“Criminals do not die by the hands of the law. They die by the hands of other men.”
-George Bernard Shaw,
Happy birthday, Sega! This review is in honor of you.
I’ve recently been subjected to the harmless and good-natured slander that I have something personal against Sega. See and cite the polemic passages of Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection, and “Bring Back the Bitter Rivalry of the 90’s at E3 2017” for reference. In my defense I will say: How the heck could I hate Sega when we share the same birth-city, Honolulu, HI?
Jeers and jests aside, I’ve taken steps to reform myself from my side-taking fanboyism of the 90’s where I clearly went with the better system, the SNES, and I can now enjoy Sega games for myself from the safe vantage point of reasonable adulthood. Thus in tribute to the cobalt king, I’ve decided to take a unusually positive look (for me) at one of their biggest retro franchises, beginning with the first Streets of Rage, known in Japan as Bare Knuckle: Furious Iron Fist.
Let it be known that Streets of Rage was so popular back in the day that even I, a kid who never owned a Sega system, knew about it. It was already well on its way to becoming a definitive title. The arcade-style, side-scrolling beat ’em up may not have been quite as famous as the character Sonic the Hedgehog but word of mouth was certainly hale and hearty where I lived at the time. The schoolchildren delightedly talked on punching and jump-kicking their way through scumbags and criminals in the urban environs. I even got to play the first Streets of Rage a couple of times at a friend’s house and I liked it even back then, though it dropped out of my memory and hence off of my nostalgia radar for years until I picked up the Ultimate Genesis Collection.
Finally having the chance to play that first iconic game again, a few things instantly struck me. I’ve plowed through so many beat ’em ups and brawlers over the years and a lot of them can feel very “cookie-cutter” but it’s not hard to see why Streets of Rage was foundational and significant. This is a good game and deserving of the praise it received contemporaneously. It brought the energy, difficulty, and handling of an arcade game to home console. I was very impressed by its soundtrack, right from get go with that text crawl before the title screen.
The gameplay feels somewhat slower and less adorned than other beat ’em ups, especially and obviously those which came later in time, but Streets of Rage’s grappling and combo attacks add a layer of intentionality to playing the game. So while there’s little in the way of objects to interact with and only a few weapons to pick up and use against the mobs compared to other games in this genre, it’s a game which is distinctive enough to stand out among the chatter.
I always got the Streets of Rage series confused with the Final Fight franchise. There’s good reason for this. Come to find out it’s due yet again to Sega’s dedication to taking down its rivals, a philosophy which apparently informed many of their business decisions and game development projects. Imitation, as they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. Of course everyone forgets the latter portion of Oscar Wilde’s version: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery… that mediocrity can pay to greatness”, but by golly I said I’d do a positive Sega review, so we’ll leave off picking on them for another day.
In 1989, Capcom released a side-scrolling beat ’em up entitled Final Fight. Not only was the game an arcade success but Capcom banked on their intimacy with Nintendo to bring Final Fight to home console on the Super NES (among other platforms). This Sega could not abide. The Genesis saw many arcade ports but they wanted something that could stand up in direct competition to the SNES’s Final Fight. They began development on a game which plays a lot like Capcom’s beat ’em up but which could appear exclusively on their own console.
Final Fight followed on the heels of Taito’s Double Dragon, so in essence Sega was taking on several influences to craft their own game but it was Sega’s competitive spirit which led to the inception of Streets of Rage. Their beat ’em up ended up becoming a success whereas the port of Final Fight on the Super Nintendo was notoriously over-censored and lacked many features of the arcade version due to hardware limitations.
The game takes its cues from the dystopian criminal city movies that were so prevalent with their smoky lighting and edginess in the 80’s. The sprawling metropolis of Streets of Rage has been overwhelmed with crime. Once a happy, peaceful place, a powerful syndicate seized control of the city’s government and even its police force. Violence ran rampant. No one was safe. Until… three young police officers stood up and said “enough is enough”, determined to clean up the streets.
The text crawl says the player characters are police, but I kind of find that dubious. I mean, these are probably the most unofficial looking police officers you’ve ever seen. The screen immediately after the text crawl says they’re in fact ex-police, which would fit with the idea of the city’s force being corrupted. Regardless, at least they get the job done, badge or no badge, vigilantes or the city’s finest.
Streets of Rage stars three playable characters: Adam Hunter, Axel Stone, and Blaze Fielding.
Adam is a boxer with very un-African American hair. He loves bonsai and is the powerhouse of the group with the high power and jumping but slow movement. Axel is a martial artist with a silly 80’s name and both his feet on the ground: high power and speed but limited jumping. Hilariously, the game’s bio on him indicates that his hobby is video games. I couldn’t stop laughing. Blaze is a judo expert and a Capricorn who likes long walks on the beach, Lambada dancing, and smashing the skulls of junkies. She can also somehow throw kicks in a mini-skirt, a talent she once demonstrated on “America’s Funniest Home Videos” to the terror of Bob Saget. She’s the fastest and most nimble but throws the weakest punches of the trio. Choose your Achilles’ heel.
These slightly different play-styles help to mix up replays of the game. I’m thinking of games like Turtles in Time which really didn’t do too much to differentiate the playable characters like Streets did here. Adam, Axel, and Blaze share the same special attack, though: a police support car pulls up and fires a rocket for a deadly explosion. One use per life.
The game progresses through eight straightforward stages with up to two players fighting simultaneously. Eventually you’ll reach a boss at the end of the stage, usually with a giant hit box and quick feet. Given how slow your characters are, I actually had a heck of a time with most of the bosses my first time through. Spoilers, I didn’t make it to the last stage on my first playthrough, even with a handful of lives and three continues.
When at last you reach the final stage, the Syndicate Headquarters, you have to face off against Mr. X. The leader of the criminal overworld congratulates you on the hard work of making it so far but then poses you a question, and this is an interesting quirk for the game. Mr. X asks if you want to become his right-hand man, a boss within the Syndicate. You can actually answer yes or no!
If you answer in the affirmative, a trap door sends you back to Round 6 and you’ll have to fight your way back to the end of the game again. If you answer in the negative, then the final battle commences and your have to fight Mr. X. If there are two players and they pick contradictory answers then the two of you will be forced to fight each other in a duel to the death, with the victor suffering the fate of their yea or nay.
Depending on if you beat the game after saying yes or no, with yes being the tougher decision, you’ll be treated to different endings. You can actually beat the game and become the next Syndicate jefe. Yikes! You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. This level of extra replayability and flexibility with the endings makes the game that much more interesting. You can either clean up the streets for good or fight your way to the top to make them even worse.
The 8-bit Review
From the moment the game first starts, you’re treated to this evening skyline of lit up buildings glistening neon in the night. It’s some gorgeous 16-bit graphic work and it may represent the best selection of graphics in the game. It also sets the atmosphere for a game which feels somewhat longer than the average beat ’em up.
The rest of the game is a mix of highs and lows. The rain effects are really crappy on the beach stage but the water reflection effects in the background on the boat stage are great. The garish, flashing advertisements of the first stage are awesome but the dullness and lack of scale-realism in some of the sprites is at best a mixed bag. The bosses are particularly ugly, even though they’re larger than the average sprite. They’re bent at weird angles and simply look like monsters. Some of the subtler weather effects are cool, like wind blowing trash through the air and rustling the edges of posters on the background walls.
Again, the audio in Streets of Rage is marked by extreme highs and lows. For example, the music is beyond exceptional but the sound effects are horrific. Take the above track, for instance. Just listen to it and take it all in. It’s a stylish, swanky keyboard and synth track with an underbelly that speaks to darkness and dirty dealings. It’s unmistakably urban, representing the themes we often associate with big cities: sophistication, culture, and danger. When I first heard this song (as an adult), it instantly endeared me to the soundtrack. I could hardly care about anything else in this game beside that glorious intro.
There is of course other music in Streets of Rage. While it can’t shake that scratchy, tinny buzziness characteristic of the Sega Genesis, Yuzo Koshiro composed a soundtrack which clearly one of the best on the system. Antiphonal melodies, club echoes, driving, fast-paced high hat riffs and electric keyboard harmonies, as well as the occasional, ominous growling of the bass, mark a soundtrack which easily stands the test of time. Being distinctively 80’s/90’s with its hip hop flavor and rave sounds is only icing on the cake. As far as I’m concerned, this is brilliant 16-bit music. I only wish I’d discovered it earlier in life because it’s definitely going to be used for commuting music. If Sega wanted to create a game that was distinct from Nintendo, providing an experience they didn’t have in spades, this was musically it.
I also wish the terrible screeching noises that represent enemy death throes didn’t interrupt the awesome dance music.
The gameplay involves picking up a handful of items and weapons: extra lives, extra special attacks, a pipe, a dagger, a liquor bottle. On occasion you’ll have to destroy an object in order to find your item inside. One annoyance is that the same button for attacking also picks up the item if you’re standing over it. Since you drop your weapon once you’re hit, you may have a hard time recovering since you can’t quickly punch back since you’ll pick up the weapon beneath you, unless you move over slightly. The odd annoyance punctuates otherwise great gameplay.
The attack moves for your characters feature above average complexity with the grabbing, grappling attacks you can pull off, flipping enemies over you and smashing them headfirst into the ground. This will keep you aware of the distance between you and your foes and the grabs and combos are some of the coolest elements in the game.
It’s also fairly easy to defend yourself against a large mob of enemies. Often in this genre, enemies can double-team you, attacking from in front and behind your character. Here, there’s a more than decent degree of enemy stun after you strike a baddie, paralyzing them just long enough to trade blows or throw a backwards kick.
A few of the annoyances in the game that drag down the experience are the slow characters, foremost, followed by featureless stages and no unique specials among Adam, Axel, and Blaze. The sluggishness of the gameplay was probably the most detracting aspect of the game for me. It made it hard for me to close distance with bosses, leaving me open for their greater reach. Streets feels like it drags its feet a little compared to most every other beat ’em up from the time that I can think of, and we’ve reviewed three from the same year thus far. It took me a few attempts and some game overs to find its unique rhythm, but ultimately, this isn’t a glaring flaw.
As with any beat ’em up, Streets of Rage is best played with a buddy. It can’t emulate the unspoken tension of playing a game like this alongside a stranger in the arcades, but having a friend along for the witty banter (if you have witty friends) or mutually assured victory (if you have skilled friends) is one of the joys of playing in this genre. Otherwise, it somewhat feels like you’re playing a grand piano for an empty concert hall.
There’s probably little more intuitive than punching bad guys and the controls are simple to learn. The only problem? I still don’t know what that one smoking item is. You know where you throw it and it creates puffs of smoke, stuns enemies? Is that a match? It looks like a match but it kind of behaves like a smoke bomb. Is it a cherry bomb? Unsure but it comes around so rarely that it hardly matters.
So I had a really hard time getting through this game and I’m not sure what to think about that. Should I gauge it as being a symptom of my never having played it before, or should I consider the game to be objectively challenging? I leaned much more heavily toward the latter considering I played with each of the three characters and I’m familiar with several other titles in this genre. I love beat ’em ups and I do think that Streets comes off as a little more challenging than the others, considering you can’t just keep popping in quarters to win and you’ve only got a limited set of lives and continues.
Seeing as it was made strictly to compete with Capcom and Nintendo’s Final Fight, I think that this is the one attribute that I can’t score Streets high on. I don’t imagine that a list of comparable superficial features between the two games is even necessary.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
If you’re ready for a bit of the old ultraviolence, then Sega is obviously your company of choice if you happen to life in a temporal bubble trapped in the early 90’s. Some of Streets actually made me a little uncomfortable but that may be because I grew up on the censored platforms of Nintendo, but somehow punching women dressed like hookers, even forcing some of them to go down to their knees, just doesn’t strike me as palatable. Call me old fashioned.
For what it is and what it makes no apologies to be, Streets of Rage is an iconic Sega franchise, an enjoyable entry in its genre, and the beginning of a trilogy. It’s a property that they should definitely figure out how to bring back.