Solaris Japan

Friday, 4 August 2017

Mega Drive Review - Streets of Rage (Game 139)

‘Streets of Rage’ is recognised as one of the finest franchises on the Mega Drive and a system seller for many. But why should Sega thank Nintendo for its success?

Developed by Sega
Published by Sega
Released in 1991

On October 29th 1988, the Mega Drive first went on sale but all was not well for Sega.  "The Japanese launch of the Mega Drive was low-key and poorly timed, coming just a week after the release of the NES title 'SuperMario Bros 3', one of the most defining games for a decade" Keith Stuart notes in 'Mega Drive / Genesis : The Collected Works'. After a year of mediocre sales the President of Sega Enterprises at the time was disappointed. "The Mega Drive was far inferior to the NES in terms of diffusion rates and sales in the Japanese market" admits Hayao Nakayama. 

According to gaming historian Stuart, things only got worse for Sega. Panic set it when Nintendo announced that a successor to the popular Famicom Console was due to launch within a year of the US Launch of the Mega Drive (known there as the Genesis). "The Super Famicom lurked on the horizon [and] there was little room for manoeuvre". there was also the collective belief that Nintendo was stepping on Sega's toes. "Sega's key strength was the quality of its arcade games. This was a golden era for the in-house amusement machines division" observes Keith Stuart. One of the most popular games in the arcades at the time was Capcom's 'Final Fight' and Nintendo declared that this game would appear on the Super Famicom within a month of the systems launch. Sega were by all accounts livid. After enjoying a lucrative relationship with Nintendo during the NES era, Capcom initially decide against creating games for Sega's Mega Drive. So if  Sega wanted a 'Final Fight' style game they had no choice but to create a rival game from scratch and they had to do it quickly if it were to be released before 'Final Fight' appeared on the Super Famicom.  


While Sega felt that Nintendo had a "strangle hold" on the Japanese home market, it was believed that targeted games and aggressive marketing could create a foothold in the West. This is perhaps why 'Bare Knuckle: Ikari no Tetsuken' is set in a New York inspired city and features a plot that could have been lifted from a number of early nineties Hollywood movies. "This city was once a happy, peaceful place...until one day, a powerful secret criminal organization took over. This vicious syndicate soon had control of the government and even the police force. The city has become a centre of violence where no one is safe. Amid this turmoil a group of young Police officers has sworn to clean up the city. Among them are Adam Hunter, Axel Stone, and Blaze Fielding. They are willing to risk anything...even their lives...on the...Streets of Rage". 

Of course the plot of 'Streets of Rage' (as it was known in the West) echoes 'Final Fight', albeit slightly simpler and sadly lacking ex-wrestler moustachioed Mayors seeking vengeance. Given that the game was always intended to mimic 'Final Fight's gameplay 'Streets of Rage' will also feel familiar to anyone who has played Capcom's scrolling brawler.
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" 

Of course 'Streets of Rage' wasn't Sega's first side scrolling brawler. "Sega has a history of making beat ‘em ups with games like 'Alien Storm and 'Golden Axe'" remembers Okunari. In fact sources claim that an existing Mega Drive port of 'Golden Axe' was used as a starting point for 'Streets of Rage'. The two games are certainly similar. Both have a range of attacks that can be completed by a character depending on the distance of the enemy, in fact both even have exceptionally overpowered jumping attacks. Like 'Golden Axe', 'Streets of Rage' also has a special attack that can be used when a player feels overwhelmed by foes. However unlike the fantasy game, in 'Streets or Rage' you don't need to collect pots to be able to use it.
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. 

What 'Streets of Rage' lacks in gameplay variety it makes up for with style. Despite having much smaller sprites than 'Final Fight', 'Streets of Rage' should still be remembered for its iconic visuals. Awash with early nineties neon and embracing eighties street culture, the game seemed to be the embodiment of the aggressive attitude that Sega used to promote its games. The world feels dirty and uncomfortable, threatening and dangerous. The environments you visit are varied with the boat stage feeling different to the factory level. 

Naturally for the player to move in to and out from the screen they had to see a floor to navigate. This was more complicated than it sounds as President of Internal development at Sega, Naoki Horii explains.  "Most people don’t realize that unlike previous 2D side-scrollers, this game had a perspective that ostensibly looked down on your character and the floor, while letting you move in all directions. Objects and enemies were drawn in the same way [...] those objects and enemies don’t have a 3D presence; they're flat, they’re just pretending to be 3D." Naturally any perception of depth is a visual illusion achieved by the design of the backgrounds. "The actual character’s size doesn’t change, right? This is important in terms of the gameplay and cartridge limits." While there has been more visually exciting Mega Drive games released since, the art certainly impressed critics at the time. "The graphics are gorgeous, the sprites beautifully animated and full of life" wrote Frank O'Connor in Computer and Video Games magazine. "The backgrounds in certain sections are almost photographic in quality and portray a city full of disease, squalor and ninja death squads. Get a hold of 'Streets of Rage' and have those [Super] Famicom owners wishing they had never upgraded. Here's a game that makes the [Super] Famicom look a bit feeble and that's saying something". 

But while the graphics may now be dated, the music has certainly stood the test of time. A recent vinyl release of the soundtrack sold out immediately and Sega have even seen fit to share the music on Spotify. At the time Mean Machines magazine claimed that 'Streets of Rage' has the "best Mega Drive music ever heard" and there is no shortage of people who would be inclined to agree today. It's not a surprise that composer Yuzo Koshiro is credited on the titles screen.
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. 

True to their word, Nintendo did release 'Final Fight' a month after the launch of the Super Famicom but in the end Sega needn't have worried. The game was a huge disappointment, slow, censored, single player only and missing one of the arcade's three playable characters. While it reviewed fairly well, critics seemed to believe the game hadn't met expectations. Meanwhile reviewers were calling 'Streets of Rage' "possibly one of the greatest games on the Mega Drive". "Final Fight, move over!! This is the type of fighting game I've been waiting for" an EGM reviewer said.  "Two players, 40 attacks, 8 levels, large bosses, and music that rival 'Sonic the Hedgehog', 'Streets of Rage' is the best fighting game around!"

When both the Nintendo port of 'Final Fight' and Sega's 'Streets of Rage' were re-releases on the Wii's Virtual consoles, modern critics naturally saw fit to compare them. While EuroGamer admitted that 'Streets of Rage' is "a showcase of every genre standard you could wish for" it's still the game they preferred. "There is a reasonable explanation for this cookie-cutter approach though - the game was hurriedly developed to spoil the launch of the SNES, with its big and beefy 'Final Fight' conversion [regardless] 'Streets of Rage' also offers one of the more enjoyable fighting experiences of its era". "With 'Final Fight' also available, slap-em-up fans can't really go wrong by downloading both, but if you only want to spend your [money] on one then I'd say 'Streets of Rage' offers more bang for your buck" adds Dan Whitehead. 

In the end, Nintendo's desire to score points over Sega actually worked against them. It resulted in the creation of a series of Mega Drive games that are frequently called the best games on the system. 


Where did I get this game from?
Like the majority of my games I got 'Streets of Rage' in a bundle buy, after a lucky find on a local selling Facebook page. The previous owner clearly loved the game as they had it twice. Once as part of a compilation and also as a stand alone cartridge. 

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