The Connoisseur’s beat-’em-up is back
In recent years, the beat-’em-up, (or brawler, if you would prefer), genre has gone through a major renaissance. What was once confined to the golden coin-op age of the late ’80s and early ’90s — before falling short of expectations come the ’00s — has found itself spraining fingers and cracking wrists once again — led by some bold new IPs and the return of some very familiar faces from the past.
In order to change with the times, these modern titles have been forced to add depth, variety, and longevity to what has mostly been a short-lived, quick-to-fatigue genre. In addition, the characters, worlds, and stories have been fleshed out to offer more context to the knuckle-dustin’ action. And so, whether you’re welcoming back franchises such as Streets of Rage 4 or TMNT: Shredder’s Revenge, smashing up the playgrounds of Japan in River City Girls, or exploring new and exciting worlds offered in Mayhem Brawler, Final Vendetta, and Dragon’s Crown. Beat-’em-up fans have it made.
But this renaissance did not, in fact, begin with any of the aforementioned games. It didn’t even begin in the past few years. To look for a moment went the genre was reinvented with a roundhouse of vigor we should go back to September of 2017, and the quiet Steam release of Fight’N Rage, a game that wanted to not only capture the excitement of the games that came before it, but also offer players the excitement and depth expected of modern gaming. And it attempted to do all of the above with a single, solitary developer.
Six years later, Fight’N Rage is ready to do it, all over again, on PS5 and Xbox Series X. It’s a game that is getting up there in years. But, as anyone who has watched the Rocky franchise knows, a true fighter is always ready for one more round.
Fight’N Rage (PlayStation [PS5 reviewed], PC, Xbox, Nintendo Switch)
Developer: Seba Game Dev
Released: March 1, 2023 (PS5), September 2017 (PC)
First released in the fall of 2017, Fight’N Rage is a passionate love letter to the heyday of arcade brawlers, developed and self-published by Seba Game Dev, which is a pseudonym for Uruguayan developer Sebastián Garcia. Garcia is the chief talent behind Fight’N Rage and created the world and its characters, crafted the in-game artwork, and coded the title itself all by his lonesome. Garcia’s co-contributor is musician friend Gonzalo Varela, who composed and performed the scrapper’s hard-rockin’ soundtrack. The PC version was then ported to consoles by developer Blitworks.
History tells us that’s it not impossible for one or two people to create something interesting, special, or at least intriguing, (for example Bright Memory by FYQD Studio), but it is rare for such a small project to not only pay effective tribute to a genre, but also to immediately present itself as one of the best offerings in that genre’s history. And yet, Seba Game Dev readily handled this mammoth task, producing a title better than many of its influencers, while becoming an influence itself.
Bottom of the food chain
Set against the backdrop of a miserable and dystopian future, where a devastating electromagnetic event known as The Big Pulse has destroyed all of mankind’s technology, Fight’N Rage presents a world now ruled by a strange evolution, where anthropomorphized mutants have enslaved the human race. A literal natural climax to The Law of the Jungle. Most of humanity has now found itself languishing at the bottom of the food chain, yet there are those who wish for a better tomorrow. Three such individuals are our player protagonists.
They are the banished ninja F. Norris, the runaway slave turned martial arts master, Gal, and the human sympathizer and rebel mutant minotaur Ricardo. Facing a world willing to kill them on site, and afforded only the abilities offered by their fists and feet, our Heroic Trio finds themselves in the middle of a prison breakout, the first act of a brutal, one-night odyssey that will lead them to the throne of The Boss — A militaristic lion maniac who has dubbed himself King of this urban jungle.
The slight story is all atmosphere and little in the way of deep and meaningful musings on the human endeavor, but it is endowed with a melodramatic emotion — not to mention some surprisingly bleak moments of cruelty, that give it the vibe of 80s/90s dystopia comics such as Heavy Metal and 2000 A.D. There is something about Fight’N Rage‘s cartoonish pixelated world that is nostalgic and inviting, while still maintaining an unnerving level of hopelessness and despair. I mean, we probably deserve it, right?
Contrast (and Brightness and Color) in Style
The aesthetic of Fight’N Rage is quite obviously that of the gorgeous pixelated paradises of yesterday, with delightfully drawn and animated characters popping out of the pixels in each and every encounter. Color-wise, there is a strange vulgarity to the visuals, with purposefully over-saturated colors and vibrant palettes that recall arcade monitors that should have been replaced a long time ago.
Various filters are available to enhance or decrease these effects — such as blur options, scanline emphasis, CRT curves on screen edges, muted color schemes, and even a moody black-and-white option. But however you choose to melt your eyeballs, Fight’n Rage has a distinctly unique style that captures the vibe of ’80s in a “warts and all” fashion.
Tribute must also be paid to Varlea’s utterly apocalyptic soundtrack, a wild, pulse-pounding mess of wailing guitars, moody pianos, and 16-bit synth. Each track is perfectly attuned to the mood and chaos of the stage, whether our heroes are picking their way through dank caverns, fighting to the death in vicious thunderstorms, or even throwing down in a tropical paradise. Varela “understood the assignment”, as the kids aren’t wont to say, and his score is a key element to the brawler’s overall success.
Varela’s raw soundtrack demands your quarters. Hire this dude for more projects, ah’m begging ya.
The audio/visual package of Fight’n Rage counts for nothing if the gameplay doesn’t deliver. And, as you might have gathered from the intro, Seba Game Dev’s title is genuinely groundbreaking in that regard. Fight’N Rage filtered out the elements of brawlers that made them feel good in a Pavlovian sense, before adding key combat elements pulled from some of the finest one-on-one fighters ever made, including combos, oki, off-the-ground attacks, wall jumps, juggles, and parries —as well as multiple special moves and super attacks.
And while many modern brawlers, such as DotEmu’s fantastic Streets of Rage 4, also understand this method of evolution, Fight’N Rage nailed this years ago, essentially setting a standard for brawler combat that all of its bigger budgeted contemporaries have since adopted.
It should be noted, however, that Fight’N Rage is proud of its knuckle-destroying challenge. And while anyone can enjoy the title on its easiest setting, players battling waves of dominatrices and Dobermans on higher difficulties will be forced to master the combat’s intricacies. This has, in ensuing years, turned some away from the game, but the difficulty on display here feels true to the tools afforded the player. Fight’N Rage is hard, occasionally rock solid.
You always have the capability of protecting yourself in battle, but it’s on you to learn how to do so.
And you can do just that in one of the many modes offered outside of the standard story. Unlockable simply by playing through the game (win or lose), Fight’N Rage also offers a Combo Trials, Training Mode, Tutorials, Vs. Battle, Stage Practice, and Time Attack, as well as a metric ton of additional cosmetics including 15 costumes/colors for each character, playable villains, a jukebox, unlockable game modifiers, hidden special moves, and much more. Oh, and for Speedrun fans, a special Speedrun option adds an onscreen timer, and auto-skips all cutscenes for maximum frame efficiency.
None of these features, it must be pointed out, were paid DLC. Every mode, character, costume, and bonus feature is included with the title, which has always, generally, retailed at extremely low prices.
Perhaps this, more than anything else, is Fight’N Rage‘s greatest tribute to the gaming of yesterday.
Flaws? Unfortunately yes, there are flaws. Fight’N Rage‘s limited budget leads to a sense of repetition in some enemy patterns, though this again is at least reflective of the game’s old-school inspirations. There is no online co-op/vs option, though a three-player local co-op is supported. Fight’N Rage is most assuredly an excellent beat-’em-up, one of the very best, but it is somewhat specialist, and its true depth lies in repeated playthroughs, meticulous training, and a commitment to its punishing challenge. While there are modes suitable for a quick Friday Night knockabout with friends, some players may find it a little complex for their own hard brawlin’ needs
Technically, the game runs extremely well, but the console port sweats a little with certain scenarios. Nothing game-breaking, but there are sporadic drops in frame rate, particularly during the ambitious, into-the-screen raft sequence. It’s also important to note that the violent, flash ‘n’ shake heavy visuals will be rough on some players’ peepers. Any video game fan who is affected by flashing imagery would do well to proceed with caution, as there is currently no option to reduce Fight’N Rage‘s range of full-screen flashes and possible strobe effects.
GO! GO! GO!
The beat-’em-up genre, almost as old as gaming itself, has been through two very specific “golden ages”. The first happened in the very late ’80s, and would see the arrival of Double Dragon, Final Fight, Vendetta, and Kunio-kun. The second, well, we’re in the middle of it right now, with modern classics such as Streets of Rage 4, River City Girls, TMNT: Shredder’s Revenge, and the upcoming Toxic Crusaders all capturing the excitement of their forebearers, while adding the depth and enhancement afforded by modern gaming.
But in the middle of these two wonderful eras, there’s a transitional bridge, and that bridge was built by Fight’N Rage. Seba Game Dev’s humble release offers gratitude and deference to the past, while paving the way for a fantastic new era of scrappers for the future. It’s affordable, it’s feature-packed, it’s compact, and it’s available on almost every platform. If you are a beat-’em-up aficionado, you owe it to yourself, (and the genre) to pick it up as soon as possible.
But then, if you are a beat-’em-up aficionado, chances are you already have.
Six years on from its initial release, Fight’N Rage retains its reputation as one of the greatest beat-’em-ups ever made, as well as a testament to the magnificent talent of its two-person development team. While its vulgar, neon nightmare visuals won’t be to everyone’s taste, and its rock-solid challenge is not to be denied, Fight’N Rage stands above many of its contemporaries as a lesson in retrofuturistic game design, bolstered by the power of a screaming guitar and a well-placed roundhouse.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]