You’ve battled your way through the entire city and even the villainous Mr. X’s headquarters, and now you’re standing face to face when you (and your partner) are given a choice, a choice that will fundamentally change the meaning of everything you’ve achieved so far. This is a moment that gaming was made for, and one that was few and far between back in the 16-bit days. Yet this is a moment that has stayed with me ever since I reached this final showdown all those years ago.
This is the game that started the iconic beat-em up brawler trilogy of the 16-bit era, welcome to the Streets of Rage. Developed in house by SEGA as an exclusive for the Mega Drive/Genesis, Streets of Rage was first released in the summer of 1991, and looked to expand upon the genre that had recently been popularised by games such as Double Dragon and Final Fight in the latter days of the 1980s. The story is typically simple and straightforward, a secret crime syndicate headed up by the villainous Mr. X have taken over the city and even the police are in their back pocket. As such three ex-cops, Axel, Adam, and Blaze set out to retake the streets.
The gameplay is overall very simple, yet never leaves you bored due to its intuitive controls, excellent pacing and challenging boss battles, to name just a few of its positive qualities. In terms of controls, each of the three characters are both familiar and yet unique at the same time. Aside from the punches, kicks and throws each character has their own unique back-up move which acts as the players last resort. When the A button is pressed the police back-up is called into action destroying all of the enemies on screen. Despite these similarities in the core gameplay, each character has their own traits, Adam being the strongest of the three, Blaze being the most agile, whilst Axel is the most balanced. Additionally, each of the three heroes has their own combo style something which is also seen in the varied enemies and bosses that are encountered throughout the eight stages.
These enemies range from knife wielding thugs, to whip wielding dominatrixes, to larger than life fire breathers. Enemies come from both sides of the scrolling screen and just when you feel you’re getting the hang of the game and that the enemies are becoming easy to handle, the game racks up the difficulty of the enemies or the volume of enemies you are having to take on at any one time. This is just another area where the game shines as the pacing is excellent in the manner in which it increases the difficulty, and through how the hoards of enemies who have taken the streets will feel never-ending yet at the same time never truly overwhelming.
To add to this, co-operative play is the perfect way to enjoy this battle, with some even viewing having a partner to share the ride as essential to getting the most out of the experience. Watching your partner’s back as you take down the now increased hoards of enemies even brings with it new tactics and even new moves as there are special combos that can be exploited by having two of you. Co-op play does throw you a the curveball and now there are more enemies, and now even two bosses, one for each player. So the game isn’t necessarily any easy for having two of you, but it is definitely more enjoyable.
However there are some frustrations, they may be few but they do exist. One of the more obvious of these being the manner in which your continues just seem to disintegrate before you eyes, and this ties closely to the difficulty of some of the boss battles that can become a war of attrition. Also one other annoyance comes when the enemy you need to defeat in order to progress to the next area is actually off screen, and as such you have to simply wait until they return before you can finish them off. Nevertheless, these only seem to be slight annoyances and never ruin the feel of the game. If anything these only become frustrations because you are wanting to continue your progression and enjoyment.
Moving on from the gameplay to the sound and this is another area where the game shines, in fact this could very well be it’s crowning glory with many having viewed Yuzo Koshiro’s synthesised chiptune soundtrack as ahead of its time. Some have even called it legendary, an accolade that still holds up today. This soundtrack optimises how a music can invoke special feelings from the player sucking them into the game even further. It simply is something that has to be experienced. Even the sound effects whilst sounding extremely tinny by today’s standards and considerably ‘B’ movie, especially the screams heard on defeating an enemy, seem to still fit perfectly within the game.
Replay value and enjoyment are traits that this game has in bucket loads. With three players to choose from, the iconic co-op gameplay and the twist that comes before the final showdown with Mr X that can lead to one of multiple different endings, there are many reasons to keep playing even beyond the near perfect gameplay. I have personally played this more times than I can remember alongside many friends and family members and have enjoyed every minute of it.
From the gameplay, to the iconic soundtrack, to the bosses and frustration, I would happily play this game multiple times again. Its excellent pacing and addictive nature, through the simplicity of its gameplay and intuitive controls, mean that just like myself, you’ll find yourself hunting lives and desperately preserving continues just to keep playing, and this will keep you coming back. Ultimately, there is nothing more that you need to know beyond this. Streets of Rage is an essential part of any Mega Drive/Genesis collection and an absolute must play, and whilst this is a game that maybe some would superficially think has aged badly, in actuality it has become timeless.