Arcade beat-em-ups are having their second golden age. We’ve seen it with the excellent Streets of Rage 4, a revival of Sega’s fantastic 16-bit brawler, while the creators of that sequel are also releasing a new retro-inspired Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge. There’s also the excellent River City Girls, a hip spin-off of the River City Ransom series that’s also got another sequel coming soon. And if you love all things brawling, publisher Bitmap Books recently released a dedicated book to everything you need to know about the genre called Go Straight: The Ultimate Guide to Side-Scrolling Beat-‘Em-Ups.
Of course, you might notice most of these games are mining the nostalgia of classic IP. But if you’re after something brand spanking new, then Final Vendetta is out today on PC, PlayStation, Xbox, and Nintendo Switch. I say new, as in it’s an original title, albeit clearly inspired by the classics like Final Fight, Streets of Rage, and the similarly titled Vendetta (also known as Crime Fighters 2 in Japan), but it’s also one made especially for the classic Neo Geo.
That won’t come as too much a surprise if you’re familiar with the developer Bitmap Bureau, who in 2019 released Xeno Crisis, a brand new game for the decades-old Mega Drive. But Final Vendetta’s design director Mike Tucker also had a reason for wanting to make a game specifically for the Neo Geo this time around.
“Weirdly, the Neo Geo doesn’t have a great beat-em-up like Final Fight or Streets of Rage, and we felt like there was a great big hole there that needed to be filled,” he tells me. As a lifelong fan of beat-em-ups, making one himself was also long on the bucket list, although to make one that was true to the 16-bit era, rather than modern graphics be it 3D or hand-drawn, means this was a much more challenging undertaking.
“Beat-em-ups require a huge amount of hard work like sprite animation especially, so you really need to find a pixel artist who can work on that front. We’ve worked with a lot of pixel artists over the years, but none of them really wanted to do it,” Tucker continues.
Fortunes however turned once he discovered Scotland-based sprite artist Jabir Grant, not only talented but also happened to be editing sprites from other fighting games at the time. It would take more than two years for Grant to draw all of Final Vendetta’s sprite animations, which include three playable characters and dozens of enemy types. No mean feat at all as each character has an intricate number of moves based on just the combination of buttons and directions pressed, the total frames of animation estimated as ten times that of a Final Fight or Streets of Rage.
“Back then there were severe ROM and memory restrictions,” Tucker adds. “But with Neo Geo, we don’t have to worry about it as much, so we can go pretty crazy with the animations and the backgrounds.”
That said, the Neo Geo version is actually due later, which also targets a much smaller audience given the prohibitive cost of both the system and the games. The modern platforms also have another benefit, the ability to play back CD-quality audio, and you’ll definitely want to pump up the volume.
Creating an iconic soundtrack
Final Vendetta has bangers for days that would make famed Streets of Rage composer Yuzo Koshiro proud, with a soundtrack from UK producers Featurecast and Utah Saints.
“Music-wise, we thought we’d go down the route of UK dance house techno music, so you’ll hear some tracks quite inspired by The Prodigy,” Tucker explains. “We span multiple genres from hip hop to jungle, garage, house, rave – we’ve even got some gabba in there, which is probably a first in a video game!”
It’s not just the music that has a distinctly British vibe, so is Final Vendetta’s setting, which helps distinguish it from being too derivative of Final Fight or Streets of Rage (character Claire Sparks in particular has a moveset very much like Blaze Fielding). You’ll notice it in the way you can smash up red phone boxes, fight on the tube, or near the docks with what looks like Tower Bridge in the background, while voice samples also have a distinct tint of cockney to them.
One aspect that is resolutely old-school about the game is that it is tough. Even on easy mode, don’t expect to get through Final Vendetta’s six levels on your limited stock of lives on the first try. You’re not completely on your own though as there are secret lives hidden in each level, though their locations are devious, to say the least.
Ultimately, the intent for the player to “git gud” is something Tucker stands by. Considering a playthrough only takes about half an hour if you’re triumphant, it makes sense that players should learn enemy patterns and improve with each run rather than just having infinite credits and being done with it after one go.
“I think if you’re making a genuine arcade game, you have to have a limited number of lives and credits, and players do need to reach a certain skill level,” he says. “I think too many modern games hold the player’s hand and then you’re done with the game within a day. But I think it’s a fairer game than Final Fight where you’re just getting assaulted by so many enemies. It’s got more of a console level of difficulty, so you should feel that with each play you’re improving.
For those who do succeed, there are also more modes like survival mode and a boss rush, while two players can even opt to take each other on instead of the arcade co-op, making Final Vendetta a fairly well-rounded package that beat-em-up fans expect.
What’s next for Bitmap Bureau?
As for Tucker, he’s already thinking of how to follow this up, although whether that’s a sequel or another old-school genre is another matter. The only hint is that he expects it will be a larger game, albeit not a modern bloated open-world game but rather another traditional arcade game that might have multiple branching paths or unlock more characters and ways to play. That and pixel art is here to stay.
“I can’t see pixel art or 2D gaming going away for a long time, it’s aged a lot better,” he says. “I wouldn’t mind trying a 3D game – I’d love to make a 3D racer at some point – but our focus is very much 2D and will be for some time.”
Final Vendetta is available now on PC, Playstation, Xbox and Nintendo Switch