Streets of Rage

Nostalgia sells and publishers know it. You just have to look at all the reboots, Definitive and Remastered Editions out there for proof. But there are, however, some titles that cannot be modernised no matter how much companies try. Sega beat-em-up Streets of Rage is perhaps one of the best examples of such defiance.

We haven't had a new entry since the third outing dropped on Mega Drive in 1994, but certainly not for a lack of trying. At least four attempts to make a modern version or true sequel to Sega's classic have leaked over the years, but who knows how many times developers have taken a crack at it behind closed doors?

You could say that Streets of Rage is a time capsule; a static, perfectly-preserved slice of '90s culture that is both timeless yet positively aged in equal measure, and for developer brave enough to consider a modern sequel, it has presented a particularly bothersome 'square hole, round peg' conundrum.

The homebrew community – on the other hand - has released several unofficial sequels and updates without issue that are simply essential for true series fans. It's also pleasing to see that Japanese outfit M2 worked on a new Streets of Rage port for 3DS, and judging by the team's treatment of games like After Burner II and Fantazy Zone, there was never any reason to doubt the quality of the end result.

Why then has that fourth, elusive Streets of Rage game proven so problematic? To understand the series' place in the past, present, and (possible) future, we need to go back to the days of neon-soaked night clubs, denim-on-denim fashion travesties and the ceaseless beats of the acid house generation.

Picking a fight with Final Fight

Originally developed under the name Street Fighter '89 and billed as a direct sequel to Capcom's largely forgettable first one-on-one brawler, Final Fight took arcades by storm upon release. The game was a major visual improvement on Technos Japan's iconic Double Dragon, and boasted a hard-hitting command list players used to whale upon the scum of Metro City. It's a game that holds up to this day.

Sega wanted in on the action and countered with Streets of Rage in 1991. Although there was a canyon of difference between the visual quality of both games, the new contender had more moves, a darker tone and music so pumping and in-tune with the era that it had you reaching for the glow sticks upon arrival.

The debate over which series is better will forever burn bright, but it's easy to see where the affinity for Sega's franchise comes from. Developed in-house under director Noriyoshi Ohba with music penned by the visionary that is Yuzo Koshiro, Streets of Rage is a fine example of a team that took a pre-existing genre and built upon its core values to fine effect.

Set in a dark metropolis ruled by mullet-toting crime lord Mr. X, the first game stars hard-hitting ex-cops Alex Stone, Adam Hunter and Blaze Fielding, who each posses a mind-boggling command list of attacks. Keep in mind that Mega Drive controllers only had three buttons to begin with (the six input versions would hit the market much later), and you can't help but be impressed with the versatility on show.

As you walked along each of the eight varied stages, you could combo your way through thugs and martial arts masters with simple punch and kick combos, grab enemies before battering or throwing them, and rain down with two forms of flying kick. You could also back-attack by hitting jump and punch at the same time, and even call in a squad car to fire a precision mortar strike like a smart bomb (which bizarrely you are immune to).

Each of the two Streets of Rage sequels would drastically expand on this format further with varying results, but as a starting point you could tell even back then that Sega was really on to something big. Sure, the pace was quite slow compared to Final Fight and some of the bosses suffered from a case of immense cheapness – such as the fire-breathing fat guys at the end of stage four – but there was much to love.

The design wasn't so fluent in the first game and it hasn't aged as well as its successors, but its still worth teaming up with a friend to tackle criminal hordes in two-player mode. For many this is the only way to play a Streets of Rage game as it leads to some great team work and the occasional dispute over friendly-fire mishaps. Above all else, it holds a ton of fond memories for a lot of people out there.

Streets of Rage also cribbed heavily from Double Dragon's multiple-choice ending, in that players were offered a choice to join Mr. X's crime syndicate before the final battle. If they both said yes then the bad ending would play, and if they both turned him down the fight would begin. However, if both players chose different answers they entered into a duel that would determine the outcome. Either way it's a great moment in gaming history.

All said, the first entry is a neat relic that is still highly playable today, even if it's become a little dog-eared. What followed next however was pure, timeless gold in cartridge form.

It takes two to make a thing go right

Comparing the first and second Streets of Rage titles reveals the bewildering leap in quality between both games. It's not just an improvement, but a tangible evolution that is perhaps the pinnacle of the classic scrolling beat-em-up format. If you haven't tried it before, you owe it to yourself to give it your attention. It's that simple.

With chunkier sprites, an expanded command list, varied levels, incredible graphical detail, an impressive cast of enemies and one of the finest soundtracks ever committed to code, there's few places for even the harshest of critics to pick holes here. You know you're in for a fun time as soon as Koshiro's 'Go Straight' starts playing on stage one.

The pounding beats kick in almost in time with the flickering neon of street signs in the background, and one by one the thugs start rushing in to take your life. Every punch or kick landed connects with a satisfying crunch that adds real urgency to your every movement. It's big, it's brash and it makes you feel like a total badass.

The plot sees Mr X. kidnapping Adam in revenge for his defeat, leaving Axel, Blaze and their new buddies, pro-wrestler Max and skater kid Skate, to save the city once more. It's standard brawler fare, but it gets a pass because it's reminiscent of so many action flicks of the era. Who needs a plot when there's plenty of butt-kicking to be done?

Said butt-kicking benefits from a far larger command list. On top of all the inputs present in the first game, each character has two special attacks. The first is a stationary crowd control move like Blaze's spin kick or Skate's breakdance twirl, while pressing a direction and special unleashes a forward attack. The latter drains a lot of your health whether it connects or misses, so there's an element of risk-reward at play.

You'll need all those tools too, because the enemies all benefit from expanded move-sets of their own that each require tactical changes on the fly. One good example is new baddie Donovan, who will uppercut you out of a flying kick unless its performed on the spot, and Y. Signal, who can throw or slide kick you with little warning. The bosses also require a degree of strategy, such as flying goon Jet, who uses thrusters to boost across the stage. Jump kicks are your friend here.

There are enemies on bikes that scream over areas at high speed, a punk rocker called Jack who flings knives at you with menacing force, hulking wrestler dudes who can kill you in a matter of hits, and there's even a riff on Street Fighter mainstay Blanka – curiously called Zamza. Reckon it's just a coincidence?

Whether playing solo or with a second person, you'll pummel your way through the first seven stages under the cover of night, and emerge at the doorstep of Mr. X's compound just as day starts to break. Your fingers will feel tired, and the difficulty spikes will be taking their toll, but the sight of the sun outside gives you a weird sense of renewed energy as you land that finishing blow.

The bow that ties is all together once more is Koshiro's soundtrack, which rises and dips in severity to match the pace of each stage. When the pounding boss music kicks in you know you're in for a really tough fight, and the melancholy nature of the last stage's score offers a moment's respite before you're set upon by an army of thugs once more. Truly magical stuff.

Three, the magic number?

This, for many series fans, is where it all started to go wrong. There are a lot of people out there who regard Streets of Rage 3 to be the best outing to date, but it's hard to deny that Sega started to get a little carried away with its plot and mechanics in its quest inject more 'new' into the format. Some might say it was best left unspoiled.

Just as the company was struggling to come up with a logical way to prolong the Mega Drive's life - hello 32X and Mega CD! – it tried to evolve the brawler format in ways that betray the solid simplicity that had gone before. This is definitely a cautionary tale of when less really should have been more.

The story introduces cut-scenes into the mix, which was a neat touch for the time, but the plot is some drivel about bombings in Oak City and sophisticated robots posing as government officials. Mr. X is also still alive as a brain in a jar, who later takes the form of a giant mech during the final fight and (no really, we aren't making this up, come back!)

So yeah, they got a little bit too carried away with this, and the same can be said for Koshiro's soundtrack which, unfortunately, is a tinny, scrappy overload of bloated sounds, erratic beats and grating synth stabs. It just feels too overpowering, even going so far as to mute many of the sound effects due to there simply being too many sounds playing at once.

Gone are the chunky slaps and smacks of each hit landed, replaced now by the occasional sound of a person punching wet cardboard or in most cases, nothing at all. The character sprites look jaggier and less-defined, while enemy attack patterns just feel random and unfair at points. The new version of Jet is a cruel joke for one, while enemy life meters and difficulty level just feel too brutal.

Then there's the series' first gay character Ash, who was removed from Western builds. He's a flailing, embarrassing stereotype who even screams just like the female enemies and cries when the player defeats him. He's offensive and just one in a long line of unfortunate errors that Sega should have avoided during development.

There are silver linings however, such as the ability to double-tap up or down to roll vertically around enemy attacks or the bullets of shadowy G-Men. There are also running manoeuvres, followed by a simple levelling-up mechanic that sees your forward-forward-punch move given more power or extended combo strings. They're all neat improvements, but ultimately suffocated by an abundance of silly design choices.

We already touched upon the difficulty, and new players will legitimately find it bothersome to get halfway through this game on hard mode. You can do it with practice sure, but you may feel cheated on many occasions. For example, there's a construction yard stage that has a wind effect which can blow you into deadly pitfalls, a subway tunnel with runway carriages that almost kill you with one hit, and a woodland area with concealed snare traps.

The problem is that the game is no longer about your character tackling enemies and beating them into a fine powder, but you also have to contend with inanimate hazards embedded within the environment as well. The first two entries had light environmental elements as well, but only as a small novelty. In Streets of Rage 3 they just become infuriating.

Despite it's baffling, infuriating nature Streets of Rage 3 is still worth seeking out if you're a fan, but be prepared to either loathe it with a vengeance or put up with it out of respect for its predecessors.

And that's it; no more Streets of Rage games. Or is it?

Homebrew to the rescue

So RR Title

We said at the start of this article that there have been at least four failed attempts to create a new Streets of Rage that we know of, and this is where things get really interesting. The first comes in the form of this Core Design's attempt at creating Streets of Rage 4 for Sega Saturn. After reportedly falling out with Sega over publishing rights on other platforms, the game was quickly renamed Fighting Force.

It was a pretty standard brawler that gets more enjoyable in multiplayer, and upon closer inspection you can start to see many similarities to Streets of Rage. The heroes Hawk, Smasher, Mace and Alana are effectively Axel, Max, Blaze and Skate, which becomes evident once you see their fighting styles and physical characteristics.

The first stage even sees players fighting up to the top of a skyscraper to fight a crime lords in his penthouse suite, just like the Streets of Rage gang did when they battled Mr. X, and there's even a boss with thrusters who might as well be second game boss Jet. It's a curious beat-em-up that some people still have a soft spot for. Why not try it and see for yourself?

Next on the agenda of doomed Streets of Rage projects is this abandoned Dreamcast concept, which features Axel in a cop uniform hammering thugs with a range of attacks:

While the character models look really chunky the animation is quite fluid, and there's definitely hint of Sega DNA in there – specifically elements of Die Hard Arcade and Dreamcast oddity Dynamite Cop 2. There are a few shot clips of this project on YouTube that you can find quite easily, but we'll never fully know what fate befell this lost sequel.

The same is true of Grin, the now-defunct studio behind the 2009 Bionic Commando reboot. All we know of its Streets of Rage project is that it was in development at some point, and that's the depth of it. No screens, no trailer, no plot – nothing, although it was heavily-rumoured to be a remake of sorts.

Perhaps the closest any studio has come to fully-realising a new Streets of Rage in recent years is Scottish studio and developer of Crackdown 2 Ruffian Games. The following trailer leaked out of the company back in 2012:

It starts off with great promise as a Streets of Rage 2 arcade machine plays Koshiro's iconic 'Go Straight,' only for the building to be firebombed by roaming gangs. An unnamed hero enters through a back alley and starts roughing up goons with a variety of punches and kicks. It looks decent enough, but watching the footage you get the feeling these games probably shouldn't exist outside of a 2D setting.

Fair enough, we've seen games like Bayonetta take the roaming beat-em-up formula into the 3D age with style and grace, but their templates are far-removed from the likes of Final Fight and Streets of Rage. They're like distant ancestors from different places and times, which brings us neatly to the homebrew scene.

While the demise of the series might seem unfortunate, there still exists a vibrant and healthy culture around Streets of Rage. Whether it's indie film makers shooting live-action tributes to the series, or the wonderful companion novel series penned by Streets of Rage Online founder Matthew Drury, Sega's creation has truly endured.

So while you won't be playing Streets of Rage 4 (or ever for that matter), there is a rich library of follow-ups and remakes created by developers around the world. Bomberlink's Streets or Rage Remake is perhaps the finest indie project out there today, and although Sega shut it down after eight years of blood, sweat and ears from its creator, you can still find it easily online.

With over 100 stages, almost 20 fighters and a huge soundtrack that spans all three games, as well as many new songs, this ambitious game deserves to be played by fans everywhere. The final build – dubbed, 'version five' – also offered multiple routes, firearms ripped from Capcom's Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, vehicle stages, a Tekken Ball mode, a creation suite and more.

This might seem contradictory to our claims that Streets of Rage 3 tried to cram too much into its design, but you really have to sample how the Remake does it to see that Bomberlink's format doesn't impede on the gameplay core that makes the series so enjoyable. That pure essence hasn't been lost in transit, and it feels as satisfying as ever.

Then there's also Beats of Rage by Senile Team, which is a neat concept that takes fighters from SNK's King of Fighters series and drops them into a scrolling beat-em-up format. These are just two examples of why games like Streets of Rage will never truly die, even if their owners have lost interest. Maybe one day we'll see a fourth outing helmed by someone who truly 'gets' 2D design like Arc System Works or WayForward Techologies, but for now, you can rest easy that the indies have you covered.

Perhaps all of these false-starts are a sign that Streets of Rage is best-left in the '90s? That way they will always be remembered fondly as a throwback to the days when MTV actually played music, MC Hammer still had money and a time before Michael Bay ruined the Ninja Turtles. Actually, now we think about it, preservation probably is the best way forward for the series. As you were, then.