Capcom revolutionized the fledgling beat-em-up genre in 1989 with Final Fight, their first brawler of many. Sega, quick to capitalize on their “Sega does what Nintendon’t” advertising campaign, would come up with a game of their own, exclusive to their own systems. It’d be difficult to say for sure whether Final Fight or Streets of Rage had the better trilogy in the end, but for a console-exclusive beat-em-up, not many come close to Sega’s franchise. The series was directed by Noriyoshi Ohba, who also helmed The Revenge of Shinobi.
Most of the series is fairly light on plot, given the nature of the genre. Things revolves around a mostly unnamed city being constantly harassed by an evil enterprise known as, simply enough, The Syndicate. This group is led by Mr. X, a powerful crime lord who seemingly refuses to die, no matter how many times people storm his penthouse and beat him into a pulp. The only two mainstays of the series are Axel Stone, a very Cody-esque “average guy” and Blaze Fielding, fellow ex-police officer and martial artist, and obligatory “fast-but-weak” type. Together, they join forces with preteens, pro wrestlers, marsupials, and electronic old men to punch a whole lot of identical looking people named “Garcia” and “Donovan”.
Adam is a boxer and the most powerful of the three characters in the first game. In fact, he’s only playable in the original Streets of Rage, with him being kidnapped in the second game.
Essentially a knock off of Cody from Final Fight, with jeans and a t-shirt, along with a cool headband. He’s one of the mainstays of the series, appearing in all three games.
Obstensibly a judo master, Blaze has a few fancy throws, but not much else. She’s slightly faster than some of the other fighters, though. Along with Axel, she appears in all three games. She also rocks the streets with her red miniskirt ensemble.
Eddie “Skate” / Sammy Hunter
Adam’s younger brother, Skate wears (appropriately enough) roller skates, making him the quickest of the lead characters. His design, complete with backwards baseball cap, most definitely dates this game as a relic from the 90s.
A large sized brawler who makes his only appears in the second game. As is typical of these types of characters, he’s slow but can pack a wallop, especially with grappling moves.
One of the most unique characters in the Streets of Rage series, Dr. Zan has the face of an elderly Chinese man but the body of a cyborg. He replaces Max as the brawler character in the third game, and can also electrocute people.
At the outset, things are looking bleak in the aforementioned nameless city. The police, except for one particularly loyal guy with a rocket launcher, have all been bought out, or are too afraid to do anything. Unable to to legally take action, three cops, Axel, Blaze, and Adam, give up their badges and hit the streets in an effort to take down Mr. X. It’s a pretty serviceable plot, as beat-em-ups go, although it’s missing some of the awesome ridiculousness of the competition, like the city’s mayor personally going out to piledrive crime.
If you’ve played Final Fight, you should be able to come to grips with the control scheme fairly quickly. Tapping the punch button near enemies results in a basic combo, while moving in close puts them in a hold. Once you’ve grappled an enemy, you can pound them a couple of times before tossing them away. In something that hasn’t previously appeared in Final Fight, however, you can vault over a grappled enemy by tapping the jump button. Once you’ve got an enemy held from behind, you’re free to perform a more powerful throw, like Axel’s suplex.
There’s actually a lot more focus these techniques than Final Fight has to offer, especially since you’re given ways to counter an enemy’s own grapple attempt. If an enemy grabs you from behind, you can kick opponents in front of you or toss the enemy who’s grabbed you. Enemy throw damage can also be avoided by holding Up and the Jump button before you hit the ground. You can even throw your partner around to make them initiate a flying kick, which, while not incredibly practical, is kind of cool. While all the characters share these same moves, it helps add some badly needed variety to the list of moves, while giving the game a little more of its own unique identity.
Besides the Attack and Jump buttons, a separate input will also unleash your special move. These aren’t character-specific, and will instead call in a police car, driven by a guy the manual describes as “the one good guy on the force”. He’s apparently so loyal that he’ll drive his police car onto the beach or even onto a boat to help you out. When called upon, he’ll fire off either napalm or rocket- propelled grenades, depending on if he’s called by Player 1 or 2. This special attack will kill most mooks instantly and do decent damage to bosses, but aside from the rare pickup, each player only gets one per life. Since the characters themselves don’t get any moves meant to clear out surrounding enemies, you’ll most likely want to save this option for when you’re about to die, or when you’re fighting a boss.
Unfortunately, for all it gets right, the game quickly becomes stale. Generally, beat-em-ups as a genre can be pretty repetitive by their nature. It doesn’t really help when you have three characters that play so identically to each other, either. Sure, there are plenty of weapons to pick up, like knives, steel pipes, and oddly enough, pepper shakers that make enemies sneeze. Likewise, smashing a beer bottle into a dominatrix’s face is a joy to behold, time and time again. In fairness, the combat is actually pretty fun. Most of the enemies go down quickly, and there are often times when the game will throw a whole horde of foes at you. When you’ve got a situation where you can take out about four guys with one kick, that’s when the game is at its most fun. The same can’t be said for when they’ve got you sandwiched and are beating you from all sides, and you just used your cop car two screens ago.
Another issue is how the enemy AI is often frustrating. Its most common tactic is to walk up and hit you, before quickly moving just out of the range of your attacks. A lot of opponents aren’t even all that aggressive, and they’ll either just stand in one spot or actually try to walk away from you. Due to this lack of zeal, the only time the enemies are actually much of a threat is when they’ve got you surrounded. Most tend to only get one attack, as well, and there’s not much variety to the types of foes you face. The highlight would have to be the jugglers you randomly come across, who toss things like axes and torches your way. They’re not very difficult to fight, but the fact that Mr. X employs trained jugglers is pretty funny.
As annoying as the rank and file minions may be, the bosses are truly exasperating. While they aren’t that much more aggressive than the regular enemies you face, they all get attacks that they can constantly spam against you, and their hits tend to do a lot of damage. Out of all the bosses, however, the one in Stage 5 is probably the one most likely to result in hair-pulling. You’re pitted against two Blaze clones, both of whom flip all over the screen, making it very difficult to hit them. They love to suplex you when you get close, and pull off jump kick after jump kick if you put too much distance between them. The final boss encounter is even more cruel, as it faces you off against a boss rush without the ability to call in for backup. Have fun.
There are eight stages in total, but they all tend to feel like the same stretch of screen with a different background until you encounter the boss. Some of the levels have some interesting features, though. There’s a factory area, something this game has over the SNES version of Final Fight, where there’s the occasional press that can come down upon you or your opponents. Some levels also have the occasional pit you can toss your foes into, or end up falling into yourself, if you’re not careful. Naturally, there’s also an elevator, because it’s a beat-em-up. It’s the law. In this one, however, there are no walls, meaning you’re free to chuck enemies to their hideous demise on the ground below. Just don’t get thrown off, yourself.
The final stage has a pretty interesting twist, as well. Like one might expect, you’ll find Mr. X waiting at the end. However, instead of attacking you right away, he’ll ask if you want to become his right hand man. This may lead you to think that if you say “Yes”, you’ll get a cool, “bad guy” ending. “Wrong!”, says Sega. Instead, you’ll be dropped through a trap door down to Stage 6. If you really want that bad ending, you’ll need to bring another player in from Stage 7 or before, and then confront Mr. X. If you have one player say “Yes”, and the other “No”, you’ll battle it out with the other person. If the player who said “Yes” beats both the other player and Mr. X, you get a pretty cool, if short, ending where you become the new boss.
In terms of visuals, some of the backgrounds are rather nicely detailed, even if they can become pretty monotonous. A few stages are nothing but the same stretch of land, repeated on a loop until you finally reach the boss of at the very end. Most of the actual character sprites, however, are pretty small, much more so than the huge, detailed characters you’d see in Final Fight. The bosses, are a lot taller than the player characters, though, which helps them look a little more distinct. None of them are especially interesting in terms of design or tactics, except for Mr. X, who brings an assault rifle to a fist fight. The frame rate here feels choppy, considering there don’t seem to be any special effects that really push the CPU processing. Surprisingly, the game only runs at 30 FPS, which is unusual for a 2D Genesis game.
If there’s any reason to play this game over its superior sequels, though, it would have to be Yuzo Koshiro’s soundtrack. His musical styles (like techno and club music, among other things) sound fantastic through the Genesis’s sound hardware. The highlights would probably have to be the songs for the first and the final stage, although there are still plenty of good tracks to find in there. The sound effects, sadly, are rather weak, especially the one when your character takes damage, which could probably be best described as somebody punching aluminum foil. There are a few voice clips, as well, and while they sound a little scratchy, they do help make the game a little more exciting. Interestingly enough, a few of the sound effects were taken straight from Sega’s 1989 game The Revenge of Shinobi, and generally are the SoR’s best sound effects.
So, how does the original Streets of Rage compare with its rival brawler, Final Fight? Truthfully, while it does offer everything the SNES version of Final Fight was missing, those points are generally all it has in its favor. In terms of actual gameplay, the lack of variety in any of the game’s aspects really hurts it. It’s hardly an awful beat-em-up, and there’s some enjoyment to be had, but it’s just too bland to enjoy for very long. It might not be the best part of the series, but thankfully, Sega took note of the game’s many issues, and they vastly improve on them, in time, leaving this as more of a stepping stone to greatness.
The Genesis version may have its flaws, but the Game Gear version is best given as wide a berth as possible. Not only does it have all of the same problems as its console counterpart, but it adds a few more on top of them. Adam is missing from the game entirely, for starters, although that might not be much of a loss, considering how similar the remaining two characters are. The controls feel stiffer, though, and it often seems as though your attacks take about a full second to actually come out. You lose all horizontal momentum when you jump, as well, which makes air attacks mostly useless. Further, the ability to knee an enemy once you’ve grappled them appears to have been removed for basically no reason. Given the AI’s just as annoying as it was before, these new changes make this version really difficult to play. At least some of the music transfers pretty well over to the Game Gear, even if nothing else really does. This version is three stages shorter, too, so the suffering thankfully ends a little quicker.
The Master System version, released a year after the Game Gear port, is actually an entirely different version than what we got on the handheld. It’s a very slight improvement, but not by very much. The controls are a lot less stiff than the GG version, jumping actually works, and you’re free to knee to your heart’s content. You can even play as Adam again, if you so choose. Unfortunately, this version still feels very off in its own way.
The hitboxes on things tend to kind of strange, and there are often situations where you end up trying to throw an enemy, only to end up chucking nothing but air. On the plus side, there’s a pretty amazing new boss in Stage 6, a midget in a top hat and a cape who attacks you by firing missiles out of a bazooka attached to his back. It’s a lot more awesome than the Genesis version, where you just fought two copies of the Stage 2 boss at once. Strangely, however, despite the fact that it’s on a console that should support it much better than the Game Gear, the co-op is missing entirely. Overall, it’s a small improvement over the Game Gear version.
The original Streets of Rage was also featured on Sega Classics Arcade Collection 5-in-1 for the Sega CD. This release is almost exactly the same as what you’d get on the Genesis.
The 3DS version, handled by M2, is a perfect port of the original Genesis version with a few extra features. The 3D here is rather unique – many of the other Genesis ports simply assigned depth to the parallax scrolling backgrounds, but Streets of Rage rarely uses these. Instead, it assigns depth to the playing field, making it look like a 3D stage. The effect looks outstanding, and it’s definitely the best looking of the Genesis 3DS ports. There’s also an added easy mode called “Fists of Death”, which makes it so all enemies go down after one hit.
The original game has appeared on a few collections, like the Japanese version of Sonic Gems Collection. Unfortunately, it was removed from the Western versions to maintain an E-rating for the collection. However, all three games are available on Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection for the PS3 and 360. On the PC side of things, it’s also been released for Steam. These are all mostly just the game running on an emulator, though.
The best way to play the original SoR has to be the Sega Vintage Collection on XBLA, which includes all three Streets of Rage games. These are more accurate emulations, come with some great extra features like leaderboards, and online play. This version includes a variety of display options, both the English and Japanese versions of each game, and three new music tracks used for the menu screens.
The working title for Streets of Rage was DSWAT. This was to signify the idea that it took place in the same universe as ESWAT, an earlier Sega game. Observant players may notice that the cop car from the ending of ESWAT on the Genesis is the same as the support car in Streets of Rage.