While a combat-heavy action game can certainly contain attack mechanics in all of these zones, it turns out that most of them utilize attacks from one of the zones exclusively. I've coined a couple terms to describe the games that fit snugly into a zone in this way:

The Zone A Game: Kill 'Em Ups

I call games whose attacks fit primarily into zone A "Kill 'Em Ups". Examples of kill 'em ups are Kung FuStrider, and Actraiser. I made a point to use Kung Fu as an example because many people declare that to be the first beat 'em up. It took me some thought to realize why that has always seemed inherently incorrect, but now I know; it's because it is built on zone A attacks! The effective strategy of a kill 'em up is to move defensively and avoid many enemies that zip about arbitrarily while striking rapidly all over the play space. Your character tends to die on few mistakes in these games because of the highly lethal nature of attacks (enemies in kill 'em ups tend to kill on contact), but since enemies are simple and also tend to die very quickly, their presence is required in large numbers. The distinct absence of repeat aggression against any one target (with the exception of bosses) is what really sets them apart from their cousins. Ultimately, most kill 'em ups brilliantly reward near-blind aggression, which has almost everything to do with their birth in the arcade environment. A fascinating thought experiment is comparing the millisecond to millisecond gameplay of kill 'em ups with that of shoot 'em ups.

The Zone C Game: Grind 'Em Ups

I call games whose attacks fit primarily into zone C "Grind 'Em Ups". Examples of grind 'em ups are Monster Hunter and Dark/Demon Souls. Now I realize "grind" is a pejorative term in games but I most certainly don't mean it that way here.  I personally find these games thrilling and highly rewarding! Because of the almost absolute emphasis on zone C attacks, the intent of a grind 'em up is not only to very carefully position your character defensively around very few enemies, but to also meticulously monitor the fight for the perfect moment to strike. Every decision you make in a grind 'em up is an important decision, and you are constantly in danger when fighting because of the highly punitive properties of your own attacks. There aren't a lot of games built on this philosophy (on purpose at least; there are plenty of games with zone C attacks that are just badly implemented), because making a game this punitive enjoyable is a deep, dark, black magic. But ask any passionate grind 'em up player what they love about grind 'em ups and they'll probably indicate to you a sense of honesty, legitimate reward, and overwhelming satisfaction. The secret to zone C satisfaction is that when you fuck up you know it's your fault, and when you accomplish something you know you really accomplished something...which is also a distinctly arcade game sensibility!

The Zone B Game: Beat 'Em Ups

Hopefully the distinction makes sense at this point. Beat 'em ups like Devil May Cry/God Of War/Bayonetta are comprised primarily of zone B attacks, which rest nicely in the middle of zone A and C. The intent in beat 'em ups is to get your character within striking distance and perform repeated attacks of varying meaning against against 1 to X enemies, while monitoring the movements and attacks of 1 to X additional enemies all focused on you. Defense is a less involved tactic than it is in the two other types of games, and it's really more about rhythm and timing. What's most interesting about beat 'em ups place on the spectrum is that it affords them this huge and compelling variety of attack mechanics and for me personally, that's where all the juice is. Kill 'em ups need 1 or 2 attack mechanics tops, grind 'em ups can get by with a small handful of attack mechanics, but beat 'em ups would lose a lot of what makes them special if they lost the expression that emerges from having lots of attack options available at any given point.

Trivial Aesthetic Differences

I just needed to comment on this real quick because it irks me on a designer level; the weapon a character holds (or doesn't) does not determine the game's genre! I say this mostly because there is this nebulous and erroneous distinction between "beat 'em up" and "hack and slash". The main problem is that sometimes when people say "hack and slash" they are referring to Devil May Cry, and sometimes they are referring to Diablo, and sometimes they are referring to Skyrim, and sometimes blah blah blah. I understand why this was perpetuated into the early 90's; the first 4 seminal beat 'em ups were about violently pounding the lung meat out of gangsters in the streets with your bare fists. But as well all should know by now, Golden Axe (large melee weapons) is as much a beat 'em up as River City Ransom (bare fists and small melee weapons), which is as much a beat 'em up as Otogi (swords and magic), which is as much a beat 'em up as Bayonetta (ice skates, electric bomb claws, and high-heel shotguns). Haha! In any case, I hope this goes a long way to answering the question "what is a beat 'em up?". For me it became a lot clearer when I started holding it up to these other game types, which is a very helpful exercise to perform whether you're trying to answer an obsessive-compulsive question or not. ;)

Check out more of my writings on combat implementation at www.aztezgame.com


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Comments


Jeremie Sinic
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Great article, concise and enlightening. But just to be sure, could you clarify the last part where you talk about hack'n'slash and beat 'em up? In which category would you put Skyrim? Do you feel it has enough moves to fit in the beat 'em up category?
It has a "grind 'em up" feel to it, due to the use of the stamina bar influencing attack and defense, but its combat feels nowhere as hard and rewarding as a the combat in Dark Souls for example (at least with combat set to medium difficulty). Yet it's surely not a hack'n'slash a la Diablo imho.
(edit: supposing you consider Diablo a hack and slash).

Ben Ruiz
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What's tricky here is that I've never used the term "hack and slash" to describe anything. I understand why people apply the label to different games, but in my opinion it's just too nebulous and inefficient. They could all be called that, which is why I filed it away as a young man into the "language not worth employing" category. Haha! So to be clear, I don't consider Diablo a hack and slash because I don't consider anything that.

As far as Skyrim is concerned, I consider it a first person shooter. I know that sounds weird because using that term implies guns, but whenever I decide to file a game under a certain genre, it's because I've observed the cross section of brain activity and finger activity.

So in first person shooter, you're employing available attack mechanics as quickly as possible while rapidly moving left and right in order to prevent the attack mechanics of other entities from affect you. In my opinion, just because you sometimes do this with melee weapons does not mean the game is NOT a first person shooter. And I'm certainly not saying combat like Skyrim is not nuanced or interesting or engaging or anything like that, it's just exists in a different cross section of brain activity and finger activity.

Does that make more sense?

Badr AlOmair
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This is a clever way to categorize different beat 'em uos. Great job.

Though lately, it seems that many designers are trying to implement Zone B style combat into 2D games, in what was traditionally Zone A style of game (such as Castlevania: Mirror Of Fate, Shinobi 3DS, Shank, BloodRayne: Betrayal etc.) with varying degrees of success. Now that they can afford to create more animations for characters, there's this thinking that more attacks and longer combos is more fun. And to balance this out, they need enemies that withstand more attacks so that players get the opportunity to showcase their cool combos. Thus the whole ordeal just takes more time and you end-up stopping your momentum of progressing through a level. This sometimes lead to a segregation between walled off, homogeneous "combat arena" sections and empty enemy-less boring "platforming" section.

So far, the only game that successfully implemented this fusion is Shinobi 3DS. Griptonite did a great job maintaining that momentum while still being able to do flashy combos on poor saps.


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