This feature has also been posted at The Yorker and the VG Resource.
Like any other media, the range of genres in video games is vast, and they don't get equal representation. Everyone is aware of the Pop/Rock section in record shops, the Crime section in book stores, and if games stores sorted their stock by genre, you'd find FPS and Brain Training games dominating the shelves. But other genres can't be ignored - there may be something that you never knew you liked.
Unless you grew up near an arcade in the 90s, the Beat 'em Up is one of those under-represented genres. The name is apt; you roam across a level, beating seven bells out of any thugs, monsters or robots that stand in your way, with a mean-looking and tricky boss at the end of each stage. Showing up mostly in arcades, many games offered addictive, but incredibly difficult game play, enticing you to put another coin in to keep going.
Between the comic books and the film, Scott Pilgrim has become a (self-professed) paragon of the 21st Century Nerd. So it makes sense that when a video game was made, it would be based on such a retro genre, complete with chunky, brightly-coloured pixel art, and music done by Chiptune/Rock band Anamanaguchi.
Playing as the series' four main characters, they fight through locations of the comic, to take on love interest Ramona's 7 Evil Exes. There's a lot of divergence from the original story, but that results in a level where you beat up overweight ninjas in a restaurant - so I'm fine with that. The game is easier than old-style beat 'em ups, but more involved. Your characters level up as they cave in the faces of hipsters and street thugs, gaining new moves and growing stronger as you progress. This makes later stages much easier; but much more accessible.
Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is downloadable from Xbox Live Arcade and Playstation Network.
This is one of the more iconic games in Beat 'em Up's history. Released in 1993 for the Sega Mega Drive, it outshines its predecessor by introducing characters with more unique strengths and weaknesses, which has become a staple of the genre (and even influencing other genres) ever since.
By today's standards, the game is pretty difficult. There are a limited number of lives and continues, and once you lose them all, it's back to the start of the game for you. The bosses you face are challenging on first appearance - and then quickly become regular foes in later stages. Playing with a friend makes things easier and more entertaining, but be aware that you can attack your partner. Accidentally fitting them with a flying kick, or taking their health item when they're near death is how rivalries are born.
Streets of Rage 2 can be played on as part of Ultimate Sega Genesis Collection (PS3/360) or downloaded from the Wii's Virtual Console.
There are a lot of bizarre arcade entries I could put here (The Simpsons beat 'em up comes to mind), but something about this game that wowed me, beyond the ridiculous name. Based on a comic book, the game reflects this by having over-the-top characters and action sequences. Losing a life is accompanied with an airstrike hitting everything around you - whether you're above ground or not. Dinosaurs roving the city fly into a rage, and are placated by punching them in the face. It's a great experience.
However, the game pulls no punches. Any of the four playable characters are capable fighters, so the game balances things out by giving them very little health. A game for those who enjoy taking on a challenge.
Cadillacs and Dinosaurs is an Arcade game, but can be emulated on your PC! Read up about it here.