By RipTen Contributor Thomas Beekers

I’m a huge fan of beat-em-ups, and of indie PC games, yet I completely missed retro 2D beat-em-up The Asskickers, from independent French studio AGO Games. That was until The Redner PR Group did a clever bit poking fun at Duke Nukem Forever and it got coverage on various gaming sites.  Checking out the game’s website, and discovering this to be an old-school, retro beat-em-up, I purchased it in a heartbeat.

The Asskickers clearly wears its influences on its sleeve. The opening area has Chuck Norris and Streets of Rage (“Bare Fists tournament”) posters on the background wall to indicate its irreverent sense of humor and gameplay style. Even before that, you select one of three main characters to play, with different strength, speed, and toughness stats. The three main characters are the average fighter Alex, the fast Diane, and the bruiser Marcus, roughly following the Adam/Max, Axel, and Blaze prototype from Streets of Rage.

The game doesn’t take itself seriously at all, as you would expect from a game called “The Asskickers.” The enemies are yuppie and business stereotypes. The story is as non-existent as it tends to be in other classical beat-em-ups, a simple “this is the bad guy because we told you so”, which is all you need to know. The writing is uneven, possibly with a lot lost in translation from French, so you’ll bump into lines about “kicking your ass so hard it’ll think it fought in Vietnam!”

The controls are really simple, with an attack, jump, and pick up button. The game lacks a tutorial, and it’s worthwhile to look at the control description before jumping in. For instance, I didn’t realize immediately that pressing down and the pick up button drops weapons after you’ve picked them up. Beat-em-ups always have simple controls; the complexity comes from what happens with a combination of buttons. In The Asskickers, you can do basic punch/kick combos, jumping attacks, grabbing enemies to fight them, and special moves by holding the attack button or double-tapping a direction and attacking.

There are six levels in the Asskickers. The game introduces new enemies with every new level, and while the first ones have basic attacks, it does a good job introducing more powerful enemies with varied attacks, such as SWAT cops who can block and charge with their shields or businessmen with phones that can resurrect enemies you beat and teleport to avoid your attacks. Each of the bosses is unique: some are closer to regular enemies but more powerful versions; some play like minigames, such as a drunk boss you can’t hit directly but have to drop chandeliers on. After beating each boss, you enter a minigame where you rack up points by spanking the boss as much as you can. Yes, I am dead serious.

What’s the first thing you’ll notice when you load up The Asskickers? That it looks like crap. There’s nothing wrong with the retro look, and the basic style is simple but not bad. But when I started fighting, I winced at the awkward and slow animations. Then the music blasts in, and with its level of quality, a thought forces itself up: this looks and sounds (in music and effects quality) like a Newgrounds game, like something someone lovingly crafted as a flash game. That’s not very good, but its forgivable for an indie.

Then comes the only question that really matters for beat-em-ups. Does it play well? And the answer is no, not really. The biggest problem is hit detection. You have to align yourself pretty dead on to hit an enemy, and oddly enough you can not jump over standing or prone enemies. Then, to make it worse, if you grab an enemy your only options are to let go or punch him. If you punch an enemy normally, you’ll hit any enemy in your range, but if you hold and punch an enemy, you can hit only him. That means grabbing an enemy is not just completely useless, it’s actually dangerous to do as enemies will swarm on you without you being able to hit them. The enemy AI uses the hit detection to its advantage, with enemies avoiding you in annoying ways.

The special moves are uneven too. One is executed by holding the attack button, but The Asskickers is made in a way where you have to constantly keep moving or enemies will position themselves on both sides and attack you. You very rarely have time to use the charged up attack. The other special move, which is a quick bash forward for extra damage, is much more useful. Both attacks drain energy, which recharges by consuming energy drinks or stringing together combo attacks. I never ran out.

Surprisingly, even with grabbing enemies and the charge up attack being annoyances rather than helpful tools and the hit detection being weird, it’s not actually a difficult game. I’m a pretty obsessive beat-em-up player, so I’m used to some difficulty, but honestly the only difficulty in The Asskickers is getting used to its weird style. If you move methodically and only use jump-attacks, combo punches, and the special charge attack and cater your attack style to your enemy, it’s a breeze. This is truest of the Marcus character. He walks slowly, but because of the finicky hit detection, this is an advantage rather than a disadvantage as he’s easier to position right. Considering he punches harder and can take more hits, the fact that his only disadvantage is an advantage is a big balancing problem.

And balancing is only one of its problems. It has some weird quirks and bugs. For instance, there is a fat man who has a jump attack, and while executing it he is invulnerable, and stays invulnerable until he gets back up. Here’s more clear “this isn’t right” bugs: if you try to pick up an item but get interrupted by an attack while doing so, you can’t pick up that item anymore, ever. If you’re not using widescreen, the game doesn’t letterbox, instead if just cuts off the sides. Enemies can then flee offscreen, and certain bosses become unbeatable, so it’s basically unplayable on non-widescreens. And finally, while its system requirements are light and it runs well. I have to hope it starts whenever I boot it up, half the time it just freezes.

It’s a fairly short game at six levels. There are no saving options but it saves for you at the end of every level. I finished it in normal, which was way too easy, thinking I could replay it in hardcore. Well forget about it, hardcore just means you have no continues and start with less lives. Considering I ended the game with 10 or so lives and never using a continue, why would that constitute an extra challenge? This is an absolutely bizarre impediment to replay value. Classic beat-em-ups like Streets of Rage increase the enemy speed, strength, numbers, and even AI as you up the difficulty; all this game does is let you play exactly the same game but with no continues. A little extra value can be had from a survival mode (which was fun but there’s not a lot of it) and a time attack mode (which was frustrating as you can’t be methodical about it).

There is a co-op mode which includes team attacks, but I didn’t get any of my friends to play it with me, as I’d like to keep my friends.

Once I got over the frustration and played the game in the methodical fashion it needs to be played, I enjoyed it about as much as I enjoy a quick Newgrounds game. Frustration with controls and hit detection will be enough to turn away most players, so give the demo a try before purchase. The game launched at a frankly bizarre 14.99 EUR/USD, and I pity anyone who paid that much for it. I still paid a bit much at 7 EUR/USD. It is currently 5 EUR/USD, and is frankly worth about half that.

As a fan of beat-em-ups and with a dearth of them on Windows/Mac, I really love the intention of this game, and really wanted to like it, but I just can’t. Honestly, with the recent final release of the free and vastly superior Streets of Rage Remake, fans of classic beat-em-ups should just get that. Wearing your influence on your sleeve is OK, but with this game, the Streets of Rage posters are breaking the B-movie rule of “never reference a better work than what the viewer is watching”.

Here’s the rundown:

+ Cool concept

– Poor execution

– Muddy mechanics

– Overpriced