What’s in the name of a genre? There’s something unwieldy about the term ‘beat ’em-up’, that most 80s of terms, that’s never sat quite right with me. Maybe that’s because there’s no cute contraction as there is with the shoot ’em-up, the beat ’em-up’s close cousin where you fight off hordes with bullets rather than your fists, which is now more commonly called the shmup. Maybe it’s because of the confusion that remains between beat ’em-ups and their even closer cousin the fighting game.
It’s only now, all these years after they were a thing, that a more fitting label has come to my attention, via the Japanese release of the Capcom Beat ‘Em Up Bundle that’s lovingly known as the Capcom Belt Action Collection. Belt action! It’s absolutely perfect, describing the succession of enemies there to be biffed through like it’s some ultra-violent spin on the final round of The Generation Game. Punk! Bouncer! Some dude with claws that looks like 20th Century Fox will come knocking anytime soon given his uncanny likeness to The Predator!
The Capcom Beat ‘Em Up Bundle – sorry, Belt Action Collection – is a fine thing, with offbeat treats like Battle Circuit and Armored Warriors (even if it’s a shame that the mercurial Alien versus Predator isn’t there – maybe because 20th Century Fox got so tired of their property turning up in every other beat ’em-up of the era), but the pinnacle of the genre arrived on Switch and PS4 last month in Japan, and is getting its EU release this week. The Ninja Saviors: Return of the Warriors (or Ninja Warriors Once Again, as it’s known in Japan) is an incredible take on the beat ’em-up, full of 80s sass and muscle and with action that stands head and shoulders over its peers.
It’s a game with an odd genesis, mind. The original Ninja Warriors was one of Taito’s three-screen wonders back in 1987, coming out soon after the original Darius and also boasting an amazing Zuntata soundtrack (check out this storming live rendition from 1990 if you want a taste of brilliance). And, in truth, it wasn’t all that great – though it did boast an aesthetic that endures, with cyborg ninjas strutting through smashed-up streets and abandoned factories while scything through swarms of enemies and screen-filling bosses.
That aesthetic was taken, beefed up and served with a side order of chunk for Natsume’s sort-of-not-quite remake for the SNES in 1994. It’s like a VHS cult classic taken to outlandish extremes. It’s the detail that really brings The Ninja Saviors alive – there’s a freeze-frame on downing those bosses that feels brilliantly heroic, while your own character, upon dying, exposes the metal chassis beneath their skin and detonates in a pixel-plume of fire and smoke. In Ninja Warriors, even dying feels cool.
This is a different brand of beat ’em-up than many others. Like the 1987 original before it, the action takes place on a single plane, condensing everything into one bustling axis. Rather than making it feel like you have less freedom, it simply makes the brawling feel that much busier, and whatever you lose in movement options The Ninja Saviors more than compensates for with your moveset. It’s a remarkably deep system that’s still surprising me after some half dozen hours – long after I’d have got bored of other beat ’em-ups, basically – with new moves, combos and possibilities amongst the three characters available.
They’re three very different characters too, offering three very different playstyles. Ninja’s an impossibly large tank, strutting through hordes with his improbably broad shoulders and dealing whipping attacks with his nunchucks. There’s the more athletic Kunoichi whose jump describes a beautiful – and deadly, for those caught in it – arc. Then there’s the scythe-wielding Kamaitachi, who deals quicker attacks.
And in The Ninja Saviors there’s another two characters in the form of Yaksha and Raiden and a handful of other tweaks. It’s similar in its handling of the source material as the equally brilliant Wild Guns Reloaded, which is no surprise really given this is from the same team behind both that remaster and the original Wild Guns and Ninja Warriors – so you can’t accuse the small three-man team of knowing what they’re working with.
It all makes for a remaster that’s at once subtle and sublime, drilling down into what made the originals special while making them shipshape for modern consoles with retouched artwork and 16:9 support. It’s a wonderful thing, and one I can’t recommend highly enough. Some might balk at paying a decent amount for what’s eight fairly short levels of action, but screw that lot. If it’s a slice of proper nuanced 2D action you’re after, you can’t really do much better than The Ninja Saviors. Call it a beat ’em-up, call it belt action, call it whatever – just make sure you get involved with this.