Controlling Axel, Blaze or Adam one or two players progress through eight levels fighting anyone they come across. Stages scroll from left to right with the exception of level seven which is a static lift level and the final stage which moves from right to left. Though it's impossible to backtrack through stages players can walk into and out of the screen, creating a primitive "2.5" style of gameplay. "In a 2.5D beat ‘em up, your character can move freely from right in front of you to the rear of the screen. Enemies and objects also have depth data associated with them" notes Yousuke Okunari, the Producer of the recent 3DS port of 'Streets of Rage'. “If you look back on gaming history and how action games have evolved, first they just had a single static screen, and then they evolved into scrolling screens. Next we saw action games focused on jumping, which replicated gravity within their mechanics, and then the sort of faux 3D beat ‘em up sub-genre you see with 'Streets of Rage' was born". However while the game gives the illusion of an open world even '"Streets of Rage' Super fan" Okunari will admit that all you really need to do is push the movement button in the direction the on-screen arrow points. "While side-scrolling action games look like they have depth, the actual gameplay is completely 2D and everything else is just a matter of placing graphics within a faux 3D perspective" Okunari confirms. "The first 'Streets of Rage' doesn’t have any paths that go up or down the screen, there’s just one path forward" he says. "It’s one of the most straightforward side-scrollers we had available"
At the cost of a bit of health, every character can call on reinforcement from a police car that fires missiles into the fray, knocking down all level enemies instantly. It's a shame that the variety of special attacks seen in 'GoldenAxe' has been lost. In that game there was a risk reward system; the longer you held off on pressing the special attack the more powerful it would eventually be. Each character also had varying magic which contributed to the player's decision of who to play as. While the character stats vary in 'Streets of Rage', for me there's hardly any difference between them.
I would always pick Blaze simply because she's fastest and able to avoid the pincer attack that's always blighted the genre. Whenever I play these styles of games (especially single player) most deaths are caused by there being an enemy either side punching me. Typically while I could defend or attack one, I couldn't confront both. 'Streets of Rage' Director Noriyoshi Onha says this occurred frequently because the games were deliberately designed for it to happen. "The basic concept of the enemies is very simple - they move around in order to surround the player so the key is for the player to move in such a way to avoid this. [In 'Streets of Rage'] We developed a series of moves to enable strategic play. Jumping while holding allowed a player to vault out from enemies to escape an en-circlement. [...] Attacking from the back is a reverse attack that offers the player an option if quickly approached from behind. This varied combat system provided players a choice and as such a feeling of achievement."
Reviewer Tim Boone was impressed with the quantity of attacks each character had. "For me the thing which really makes the game is the sheer number of moves at your fighter's disposal, especially when fighting with a chum. Watch those bad guys count the spinning stars as you dust them down with a flying kick after using your buddy as a human trampoline!“ However for me, situation sensitive attacks, combo moves and weapons don’t make up for the lack of rideable dragons that 'Golden Axe' had. In fact, when you play 'Streets of Rage' it does feel like you're fighting the same thugs over and over with just the background changing. Thankfully at around half an hour the game is over before monotony sets in.
Celebrated by Nintendo Power as “arguably the greatest game-music composer of the 16-bit age,” Koshiro was influenced by electronic dance and house music and wanted to be the first to introduce these sounds to video games. To appease Western audiences further the final soundtrack also shows the influence of R&B and hip-hop music, styles which were immensely popular in the early nineties. "I think 'Streets of Rage' was the first time I composed music with the overseas market in mind above the Japanese market" Koshiro admits. "When we did 'Streets of Rage’ it was to please Western tastes. In North America, club songs were playing constantly on MTV and such. So, I knew they loved club music, so I thought if I could put this into game music, then they’d be really happy." Like its sequels, 'Streets of Rage's soundtrack was composed using an original audio programming language developed by Koshiro himself. This allowed him to emulate the timbre and percussion sounds of rhythm machines, specifically the Roland TR-606 and TR-909, which Koshiro claimed was the secret to creating authentic club style music. "I hope people who liked old club music will listen to this and think, “Ah! It’s like Soul II Soul and Enigma"". Koshiro admits he continues to get praised for his twenty year old work; however he finds the love from westerners hard to accept. “What originally influenced me when making the 'Streets of Rage' music wasn’t Japanese music, but American and British music. It feels kind of strange to hear those people say they like my music. I think, “But it was your music originally!"" The praise is of course entirely justified, 'Streets of Rage's music is superb, the highlight of an enjoyable game. It conceivable that more people today listen to the music than play the actual game.