Bare Knuckles

This feature originally graced your screens on 25th December 2019, republished today to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of Streets of Rage.

For a lot of us more ‘seasoned’ gamers, the announcement of Streets of Rage 4 brought a tear to the eye. The original Mega Drive/Genesis Streets of Rage trilogy holds a special place in our hearts and after all this time the prospect of returning to take on Mr X’s mysterious Syndicate with our bare knuckles makes us quite... emotional. The last entry came out an astonishing 25 years ago, yet with only three games to its name (plus a handful of ports) the series continues to garner huge praise and affection.

With the arrival of the belated third sequel, it’s the perfect time to look back over the original trilogy to see just what makes Sega’s belt-scrolling brawler so special, and find out why we're so excited for this new entry.

The Bare (Knuckle) Necessities

Streets of Rage

The humble side-scrolling beat 'em up genre started life in 1984 with Kung Fu Master (later ported to NES as Kung Fu), but it was 1987’s arcade hit Double Dragon that ushered in a wave of classic belt scrollers. A NES port arrived the following year and the concept caught on with the home console audience. Games like River City Ransom were easy to understand, satisfying to play and made for excellent two-player co-op fodder (as anyone who had siblings in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s will surely confirm).

The arrival of Capcom’s Final Fight in arcades in 1989 took the genre to a whole new level, with huge and colourful character sprites and beautiful backgrounds complementing the pick-up-and-play mechanics. The original Streets of Rage - or Bare Knuckle as it's known in Japan - was released in 1991 and was very much a response to Capcom’s game. Nintendo bagged exclusivity to the console port of Final Fight which, despite having some considerable downgrades from the arcade original (most notably lacking two-player co-op), still looked impressive on Super Nintendo.

Sega borrowed liberally from Final Fight, right down to the roasted meat concealed in trashcans and oil drums, but Streets of Rage somehow carved its own identity thanks largely to the sheer style it exuded. Martial arts, judo and boxing provided the three playable characters with their own look and fighting style, and while the controls were simple, designer and director Noriyoshi Ohba (who had previously worked on Revenge of Shinobi) managed to create an empowering moveset from just a few buttons. A special move on ‘A’ would call in the cavalry in the form of a police car which launched rockets onto the screen from an earlier point in the stage, wiping out all enemies on screen.

These little touches elevated it above the competition; much more than a mere copy (despite what the box art might have you believe). It expands upon the foundation of games like Golden Axe (Streets of Rage used a modified version of its engine) using the backdrop of a run-down city that recalled the crime-ridden Detroit of 1987's RoboCop.

While it can be tough to return to the original game after playing the more-polished, smoother sequel, the music makes it more than worth the effort.

Arguably the biggest contributing factor to the game’s style, though, was the brilliant soundtrack from Yuzo Koshiro. The composer of such classics as ActRaiser and Revenge of Shinobi, his soundtrack fused techno and house with other genres to propel the player from brawl to brawl. Using outdated hardware that he’d modified, Koshiro managed to make the Genesis really sing using its Yamaha YM2612 sound chip as well as the Master System’s PSG (Programmable Sound Generator - the previous console's sound chip was also present in the Mega Drive hardware). He produced a range of crisp, realistic percussion samples through the available PCM channel and used a combination of FM synth and PSG for the rest. If – heaven forbid! – you’re not au fait with the intricacies of the Mega Drive’s audio configuration, we recommend checking out this video which helpfully provides a short overview and some isolated examples, including one from this very game.

Koshiro’s innovative work would go on to predict and even influence club music trends to come shortly after the series ended. “Sega didn’t tell me what music they wanted or give me any kind of direction,” Koshiro told Nick Dwyer in an interview for Red Bull’s excellent documentary series Diggin’ In The Carts. “I only ever did stuff that I liked myself. I told them club music would definitely take off, and I wanted it to be like that, and I gave them a demo.” Thankfully, Sega liked what it heard. While it can be tough to return to the original game after playing the more-polished, smoother sequel, the music makes it more than worth the effort.

Streets of Rage was a brilliant opening salvo, then, but it wasn’t without issues and feels a little barebones today. It provided Sega with what it needed, though - a hit that emulated and arguably improved on Nintendo's Final Fight port. Master System and Game Gear ports were created that captured something of the spirit of the original, though an awful lot was (understandably) lost in translation on the weaker systems. Sega was eager to build on its success with a speedy sequel, though, and they turned to Yuzo Koshiro’s company, Ancient, for help.

Mean Streets, Meaner Beats

Streets of Rage 2

Streets of Rage II (or ‘2’ in the US, for some reason) launched in the US on December 1992 (Europe and Japan had to wait until January) and expanded on the blueprint of the original in every way imaginable. Development was led by Ancient, the company co-founded by Yuzo Koshiro with his younger sister, Ayano, and their mother. Ayano Koshiro led the planning and art design of the sequel. “I’d probably say Chief Graphic Designer” she explained in an interview on the company’s blog (brilliantly translated by Shmuplations). “Nowadays we’d call it something like ‘art direction’ (deciding the overall look of the game).”

As popular as Final Fight and the like were at the time, one-on-one fighters were usurping belt-scrollers in arcades and the biggest hit of the period was a big influence on Sega’s sequel. “I’m sure you’ve played Street Fighter II—my brother and I did too. We liked it so much we bought a cabinet and had it installed in the office at Ancient. My brother and I liked the way they fought in SFII, and between the two of us, a shared vision of the fighting of Streets of Rage 2 arose: two jabs, followed by a straight punch, then some heavy hit, and the enemy goes flying! That kind of flow had to be in there.”

Ancient looked to expand upon and improve the original in every way. The company had experience developing for a spectrum of consoles of the period, although Ayano preferred the Mega Drive over the Super Famicom. “The pixels were too big. And I didn’t like the coloring as much. I liked the Megadrive more. It just felt cooler. On the Super Famicom things felt… sluggish… Programmers have told me there’s not really that much of a speed difference between the two systems, but it just felt faster to me. Almost ‘lighter.’”

Streets of Rage II managed to build its own legacy by improving every single aspect of arcade Final Fight: the sprites were better animated; the controls tighter; the environments more detailed - and all on a home console.

Character sprites were made larger in the sequel and all enemy characters – however incidental – gained life gauges and names. Even popular elements from the first game got mixed up or simply ejected; the memorable police backup, for example. “We had to take that out since we were using diagonal scrolling now,” Koshiro explained. “In exchange we gave a dedicated button for the characters’ special attacks… I think being able to strategize and decide how to use your special is more fun.” These special attacks would deplete some of your health but could be invaluable in a tight spot. Double-tapping a direction and hitting 'B' initiated a more powerful move, too, although without the health penalty. Grand upparrr!

Adam also fell by the wayside. “You had Axel, your standard fighter, then Blaze, the speedy character. But there was also Adam in the first game…. but Adam had no real speciality.” In his place two new fighters were added to enable different playstyles: Adam’s kid brother Sammy (Skate in the west, highlighting his rollerblades), and Max, a slow-moving but powerful wrestler. “That roster seemed like a good balance to us: two standard style characters, and two with quirks.”

If imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery, the Final Fight dev team must have felt particularly honoured. Elements were unashamedly pilfered from Capcom's seminal street brawler, from moveset and mechanics to locations, enemy types and overall presentation. In spite of this, Streets of Rage II managed to build its own legacy by refining and improving practically every single aspect of arcade Final Fight: the sprites were better animated; the controls tighter; the environments more detailed - and all of this on a home console. Next to the limited SNES port of Final Fight, there's simply no comparison.

Yuzo Koshiro’s soundtrack also pushed the envelope, expanding on the house and techno foundation of the original and fusing infectious melodies with an ever-expanding list of genre influences, from funk to ambient, jazz to hip-hop – all underscored by a driving beat that seemed to reflect and enhance the gameplay in a very potent way. This soundtrack – a precursor to the electronica of the PlayStation generation – is still held as some of the best video game music ever created.

Streets of Rage II was a massive hit. The console wars were raging and, in the context of the schoolyard, it was up there with the sheer speed and fluidity of the Sonic games and the ‘uncensored’ version of Mortal Kombat as one of the biggest (and final) feathers in Genesis' ‘cool’ cap. Sega fanboys would arguably never have better ammunition to prove that Sega truly did what Nintendon’t.

Round 3

Streets of Rage 3

Unfortunately, it was around this time that Sega would lose focus and begin a damaging cycle of company in-fighting, mismanagement and self-sabotage that ultimately led to its demise as a platform holder. It flooded the market with expensive, disappointing hardware such as the Mega CD and 32X, it sprung the release of Sega Saturn on unprepared retailers and software developers, and it quickly began haemorrhaging the hard-earned goodwill it had banked with Genesis. Other expensive devices like the Sega Multi-Mega/Genesis CDX and the Sega Nomad further muddied the waters for enthusiastic Sega fans who were not only running out of money and places to store their black plastic hardware, but also ammunition for the ongoing console war.

In more ways than one, Streets of Rage 3 turned everything up to 11... and for some fans it was overwhelming.

Streets of Rage 3 launched at the beginning of the end and it’s arguably this context which led to its diminished status in the trilogy. Many fans of its predecessor simply never got around to playing it, and it became difficult to find in the following years (original carts still fetch high prices). Once again developed in-house at Sega with Noriyoshi Ohba on design duties, the game featured some interesting changes. New dash moves were added for each character (not just Skate) and Max was replaced by cyborg Dr. Zan who figured heavily in an expanded story.

Western fans, however, would get a significantly altered version of the game compared to the original Bare Knuckle III in Japan, the biggest change being a huge difficulty hike. Consensus puts the standard difficulty for the Western release in excess of ‘Hard’ mode on its Japanese counterpart (Hardcore 101 speculates that this may have been to prevent it being completed in a single rental from Blockbuster Video). Whatever the reason for the change, the result feels unbalanced to all but the most hardcore of players. There were many other changes to the Western version too, arguably detrimental in the most part – check out The Cutting Room Floor for a comprehensive list.

Bare Knuckles
Image: Damien McFerran / Nintendo Life

The music, too, was more experimental and harder in tone. Motohiro Kawashima had collaborated with Koshiro on the Streets of Rage II soundtrack and took a larger role in the partnership this time round. “With Bare Knuckle III we got rid of even more of the human element,” he told the Red Bull Music Academy. “We were really trying to crank up the meter with what we were making for that game. I think that’s what Koshiro-san had in mind… He wanted us to give III a more decadent feel, I think.” It was certainly a step away from the beat-heavy but melodious tracks of the previous game, and it didn’t strike a chord with such a broad audience.

“It’s kind of crazy, right? It’s the kind of (sound)track that leaves you wondering where the melody is... It took a bad beating from listeners at the time,” Yoshiro recalls. “I remember hearing people say that it wasn’t even music. It was really experimental, and I made it believing that kind of era was on the horizon.”

In more ways than one, Streets of Rage 3 turned everything up to 11 (it features a playable boxing kangaroo) and for some fans it was overwhelming. For anyone who never experienced it, though, the second sequel is a revelation in its original Japanese guise – a wonderful expansion on the previous game and absolutely worth tracking down to play with a friend. It’s a shame that M2, the veteran port wizards overseeing emulation on the upcoming Mega Drive Mini, couldn’t squeeze it into that console’s roster of 42 games, but its inclusion on Sega Mega Drive Classics makes it easy enough to find (and the rewind/fast-forward feature of that collection takes the edge off the Western version's brutal difficulty, too).

The beat goes on

The series lay dormant for a long time, despite attempts to revive it. Core Design's 1997 PlayStation game Fighting Force began life as a pitch for a Saturn instalment of Streets of Rage which Sega turned down. In 1999 Yuzo Koshiro was involved in preliminary planning and prototyping for a Dreamcast sequel which was ultimately shelved. Much later, Ruffian Games put together a prototype 3D stage that failed to attract the right people's attention, as did Backbone Entertainment's effort. The original games have appeared on multiple compilations and platforms in the intervening years but Streets of Rage 4 was nowhere to be seen.

The news in 2018 that Dotemu, Lizardcube and Guard Crush Games were reviving the franchise created huge excitement and anticipation, but also a certain amount of trepidation. Dotemu and Lizardcube proved with Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap that they've got the chops for retro titles and we’re big fans of the hand-drawn animated art style which works very well with frame-based precision while also catching the eye of a broader audience who may not 'get' pixel art. Would something like Cuphead be so incredibly successful with pixel art graphics?

Speaking back in 2015, Ayano Koshiro said she would make a hypothetical Streets of Rage 4 “something that took advantage of modern hardware and allowed everyone to play together. Like an online multiplayer thing, where you and five of your friends could all swagger down the street like a gang.” While online co-op for Streets of Rage 4 is restricted to two players, up to four players can enjoy local co-op.

If we had to pin down the enduring appeal of Streets of Rage to just one thing, it would be that fusion of mechanics and music... a balletic blend of gameplay and audio...

Importantly, Wonder Boy showed that the developers weren't afraid to mix things up and deviate from the original game with its interpretation (despite the underlying structure of that title being a 1:1 recreation of the original). As fans, the last thing we want is a slavish update or remix without a peppering of fresh ideas. Sonic Mania is a recent revival that got it right. Christian Whitehead sought to appease disenfranchised old-school fans--players who had been dreaming of a return of ‘classic’ Sonic for two-and-a-half decades--by absolutely nailing the physics and the 'feel', but also introducing new ideas in the same spirit as the originals. Streets of Rage 4 doesn’t need to double as an apology, but it does need to show a younger audience why all us dinosaurs are so passionate about an old series of 2D belt scrollers. Cherry Hunter, the daughter of Adam from the original game, joins her father along with new boy Floyd and brings something fresh to the fray. Evolution is a key feature of Streets of Rage, with each entry pushing boundaries in new and interesting ways. That’s what we were really looking forward to in Streets of Rage 4.

Well, that was half of it. New tracks from Yuzo Koshiro were the other 50%, at least. If we had to pin down the enduring appeal of Streets of Rage to just one thing, it would be that fusion of mechanics and music that propels you onward to the next brawl; a balletic blend of gameplay and audio that slides the player into a groove. In the course of writing this piece, we’ve been listening to the soundtrack and – my word – does it hold up. Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima were joined by a posse of video game music legends for the latest entry, in addition to French composer Olivier Derivière who did much of the heavy lifting audio-wise, so once again the developers freshened the formula.

For anybody looking to catch up with these games on a more modern console, the 3D Classics versions on the 3DS are the work of M2 and they are a great way to revisit the first two games. Alternatively, the aforementioned Sega Mega Drive Classics collection on Switch features the entire trilogy, so you can properly get in the mood for number 4.

StreetsOfRage4 0010

One thing is clear: Streets of Rage 4 had a lot to live up to. Despite talking the talk, there was a legitimate question mark over whether Dotemu, Lizardcube and Guard Crush could truly walk the walk and deliver a worthy sequel. As our review confirms, it's a relief to discover that--yes!-- they stuck the landing on this one. They must have been holding 'Up' and 'C'.

It's been a long wait, but it's finally time to tuck into some beautifully roasted street poultry once again.

Be sure to check out the excellent Shmupulations for the entire translated interview with Ayano Koshiro and Nick Dwyer's Diggin' in the Carts interviews with Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima for more tidbits about their work on the series and other games.