There were only three games in the historical STREETS OF RAGE video game series, but perhaps out of step with typical genre examples, each one offers a distinct feel in the beat ’em up experience. Just earlier this week, retro specialist publisher DotEmu announced STREETS OF RAGE 4, a beautiful hand-drawn follow-up to the long dormant series. Developed by Lizardcube (of the brilliant WONDER BOY: THE DRAGON’S TRAP remake ) and Guard Crush Games, STREETS OF RAGE 4 signals the return of main characters Axel Stone and Blaze Fielding. They were shown, briefly, engaging in some in-gameplay brawling in the announcement trailer, and some screenshots have been released. No release date or platforms was given for the game, but I’m super excited about it. The STREETS OF RAGE series is made up of top-tier brawlers, as simple as any other but elevated by interesting scenarios and tight controls. Oh, and the great music. Composer Yuzo Koshiro’s involvement in STREETS OF RAGE 4 hasn’t been confirmed or denied yet, but many feel it would raise the excitement level exponentially or disappoint just a bit less. The missing information I’m interested in is Sega’s involvement. Perhaps it’s as simple as a licensing agreement, as DotEmu has also released the aforementioned WONDER BOY remake, another series published by Sega. In any event, STREETS OF RAGE is coming back, and I’m excited. To commemorate the occasion, I’m ranking the original trilogy of games, a simple prospect complicated by, as I said, the diverse feel across the games.
EDIT 11/17/20: Included STREETS OF RAGE 4.
#4 — STREETS OF RAGE 3 (1994)
STREETS OF RAGE 3 sped things up, introduced a more complex plot and branching paths, and even had an unlockable, playable boxing kangaroo. All of these factors should make it the best game in the series. Unfortunately, the game’s American release was made more difficult, kind of the reverse of what often happened with Japanese and American game disparities. Taking the vigilante ex-cop chronicle of the series to its “logical” conclusion, robotic-armed scientist Dr. Zan reaches out to Blaze Fielding and her colleagues because villain Dr. X (again, logically, a brain in a jar, as is revealed) is planning to replace major city officials with robotic clones. Blaze, the sole female character in the series, is still the best character to play, but heavyweight Axel Stone and light and fast Eddie “Skate” Hunter join her and Zan. The aforementioned kangaroo can be unlocked in a boss fight. Besides the difficulty changes (America’s “Normal” mode is harder than Japan’s “Hard” mode, and the game ends early at stage 5 on “Easy”), STREETS OF RAGE 3 received the most changes in translation of its two predecessors. The Japanese plot sees Mr. X planting bombs across the city, and some pretty surprising devastation scenes. The American version also removed boss Ash, a gay stereotype who can still be accessed by cheats and hacking. All of these factors make STREETS OF RAGE 3 feel like kind of a mess. The previous two games were enjoyable, challenging yet fair brawlers, but STREETS OF RAGE 3 was nearly sadistic and told a weaker story, insofar as that kind of thing matters in a beat ’em up. It speaks to the core appeal of STREETS OF RAGE, though, that it’s still fun (while progress is still possible) because of its typically tight controls and new inputs for cool combos.
#3 — STREETS OF RAGE (1991)
STREETS OF RAGE is primitive in hindsight, even among beat ’em ups that would release right on its heels, but Sega’s flagship brawler began in auspicious company alongside games like FINAL FIGHT (1989), at least in my mind. No beat ’em up quite as good-looking or fluid had yet been primarily released to console, and STREETS OF RAGE is a relatively early validation of the Genesis. Following Axel, Blaze, and Adam Hunter (a cool character relegated to cameo roles and succeeded by younger brother Skate), the game introduces the vigilantism the series would emphasize. Resigning from the increasingly corrupt police force in disgust, the three take to the streets to take down the crime syndicate controlling the city, later revealed to be run by Mr. X. In a twist, though, the game allows the player to take Mr. X’s offer to work together, resulting in the character running the crime syndicate. Clearly, that’s not the canon ending, but it foreshadowed the concepts that would bloom in the third game. In any event, STREETS OF RAGE made its mark in the same way FINAL FIGHT (the best game/series of the genre at the time) did. It was simple, but the potentially frustrating factor of the typical multi-directional plane common to brawlers did not ruin the flow. Hit boxes were clear and effectively understood after just a few minutes of play time, and landing hits and using weapons made up an experience as satisfying as the genre could offer. Its two sequels would just build upon this core appeal.
#2 — STREETS OF RAGE 2 (1992)
I don’t think I’m alone in thinking STREETS OF RAGE 2 is the best of the trilogy (Editor’s Note: I am keeping this description the same for posterity’s sake, although I no longer believe STREETS OF RAGE 2 is the best of the trilogy). I would say it’s the most successful and well-known, as far as I can tell, and for good reason. The second game’s mix of characters is its most interesting and well-balanced, with Blaze and Axel returning and Adam’s younger brother Skate and wrestler Max Thunder joining the pair to save the kidnapped Adam from Mr. X. The character types are most defined here, and Blaze is balanced to be a much more-well rounded character, rather than the agile weakling, to put it crudely. A reworked and more complex move set adds a lot more cool opportunities in combat (it wouldn’t have taken much to add to the simplicity of the first game), and the artwork comes into its true 16-bit promise. The settings are at their most iconic and atmospheric, and new and old enemy designs enliven the repetitive nature of beat ’em up enemies, if only slightly. I’ve been remiss by omitting writing about the series’ music composition, because frankly, I don’t have tremendous connection to it. Oh, don’t get me wrong! It’s great, and serves the game perfectly. I’m just not one of the people that got any of the soundtracks that have been released for each game, but I will say this: the STREETS OF RAGE games kind of define the now-traditional 16-bit sound, especially in the context of the Genesis. C’mon, you know how Genesis games sound. But even still, this music is more complex and subversive than anything that comes to mind when you think about the Genesis sound, and fun besides. At the end of the day, STREETS OF RAGE 2 is one of the great beat ’em ups and a signature release of the 16-bit and Genesis era.
#1 — STREETS OF RAGE 4 (2020)
Developer: Dotemu, Lizardcube, Guard Crush Games
Well, two years after I wrote the above entries and 26 years after the last STREETS OF RAGE game was released, STREETS OF RAGE 4 came out. In that time, my effusive praise for the series has cooled somewhat. I still think the STREETS OF RAGE games are the preeminent beat ’em ups of their time, but for a genre that is pretty same-y, I can’t say that the retro series is among my favorite ever. I can say, however, that every STREETS OF RAGE game is in fact good, and none more so than the revival. STREETS OF RAGE 4 was slightly underwhelming, at least in my eyes after playing a much more inspired beat ’em up “reboot,” 2020’s BATTLETOADS. But at the end of the day, STREETS OF RAGE 4 offers the best gameplay experience of the series. It’s simply a modern game, challenging but with more shortcuts for those of us that don’t want to suffer through a game. Its art style is charming, and although its music doesn’t rival Yuzo Koshiro’s work on the original trilogy, STREETS OF RAGE 4’s overall presentation is neat. Character designs of new and old allies and baddies look like amped up versions of their pixelated predecessors, and a wide array of new playable characters enriches the experience. Self-harming super moves return, and in fact the whole moment-to-moment gameplay of STREETS OF RAGE 4 isn’t too different from its predecessors’. It’s a longer game, though, and one with a slightly more varied set of experiences. STREETS OF RAGE 4 takes the top spot because it does what its widely enjoyed source material(s) did well, and more accessibly. It’s great as relatively bite-sized, beat ’em up fun.