Best Of 2019: The History Of Streets Of Rage

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From now until the end of 2019 we’ll be celebrating the coming year by looking back and republishing some of our finest features from the past twelve months, in addition to our regular output. This article first appeared on the site back in August. Enjoy!


For a lot of us more ‘seasoned’ gamers, the announcement of Streets of Rage 4 brought a tear to the eye. The original Mega Drive/Genesis games hold a special place in our hearts and after all these years the prospect of returning to take on Mr X’s mysterious Syndicate with our bare knuckles makes us quite… emotional. The last entry came out an astonishing 25 years ago, yet with only three games to its name (plus a handful of ports) the series continues to garner huge praise and affection.

Now that a Switch release has finally been confirmed (was there really ever any doubt?), it’s the perfect time to look back over the original trilogy to see just what makes Sega’s belt-scrolling brawler so special, and find out why we’re so excited about this new entry.

The Bare (Knuckle) Necessities

Streets of Rage

The humble side-scrolling beat ’em up genre started life in 1984 with Kung Fu Master (later ported to NES as Kung Fu), but it was 1987’s arcade hit Double Dragon that ushered in a wave of classic belt scrollers. A NES port arrived the following year and the concept caught on with the home console audience. Games like River City Ransom were easy to understand, satisfying to play and made for excellent two-player co-op fodder (as anyone who had siblings in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s will surely confirm).

The arrival of Capcom’s Final Fight in arcades in 1989 took the genre to a whole new level, with huge and colourful character sprites and beautiful backgrounds complementing the pick-up-and-play mechanics. The original Streets of Rage – or Bare Knuckle as it’s known in Japan – was released in 1991 and was very much a response to Capcom’s game. Nintendo bagged exclusivity to the console port of Final Fight which, despite having some considerable downgrades from the arcade original (most notably lacking two-player co-op), still looked impressive on Super Nintendo.

Sega borrowed liberally from Final Fight, right down to the roasted meat concealed in trashcans and oil drums, but Streets of Rage somehow carved its own identity thanks largely to the sheer style it exuded. Martial arts, judo and boxing provided the three playable characters with their own look and fighting style, and while the controls were simple, designer and director Noriyoshi Ohba (who had previously worked on Revenge of Shinobi) managed to create an empowering moveset from just a few buttons. A special move on ‘A’ would call in the cavalry in the form of a police car which launched rockets onto the screen from an earlier point in the stage, wiping out all enemies on screen.

These little touches elevated it above the competition; much more than a mere copy (despite what the box art might have you believe). It expands upon the foundation of games like Golden Axe (Streets of Rage used a modified version of its engine) using the backdrop of a run-down city that recalled the crime-ridden Detroit of 1987’s RoboCop.

While it can be tough to return to the original game after playing the more-polished, smoother sequel, the music makes it more than worth the effort.

Arguably the biggest contributing factor to the game’s style, though, was the brilliant soundtrack from Yuzo Koshiro. The composer of such classics as ActRaiser and Revenge of Shinobi, his soundtrack fused techno and house with other genres to propel the player from brawl to brawl. Using outdated hardware that he’d modified, Koshiro managed to make the Genesis really sing using its Yamaha YM2612 sound chip as well as the Master System’s PSG (Programmable Sound Generator – the previous console’s sound chip was also present in the Mega Drive hardware). He produced a range of crisp, realistic percussion samples through the available PCM channel and used a combination of FM synth and PSG for the rest. If – heaven forbid! – you’re not au fait with the intricacies of the Mega Drive’s audio configuration, we recommend checking out this video which helpfully provides a short overview and some isolated examples, including one from this very game.

Koshiro’s innovative work would go on to predict and even influence club music trends to come shortly after the series ended. “Sega didn’t tell me what music they wanted or give me any kind of direction,” Koshiro told Nick Dwyer in an interview for Red Bull’s excellent documentary series Diggin’ In The Carts. “I only ever did stuff that I liked myself. I told them club music would definitely take off, and I wanted it to be like that, and I gave them a demo.” Thankfully, Sega liked what it heard. While it can be tough to return to the original game after playing the more-polished, smoother sequel, the music makes it more than worth the effort.

Streets of Rage was a brilliant opening salvo, then, but it wasn’t without issues and feels a little barebones today. It provided Sega with what it needed, though – a hit that emulated and arguably improved on Nintendo’s Final Fight port. Master System and Game Gear ports were created that captured something of the spirit of the original, though an awful lot was (understandably) lost in translation on the weaker systems. Sega was eager to build on its success with a speedy sequel, though, and they turned to Yuzo Koshiro’s company, Ancient, for help.

Mean Streets, Meaner Beats

Streets of Rage 2

Streets of Rage II (or ‘2’ in the US, for some reason) launched in the US on December 1992 (Europe and Japan had to wait until January) and expanded on the blueprint of the original in every way imaginable. Development was led by Ancient, the company co-founded by Yuzo Koshiro with his younger sister, Ayano, and their mother. Ayano Koshiro led the planning and art design of the sequel. “I’d probably say Chief Graphic Designer” she explained in an interview on the company’s blog (brilliantly translated by Shmuplations). “Nowadays we’d call it something like ‘art direction’ (deciding the overall look of the game).”

As popular as Final Fight and the like were at the time, one-on-one fighters were usurping belt-scrollers in arcades and the biggest hit of the period was a big influence on Sega’s sequel. “I’m sure you’ve played Street Fighter II—my brother and I did too. We liked it so much we bought a cabinet and had it installed in the office at Ancient. My brother and I liked the way they fought in SFII, and between the two of us, a shared vision of the fighting of Streets of Rage 2 arose: two jabs, followed by a straight punch, then some heavy hit, and the enemy goes flying! That kind of flow had to be in there.”





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