So, I’d like to say something before we get started. I didn’t play Streets of Rage growing up, none of them. I didn’t play a single entry in the series until we were well into the current generation of consoles (Xbox One and PS4 if this is somehow being read years later). I didn’t even have access to a Sega Genesis growing up (we had the Super Nintendo), only in my late teens. So when I say that the Streets of Rage series is among my favorite retro titles of all time, know that I say it without even a hint of nostalgia creating a bias. They are just good games, even all this time later.
NOTE: I’ve played these games using a few methods, even including a plug in Sega Genesis emulator (the kind that comes with a bunch of games on it, and also has a cartridge port). But my preferred way is the “Sega Vintage Collection: Streets of Rage”. It’s a clean port, and has a lot of extra features. It’s available on Xbox One (360 backwards compatibility). You can also find each individual game for ¢99 on Steam, though these are likely more direct ports.
NOTE: I had a rule for this article: Play as far as I could with the lives and continues provided. No tricks.
Streets of Rage
Oh man, where do I begin? The cheesy 80’s action movie setup maybe? You start out with a text crawl that basically tells you that the city is corrupt. Crime and violence plagues the streets, and even the cops are on the take. It then goes on to explain that our three main characters are either rogue police officers or fighters that have taken it upon themselves to walk around and kick the shit out of anything that so much as looks like a gangster. Simple, effective, and it got me excited.
You pick a character, and you’re dropped in. The music tells you exactly what kind of schlocky romp this is gonna be. It’s some of the best of the 16-bit era, only outdone by its own sequel. That being said, I do have one major issue with the soundtrack: It’s the same music for every boss. Not a single one is different, at least none of the bosses I fought. There aren’t a whole lot of tracks in this game I don’t enjoy, and they make for an amazing companion when you’re fighting in the streets.
Each stage ends with a boss, and they all have their own moves, patterns and weaknesses. Honestly though? Some are much better than others. For example, the second boss is actually designed to punish you for using the technique that was most useful against the first, and that’s great! But there are some that are either impossible to read, or impossible to dodge. It feels like the game is trying to eat your quarters. Which is really strange, since it never had an arcade release. Sometimes it’ll achieve the same effect by throwing numerous of some of the most annoying enemy types at you. There was one time that it not only did that, but an established enemy type started doing something new that made them invulnerable, only to come out of it and get a cheap shot within milliseconds. Moments like this are what drag the title down the most. I was finally taken down by two recolors of the character Blaze, probably the worst excuse for a boss in the game. Two fully realized movesets jumping around the screen and beating the crap out of you.
Combat is satisfying and fun to this day. Your punches can knock down crowds of enemies if you manage to line them up right. Each character has a different move set, and little moves you can learn. Co-op can get pretty hectic, as your attacks can harm your teammate. Interestingly enough though, this also means you can use the same “traversal” moves on each other that you can use on enemies. As fun as it is though, the general combat isn’t free of issues. The biggest one I can think of is weapons. First off, the pipes and bats are easily the best ones, making bottles and knives nearly useless. The have more reach, they’re more durable, and they do the most damage. What’s worse, is that you can throw the knives. Sounds handy, until you realize the method of doing so is unclear at best. You’ll often find yourself throwing the knife when you’re simply trying to attack. Not to mention aiming the thing on a 2.5D plane. The bottles don’t suffer from this problem, and they even have a nice shattering effect as you use it and the durability goes down. However, they still lack the range and damage.
Another large issue, is also surrounding weapons. Now’s a good time to mention that the button you use to attack, is the same one you use to pick up items. Whenever you get hit, you drop your weapon. So you can get locked in a loop of trying to defend yourself, but instead picking up the weapon you just dropped and getting hit again. This will continue until the weapon breaks. The same rule applies to enemies you hit. So just imagine what can happen when there’s a bunch of weapons lying around you. Or worse, right next to you.
The sequels also share the problem of having the same button for everything. Granted, they found clever ways of alleviating it. I’m just baffled, why did they do this on a console with six face buttons? This was a Genesis exclusive.
Let’s end this on a good note. The art direction and atmosphere is great. The even tried some ambitious things for the 16-bit era. There’s a level with an animated reflection of the city on the water in the background. There’s another on the beach where the waves are crashing against the shore, and water rains down on you. Many of the levels are lit up with colorful neon, others have a pallet and aesthetic all their own. Not a single one (that I saw) doesn’t give you some view of the city and lights. The backgrounds are filled with animated details.
Streets of Rage was a solid game all around, but there were a few things it could’ve improved on. The atmosphere was fantastic, and the gameplay exciting. It barely gets better than this folks, and we’re getting to that next.