Fist Puncher

A game by Team2Bit for PC and Xbox 360, originally released in 2013.
The ubran brawler got its start with Technos’ Renegade in 1986, the first of the Kunio-kun series. The Kunio series is primarily known for River City Ransom (1989), although Technos would go on to release more than two dozen games in the series, many of them focusing on sports, with notable US releases including Super Dodge Ball, Nintendo World Cup, and Crash 'n the Boys. Technos further popularized the beat ‘em genre with the release of Double Dragon in 1987, making the company the author of two of the genre’s most influential titles.

Following this, there was a boom in brawler development, with many companies getting in on the action… and many discovering just how difficult it was to create a good beat ‘em up. The result was a slew of mediocre action games that were never able to move beyond the genre’s naturally repetitive nature. However, there were a number of standout titles that kept the genre alive, including Capcom’s Final Fight series, Sega’s Golden Axe and Streets of Rage series, and Komani’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games.

The beat ‘em up genre eventually stagnated and was outshined by the rise of 1:1 fighters. While the beat ‘em up still exists in the 3D sphere, the standard belt scroller is all but lost, revisited occasionally by indie developers, and usually quite poorly… again due to the limited mechanics and naturally repetitive nature of the genre. Even the major studio release Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game showed just how difficult it can be to get the balance right in a game like this.

But a new developer has risen to the challenge to create a brawler worth playing. Fist Puncher is a lo-fi beat-em-up that focuses on the core mechanics, namely punching and kicking, with a small number of additional moves to be gained through a fairly robust leveling system. Like most other entries in the genre, the game is somewhat repetitive and occasionally unbalanced, but it keeps things interesting with its ludicrous story, characters, and settings. The end result is a competent beat-em-up that will likely appeal to fans of the 8-bit era of brawling history.

The game’s main character is one Dr. Karate, who does double duty as both a neurosurgeon and a black belt in the art fist punchery (also karate) as he fights street thugs and crime lords, working his way toward the big boss called the Milkman. Dr. Karate teams up with a motley crew of characters, including Steroid Jackson, Hella Fistgerald, and The Beekeeper. These are the 4 playable characters available at the start of the game, although several new characters are unlockable for a total of 15, each with their own unique special attacks. The game can also be played with up to 4 players in offline co-op.

Your basic moves are punching and kicking, grabbing for a follow-up throw or slam, and a special move to clear out nearby enemies. You can also bash downed enemies to get in a few extra hits of damage, and you can perform a jump kick, although the jump is much higher and faster than most fighters, making it somewhat difficult to control. On the defensive side, you can block attacks or dash away. As is typical of the genre, you can pick up most dropped weapons and swing or toss them at your enemies, and you can also pick up enemies and other large objects and toss them as well.

Defeating enemies increases your XP, which allows you to level up. Each time you level up, you gain points which can be spent toward increasing your strength, speed, defense, special meter, and amount of health recovered from restoratives. Leveling up may also give you the option to purchase a “perk”, which is generally a new ability, including new special attacks and several options for restoring your health and special meters.

Health can be restored within the level by picking up food items dropped from KO’d enemies, which range from various fruits to burgers and ice cream sandwiches. Using a special attack drains your special meter, but this slowly recharges over time. You can also collect letters that spell out the word “RAGE”, which sends you into rage mode, making you faster and stronger for a short time. However, letter drops are random, so it can take quite a while to get all 4 of the letters you need, and you will often find yourself collecting the same letter several times.

Navigation takes place over a world map that extends through a city, with more than 50 levels in total. From the outset, you are given several choices as to the order in which you tackle levels, offering some nonlinearity and the ability to return to a tough level after you have leveled up a bit. Some levels have a bubble with the word “HELP!”, which indicates a tougher level with a beauty queen (they were abducted from the Miss Fist Puncher Pageant) to be rescued at the end. You are able to replay levels to grind for experience if you wish, although this is not really required (unlike the Scott Pilgrim game), so long as you are willing to spam some fast/high damage attacks.

Each character levels up independently, so switching to another character mid-session is discouraged, as it takes a long time to bring a character up in rank. Playing through the entire game with a single character allows for a fairly steady leveling progression from start to finish. Of course, playing in multiplayer will allow several characters to be upgraded simultaneously, as well as allowing for the rip-roaring antics that come from playing a beat-em-up with friends.

There is a bit of replay value in the form of locked areas that can only be accessed by finding keys or other items. The main area where this comes into play is the graveyard, which has 4 locked doors with their keys spread out all over the city. There are also collectible cards to be unlocked by defeating certain enemies, performing specific tasks, and getting low level completion times, and there are 99 of these in all.

While most levels will see you simply fist punching your way from start to finish, there’s a fair amount of enemy variety and humor to be found along the way. Unique scenarios include missions where you must avoid punching lawyers who will sue your dojo, one where you defend an old lady from thugs on a subway (although she can take pretty good care of herself), and even riding an ostrich through a minefield. Yep, that’s in there. Humorous bits include a fight on a nude beach where all of the dudes’ jingle-jangles are covered black censor bars, busting up a bunch of racists at a party, and fighting people with shark heads.

Most of the boss encounters are simply oversized versions of regular guys with longer health meters and a pre-fight quip, although there are some unique encounters here as well, including a father-son team where the father beats you up while the son shoots you with his slingshot.

A generally accepted strategy for taking on tough enemies in a brawler is to come at them from above or below their position to avoid their attacks (and outwit the AI), and then start attacking as they move onto your plane. In Fist Puncher, large enemies can actually be hit by standing behind them and punching in the air where their sprite overlaps with your position in the background. The disconnected player character somehow deals damage to a foe that could not possibly be getting hit by his attacks. However, the bosses here also tend to take quite a bit more damage than you can readily deal out without getting KO’d yourself, making this strategy more necessary. Most large bosses can be defeated by moving above/behind them and attacking, and then dashing away before they move to your position.

While the scenarios and mild humor do keep the game interesting for the single player experience, it is still a brawler and therefore has repetition baked into its design. As such, there is not much to be gained from repeated playthroughs, even given the ability to unlock and upgrade additional characters. However, the fun meter does ping higher when you gather a group of friends in front of the glowing display of your choice while tossing back some cold drinks, yelling some choice remarks, and punching absolutely everything you see.

Fist Puncher was developed by Team2Bit, a studio based in Santa Cruz, California founded by Wisconsin-grown brothers Jake and Matt Lewandowski, also of the IGN's Indie Open House graduating class of 2012. The duo won IGN’s indie dev reality show The Next Game Boss with their entry Washington’s Wig, which was later released on Xbox Live Indie Games.

Fist Puncher was funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign. Oddly, the campaign also resulted in the successful funding of a separate game called Escape From Hizbollia, which is also a beat-em-up, funded by a single backer donating $10,000.

The game includes some characters based on the title’s backers, as well as some real-world brand names and references to other indie games. The game was published by Adult Swim Games and includes a Robot Unicorn as a DLC character, based on Adult Swim’s Robot Unicorn Attack. Adult Swim Games also published Völgarr the Viking, Super House of Dead Ninjas, Super Comboman, Oblitus, Westerado: Double Barreled, Rise & Shine, Rain World, and Death's Gambit.