The release of the Game Awards’ nominees list caused a fair bit of controversy in some circles when it added Sifu to the list of “Fighting Game of the Year” nominees. In the eyes of some, this represented a grave error as, aside from featuring martial arts, Sifu looks and plays nothing like fighting games such as Street Fighter, Tekken or even Super Smash Bros.
Now it would be easy to dismiss this as simply an argument over the form of a genre. However, there’s something deeper here beyond just the form of a genre, and it’s something important to the genre that Sifu actually falls under—the beat ’em up.
A blast to the past—Sifu‘s beat ’em up forebears
To understand the crux of the argument, we first need to understand the historical context between both genres. To do this, we need to go back to the mid-to-late 1980s, when arcades were just coming into their second boom. During this time, one of the most popular genres was the beat ’em up. Inspired by the martial arts movie craze of the time, these games had players “beat up” waves of bad guys on a 3D playfield before eventually facing off against a boss—very much like Sifu.
For a time, beat ’em ups Double Dragon, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Final Fight dominated arcades. But as the decade came to an end, another genre—one with links to but still distinct from beat ’em ups—took over.
Capcom’s 1987 release of the original Street Fighter lit a fire that soon took the world by storm when its sequel, 1991’s Street Fighter II, was released. And as this new genre, one focused on one-on-one combat grew, it needed a name to differentiate it from the beat ’em ups of old. Thus the name “fighting game” was born. (Read: Fighting in the time of COVID: the problems of online play and how the community has adapted)
With this, it’s easy to see the irony of Sifu—a beat ’em up—being nominated for a genre that was defined to distinguish itself from beat ’em ups in the first place. That said, that isn’t the only reason why it’s wrong to call Sifu a fighting game. To understand the other issue, we need to go back in time once again, this time to the 1990s.
While Street Fighter and the fighting game genre that it codified had their first golden age during the 1990s, beat ’em ups were not faring so well. In an ironic twist of fate, one of the first genres to attempt 3D movement with 2D graphics struggled with the move to actual 3D graphics.
Not that some didn’t try, as games such as Fighting Force, Dynamite Deka (localized as Die Hard Arcade in the West) and the Bouncer demonstrate. But none of these could bring the genre to the third dimension—and the new millennium.
Still in the shadow of fighters
That’s not to say that beat ’em ups did not leave a lasting impression on the industry. Various genres, from stylish action games like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta to the various Warriors games from KOEI Tecmo, have all borrowed mechanics and concepts from beat ’em ups.
At the same time, the genre itself has also mounted something of a comeback. This first started with smaller titles such as 2008’s indie darling Castle Crashers and 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game. It then culminated in new installments of classic franchises such as Double Dragon Neon, Streets of Rage 4 and the recent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge (the TMNT franchise being highly associated with the genre).
But even as more new games came out, beat ’em ups never regained mainstream recognition. The genre never really had the same kind of resurgence that fighting games had. That is, arguably, until Sifu came out to widespread critical acclaim—including multiple nominations at the Game Awards.
And yet, despite arguably being the most important beat ’em up release in years, Sifu is being labeled as a “fighting game.” And in our world run by computers and algorithms, labels are very important.
Imagine if someone enjoys Sifu enough to try to look for more games like it. However, since the game is labeled as a fighting game, they instead get recommended actual fighting games like Tekken instead of the beat ’em ups they’re actually looking for. At the same time, these misguided searches for “fighting games,” when someone is searching for beat ’em ups, can mistakenly tell publishers that there’s more demand for the former over the latter.
In other words, mislabeling Sifu means hurting the chances of other games in its genre, instead of helping them, and if you don’t think there’s something wrong with that, then you’ve got a fight on your hands.
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