In Victory, Malice. In Defeat, Revenge. Don’t Get Mad, Get Bad
I’d consider 1984’s arcade title Kung-Fu Master (Spartan X in Japan) to be the first true entry to the “beat ‘em up” genre. The design of this original arcade game would inspire the likes of such classics as Bruce Lee for Atari 8-bit computers, Karateka on the Apple II, and Renegade in arcades (Nekketsu Kōha Kunio-kun) — the last of which mentioned introduced so many hallmarks of the genre, I’d dare call it one of the most important video games of the 1980’s. Also, it would mark the beginning of the “Kunio-kun” franchise that would eventually bring us River City Ransom (Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari), so that’s reason enough right there to respect it.
By 1987, the genre was nearing the beginning of its “Golden Age,” marked by most with the release of the arcade version of Double Dragon in June 1987. Of course, with every Golden Age comes a wave of trend-followers and cash-ins, all looking to capitalize on the latest fad. One of the earliest was a 1987 MS-DOS title, which was successful enough to be renamed for and converted to the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum (and even unofficially to the Amiga) in 1988. By 1989, it was finally time to bring it to the Nintendo Entertainment System, where it could undoubtedly reach the largest audience at that moment in time. And if the game could also be used to peddle a “powerful” new peripheral that publisher Mattel was looking to market at the time, wouldn’t that drum up that much more anticipation for it?
A wise game once said “The first step on the road to wisdom is to understand that you might be on the wrong track.” That game in question is 1989’s Bad Street Brawler for the NES. But before we get into dissecting that release, we’re gonna need to take a look at the game of many names that inspired it, as well as the peripheral that would forever be linked to it. Only then can we take a walk down Bad Street, USA, and nail the no-gooders along the way.
He Took That Thing That Couldn’t Be Done… And He Tried
Beam Software was an Australian developer with quite a few notable games to their name already before 1987. They were responsible for the 1982 text adventure take on The Hobbit, which went on to become a million-selling title, as well as 1985’s The Way of the Exploding Fist, which helped to define the foundation for the one-on-one fighting game genre. They would eventually go on to develop Shadowrun for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in 1993, which would end up being a critical darling and commercial flop, but they still had some years of cutting their teeth ahead of them before reaching that height.
The success of The Way of the Exploding Fist likely motivated the team to stick with the fighting game theme for a while longer, and see if they couldn’t iterate on their recent success. They would first do so with a sequel, Fist 2: The Legend Continues, which presents itself as a side-scroller more similar to Karateka (with some added labyrinthian level design) than the original entry to the series, and then with Exploding Fist+, which is more or less an improved version of the first game with a new three-combatant combat mode. Their next release would combine the side-scrolling nature of Fist 2 with the multiple combatants featured in Exploding Fist+, bringing the game further in line with the conventions being established for the beat ‘em up genre. This game would come to be known as Bad Street Brawler… or as Street Hassle, Bop’n Rumble, and apparently Oma Schreck in Germany.**
With the different names being assigned to different conversions and localizations of the game for different regions, there also came slight variances in the story and appearance of our protagonist: Bad Street Brawler stars “former punk rocker and current martial artist” Duke Davis, Bop’n Rumble pits wrestler Gorgeous George against the world, and Street Hassle puts you in the shoes of some unnamed lunatic on a vigilante vendetta. For the sake of my sanity, we’re just going to focus on the MS-DOS version of the game in this portion of the article, which went by the Bad Street Brawler title and has you controlling Duke.
Clad only in black sunglasses, plus a pair of yellow wrestling trunks and boots to complement your luxuriously long yellow locks of hair, Duke Davis is determined to rid the city streets of various dangers. For the most part, this will pit you against such criminal scum as balding blind men waving white canes, diminutive elderly women swinging purses, and dogs who have come off their leash. Occasionally, you’ll have to show gorillas, breakdancers, basketball players, a man with a large gut, and a speeding motorcyclist who’s the boss! Your only ally is a spy in a trenchcoat, who will occasionally appear to provide you with a life-restoring heart, but who might also deploy a highly damaging bomb instead depending on your luck.
So, as you might gather from the cast of characters on display here, the original incarnation of Bad Street Brawler was not meant to be taken all too seriously. I mean, the elderly women literally shout “BRUTE!” at you in cartoon speech bubbles when you attack them, for pete’s sake! The game is clearly intended to poke fun at action movie and beat ‘em up game conventions of the era, pitting a goofy-looking protagonist against a cast of seemingly harmless enemies. Let’s try and remember this fact when we discuss the NES conversion.
One of the most notable gimmicks introduced in Bad Street Brawler is your changing moveset between stages. Each new level gives you three unique attacks which you can use, activated by pressing the attack button in conjunction with a different direction. This feels best / was likely intended for playing with a one-button, eight-way joystick, and allows the game to demonstrate a variety of attack types without having to map intricate combos or utilize more input keys. On the one hand, this is kind of a cool way of including more attacks and animations in the game to make each stage more interesting. On the other hand, some moves are clearly far more useful than others, with some ending up downright useless. At the very least, it’s a design decision I can understand and respect, even if there’s a flaw in the execution.
Past stage five, the stages begin on a second loop with increasingly more difficult versions of enemies you’ve already encountered, and in higher quantity to boot. The game ends abruptly after stage ten, without so much as a final boss or resolution to the story. And that’s pretty much all there is to it! Overall, it isn’t a terrible game, but it also doesn’t stack up against its beat ‘em up contemporaries of 1987 in terms of gameplay or technical prowess. I wouldn’t even compare it all too favorably against Beam Software’s previous effort in Fist 2 — though admittedly, Bad Street Brawler is meant to take a far more “arcadey” approach and isn’t wholly comparable.
That being said, the game was well-received enough to warrant its number of aforementioned conversions. The Commodore 64 version which goes by Bop’n Rumble is more or less identical to the MS-DOS version, while another C64 revision going by Street Hassle (apparently intended for the Australian market) is also largely identical save for one visible change: Duke now sports a shorter haircut. The ZX Spectrum conversion also goes by the Street Hassle moniker, and displays Duke as having short hair and an anchor tattoo. This version also runs troubling text tickers across the bottom of the screen, including such gems as “This is the class of person I was meant to kill” and “I can feel the spiders in my brain.”
Which brings us to 1989. The Nintendo Entertainment System is king of the home consoles, and anybody who’s anybody is looking to have their games published for it. Beam Software would produce an eclectic library of titles for the console, ranging from such lows as 1989’s Back to the Future (possible future article candidate) to such heights as 1991’s innovative open-world interpretation of Star Wars. However, their work on the console would begin with a final conversion of Bad Street Brawler: What would become “the definitive version” of their original creative vision. But first things first: They would need a publisher willing to sponsor their project and to do business with Nintendo in order to guarantee production. Mindscape Inc. – publisher of the original computer versions of the game – were apparently not in a position to publish the game on their own again, despite the huge success of the NES Paperboy conversion in 1988 they were responsible for publishing.
My best guess is – and this is purely speculation on my part – having published versions of Bad Street Brawler in the previous two years, Nintendo would have seen Mindscape as being in some sort of violation of their “two year exclusivity” rule. Remember, Nintendo licensees of the era were beholden to a number of strict rules, including a limit on how many games they could publish in a given year as well as various content restrictions as determined by Nintendo. The two year exclusivity rule stated that games produced for the NES would be available exclusively on the NES for a two-year period. This didn’t stop arcade conversions from making their way from cabinet-to-cartridge within the year of their initial release, but it could’ve possibly held up a number of computer games looking for a new home on the popular home console.
For whatever reasons may be, Beam Software had to turn to another publisher for assistance in getting their game out there. They eventually found a partner in Mattel’s Interactive division, which had a very close working relationship with Nintendo, to the point that they handled distribution of their hardware and software in Canada and European regions up until 1990. Dealing with Mattel would guarantee a release for their game, and possibly some preferential placement for it in advertising campaigns. As luck would have it, Mattel would heavily promote the game in conjunction with a new NES peripheral of theirs sure to take the market by storm: The Power Glove.
Yes, Bad Street Brawler would be member of a highly exclusive club of two games marketed under the “Power Glove Gaming Series” label, alongside 1990’s Super Glove Ball. There were at least three more titles intended for the line in the works; including Glove Pilot, Manipulator Glove Adventure, and The Terror of Tech Town. But with the eventual critical and commercial failures of the Power Glove, these games would all cease to be. Of the two games consumers received, Super Glove Ball is probably the game best suited / most associated with the doomed accessory, while Bad Street Brawler’s ties to the peripheral seem to be oft-forgotten. Perhaps it’s the fact that Bad Street Brawler is [nearly] fully-featured without the use of the Power Glove,*** and “sans glove” seems to be the way most people have experienced the game since its release.
** I could not track down a source to confirm that this localization actually existed, but the fact that the name translates roughly as “Grandma’s Fright” is as good an excuse as any to mention it in this article.
*** Granted, so is Super Glove Ball, but at least that game feels and presents itself more like a title designed with the Power Glove in mind. Bad Street Brawler just reads as a game with Power Glove functionality shoehorned in, which is pretty much exactly what it is.
If You’re Feeling Good, Don’t Worry, You’ll Get over It
The Duke is back to reclaim his throne. And this time around, we’ve got a brand-spankin’ new vest, the short haircut returning from the Commodore 64 version of Street Hassle, and the closest thing to a story we’re going to get going into one of these games: Duke Davis is a former punk rocker and currently “the world’s coolest martial arts vigilante!” Criminals and runaway circus performers have somehow joined forces to rule the streets, and it’s up to Duke Davis to send the “street savages” scattering. And unlike previous iterations of the game, the enemies really do seem like genuine baddies this time around: The blind folk are replaced by baseball-wielding punks, and the old ladies have been swapped out for ball-and-chain-wielding circus strongmen — wait, I’m just getting word now that the clearly circus-inspired strongmen are actually supposed to be the “punks” according to the manual, while the clearly punk-inspired bat carriers are just rogue “baseball players.” That’s kind of weird. Oh, and all the rest of the returning enemies are basically unchanged, save for turning the basketball-dribbling enemies from dark-skinned to light in order to avoid cultural stereotyping. That is also probably for the best.
Granted, these are all changes that make Duke more of an obvious “hero” character, and beating on the helpless elderly probably wouldn’t have flown in an NES game to begin with. So again, it’s easy enough to understand and to respect the design decision here. But at the same time, it’s indicative of one of the game’s largest problems. We’ll get to that problem in due time, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are a couple of new enemy types introduced in this NES conversion. These include careless skateboarders, gun-firing biker types with spikes on their helmets, femme fatales who toss knives at you, a burly boxer who does his best to pummel you, and even a switchblade-brandishing male punker who the manual describes as someone who “punches old ladies just for fun.” You’d think that’d make for some common ground between them and Duke?
But perhaps the biggest threat Duke now faces is a proper final boss in the fifteenth stage: None other than a redraw of Duke himself, sporting darker clothes, longer pants, and a bandana in place of his sunglasses! Not only that, but he is also capable of tossing throwing knives at you, as well as firing multiple rounds from a bazooka in quick succession. If you should manage to defeat him in combat, the Bad Street shall be safe once again, and Duke Davis is celebrated as a hero. As a matter of fact, that’s part of another new feature that runs through the course of the game: Every three stages, after defeating what’s presented as a boss, you’re treated to cutaways of Duke being honored in front of City Hall or being interviewed for the news, where he drops such inspired one-liners as “Maybe they’ll make a movie about me” and “I just want to say, hi Mom.” True words of wisdom if I’ve ever heard them.
Speaking of wisdom, the game has even more of it to dispense to you, as presented in pre-stage screens between levels. In addition to giving you the opportunity to try out your given moves for the stage on a punching bag, the game also sees fit to provide a new motivational quote for you. I reckon these are meant to serve as the replacement for the running ticker at the bottom of the ZX Spectrum version, although these quotes are far less on the dark side of things. For example, the preamble to stage six claims “If every man would sweep before his own door, the city would be clean,” which sounds like something out of a rotten fortune cookie. Stage one infamously proclaims “Never trouble trouble till trouble troubles you,” which is a truly terrible test of alliteration. But my absolute favorite has to be the text that accompanies stage fourteen, which I would like as a framed quote on my wall some day:
“‘Come fight beside me,’ I said to myself, and although it doesn’t make sense, I held my own hand as a small sign of trust, and together I made my defense.” ~ Duke Davis (presumably)
Now, after I got through laughing at how ridiculous this quote was, I did a bit of research into it to see if it was take on some pre-existing poem or something of that sort. Sure enough, it seems to be a parody of Australian cartoonist and poet Michael Leunig’s work “Sitting on the Fence.” A sketch drawing dated 1971 with an accompanying typewritten poem, the original work centers around an individual who asks themself to “come sit beside me,” and concludes as they sit together with themself “on the fence.” Duke’s reinterpretation of the line – as well as other quotes he puts his own spin on – is macho posturing of the most extreme and hilarious degree, and is honestly a brilliant bit of comedy on Beam Software’s part. It brings to mind another character named “Duke,” also sporting short blonde hair and sunglasses, whose shtick in a series of games years later would involve misquoting famous movie lines. Look, I’m just gonna come out and say it: There’s no way the design for Duke Nukem was not in some way inspired by Duke Davis in Bad Street Brawler. There are just too many coincidences between the two of them to be pure chance, right? I’m onto you, George Broussard.
Now’s as good a time as any to mention how goofy all of the art and animations in the game are. Between Duke’s cowering in fear with his hands on the back of his head every time he crouches and his massaging of feet in order to trip enemies, Duke is nearly impossible to take seriously as a professional martial artist. If you can find me a school of martial arts that trains students in the use of a “body fling” as a method of attack, I would love to hear more about it. But this level of goofiness is nothing new: Duke has looked like a schlub since the original versions of the game, where he appears as a wannabe Hulk Hogan — or perhaps more accurately, as his name in Bop’n Rumble would imply, a wannabe Gorgeous George. But the NES version with its illustrated cutaway scenes and close-ups on Duke’s physique take it to a whole other level, making it clear exactly how scrawny of a wimp our hero is meant to be. And I do contend this is all very intentional, especially given the clearly comedic nature of the original games.
Which brings me to that “one of the game’s largest problems” I mentioned earlier: There’s an underlying tonal inconsistency with the game that is honestly more distracting than you might imagine it to be. At the same time that it is clearly meant to parody tropes and cliches, the game also presents itself with dark and dreary color tones, and doesn’t play up its campiness quite enough to make it feel as if it’s all in place. Replacing the geriatric enemies of the original game and adding more a variety of more clearly serious threats gives the impression that Mattel maybe wanted Beam Software to bring the game more in line with standard action fare of the era, and to treat the subject matter at least a tad bit more seriously. The end result is a sometimes tonally confusing game, which many reviewers (who lack the context of the original computer games) misinterpreted as a failed attempt at being wholly serious. So many folk seem to miss the point that Duke is intentionally made to look non-threatening, and that the cast of enemies is meant to be on the ridiculous side of things.
There’s another, perhaps bigger problem with the game though: It’s just not very fun to play. Sure, it does a decent job in terms of enemy variety and having to adapt your tactics on a stage-by-stage basis, but the core gameplay loop can’t help from becoming repetitive very quickly. The lack of movement on a vertical plane and the flat level design are contributing factors to this, but another issue is that only a handful of Duke’s attacks are actually practical at all. You’ll find yourself using one of your three moves over and over again over the course of a given stage, ignoring the other moves at your disposal. When the “trip” move ends up being one of your most devastating maneuvers, to the point where you can beat an entire level solely using it, you can’t just use “comedy” as an excuse. There isn’t all that much entertainment in playing a video game by holding right on the D-pad and mashing the A button for several consecutive minutes.
Another issue with the game: You’re not given sufficient time to fight every enemy you encounter. If you linger too long fighting respawning enemies, you’ll quickly run out the clock on whichever stage you’re playing. The only solution is to move as far to the right as quickly as you can, ignoring enemies along the way, until the screen stops moving and the mid-stage minibosses / end-of-stage boss appears and needs to be beaten. The fact that you don’t respawn where you fall, and must restart stages from the beginning, becomes a frustration when dealing with trickier bosses or even some of the more hazardous repeating enemies (the breakdancer and skateboarder come to mind). On top of that, the game provides you with no continues, so when Duke is fresh out of lives, the game is over. The game feels very “stacked against you,” and not just in the way that most beat ‘em ups are meant to feel pitting you against the world.
Thankfully, Duke is given one reliable equalizer — one ancient technique passed down by his sensei that helps even the playing field: The “Glove Zap” technique. With this incredible attack, Duke can clear the entire screen of enemies with one gesture of his hand, though this technique is so powerful he can only use it once per stage. It’s effectively a smart bomb straight out of a shmup game, it’s incredibly handy for dealing with difficult mobs, and it’s only usable if you’re playing with the Power Glove. Yes, that’s right: The NES was capable of detecting whether or not you had a Power Glove or just a standard controller plugged in, and locked away a feature of the game if you chose to play with your regular controller in hand. But never mind the fact that the Power Glove was a notoriously poor way to control games, or that the game locks away on-cartridge content that requires you to pay an additional fee to unlock it. The absolute craziest part of all this is, the manual doesn’t even mention the existence of this mechanic.** It’s a feature so secret, not even the folk writing the manual knew it existed!
So, you’re given a choice here as a player: Either play the game with the odds stacked ridiculously against you and probably die at the hands of unbalanced enemies, or play the game with crippled controls in order to have a special attack at your disposal. Well, given that the Power Glove only sold around 100,000 units,*** and the fact that the two entries to the “Power Glove Gaming Series” line of games were both considered commercial flops as well, I guess the choice for most folk was not to play the game at all. Which is fair, since it’s a fairly forgettable and not entirely up-to-par beat ‘em up for the era. Don’t get me wrong: It’s nowhere near one of the “worst NES games of all time” as at least one popular internet reviewer has referred to it as, but it loses sight of its original premise to such a degree that it’s easy to understand why so many have dismissed and ridiculed it.
** The game also hides a bit of other odd Power Glove functionality with a feature on the main menu, which allows Glove users to set up one of a number of control schemes intended for other games while Bad Street Brawler is loaded, before giving them 30 seconds to swap out the cartridge for whichever game they want to play and having their Glove pre-setup for it without having to punch in the usual code on the Glove’s numpad. Yes, this is effectively how “Stop ‘n’ Swap” in Banjo Kazooie was meant to work, albeit to a completely pointless end in Bad Street Brawler.
*** For as commonly quoted as this number has become, I cannot for the life of me find an actual source to verify it. I don’t have much reason to doubt it, since the Power Glove was a very quickly discontinued product, but I don’t usually like to toss numbers around without verifying them first.
In the Final Analysis, You Just Can’t Beat a Heart of Gold
Bad Street Brawler was meant to die alongside the Power Glove; relegated to obscurity as a failed curio like so many other NES games and accessories. But much like the Power Glove has been able to remain culturally relevant somehow as a piece of late 80’s kitsch, Bad Street Brawler still finds occasional mention on lists of bad games and the whatnot. Again, it’s understandable if not entirely warranted. Honestly, I’d argue that the NES conversion of Bad Dudes is a less entertaining game to play than Bad Street Brawler, bolstered by its unintentionally funny dialogue and ridiculously over-the-top premise. It’s exactly the kind of beat ‘em up that the original Bad Street Brawler was intended to parody. But alas, with the NES version serving as the “definitive” edition of the game, the satire will continue to be lost on most.
But what if there were another revision of the game that better embodied the spirit of the original? What if a group of developers took it upon themselves to unofficially convert the game themselves, for a platform free of content restrictions? And what if they also layered with layers of ultra-violence and profanity, in keeping with more modern trends of the 1990’s? Why, I reckon you’d have 1994’s Street Hassle for the Amiga, developed by one World Software and published by Mirage Software (who also developed and published the similarly styled and similarly infamous Franko: The Crazy Revenge). Using base sprites ripped from the ZX Spectrum conversion with new colors added to them, the game as a whole is most comparable to that version of the game as well, right down to the kind of troubling violent undertones.
The protagonist of Street Hassle is no hero: He’s a violent jerk who goes on a rampage after loud noises wake him early from his sleep, as illustrated in a crudely animated intro. He lives in an ugly apartment in an ugly city filled to the brim with ugly people, but you can’t say that anybody particularly deserves to suffer Duke’s wrath. More than any other version of the game, this one justifies a darker color palette and brutish-looking hero. Whether a considered and deliberate design decision or not, I feel as if it’s the version of the game most seriously committed to not taking itself too seriously. The game embodies chaos: It is a reflection of violent media of the era that dials everything up to eleven. It’s a truly, truly terrible game, and I get the feeling that it is exactly what Beam Software wishes they could’ve gotten away with.
A wise game once said “Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes to the bone.” You sure got that one right, Bad Street Brawler.