Unlike its side-scrolling beat ‘em up brethren, Streets of Rage was not born in the arcades; it was born on the Genesis. Streets of Rage was for SEGA fans alone, truly fulfilling the Genesis’ promise of arcade gameplay at home.
An interactive pantomime, its story carried sense of urgency and sadness not often seen in the genre. The opening screen, panning over the city’s waterfront to Yuzo Koshiro’s solemn score set the tone for a darker game, the narrative somehow weaved into the orchestra of violence by a few sparse words at the game’s beginning and end.
Mechanically sound, visually striking and with a breathtaking soundtrack, the Streets of Rage series saw the Genesis from its heyday to its sunset years. In its absence, a cult spawned. Games, game engines, art and volumes of fan fiction were made in the wake of silence that lasted from 1995 until 2019. Fans went from missing Streets of Rage to taking matters into their own hands. From Senile Team‘s Beats of Rage to Matt Drury’s seven volume fan-fiction, Streets of Rage fans were as serious about their craft as they were about their fandom.
None, however, had quite the impact of Streets of Rage Remake (SORR). Developed over the course of nearly a decade by independent studio Bomber Games, SORR is more than a fan project. It is the best game in the series, and one of (if not the) best 2D beat ‘em up of all time. With Lizardcube’s excellent looking Streets of Rage 4 on the horizon, now is the perfect time to look back on Bomber Games’ pure distillation of side scrolling combat, as dictated by fans.
The move from 16-bit to 32-bit was a rough one. While 3D gaming had been experimented with for years, the PlayStation, Saturn and Nintendo 64 pushed it into the mainstream. Established franchises that made the jump from 2D to 3D did so with varying degrees of success.
The beat ‘em up genre somewhat stunted in the mid to late ’90s, with developers trying to reestablish the formula of walking right and punching that seemed to work so well in two dimensions.
SEGA’s own Die Hard Arcade was a hit, and made for a fun, if short lived, offshoot of the genre – continuing, but ultimately, dying, with games like Dynamite Cop and Zombie Revenge. Time Commando and Perfect Weapon opted for a slightly different take on scrolling combat, though they also failed to spawn a permanent, mass-repeated solution to the formula.
It became clear the change in vantage and dimension required more adaptation and experimentation than anticipated. Though one could continue to cite numerous examples of the genre’s early 3D evolution, arguably, the side scrolling beat ‘em up didn’t really become the 3D beat ‘em up until the likes of Devil May Cry, with God of War and Ninja Gaiden (2004) thereafter. All previous 3D interpretations of the genre more or less died out, relics of the 32-bit era.
SORR is something of an evolutionary diversion. In the Cambrian branch of the beat ‘em up genre, it is a direct mutation of the original trilogy, sticking to 2D roots. Through both inclusion and expansion of the series’ format, it managed to accomplish what 2D side-scrolling fighters had only ever aspired to. In part, this is because of the excellent framework already established. SORR turned into something of a study over the course of its revisions – a slow tinkering and adjusting of what made the genre so great in 2D.
Mr. X and his syndicate have re-emerged from the city’s underworld, once again eager to take advantage of the unsuspecting populous. SORR opens with a semi-animated attract movie, text scrolling over the screen, reintroducing players to the crisis.
The entire crew is here (including Adam), ready to once again take to the streets. In-game, the story unfolds between stages via still images subtitled at the base – the same style used in Streets of Rage 3. These bits are short, usually showing the boss character just defeated giving up valuable information or the crew moving forward to their next destination. Even if the story doesn’t really develop that much outside the opening and closing cinematics, these between level bits help ground the story and keep the team’s goal in mind.
The story, however, is not linear. Starting the game, players are asked to choose one of four routes. Your chosen route affects the story, showcasing the many ways the group can come to face Mr. X. While each route draws inspiration from different parts of the original trilogy, they have all been remixed and rebuilt into something new.
While still maintaining the color and creativity of the series, SORR differs from its predecessors somewhat drastically in terms of how it displays violence. It does this most notably with the inclusion of blood, though this can be turned off in the options menu for those looking for a more “Jackie Chan” experience rather than a “Bruce Lee” one.
It’s not exploitative or gory, per se. SORR is still closer to Shenmue than it is to Splatterhouse. But it is interesting to see a game made by fans move to mature the series into something still recognizable, but also more serious in tone. The Streets of Rage series was never really “kids” stuff, but SORR feels like a step closer to the Dark Knight moment franchises inevitably face at one point or another. Streets of Rage had been left on the shelf so long that its audience, and subsequently the developers of SORR, were able to extrapolate on the series’ darker themes.
“At The Next Right, Punch Anyone You See, Then Go Straight.”
With multiple routes and branching paths within – each emphasizing different enemy types, weapon use, and stage hazards – SORR offers a ludicrous amount of replayabilty. The shop mode incentivizes repeat playthroughs though content unlocks, though genre purists will have their hands full perfecting each route for time and score. What’s more, SORR includes numerous gameplay options to cater the experience to your liking. Unlike the originals, where difficulty, lives, controls, and sound tests were the only options
available, SORR allows you to drastically re-balance and re-tune the game. You can switch between the Bare Knuckle and Streets of Rage themes, filter Vsync and scanlines, or adjust transparencies. You can turn on guns, blood, friendly fire, and even the backup car for those who are bad enough to go in solo. Some have profound impacts on difficulty, while others simply allow you to indulge in nostalgia, making the game closer mimic your favorite of the series.
For a game that has built such a deep and well-balanced combat system, some of these re-balancing options may seem counter-intuitive. However, they are optional, available should players wish to indulge. SEGA’s own Fighters Megamix included similar modification options, allowing players to switch the game system between both Virtua Fighter and Fighting Vipers.
It upset the balance, sure, but it could be argued the game was fan service first and serious fighter second. The same holds true here, albeit to a lesser degree. As the Remake title implies, SORR is a celebration as much as it is a game.
There is a common misconception when comparing beat ‘em ups to fighting games. While they do share minor similarities, like a focus on spacing and mobility, combat in beat ‘em ups is focused almost entirely on these two principles, while fighting games tend to focus on move variety and input.
What gives the game challenge is the speed and second to second difficulty of matching, evading, or slipping around your opponents. More so, with a roster of bad guys mixed from the original three games — and a few new ones — more memorization and practice with individual characters is required. Players have to know what angles work on which enemy types, what distance they can be safely hit from, their footwork, weapons, and so on.
Controls is SORR consist of attack, jump, back attack (a welcome shortcut), special, special combo and vehicle backup. Coupled with the improved mobility of running and rolling, characters feel better equipped to deal with the invading population of thugs than ever before. Even surrounded, careful and quick analysis can save players from sustaining any damage as they dash, jump, backhand and special their way out of trouble.
Like a shmup, where players need adjust their evasion and shot pattern depending on the enemy mix on screen, SORR pulls from this concept brilliantly, forcing players to mix up their fighting style depending on the cocktail of thugs presented. Factor in the largest and most varied move set in series history, and the potential choreographies seem endless.
Sounds of Rage
Yuzo Koshiro’s work on the Streets of Rage trilogy is not only regarded as some of the Genesis’ best music (let alone some of the best gaming music of all time), but it also played an integral role in the flow of the games. Each track so perfectly scored the area, action, and characters on screen that the games simply would not have been the same without it. SORR features a brand-new album of remixed and restructured tracks based on Koshiro’s original work.
SORR’s soundtrack is not just serviceable for fan-work, it’s arguably the way the music is always meant to be heard. Leaping from chip tunes to fully orchestrated techno melodies, the work Gecko Yamori, Kaleth, and co. put into the soundtrack is simply remarkable, making it near impossible to put the game down, each stage ushering in renewed inspiration with its hard dance beats.
The game’s visuals carry this same enthusiasm, sharpening, scaling, and re-tuning sprites into a definitive 16-bit style, but running with the speed and dynamism of much more advanced hardware. Effects like the deck of the boat rocking back and forth or the deep parallax layers simply wouldn’t have been possible on the Genesis. Yet, the game still retains its 16-bit look and feel, not changing the graphics so much as to feel like a different game.
Forever Engraved in Code and Concrete
One of the game’s most curious, and welcome, additions is the Streets of Rage Maker. Here, players can build their own set of screens, enemy spawns, and story segments for play. It’s not overly intuitive, and it takes some know how to get going.
Streets of Rage Maker is by no means drag and drop construction like Little Big Planet, but it was a great way to sign off what was an already incredible fan letter. Fans have created numerous projects with the maker, taking the Streets of Rage cast into other games, creating original stories set in the universe, and more. Even if it’s beyond your skillset (like yours truly), the editor proves a touching addition, allowing gamers to appreciate the care and time it took to build these games.
Now, fans await the first official numbered Streets of Rage game since 1995. Some of Streets of Rage’s contemporaries have had sequels, remakes, or reboots over the years, all to varying degrees of failure. Final Fight Streetwise and Golden Axe Beast Rider, for example, were disappointing, tarnishing their brands rather than updating them. However, they also served as a reminder that 3D didn’t necessarily always one-up 2D, nor did “retro” equate to outdated.
Double Dragon Neon was a serviceable sequel, relying on beat ‘em basics as much as parody. However, it’s not hyperbole to say those above-mentioned beat ‘em ups hold the same weight or expectation as Streets of Rage.
We know from various leaks and concept media that there were many attempts to bring Streets of Rage to the third dimension. Wisely, even though some looked promising, Sega never gave any the green light. So, as we anticipate Streets of Rage 4, take a moment to appreciate the fan effort that made the wait endurable.