When Nintendo secured the domestic conversion of Capcom's Final Fight for its newly-launched SNES console way back at the dawn of the '90s, it left many Sega fans utterly distraught. Cody, Haggar and Guy's coin-op escapade was the hottest ticket in arcades at a time when the side-scrolling fighter was very much the genre of choice. Thankfully, Mega Drive / Genesis owners didn't have to wait long for a title which would fill the void; in fact, Streets of Rage arguably managed to surpass Capcom's effort, at least on home consoles, and it's now the latest addition to the growing selection of Sega's 3D retro classics on the 3DS.
3D Streets of Rage takes the walking-and-punching format laid down by Final Fight and seeks to improve it in every conceivable manner. While the character sprites are noticeably smaller than those in Capcom's game, it allows for more on-screen action — you'll often find the environment filled with enemies, but the smaller sprites and wider areas mean you never feel as cramped as you do in Metro City's back-alleys.
Three characters are on offer here, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Axel is fast and powerful but can't jump very high, while Adam has a similar level of power and is better in the air, but isn't as swift on this feet. Blaze is quick and can leap high, but is the weakest of the trio when it comes to dealing out damage. Each fighter has their own unique combo attack and can grapple with enemies to deliver close-quarter damage (Axel's head-butt is executed with an especially sickening thud) or throw them across the screen, damaging any other enemies they happen to collide with.
That's not the end of your offensive capabilities, though. When grappling with an opponent, a press of the jump button will cause your character to vault over your foe, thereby allowing you to slam them into the ground for extra punishment. In two-player mode, you can grab each other and perform special throw attacks, and instead of special moves — as seen in Final Fight and subsequent Streets of Rage titles — you can call upon the services of the local police constabulary, who duly roll onto the screen and deliver napalm death to your enemies, yet conveniently (and somewhat inexplicably) making sure to leave your character totally unscathed.
The sheer variety of moves and attacks available helped set Streets of Rage apart from similar games back in the early '90s, and it's testament to its playability that the title still feels fresh and exciting two decades later. While Streets of Rage 2 would unquestionably go one better, the original's pace and purity make it feel like a slightly more accessible experience. The level design — while not quite as varied and imaginative as that seen in the sequel — is also noteworthy.
Streets of Rage is also the game which many closely associate with legendary composer Yuzo Koshiro. Like so much of what is on offer here, the soundtrack is utterly timeless; the ground-breaking mixture of dance, funk and hip hop themes sounds as fresh and appealing today as it did in 1991. While Koshiro's work on the sequel is just as critically acclaimed, there are many who feel the music in this title is of a higher quality.
The transition from 2D to 3D has been a subtle one for Streets of Rage. There's not a great deal of parallax to be seen in the first few levels, although this does change as you progress through the game. The result is a game which doesn't use the 3DS console's auto-stereoscopic display quite as effectively as its stable mates 3D Sonic the Hedgehog and 3D Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master, but the effect is always there, always noticeable and always welcome.
The single biggest issue with Streets of Rage is the lack of challenge. This isn't a tremendously tricky game, with many enemies being dispatched with just a single combo attack. Bumping up the difficulty level can prolong the lifespan of the game — and the fact that there's more than one ending also adds replay value — but you can reasonably expect to see the end credits roll within a day or so. Thankfully, the game's local co-op mode increases the longevity, as this is a fantastic title to play with a friend that's also picked it up.
Developer M2 has performed its usual magic when it comes to additional options — you can play either the "International" or Japanese version of the game (it goes by the name Bare Knuckle in its homeland) and remap all of the buttons to suit your own personal taste. The biggest bonus is the introduction of a one-hit kill mode by the name "Fists of Death". Here, enemies can be dispatched with a single blow, making it feel like you're playing an episode of Fist of North Star. It's an amusing distraction from the main game, but not a feature you're likely to use more than once.
Streets of Rage is often unfairly overlooked due to the incredible reputation of its sequel, which would arrive a year later. This is actually something of a shame, because when viewed away from the shadow of its illustrious successor, the original game is actually one of the best examples of a side-scrolling brawler you're likely to witness. It's fast, responsive and has more variety than most titles in this well-worn genre. Furthermore, it looks and sounds utterly fantastic, although the sequel would offer far superior visuals.
As a 3D Classic, Streets of Rage doesn't offer as many embellishments as some of M2's other efforts, but this matters little when the game is of such a high standard. We can only hope that the even better Streets of Rage 2 will get the same treatment in the not too distant future, but for the time being this is still a wonderful way to spend a few hours.