Ah, Streets of Rage 3. Probably the most notorious entry in the franchise due to how heavily it was altered between its original Japanese release as Bare Knuckle III and its Western incarnation.
Thankfully, modern compilations such as the Sega Mega Drive Classics collection make it very easy to access the Japanese version — though it’s worth taking a look at the Western release too for an extreme example of what unnecessary localisation due to external pressure looks like.
Let’s hit the streets once again!
One cannot talk about Streets of Rage 3 without discussing the localisation issues, so let’s get that out of the way first.
While there’s no concrete confirmation one way or the other, the fact that the game released in 1994 — right in the midst of the debates over video games violence that ultimately led to the formation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board in America — would probably explain why the game’s content was altered so substantially between its Eastern and Western releases.
So what exactly was altered? Well, firstly, the main plot: in Bare Knuckle III — which, it’s worth noting, is regarded as canon so far as Streets of Rage 4 is concerned — the narrative involves Blaze and Axel returning to the police force they had abandoned in the first game to investigate the detonation of an experimental weapon in the city suburbs and the disappearance of a military general in the midst of peace negotiations.
In the Western (now non-canonical) release, meanwhile, recurring villain Mr. X is back for a third time, this time using a robotics company as cover and attempting to amass a robot army to replace all the city officials and once again take control of the metropolis. In this version, Blaze, Axel and friends are still vigilantes rather than police officers, and a significant number of cutscenes and dialogue sequences from the Japanese original are excised entirely, making the plot more of an afterthought than anything.
Besides the narrative changes, there were also a lot of adjustments to character costumes and aspects of their appearance. Blaze’s iconic red outfit was deemed too sexually provocative and changed to white (presumably to reflect some sort of pure, virginal nature despite the tube top and miniskirt outfit being otherwise unchanged), while the dominatrix-esque Electra enemies and their palette-swap counterparts were covered somewhat — no more stockings and suspenders for those easily corrupted Americans.
Ash, a midboss in the first stage, was removed completely for being an overexaggerated gay stereotype that was presumably deemed offensive to someone or other; Garnet-type enemies had coloured tights added rather than bare legs; Blaze’s three pixels of panties were no longer clearly visible any time she did a jumping kick.
Probably the strangest alteration was that all the enemies had their names changed. Iconic enemies such as “Galsia” and “Signal” who had been a recognisable part of the series since the beginning were changed to variations such as “Garcia” and “Scarab”, while the obese enemies known as “Bongo” in the Japanese version became “Dwayne” — arguably still a stereotype, albeit from a slightly different angle — in the Western release.
Finally, the difficulty was ramped up from the Japanese original to the Western release, with the Japanese default difficulty corresponding to the easiest mode in the Western release. And to add insult to injury, playing the easiest mode on the Western release wouldn’t allow you to beat the whole game, whereas in the Japanese original, you could play through the entire thing on Easy if you wanted to. Regional changes to default difficulty were not unusual to see right up until about the PlayStation 2 era, with one of the most well-known being the “European Extreme” difficulty found in Konami’s Metal Gear Solid series.
Despite all those changes to the actual content, the mechanics remained consistent between the two versions, and act as something of an evolution of those found in Streets of Rage 2. So let’s change gears and take a closer look at how this game actually plays.
For the most part, Streets of Rage 3 feels quite similar to its immediate predecessor. Certain aspects of its presentation are almost identical, in fact, with many sprites reused and the overall “look” of the game being fairly consistent with its precursor. You still have the standard three-button control scheme, too, with one button being used to attack, another to jump and a third for special attacks.
There are some significant mechanical changes, though. Firstly, the time limit has been removed — not that it ever became that much of an issue in the previous games. Now, you can take your time working through the stages if required; in practice, this doesn’t really affect the overall game flow all that much, since the whole thing is still very much structured in discrete “encounters” that you have to clear in order to progress.
Secondly and probably most notably, the way that special moves work has been adjusted considerably. In Streets of Rage 1, these were screen-clearing “smart bombs”; in Streets of Rage 2, they took a small amount of life in exchange for a powerful attack that was helpful for crowd control or breaking free of holds. In Streets of Rage 3, you have a special meter that builds up over time, with a special move being “free” to perform whenever this fills and is marked with an “OK” sign. This encourages much more liberal use of special moves and is particularly helpful in the more challenging Western release, where you’ll often find yourself surrounded by packs of enemies who need taming and getting under control.
You can still consume health to use a special move, mind, though the exact amount is determined by the current state of the special meter. If it’s completely empty and you use a special, you’ll lose a fairly significant amount of health and empty the meter; if it’s almost full, you’ll lose a sliver and empty the meter. It’s an interesting twist on the usual formula that still encourages a certain amount of risk and reward.
Thirdly, all characters now have the ability to double-tap a direction and either run horizontally or dodge-roll vertically. This coincides with the “Blitz” moves introduced in Streets of Rage 2; these are now effectively “running attacks”, but otherwise function similarly to their counterparts from the previous game. The dodge roll, meanwhile, makes getting out of the way of throw-happy enemies — or those with ranged attacks — a little more straightforward, and makes combat feel somewhat more dynamic.
Finally, there are quite a few more playable characters than in the previous game; while you initially only have access to four — three of whom return from Streets of Rage 2 and the fourth of whom is an old man robot — there are a couple of bosses you can play as by holding down a specific button after you beat them and then picking them when you have to continue.
In the Japanese original, you can even mince your way through the game as Ash if you so desire, though obviously since that character was removed in the localisation, this isn’t an option in the English versions. Alternatively, when facing off against the famous boxing kangaroo enemy and his whip-wielding trainer, defeating the trainer first and allowing the kangaroo to go free allows you to play as him upon continuing, too.
Streets of Rage 3 is a solid beat ’em up thanks to the fact it doesn’t deviate too significantly from the formula set in place by Streets of Rage 2. But it’s hard to deny that it lacks a certain amount of magic that its predecessor had.
There are a few contributing factors to this, chief among which is the fact that the game’s encounters and the locales through which you travel just aren’t as interesting and varied. Streets of Rage 2 had you travelling across the rooftops of a neon-soaked cityscape and through an overrun amusement park; Streets of Rage 3, meanwhile, has you delving into dirty alleyways, subway tunnels and construction sites. It’s all just a bit drab, and it lacks a lot of the vibrant colour that the previous game had.
The soundtrack, too, is not Yuzo Koshiro’s finest hour. While perfectly serviceable and a good reflection of mid-’90s techno and rave sounds, the rather discordant, atonal nature of the majority of it makes it a lot less memorable than his excellent work on the previous game. Here, we have a soundtrack that is atmospheric rather than tuneful, and the overall feel of the game suffers a little for it. It’s not unlistenable by any means, but coming straight from Streets of Rage 2 it’s hard not to feel like it’s a step in a less desirable direction.
None of these issues are enough to make Streets of Rage 3 into a “bad” game, mind — hell, even the heavy localisation of the Western version doesn’t make it “bad”, just rather noticeably different — but it’s just not quite as slick and polished as the game that came before it, which is a shame.
Should you play it? Sure — it’s still a good time. If you only play one version, though, make sure you play the Japanese one; Blaze just doesn’t look right in white…
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