The recognized timeline of beat-em-ups started with Renegade, moved through Double Dragon, Golden Axe, Final Fight, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and ends up at Streets of Rage 2. Despite the numerous quality beat-em-ups that were released afterwards, very few are acknowledged, despite their quality. Perhaps the big reason is that many of them came out too late in the systems' life to recognized (almost definitely the case with Final Fight 3), but more often than not, many of these games remained exclusive to the arcades, and most of these never left Asia.
This is more or less the case with the Denjin Makai series. Published by Banpresto and developed by a team called Winky Soft, these two beat-em-ups were largely confined to Japanese arcades, with the first one receiving a rather obscure port to the Super Famicom. Both are well recognized for their large character rosters - six in the first, eight in the second - and number of special moves, greatly mixing up the "walk forward, punch dudes, walk forward some more" formula that typifies the genre.
For the most part, Denjin Makai ("Makai: The God of Lightning") looks and feels like pretty much every other arcade side-scrolling beat-em-up. You can run, block, and counterattack, placing it at a bit more advanced level than Final Fight. It's also one of the few beat-em-ups with wake-up attacks, allowing you to recover from a fall without being totally surrounded.
There are six playable characters in total.
Makai is the main character, and also the source of the game's title. He has a spinning kick that would make Ryu and Ken proud. and a sonic blaster on his wrist. He can also light people on fire by kicking them.
A stylish purple haired policewoman who mostly attacks with her legs.
A huge, white and pink lizard-like beast, Zeldia is extremely strong. She can spit fire, roll up into a ball, and shoot needles from her arms.
Tulks is a wrestler, who looks slightly out of place in the futuristic setting. Channeling equal parts E. Honda and Goro Daimon, Tarakusu can slam into enemies like a torpedo and bang the ground to cause earthquakes.
Iyo is a monkey-like beast girl with elf ears, and is the most agile of the characters. She wields a very large mace, which can extend Son Goku-tyle and even ignite on fire.
A cybernetic being, Belve has jets in his feet, which allow him to glide across the levels. He can electrocute enemies, and has spikes beneath his armor, which can impale enemies like a porcupine.
The biggest change to the beat-em-up formula is how it approaches special moves. Typically their usage needs to be rationalized, whether it was the limited-use screen clearing attacks of Golden Axe or the health-draining crowd control attacks of Final Fight. In Denjin Makai, special attacks are linked to a secondary power meter. Each character has roughly a half dozen super moves, some activated by pressing buttons at the same time, others by holding down the attack button and pressing back and forth or up and down. For all of their usefuless, they can be hard to pull off consistently.
Each of these character specific attacks will drain various levels of this power meter, although you can usually pull off at least three in quick succession. It regenerates rather slowly, although you can speed it up by standing still for a second or so, which will surround your character with a Dragon Ball Z-style flaming charge. Additionally you get a small burst of power every time you take damage. There are also special desperation moves, unleashed when your health is low and your power is at max, and team up attacks when playing in co-op mode.
With no repercussions in executing special attacks other than having to find some time to recharge, it drastically alters the flow of the action. The standard attacks and combos are something you to do defend yourself or deal some minor damage while your power regenerates. It's a much more involved game as a result, one that distinguishes itself quite skillfully amongst a crowded genre. Of course, to balance this, you're only given a single life, and need to insert more credits once you lose it. To halfway counterbalance this, there's a scoring system in place, which grants more points the lower your life meter is. When you cross certain thresholds, your maximum life and power will be increased. These upgrades also carry through after you continue, so you needn't worry about losing them.
The visuals, outside of some slightly unique character designs, are decent albeit typical. The world of Denjin Makai is a futuristic city with some vague cyberpunk influences, a setting not unfamiliar to the genre. But, the sprites are solid and the backgrounds are well drawn, so it's hard to complain. There are a couple of amusingly weird moments throughout, like the legion of colored ninjas who appear to be out a sentai group, and an encounter with Neptune, the Roman god of water. However, some of the bosses are simply recycled versions of a few of the player characters, which is a tiny bit lazy. The music is solid, if mostly forgettable. It does rip off some famous 80s music though, with pieces that are suspiciously similar to the theme from Chariots of Fire, as well as Eye of the Tiger. The arcade flyer artwork was drawn by famed manga illustrator Go Nagai.
Denjin Makai was ported to the Super Famicom, where it was inexplicably renamed Ghost Chaser Densei (Ghost Chaser Lightning Spirit). The visuals have been cut back substantially - the animation isn't as smooth, many background details are missing, the colors are incredibly dark, and the status bars at the top of the bottom of the screen are now opaque where they were previously transparent. It plays pretty well, although not as quickly nor as tightly.
The major blow is that half of the playable roster is missing, reducing your characters to three: only Makai, Iyo and Belva are still present. They have a few new moves, and the fighting system now allows a fair bit of juggling. There's also a button devoted to special attacks, which makes executing them a little easier. The highway stage has been cut, reducing the total number of levels to five. Since you're still only given a single life, the health restoratives are now more frequent to eliminate the need for constant continuing. It's also quite a bit easier, considering there are far less enemies on the screen at a given moment. Denjin Makai also had a fairly large amount of dialogue sequences, while Ghost Chaser Densei reduces the number of these. Overall it's playable, but definitely a weak port.
Though the title screen indicates the name Guardians, various logos in the game feature the subtitle Denjin Makai II. The name change probably occurred since Makai is no longer a playable character. Regardless, the roots are apparent. It takes all of the elements of its predecessor, speeds up the gameplay, enhances the graphics, and kicks everything up to extraordinary levels. There are eight playable characters now, which may in fact be some kind of record. Each has four slightly different combo strings, depending on what direction you're holding the joystick, and each still has a number of special moves, which are helpfully indicated on the character select screen. While the original Denjin Makai only used two buttons, Guardians uses three, with one solely devoted to a major powerful attack, which is usually some kind of projectile. This special button is used in conjunction with the standard attack and jump buttons to pull off the desperation moves. There are still weapons to find, in the form of swords, bars and bombs, but your characters already have a huge arsenal that they seem redundant.
While many beat-em-ups have dashing attacks, the characters in Guardians walk forward automatically with combos, which makes attacking multiple enemies much easier. It's also one of the few games of its types to have an on-screen combo counter, though the enemy health bars, outside of the bosses, have been removed. The special attacks still have their own power gauge, with replenishes automatically. However, if you do a special move with a lower power gauge, you'll get an "Overcharge" warning, which
refills the gauge at the expense of one life bar. The mechanics are mostly the same, though the action is speedier, and it's one of the few beat-em-ups with vertical dashing, allowing you to somersault quickly upwards and downwards.
As far as the characters, there are many returning faces from Denjin Makai, although they've been given an assortment of makeovers and upgrades.
With Makai gone, Girulian takes on the role of the main player character. He's a futuristic cop with a rather ridiculous pair of oversized green shades, which shoots out lasers, like Cyclops from X-Men.
The female cop from the first game returns, though now she's got blond hair and a pony tail. She's very similar as she was before, complete with a robot arm blaster and spinning kick. Her gun weapon is fun, since it can freeze enemies.
At the end of Denjin Makai, it's revealed that Zeldia was in some sort of living cocoon form, and hatched into a creature with wings. That creature has evolved into this blue haired, female bird-like character seen here. She can spin fast to create whirlwinds, and can dive-bomb enemies too.
The super muscular wrestler from the first game is back, and is even more pumped up than ever. For his weapon, he wields an oversized pistol.
A tough karate guy sporting a cape, Rou fights with an assortment of unique weapons, including flaming cards, electric whips and magical wave attacks.
This upgraded version of Belva has new weaponry, such as blades in his knees and guns in his arms. He plays much differently than the first game.
A pink ninja with crazy long hair, Jinrei is so badass that he can throw shurikens faster than a gun fires bullets. He can also make waves of fire and perform other special ninja moves.
With Zeldia having transformed into a fast, bird creature, there was a hole to be filled for hulking behemoths. Skullbyule takes on that role, being a huge mutant dinosaur man. He attacks with everything from his tongue, to a secret tusk in his arm, to killer flies that are shot from his scales.
The diverse and outlandish cast are matched by an equally unique series of enemies. There are the usual generic thugs, robots and fat guys, but there are also thick, abormally busty girls in tight dresses, walking bug creatures, and mutated reptiles with abnormally large alligator heads. The first level boss is an absurdly muscled female - even more over-the-top than Tulks - who twists her torso like a screw and throws a temper tantrum when you beat her. One of the enemies is named Fag: The Ersatzman (the offensive name was probably unintentional), a super hero parody, whose background is supplied via a holographic projector. The final boss is a multi-stage affair, a gigantic mass of flesh, metal and bone that hangs out from the oozing wall.
The levels are exemplary in the way that they flesh out the game world. When you go through the mall, you get to witness the bizarre fashions worn by the civilians of the city. There's an amusement park, but it's based off of Gulliver's Travels, so you get to destroy small-scale models of gigantic buildings. There are different levels to choose from too - the first, fifth and sixth are set in stone, but there are completely different levels to be played for the second, third and fourth, making for an extremely meaty, heavily replayable game.
There's also an extraordinary amount of detail poured into each stage too, equivalent to the sort of 2D love found in titles from Konami, Treasure or SNK. In the first level, you find a group of enemies setting up a card pyramind before the heroes burst in, unfortunately tumbling their creation. If you pay attention, you'll find that the heroes bust a whole through the wall to enter this room, when there's a perfectly capable door that opens up right to them.
Later in a cafe, you can see some bad guys conversing in background, ignoring of chaos happening around them, until you defeat a few enemies, realize that they've been slacking, and hop into the scenery. In the sewers, you can find a bad guy scribbling on the wall with graffiti, designing the Banpresto logo. Many foes fly onto the battlefield on hoverboards or floating mechanical balloons, but occasionally you'll find some being delivered by a small squadron of birds. Like every beat-em-up, some of the enemies are obese guys, and sometimes their overwhelming weight will cause them to crash their hoverboards before they can enter the fray. The amusement park is home to a taco truck, but destroy it and the owner will respond with one of the most horrified looks imaginable. (The same guy was in Denjin Makai, too.) Behind one of the models, you'll also find two gang members who appear to have snuck off for some hanky panky, which you summarily interrupt.
Bonus pick-ups include stuffed plushie variations of the enemy crocodiles, and trick present boxes, which, when picked up, will punch your character with a spring loaded fist. And hidden throughout most of the stages is a squid. It's the same squid, every time, and it never attacks you, it just makes an appearance as a random, as recurring sight gag. There are also a few bonus stages where you pick up a gun and fire at targets in the background, like a shooting range.
Unfortunately, most of the plot elements and dialogue from Denjin Makai have been stripped out, and characters no longer have unique endings. The plot seems fairly cool, and it would've maybe helped explain why Girulian, the big bad guy from the first game, is now the main character of this game. Maybe this is meant to be a prequel?
It's no hyperbole to say that Guardians is one of the best best-em-ups ever made. The action is fast, the moves are diverse, the amount of content is insane, the level design is fantastic, and the game world is incredible. The tragic thing is that, due to its timing and the inevitable death of the arcade beat-em-up, it never saw much distribution, nor was it ported anywhere.