I’ve always gravitated toward the beat ‘em ups when I’ve been in the arcade, especially growing up. Nearby on the Air Force base I would play Gauntlet Legends, The Simpson’s, but my favorite was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time. At home, these were the games my brothers and I would play on our Sega Genesis, along with Streets of Rage 2, Golden Axe, and more.
So to see such a resurgence of the genre has been fun, as the nostalgia is being fueled hard here. And while games like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge are clearly trying to evoke those old beat ‘em ups of the series, Gylee Games’ upcoming Ra Ra Boom is a co-op, 2D side-scrolled that feels more like a celebration of the genre rather than a repackaging of the old.
The premise is also surprisingly prescient, especially if you’ve kept up with any tech news in recent months. It’s a simple one: humanity creates an AI to combat climate change, and that AI goes rogue when it realizes the best way to combat it is to combat those who are causing it - humans.
As such, humanity has to flee to the stars, living in space stations and ceding the Earth to the AI. At the start of Ra Ra Boom, 20 years have past, and humanity finds itself facing the ever-growing threat that the AI could jump to the space station to face down the last of Humanity to complete its task.
Ra Ra Boom’s protagonists are a group of ninja cheerleaders who, as part of their normal school day, train to fight off the AI if it ever does make it to the Space Station (spoiler alert - you can probably see where this is heading).
Speaking with the studios during this week’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, the team was cognizant of the things they wanted to do to improve on beat ‘em ups. One area I appreciated almost immediately was the inclusion of lanes on the map, making it easier to see the positioning of an enemy and the player.
One of my biggest gripes with the genre was always being unsure of exact spacing and positioning when trying to beat down an enemy. The lanes make this clear exactly where you and the mob are on the map, and it’s also incredibly useful thanks to the arsenal each cheerleader has to fend off enemy robots.
Like any good beat ‘em up, you can punch and kick your enemies into submission, stringing together combos with ease. In Ra Ra Boom, the Gylee Games team is clearly inspired by other games from the era as well, as you can juggle enemies in the air as well (reminding me a bit of old-school fighting games), and each cheerleader can pull out a gun to fire across the screen, chaining the combo or just finishing off a foe if need be.
While the demo was hands-off, as I watched Gylee Games' Founder Chris Bergman and Senior Producer Kim Edwards guided two of the four protagonists - Ren and Aris (the other two are Vee and Saida) - through a brief tutorial where the team trained in virtual reality against the potential threat. However, after a robot does actually invade the space station, the Cheerleaders make their way down the Earth, the first time any of them have been there in their lives, to put an end to the rogue AI once and for all.
The combat is fluid, and visually Ra Ra Boom is a delight. The hand-drawn visuals ooze with style and confidence out of every pixel. I particularly love the dynamic and diverse character designs, and I’m eager to learn more about the various characters, especially as Bergman tells me that the story will touch on how they cope with loss, their struggles coming to terms with the state of things and more.
Story seems to play a much larger role here than in other genre staples as well, and each cutscene (currently animatics, but fully voiced with tons of character) sets the stage and evokes emotion rather well.
While fighting in each level, players will pick up scrap which is used to upgrade skills along the way. Each character also has their own colorful special ability, such as sending a shockwave dripping with a kaleidoscope of color across a stage, taking enemies out in its wake. While the basic moveset for each character is the same - each has a light and heavy punch, a gun they can whip out to take advantage of positioning and the lane-based layout, Bergman mentions that each character is about “30% different.” This means they will be familiar to pick up and play, but each will have their own distinct style and feel that makes them unique beyond their individual personalities.
The demo ended with a traditional moving side-scrolling level that made me think of every sewer surfing stage in a TMNT game I’ve ever played. Being chased by a giant robot intent on destroying the space station, Bergman and Edwards needed to take out tiny robots along the way while dodging obstacles and attacks. These robots would explode, damaging the hulking robot chasing them all down. It was a fun little twist on a familiar concept that perfectly summed up what I saw from Gylee Games: fun little twists that really shake up a familiar genre.
Gylee Games is also taking a serious look at accessibility for Ra Ra Boom, working with third parties to make sure that the game is something everyone can enjoy. For a game that has as much action as Ra Ra Boom, and possible wide appeal thanks to the colorful and vibrant artwork, setting, and its charming cast of characters, accessibility is going to be key to ensuring everyone can have fun, whether they are running and gunning Metal Slug-style or working on their juggle game like this is a match of Marvel vs Capcom.
Personally, I can’t wait to go hands-on with and explore Ra Ra Boom’s world and story more, as well as pull off some satisfying combos with friends and family, tackling the growing AI threat with style.