Let’s return to the streets where it all began…
It’s quite easy to forget that Sega was once a heavy hitter within the gaming industry. Before they ejected themselves from the console market and fell into the hands of deluded Sonic fan-fictionalists, Sega had one of the most iconic and unique libraries of games out there. From Truxton to Shinobi, consoles such the Megadrive (Genesis) had a solid lineup that was both stylish and overall more edgy than anything else on the market. Out of everything within Sega’s legacy however, one game in particular stands out as both a masterpiece and a genre defining title, and that game is Streets of Rage. Originally titled ‘Bare Knuckle’ in Japan, Sega’s 1991 beat em up took the industry by storm by offering players gritty and dark love letter to 80’s crime action, which gives it the advantage over the beat em up predecessors. Today we are going to honour this neon-soaked masterpiece and discuss what makes it such a special title.
Let’s paint a neon drenched picture; a concrete jungle of crime and anarchy has been established after a vicious crime syndicate led by the mysterious Mr. X, corrupting the city’s leaders and law enforcers. In this damned city, three selfless cops trade in their tainted uniforms in order to free their citizens from this new violent prison. Our heroes Adam, Axel and Blaze team up in order to bring Mr X down, however they will need to combat his army of thugs and criminals first who now reside within dark alleyways and Streets of Rage.
Don’t tell me you didn’t read that in a Don Lafontaine style manner, as I won’t believe you. This game knows exactly what it is and what it wants to achieve and sticks to its formula completely by being edgy and realist, during a time when mascots, fantasy and sci-fi dominated.
Streets of Rage wears its realistic tone proudly; don’t go into this game expecting hadoukens and fireballs to save you, as the closest thing you’ll get to a weapon is the bottles you smash over the head of cocky felons. Hard punches and destructive fly kicking is what this game has to offer and you’ll have to do a lot of it to get to Mr X. You also have special moves that bring in backup from your cop friends in the form of rocket launchers, which is handy for boss battles. In terms of staying alive in the game, you will have to take the unrealistic approach of eating freshly cooked chickens from trash cans – our heroes can worry about the salmonella later.
The games pace is similar to other side scrolling beat ‘em ups, however what defines Streets of Rage gameplay wise is actually the coordination of its enemies. Usually in these types of games, the general feeling is that your foes are in a rush to be made flash out of existence, but in this game the enemies feel more like they are trying to entrap you, like some sort of Clockwork Orange nightmare. It’s these aspects of gameplay that go together with its theme better than Trump and delusion, creating an immense feeling of immersion for a game of the 16-bit era.
The graphical setting within this game is almost flawless; bright neon signs, Miami style shores and industrial labyrinths keep this game feeling believable and hold players attention, especially since beat ‘em ups can end up on the repetitive side. Noriyoshi Ohba, creator of the game, really used the Megadrive to its full potential with this game and actually designed it to really work the lower res sprites and backgrounds to its advantage, as it aids the gritty atmosphere that the game is trying to achieve.
To go hand in hand with the sheer grit of this game, we have the amazing tones of the Megadrives Yamaha chipset to provide it’s phenomenal techno soundtrack. Considering these are tracks from a game soundtrack, they could be easily mistaken for the workings of Giorgio Moroder or even modern day artists like Kavinsky. The sounds of this game really did define what soundtracks in video games could really be and it’s all thanks to Yuzo Koshiro, who also created the soundtrack to games like Revenge of Shinobi. Koshiro was the perfect match for this particular project and together with Ohba created an outstanding response to the need for this style of game on the Megadrive.
As much as this Streets of Rage is, in my opinion, the best beat ‘em up out there, the genre was not neglected before its debut. The Capcom classic Final Fight was actually first to emerge on the scene and is a very similar game in terms of the basic premise, with Streets of Rage being a response to this game. Games such as Double Dragon, Vigilante and even vintage titles like Renegade all bare resemblance, but didn’t quite create the same style or vibe that Sega achieved. Streets of Rage knew what it wanted to be and went for it with full force by using its dark gritty theme to its advantage. The sequels to the original Streets of Rage became more polished and overall mechanically better over time, however, they arguably lost a little bit of the original feel, which isn’t a bad thing as much as an observation.
So why is it that Streets of Rage will never get old? Well it’s because even today, game developers struggle to capture the essence of this type of game. Indy developers of today are constantly trying to relive the workings of creations that were the result of more limited hardware than today and, at the end of the day, the best way to get yourfill of 80’s soaked beat ‘em up action is to really just play this original classic. In any inspired game I have played in recent years, it usually just leads to thoughts of how the game is lacking the vibes that only a Megadrive and 16 bit punching sounds can recreate. Despite the fact that Sega neglected this amazing series and left it behind, it seems that players have not forgotten this classic, and you can easily obtain both original and emulated copies on various devices.