Streets of Rage: Dawn of a Phenomenon

The Streets of Rage series is an all-time great in gaming, and you could practically hear the collective sigh of relief from the entire community when the brand new fourth installment, released at the tail end of April 2020, turned out to be good.

How do the older installments hold up today, though? Having not played them for a few years, I figured “while I wait for my Limited Run copy of Streets of Rage 4 to arrive” would be the perfect time to revisit them all. So that’s exactly what I’m doing.

We begin, of course, with the first game in the series, which first hit the streets in 1991 with releases for the Mega Drive, Master System and Game Gear. We’ll be concentrating on the 16-bit Mega Drive release for today, since that’s still the most readily available version for modern audiences. Let’s dive in.

Streets of Rage, known as Bare Knuckle: Ikari no Tekken or Bare Knuckle: Furious Iron Fist in Japan, did not debut in arcades, unlike many other beat ’em ups of the period. Instead, its initial release was for the Mega Drive, with the port to Game Gear coming along a year later, and the PAL-only Master System version a year after that.

This is a noteworthy piece of information to know going in to Streets of Rage, because it means that there’s a different design philosophy going in to the whole experience. And it’s one that very much worked in the game’s favour back in the day, and still gives the game a very distinct focus to this day.

Beat ’em ups originally designed for the arcade were, for the most part, designed to be quarter-munchers. They’d draw people in with their big, chunky sprites, thumping music and meaty sound effects, then usually reveal their true difficulty after the player had cleared a stage or two — often quite suddenly. Having one person standing playing for ages on a single coin doesn’t make for a profitable machine, after all, so it was important for arcade beat ’em up designers to strike a good balance between initial accessibility and challenge factor. After a few minutes’ play, it would be desirable to get a player to either walk away, or pump another credit or ten into the machine.

Of course, this doesn’t really matter today; through emulation or official releases such as the excellent Capcom Beat ‘Em Up Bundlewe can enjoy these games as much as we like without having to worry about how much of our pocket money we’re spending. As such, those who are primarily coming to the experience to admire some gorgeous pixel art or revel in the delightfully visceral feel of banging away at an “attack” button while a virtual person who is inevitably far more attractive than you punches a denim-clad assailant repeatedly in the testicles can do so. Meanwhile, those keen to put the time in and truly learn the game with the intention of racking up some high scores or impressively speedy clear times can do so without financial penalty.

Streets of Rage is different, though. This is a game created specifically for play in the home, and you can feel that aspect of its overall design right from the moment you start playing. The playable characters can take a decent amount of punishment; healing items are generously spread throughout the levels; there’s a much more gradual incline in difficulty as you progress rather than a sudden “wall”; and there’s a solid sense of structure. You can continue in Streets of Rage, but you’re limited in how many times you can do so; after a certain point, you have to get better at the game if you want to see its conclusion, rather than simply paying your way to the end credits.

In terms of mechanics, Streets of Rage is roughly on a par with Capcom’s Final Fightwhich came out a couple of years earlier in arcades, but whose Super NES release was a rough contemporary of Streets of Rage in North America and Europe. Its three playable characters Adam, Axel and Blaze — the latter two of whom have remained fixtures for all four installments in the series — complement one another well, and each feels distinct from the others. Curiously, though, if a second player joins in partway through the game rather than starting a two player game from the title screen, they are unable to select their character.

Adam, Axel and Blaze each have a basic combo that can be unleashed by tapping the attack button, and they can also grab enemies by walking into them. While grappling, the character can perform a hold attack, throw the enemy or vault over their head to end up behind them. Each character can also jump, with the option of performing some sort of jump-kick in mid air, which usually knocks enemies to the floor if it connects — helpful for taking a bit of pressure off you. There are, however, no “Blitz” attacks that require specific inputs as seen in Streets of Rage 2.

An interesting twist on the conventions of the formula comes in the form of how special attacks are implemented. In most arcade beat ’em ups that make use of them, special attacks drain a portion of the player’s life bar, forcing the player to make a decision between sacrificing a small amount of health to potentially get themselves out of a sticky situation, or being beaten senseless by a horde of enemies that have surrounded them.

In Streets of Rage, however, they’re more like a “bomb” — or perhaps more accurately, like Shinobi’s ninja magic. You have a very limited number of these — one per life and literally only two extra pickups in the entire game — but they either wipe out all trash enemies on screen or do a decent amount of damage to a boss. There’s less risk involved in performing one of these moves, but they’re still best saved for truly desperate situations, as in most cases they’re a guaranteed escape from immediate danger.

Streets of Rage features extremely satisfying hitstun from regular attacks, with enemies having a clear animation frame and a “trembling” movement while they’re subject to it, providing valuable visual feedback. Making good use of hitstun — and understanding your character’s reach — is essential in the game’s boss encounters, since the vast majority of these battles all but require performing repeated grapple attacks to do any significant damage. In a fair few cases, there’s no way you’re getting close enough to do that without giving your foe a quick hitstun-inducing boop on the snoot from the very limit of your range — and outside their range — to throw them off-balance first!

There are a couple of areas where the original Streets of Rage is starting to show its age a bit. The first of these is its use of sound effects, which are mostly synthesised through the system’s YM2612 sound chip and thus sound a bit farty. That said, the crunchy, distinctly “Mega Drive”-sounding digitised screams and yelps that mark the moment you’ve successfully defeated an enemy are a helpful bit of audible feedback; unlike subsequent installments, regular enemies don’t have health bars, so the yelps are important indicators that you can stop wailing on someone and should pick a fight with another opponent.

More troublesome for some modern gamers will be the fact that the game appears to be locked to 30 frames per second for its main action, leaving the whole thing looking a lot less slick than its subsequent installments, particularly when scrolling is happening. It’s worth noting that it does remain absolutely rock solid at this frame rate, even when the screen gets busy, and the actual controls are pleasingly responsive at all times — weirdly, except when entering your name after attaining a high score, which is incredibly sluggish for some reason. For those who get upset about such things, be aware; look at it this way, though — it only gets better from here!

However, one area where the game is as wonderful as it’s ever been is Yuzo Koshiro’s amazing soundtrack, which is inspired heavily by urban styles of the era such as R&B and hip hop. Koshiro made a specific effort in Streets of Rage’s soundtrack to emulate the timbre and overall “feel” of how these genres of the early ’90s made widespread use of Roland’s popular drum machines, and is widely credited as being one of the first musicians to truly implement original, authentic, contemporary-sounding music into a video game. The soundtrack is still full of absolute bangers to this day, and is well worth spinning up independently of the game if you want a good sense of what lo-fi beats to study and relax to sounded like circa 1991.

The original Streets of Rage is not the best in the classic series by any means, but for anyone interested in the development of the beat ’em up over time, it remains an essential play — if only to see how much the series advanced in the year between its first two installments. Know your roots and all that.

It’s still a cracking beat ’em up with a varied and enjoyable cast of hoodlums to punch in the face; Blaze is still hot (though I personally prefer her tights-clad incarnation in the sequel); and there’s still a stiff but fair challenge to be had that never once feels like it’s trying to fleece you out of your hard-earned pocket money. In the case of a home console game, remember, you already paid up front — so all you need to do to see everything the game has to offer is get good.

Or, y’know, abuse save states and rewind features in modern ports and emulated versions. You wouldn’t catch me doing such things — but no judgement here if you do — all’s fair in love and violent vigilanteism!

More about Streets of Rage

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