If any video game genre is prone to sweeping generalizations, it has to be beat-em-ups. For years, writers have been all too eager to lump these games together and to overstate their similarities. You move right and beat people up; that’s all a beat-em-up can ever offer. Except it isn’t. Sure, a lot of beat-em-ups play conservatively, but the genre has proven far more diverse and experimental than many are willing to give it credit for. For every conventional game like Final Fight, you also have a deceptively conventional one like Streets of Rage 2, or even something like Panzer Bandit.
And then there’s Nekketsu Oyako. Somehow, this obscure title manages to fit all three molds simultaneously. Looking past the “move right and beat people up” aspect of it, it’s clear that the game is at least trying to experiment with the genre. Unfortunately, it doesn’t try hard enough. It’s this incomplete break from generic conventions that ultimately leaves the game at odds with its own design.
Most of the game’s changes (and, therefore, most of its failures) stem from its tone. Unlike its contemporaries, Nekketsu Oyako makes no attempt to take itself seriously. Instead, it seeks to grab your attention through comically absurd situations, such as escorting you through a whale to to punch apart the squids it’s presumably eating. Part of me wants to congratulate the game for its efforts. Beat-em-ups have always been a dour genre, so any amount of levity should be welcomed in theory. In practice, though, the game retains too much from its predecessors to properly convey that levity.
This isn’t just because the game resembles its more serious counterparts, either. Beat-em-up tropes serve very specific purposes, and by not realizing this, the game can only hold itself back. Consider the blank environments, for example. Despite being one of the more criticized parts of beat-em-ups, they’ve actually proven well-suited to these games’ needs. What better way to portray a crime-ridden metropolis than with lonely corridors where criminals wait for you around every corner? Understanding that, we see it’s no coincidence that those same hallways can’t work in a game like this. Nekketsu Oyako needs areas that convey playfulness, something an empty space would have trouble accomplishing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the art faces similar problems. It tries to portray a lighthearted world through the same gritty realism you’d find in Final Fight, leaving it unequipped to capture either.
That said, we can’t blame all the game’s failures on what came before it. Some, like its inability to understand how parody works, are entirely its own. Abstracting one aspect of the experience (like this game does) isn’t enough to create good parody. Ideally, you should abstract everything you’re presenting the player, from the broadest strokes down to the most minute detail. Tell them in no uncertain terms that what they’re experiencing now is ridiculous. That’s why a game like Parodius works so well: it combines a cartoonishly exaggerated art style with a world where nothing connects in a clear or logical manner, making it easy for the player to laugh along. If you’re really adamant about grounding your game in realism, though, then the least you can do is comment on the reality you’re depicting in a meaningful yet comical way. Lampoon a convention that players have taken for granted; change the narrative formula in some way that it no longer works. Whatever you do, engage with the material in some way.
The way Nekketsu Oyako is set up, it isn’t even ready to engage with its own material. While the game recognizes how humorous an outlandish scenario can be, it doesn’t extend that outlandishness to its own play. Your blows, rather than bouncing off enemies like rubber, convey the lumbering weight a professional wrestler’s moves might. And instead of fighting enemies with cartoonish weapons, you’ll often equip yourself with very realistic weapons like Bowie knives and machine guns. So in removing whimsical abstraction from play, the game only creates a tension between the cartoonish scenarios it presents the player and the realistic harm it tells them they’re doing. What kind of person could laugh along with this? More importantly, what else can the game do? The outlandish scenarios it presents the player also hold it back from making any meaningful commentary, since they’re so divorced from reality that the player wouldn’t be able to relate to anything the game has to say.
There is hope. As you progress further and further, the game becomes more comfortable in its own skin, and it starts to move away from staid conventions in pursuit of something more absurd. The environments become weapons in their own right, and they start asking more of you than beating people up. Granted, “beating people up” still comprises most of your activity in the game, so the movement is more modest than you’d think. Still, it’s enough to demonstrate that Nekketsu Oyako can be every bit the comical adventure it wants to be. I only wish the game had realized this sooner.