It’s the mid-90s. I’ve just gotten a Sega Mega Drive from a car-boot sale. My friend decides to come over with two games. One is FIFA International Soccer. Being big into football, we spent a while playing it. Then he recommends we try the other game. It’s a compilation cart with three games on it, Mega Game 2. It has The Revenge of Shinobi, Golden Axe and Streets of Rage. We try Golden Axe first and I love it. The simple gameplay, the great combat and the colourful graphics all hook me in. He turns to me and says if I liked that one, wait until I try the other beat’em up on the cartridge. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my first introduction to Streets of Rage. From the first few seconds, I was drawn in. The music, the graphics, the gameplay, all sublime. I loved it.
Streets of Rage celebrated its 30th birthday on the 2nd of August this year. The series has given us four entries, three on the Mega Drive and a fourth one appearing on more recent consoles (I have the switch version). They tend to focus a lot more on quick, explosive gameplay than on plot (I’m not going to lie, I’ve never read the plot for any of them). Directed by Noriyoshi Ohba and released across the globe in 1991, the original Streets of Rage (called Bare Knuckle in Japan) introduced players to Axel, Blaze and Adam. Ohba had an idea for creating a fast-paced beat’em up game inspired by the likes of Final Fight and Double Dragon. At the time, Nintendo’s notorious licensing agreement meant that the Sega Mega Drive got different versions of games from their Super Nintendo counterparts. This was seen in series like Castlevania, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and even Street Fighter II. As a result, Final Fight appeared on Nintendo’s hardware but was absent from Sega’s. It wasn’t uncommon for Sega to develop their own games (they produced an abundant amount of them during this time) so it was no surprise to see a beat’em up appear on the console developed by Sega and what a beat’em up it was. The three characters all had their own stats. You had a power-house, a speedster and an all-rounder so there was one to suit every style. The graphics looked wonderful. Even to this day, their 16-bit sprites hold up incredibly well. With just three buttons, you had an attack, a jump and a special. Let’s be honest, who didn’t accidentally hit the special when they started. You could also grab enemies if you got close to them. The game also featured multiplayer co-op and it ran so smoothly. Each stage had its own theme from the streets of the first level to the factory of the sixth one. You could also get an alternative ending if you decided to take the final bosses place as the kingpin of the underworld. Of course, there’s one feature that we haven’t talked about yet and that’s its banging soundtrack (yes, “banging” is such an old saying). Composed by Yuzo Koshiro, it is perfect for the game, keeping your tempo up as you smash your way through multiple different enemies. Koshiro would work on the other two Mega Drive Streets of Rage games as well as Sonic The Hedgehog, Beyond Oasis and Shenmue.
Released in December 1992 in Japan and 1993 everywhere else, Streets of Rage 2 took everything about the original and just made it so much better. This time Noriyoshi Ohba would step into the producer role with Ayano Koshiro being the lead designer and planner. Yuzo Koshiro returned to compose the soundtrack but did have contributions from Motohiro Kawashima. Overall, the development team was larger than the first game. Streets of Rage 2 did change a few things from its predecessor. It removed Adam as a playable character and introduced Skate (Adam’s younger brother) and Max. This increased the differences between the characters as Skate was noticeably quicker than the others but couldn’t take as many hits while Max was pure power but sluggish. The Police specials were removed but we did see a special attack for each character introduced. The gameplay felt more refined, with combat flowing seamlessly. The stage designers were a lot more inventive and introduced new areas such as a fun fair and a baseball stadium (I love the baseball stadium fight). Although Streets of Rage looked amazing for the time, its sequel stepped everything up a gear. Gameplay is hard to describe but anyone who has played the two of them will notice an improvement. Graphically, the levels had more detail to them and it felt so polished. I would rent Streets of Rage 2 constantly from my local rental store, playing it with friends or even just by myself until the early hours of the morning. I was hooked and always regretted not buying a copy for myself (it probably would have been cheaper). I would eventually get my own copy years later on the Mega Drive and as part of the Sega Mega Drive: Ultimate Collection on the Xbox 360.
For years I thought that was it. I believed Streets of Rage only had the two entries as my rental shop never had any others and no-one I knew talked about any others. I was wrong and wouldn’t learn the error of my ways until Sega Mega Drive: Ultimate Collection released in 2009. There, I would find Streets of Rage 3. I was so disappointed I had missed this. Originally released in 1994, it would not be as strongly received as its predecessors. It looked and played very similar to the second game but did have some improvements. You could now use the six-button controller and it had a larger array of moves to pull off. It introduced unlockable characters. You started off with Axel, Blaze, Skate and new character Dr. Zan. You could also unlock Shiva, Roo and Ash (depending o the copy you had). All characters could now run, unlike the second where only Skate could. It had a more in-depth story, featuring cutscenes, and had different endings depending on your performance (and difficulty). The music was as great as ever. It had all the markings for another successful entry in the series. Problem was the western release was changed from Bare Knuckle III. The difficulty was increased in the western release. This wouldn’t be as big an issue if it weren’t for the fact that the game doesn’t let you progress past a certain point on easy (I hate it when games do this). This meant it had to be played on Normal or above which was the equivalent of Hard in Japan. Some parts were censored, with Ash being removed completely from the western release. There were also some changes to the plot, with references to an explosive substance (Raxine) being removed and the bad ending credits altered. There were also some cosmetic differences, such as Axel wearing a yellow shirt. You can still punch a bulldozer though. Overall, I enjoyed Streets of Rage 3 but I tracked down a reproduction copy of Bare Knuckle III in English and I prefer it over the Western release. For me, Bare Knuckle III is the way to go but either are both excellent games.
The series would take a hiatus for 26 years. There were plans to revive the series but they never came to fruition until 2020. We did get Fighting Force, a decent beat’em up for PlayStation and Nintendo 64 (strangely, it never made its way to the Saturn) that tried to pull the genre into 3D with mixed results. In 2017, Lizardcube released a remake of WonderBoy III: The Dragon’s Trap and they wanted to remaster the original Streets of Rage. As Oliver Cornut had moved onto another project, Lizardcube artist Ben Fiquet and another studio, Dotemu, approached Sega about creating a new sequel. The game would start development in 2018 and would see a cooperation between Dotemu, Lizardcube and a third studio, Guard Crush Games. The game would be announced to much fanfare, blending the traditional gameplay of the Mega Drive games with a more stylised art direction. Olivier Deriviere would compose the soundtrack but would receive several contributions, including from previous composers Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima among others. The game would receive positive reviews, including a “Gold” award from Famitsu. The legendary series had finally been brought into the 21st century. Recently, it has received a new DLC, expanding the experience further. As of yet, I haven’t played it but maybe when I’m finished with Wild Arms I may dive into the tetralogy to experience beat’em up greatness once again.