With as good of a game as Streets of Rage 2, improving on it would be difficult, to say the least. Because of this, the third game in the series has never been fully agreed upon if it’s quite as good as what game before it. That’s not to say it’s not good — it has an assortment of new ideas, some of which work better than others, it just has a very high bar to reach. Most can agree, however, that the game’s localization didn’t do it any favors.
The game actually has two different stories, depending on if you’re playing Streets of Rage 3 or Bare Knuckle III. In the Western version, Mr. X founds the RoboCy Corporation, a front company made to help him further his evil plans. With the help of the roboticist Dr. Dahm, Mr. X begins building robotic duplicates of city officials to replace the real ones. The police, once again, are mostly useless, as they’re dealing with a series of bombs Mr. X has planted around the city to keep them distracted. Dr. Zan, a former RoboCy researcher, learns the truth about Mr. X’s schemes, and joins up with Axel, Blaze, and Skate to beat up a lot of people and stop the Syndicate’s plans once more. This time around, there’s cutscenes with dialogue and still images to help convey the story, as thin as it still generally is.
Most of the mechanics from SOR2 make a return appearance. The largest change is every character can now run by double tapping left or right, which makes for a much faster game at the cost of making Skate a little less desirable. Characters can also roll upwards and downwards by double tapping in the appropriate direction, allowing for quick dodges away from charging enemies. Each player now has a small meter that allows for the use of special moves without costing health, which recharges fully about every three seconds or so. The blitz attack also make a return appearance, and can be upgraded up to three times by reaching score tresholdes for more range and damage, with one level being lost each time you die.
Blitz moves can also be performed at any time if you happen to have a six button controller and know the motions, giving things somewhat more of a ‘fighting game’ feel. Finally, characters now have unique blitz attacks that can be performed with weapons, such as Zan being able to turn them into energy balls to chuck towards foes. Zan himself is a little strange — he doesn’t fall into the usual beat em up archetypes, rather being somewhat of a range-focused, ‘technical’ fighter. With Max’s absence, the game lacks a pure ‘power’ character, which can be disappointing for grappler fans.
Aside from these revisions, all of which improve upon what was a pretty solid foundation to begin with, the basic gameplay isn’t that much different. Once you’ve learned the new moves and gotten used to the speed increase, however, something else becomes very evident — this game is really hard. At least in the Western versions, it’s likely that a misguided attempt to curb rentals cranks things up even on Normal difficulty to brutal levels. What would have been Bare Knuckle 3’s ‘Normal’ is Streets of Rage 3’s “Easy”, with everything that entails. Enemies are faster, more agressive, deal more damage, and have more health on the whole. It’s far from impossible, but given how mild the game’s prequel was by default, it’s somewhat of a shock.
One thing both versions offer is an increased emphasis on enviromental interaction, which is definitely a plus. Stage 3, for example, is set in a construction site where there are pits to toss enemies into, barrels that drop from above onto anything in their path, and even a constant wind that pushes airborne characters backwards. There’s a short but amusing section afterwards where you get attacked by a bulldozer, and you have to smash through several barriers in your path while trying to keep the machine back by hitting it. Generally, the game has it so these environmental factors harm your enemies just as well. Some segments, however, such as one where an underground railcar runs back and forth, however, has the enemies frustratingly immune to it.
Stage 6 is where all this comes to a head, as it puts you into a Syndicate death trap where the chief of police is being held. Here, you actually freely explore the Syndicate HQ, moving across various floors and entering various rooms in search of the computers that will open the chief’s cell. Some rooms are traps, however, and will only waste your rapidly dwindling time limit. Since the game doesn’t give you a map or an indication of which rooms you’ve entered, this can be disorienting your first time through. It’s likely that you’ll run out of time your first time through, leading to the chief’s death.
Surprisingly, however, this isn’t the end of the game. There are actually two final stages, depending on if the chief survives or not. If you free the chief in time, the final stage will take place in a secret Syndicate robot factory, where you’ll find Mr. X’s brain waiting at the end. (Apparently, in a touch of realism rare for this game, the two beatings he previously recieved were actually enough to wear out his body.) From here, Mr. X will arm a bomb, and you’ll be given only three minutes to take out his final robot. It’s a fairly tough fight as well, making success on your first playthrough not quite a guarantee.
Success means getting the best ending, while running out of time means getting the ending where Mr. X’s bomb heavily damages both the city and its trust in the heroes. On the other hand, if the chief dies, you’ll move to Police HQ, which ends with a fight with Shiva. From here, the game ends a stage early on a rather unsatisfying note. Of course, this assumes you’re playing on Normal or higher — if not, the game ends abruptly at the end of Stage 5.
A few secret characters can be unlocked through various methods, as well. At some point, you’ll run into Roo, a shorts-clad boxing kangaroo, and his cruel clown owner. Beat the clown without beating Roo, and the marsupial will be in your roster the next time you change characters. Unfortunately, he’s missing enough moves — including the ability to use weapons at all, that he’s a little impractical in actual use. Shiva is also unlockable, even if he’s similarly incomplete.
The graphics have a bit more of a dark, gritty look to them this time, since there’s a lot more use of shading in the characters and stages. It’s a pretty good style that sets it apart from the more colorful SoR2, with the entire cast redrawn to feature more shading and realistic features. The music is one of the game’s most divisive elements — Yuzo Koshiro apparently used a series of algorithims to randomly create tracks before editing them. The result is something much more heavy on the trance and techno; whether it works is going to heavily depend on the individual. It’s unique, to be sure, and unlike most anything on the Genesis, but it can be somewhat abrasive at its worst.
The Japanese version has an assortment of differences from its Western counterpart, enough that it’s absolutely worth giving a shot if you didn’t enjoy the game in its Streets of Rage 3 form. Thankfully, a translation patch exists so that you can enjoy either version fully, not that either version is heavy enough on text that it matters. The largest difference is the aforementioned difficulty — BK3 feels much more in line with its prequel. The only thing that’s more difficult is you lose much more health for using an uncharged special, which makes careful use of the meter much more important.
The plot is also entirely different — in BK3, the redundantly named Wook Oak City that the series takes placed in is devastated with a bomb. The Syndicate steals a large quantity of Rakushin, the element the bomb was made from, and kidnaps General Petrov. The Syndicate’s plan boils down to starting a war so they call sell off all the Rakushin. Needless to say, the stakes are a lot higher in this version of the plot — much more than the Western version’s somewhat goofy ‘replace people with robots’ storyline. There’s also some extra cutscenes, such as a brief animation of Axel shattering the screen with a punch during the game’s intro.
There’s an assortment of other, smaller differences. The main characters wear different colors for unknown reasons, women enemies wear less revealing clothing, and certain voice clips have been re-recorded. Most major of all is a character who was removed from the Western version entirely. Ash is the typical ‘hard gay’ Japanese stereotype, who prances around in leather wear, giggles like a girl, and poses constantly. He’s unlockable after being faced as a miniboss, and despite his limited moveset, he’s surprisingly powerful. Given just how uncomfortable he is, however, his exclusion from Streets of Rage 3 is hardly a fault.
Whichever way you decide to play it, it’s a solid experience. It’s not quite as flawless in every way as its prequel, although nobody can say that’s for lack of trying. Its faster pace and more complicated gameplay gives it a certain edge, and if it weren’t for some frustrating stage design, perhaps it would be the superior game. As it is, the superior game is still going to be the matter of great debate for most fans.