Review – Streets of Rage

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My household as a child was ruled by the Super Nintendo. That is to say, my childhood console was an SNES. But I had a cousin who lived nearby with a Sega Genesis. He didn’t have many games, but we rented a lot when we spent time together. However, he also had the Sega 6-Pak. It had games like Sonic the Hedgehog, Golden Axe, and Streets of Rage. Of those games, it was Streets of Rage that we put the most time into.

To me, it’s a game that’s unbreakably linked to the console itself. If it’s not Sonic the Hedgehog that first comes to mind when I think of the console, it’s Streets of Rage. And if it isn’t either of those games, it’s ToeJam & Earl, but that’s not important right now.

Streets of Rage Blaze suplexing a wrestler on the beach.
I’ll have a suplex on the beach.

CRIME!? IN MY CITY!?

Released in 1991, I’ve always looked at Streets of Rage as a shameless rip-off of 1989’s Final Fight. I’ve always thought the story behind it was that it was a retaliation to Capcom porting Final Fight to the SNES near launch. If they couldn’t have Final Fight on their console, they were just going to create their own.

It’s a convincing story, but while fact-checking, I haven’t found anything to back that up. Noriyoshi Ohba has said that it simply came from a desire to create a street brawler, but that just means they maybe got inspiration from Final Fight, not that they were following a corporate desire to follow the competition.

Really, the biggest similarity is with the enemies, as many Final Fight foes have analogues in Streets of Rage. There’s also something in the flow and design of the levels that are similar. On the other hand, the gameplay itself has about as much in common with Double Dragon as it does with Final Fight.

But, anyway, that’s a strange way to introduce the game.

Really, though,  it’s so easy to describe Streets of Rage with parallels, because, on the surface, it isn’t all that original. But underneath that… it isn’t really all that original either.

Streets of Rage. Blaze knocks back two thugs using a length of pipe.
Swing for the fences.

SUPLEX CITY SKYLINES

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: crime is running rampant in the streets of an indistinct city that is kind of like New York. Gangs have taken over. Three ex-cops decide to take matters into their own hands and set out to stop the criminal mastermind behind everything.

It’s a plot that is distinctly ‘80s or ‘90s. Most notably, it’s almost Final Fight’s plot, but Final Fight had you play as the mayor rather than police. But for that matter, Final Fight wasn’t all that original in that sense either. Except for playing as an ex-wrestler mayor. I haven’t seen another game do that, though Metal Wolf Chaos comes pretty close.

If you haven’t guessed by now, Streets of Rage is a belt-scrolling brawler. You start at the left side of a long level and gradually make your way to the right. To enable your forward movement, you throw your fists and feet and any goon that shows up. There is one attack button, a jump, and a limited-use special attack. If you press attack and jump at the same time, your character will attack directly behind them. If you walk into an enemy, you take them into your gentle embrace. You can then feed them a few attacks, throw them, or suplex them. Or, better yet. Hit them twice, grab them, hit them twice more, leap over top of them, then suplex them. Pro tip.

Streets of Rage. Blaze monkey-flips a guy into what seems to be a bottomless pit.
Scream so I know when you hit the bottom.

GET IN MY EARS

Being an early Genesis game, Streets of Rage is quite a bit simpler than Final Fight. For starters, the stages are almost all just left-to-right affairs. Completely straight lines aside from some holes in the bridge level, a few pneumatic presses and conveyor belts in the factory, and the best elevator stage ever in a beat-’em-up.

The combat is solid. The jump-kicks, punches, and grabs allow you to quickly swap between crowd control and heavy damage, the weapons are effective and fun to use, and the fighting feels impactful. Even if it lacks the technical horsepower of an arcade board, it still stands up well against Final Fight.

And while I keep bringing up Final Fight and will continue to do so, there are some areas where Streets of Rage exceeds it. The soundtrack, in particular, is one of the best of the era. Composed by the legendary Yuzo Koshiro (who also had a hand in designing this and the sequel), it’s an incredible tribute to the Genesis’ FM Synth. Rather than simply supporting the game from the background, it stands shoulder to shoulder with it. The way that it scores the action makes it as much a part of the experience as the punching.

Blaze fighting Mona and Lisa
Well, one of us is going to have to change.

CONSTABLE HOWITZER

The other way that Streets of Rage differentiates itself is in its excessive force. Sure, the Mayor walking the back alleys and pile-driving crime into the pavement might be ethically questionable, but Streets of Rage has the protagonists backed up by a police officer packing literal artillery. Literal. Artillery

Once per life (or after you pick up a very rare item) you can use a special attack where a squad car pulls up. A cop hangs out the window with some sort of heavy weaponry, fires it at an angle, and it lands around the players, completely wiping out the enemies on screen (or badly hurting a boss). It is incredible. Like, your vigilantes are just beating an education into the skulls of thugs, but their backup is just annihilating them indiscriminately.

What’s even better is on the aforementioned elevator level. It’s a cargo elevator on the side of a skyscraper. As you rise higher and higher into the sky, you can just toss enemies over the railing to their splattery deaths.

And to put a cherry on it, you can still call in Constable Howitzer. The camera pans down the side of the building to the ground floor, then to the left into the parking garage. Your backup pulls up, then fires at an impossible angle. The screen then pans back right, then up the building to show the elevator get nuked. Fucking. Rad.

Streets of Rage animation of a police officer nuking a freight elevator.
Words can’t do it justice.

SPECIAL DELIVERY

The last level is an interesting cap on things. You’re in an ornate hallway high up in the kingpin’s tower. Room service carts come flying at you, I live for the bass in the background, and as you fight your way through boss rematches, the sun begins to rise on the skyline visible through the windows you pass. It’s an incredibly effective way to show that the heroes have been fighting throughout the night and now it’s near the end.

Fuck Mona and Lisa, though. They’re just palette swaps of one of the selectable characters (Blaze). One jump-kicks at you, while the other will throw you if you get close. They are by far the most difficult boss in the game, and you fight a rematch with them right before Mr. X. I always drop too many lives in that fight and am screwed for the last battle.

Speaking of getting screwed, there are limited continues. That’s fine, I guess. Streets of Rage would be pretty short-lived if it didn’t have some barrier to slow you down. However, if you’re playing co-op and a player loses their last life, and the boss is defeated before they hit “continue,” their remaining continues will be forfeited and they’ll be eliminated. It’s not necessarily a problem you’ll encounter, but when it happens, it’s a major disappointment.

Streets of Rage. Blaze suplexes another boss. A window shows dawn breaking over a cityscape.
Sun Rises on Bridge Suplex – 1991 – Pixels on Phosphor.

VIOLENT BREATHING

Streets of Rage is a big comfort game for me. When things get tough, I like to fire it up and hone my skills. I try to cement my strategies, reduce my mistakes, and remember to not suplex the fat boss. Even without the memories from my childhood, it’s a beat-’em-up that feels like home. The music, the moves, the 16-bit skyline, the police brutality; it feels right. It’s not as punishing as Final Fight, and it’s simple while not being insipid.

There’s a certain lack of originality in Streets of Rage. Its gameplay neither innovates nor excels. Yet I don’t think it will ever be replicated. It has sequels and shares similarities with a great deal of others in the genre, but there’s something in its combination of grit and neon, its groundedness and excessiveness, and its simplicity and nuance that is utterly and completely unique. Nobody nukes freight elevators like Streets of Rage.

8/10

This review was conducted on a Sega Genesis Model 2 (Rev VA3) using a cartridge version that is still in great shape despite being played about a million times. It was paid for by the author.

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About Zoey Handley 243 Articles
Zoey made up for her mundane childhood by playing video games. Now she won't shut up about them. Her eclectic tastes have led them across a vast assortment of consoles and both the best and worst games they have to offer. A lover of discovery, she can often be found scouring through retro and indie games. She currently works as a Staff Writer at Destructoid.

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