Release date: 1991
Systems: Megadrive, Master System, Game Gear, Wii Virtual Console, Nintendo 3DS
Right, let’s have it.
As an unreconstructed Nintendo fanboy I’ve gotta confess that the knives were out for Streets Of Rage the moment I decided to embark on this foolhardy history of the beat em up. Alongside Golden Axe it’s a title people always pipe up about during a gaming nostalgia conversation, and – in my jaundiced eyes – it always marks them out as a dilettante, someone who checked out from scene in their early-to-mid teens, who frankly could never have liked it that much anyway if one of their favourite games was Streets Of pissing Rage.
But this is a journey. It’s as much about educating myself as it is sharing with you the weird and noxious fruits of my squandered youth. Blinded by prejudice, I got Golden Axe absolutely wrongo. It’s a solid title. So I returned to Streets Of Rage with my fury dampened, my judgement suspended until I’d stalked those mean streets myself and ascertained whether they were sweet as a mini swiss roll or 100% turdo.
In Streets Of Rage you choose between Adam, Axel and (rare female character) Blaze, three ex-cops who quit the force when they realise the city has fallen into the clutches of an evil crime syndicate. It’s a more extreme version of Final Fight in this regard, a kind of post-fall version of Metro City – only instead of stripping to the waist and getting all grapply like Mayor Haggar, this city’s mayor capitulated and it’s down to you three good eggs to save the day.
Here’s my – possibly controversial – contention: Blaze is the best of the three characters. Across the board in video games I tend to play as female characters where possible – not sure why, perhaps just a habit, perhaps a preference for speed over strength. Adam is strong but slow, Axel is boringly average and his flying knee aerial attack is straight-up pants. Blaze has great flying kicks (combos can be unreliable in this game, whereas flying kicks do a disproportionate amount of damage) and her throws are high-powered too, making her – certainly in a one-player game – the only sane choice.
Credit where it’s due: for the time, Blaze is refreshingly unfanservicey. Like the guys, she’s attractive, but she’s not a wheezing, bouncing mass of ludicrous attire and acres of exposed flesh. She’s not 50% breast animation. Sure, she’s no Emily Wilding Davison, but at least – unlike Dead Or Alive – playing the game doesn’t make you feel gross and oily.
Gameplay is repetitive, but fast-paced and fun. No Streets Of Rage fan would deny that two-player is where it’s at. The levels feel more balanced, and the mix of styles afforded by fielding two of the three characters allows you to deal with bosses with far more aplomb. Certainly the fire-breathing Karnov-clone is a total headache in one-player mode, especially as that Scandavian dullard Axel.
The smartbomb is fondly-remembered and feels, at first, like a nice touch. Press a button and the camera pans back to a cop car squealing to a halt. A dude gets out and shoots a bazooka into the melee, flooring all bad guys on screen and inflicting significant damage on bosses. The problem is, you get one smartbomb per life and earn another for completing a stage, and you burn through lives pretty quickly, meaning that, in two-player mode, the action is constantly stopping while the screen scrolls back and the shitty bazooka animation plays for the thirtieth time. It makes for staccato gameplay and allows you to duck out of any melee except a boss fight, draining the tension a bit.
The part that people still talk about today – the part that, all right, I’ll admit it, blew my mind a tiny bit as a child – comes in two-player mode, when you face off against Mr Big at the end. The crime boss offers you a deal – you can switch sides and work for him. If you both say yes, he drops you through a trapdoor to an earlier part of the stage, and you must fight the same bad guys all over again, to no advantage. If one says yes and the other says no, the two of you fight to the death. If the player who said yes wins, he or she can then fight the last boss alone, win, and become the new crime lord.
Welcome to the dizzying moral maze, o wanderer! Which way shall you turn?
But seriously, this is one of the only instances of branching paths morality leaking into the beat em up genre. Sure, in later Versus titles you can select characters with ‘evil’ backstories, but you can’t choose. They are either inherently wicked – M Bison in SF, Astaroth in Soulcalibur – good, or neutral glory-seekers, but you don’t get to tweak them one way or t’other. Good/Evil instances of the same character – as in Ryu and Dark Ryu – are about the closest you usually get.
It doesn’t have a huge impact on the game overall, but the choice offered by Streets Of Rage does a great job of encapsulating the title’s themes: temptation, corruption and the lure of power. The option to turn bad makes the player’s choice to do good meaningful. (even if achieving the ‘bad ending’ is significantly harder than doing the right thing)
Read more of my ongoing history of beat em ups, please.