A slowly building soundtrack plays over a dark cityscape. Text starts to crawl up the screen telling the story of a once peaceful city’s fall into despair as a criminal syndicate takes root. A thumping baseline kicks in as we’re told of three cops who are looking to free their city as they risk it all on the Streets of Rage. The introduction to this Mega Drive classic is so strong that it is firmly embedded into the minds of everyone who played it. Streets of Rage was published in 1991 by SEGA as their answer to Capcom’s arcade master piece Final Fight. In fact this home console beat-em’-up was such a strong title that some may go so far as to say it surpassed it.
A criminal syndicate led by the notorious Mr X has moved into the city, corrupted government officials and taken control of the police force. The streets are no longer safe. Mr X’s crazed goons now occupy the streets starting trouble and causing mischief wherever they go. Three cops’ sick of the corruption that has befallen their once peaceful city now take to the streets to enforce some vigilante justice and head for the man at the top. Along the way you must clean up the city across 8 distinct stages while pummelling fire axe juggling psycho’s, breathing fatso’s and wannabe Wolverine’s. Okay it sounds mental but then really who care’s when you can just go on a mindlessly rampage through the streets.
Just how are our three ex-cop heroes going to help? By beating everyone they meet into a bloody pulp obviously. Power, jump and speed are the three key attributes that dictate each characters fighting prowess. First off there’s Axel Stone who’s excels at dealing fast, powerful combos but is almost useless in the air, Adam Hunter favours power combined with aerial attacks but lacks any speed and Blaze Fielding who can unleash quick combo’s and aerial strikes but is by far the weakest of the gang. The gameplay is easily accessible to anyone with a good variety of easy to learn moves. Other than your standard fighting combo and flying kicks you also have automatic grapples and access to tools that litter the streets. Who doesn’t like running rampage with a steel pipe and swinging it over thug’s noggins. Oh and don’t forget there’s also your trusty former colleague who can rock up in his squad car and provide some screen clearing aerial bombardments.
Now the first thing you’ll notice after being dropped in the game is that the character sprites appear unusually small on screen compared to other beat-em’-ups. The reason for this? More action! There’s always something going on screen. Enemies swarm in to the scene from every direction but you never feel confined thanks to the smaller sprites. Like all side-scrolling brawlers of this era it also has local coop support. Adding a second player means that you get double the trouble with twice as many enemies (that includes bosses) but hey you get a tag team grapple and can even launch your partner directly at enemies. The game follow’s the traditional beat-em’-up structure of walking and brawling with each level culminating in a boss fight.
Sitting here talking about how iconic Streets of Rage is something we could do all day but we should probably address that nagging flaw; its difficulty. The game is only made up of 8 levels and enemies can generally be taken down in a single combo. Bosses obviously add to the challenge with each having their own unique fighting style but after a couple of attempts you can quickly memorise their tactics and deal with them with relative ease. It does at least offer some replayability with multiple endings depending on your answer to Mr X’s offer. On the topic of challenge the 3DS version (the copy I replayed for this review) offers an additional mode called “Fists of Death”. Essentially it makes every punch and kick a one hit kill for all enemies including the bosses. It makes the game incredibly easier and hugely decreases its completion time. Despite how this sounds its quite a neat idea allowing those who don’t have the time to play through the full game see the game through to completion.
Everything about the environments oozes a certain charm. From the bright illuminated city streets to the seedy city underbelly everything has a great gritty, urban quality which perfectly sets the tone. The key thing that everyone takes away from this title is the truly timeless soundtrack; composed by Yuzo Koshiro. Through his soundtrack we get a great blend of dance, funk and hip-hop that still feels fresh to this day. After all of these years I still can’t help but get pumped every time the boss theme kicks-in.
This game is so iconic it’s no wonder that it went onto spawn two sequels; the second being the most successful in the series. Over two decades later Streets of Rage still feels as fresh and exciting now as it ever did. The pixel artwork and soundtrack alone are truly fantastic. As for the gameplay players are treated to fast-paced combat as well as responsive controls and best of all you can pummel thugs with a friend. If you’re a fan of side-scrolling beat-em’-ups then this is a game that should not be missed.
This Retrospective Review was originally published on the site GamersFTW which unfortunately has now been taken down.