Ask anyone to name SEGA's most successful franchise, and you're likely to hear Sonic the Hedgehog as an answer. While the little blue speed demon may have gone head-to-head with Nintendo's Mario in the 16-bit war, he wasn't the only trick up SEGA's sleeve. The Genesis had a number of top-tier franchises that helped to set it apart from the Super NES, and Streets of Rage unquestionably sits near the top of that list.
Known in Japan as Bare Knuckle, the three Streets of Rage games are traditional side-scrolling beat-'em-ups. Generational predecessors to the fighting game genre, beat-'em-ups have the player facing off against a large number of low-level opponents before going head-to-head with a boss character at the end of each stage.
The original Streets of Rage lays down the basic framework for the franchise. Upset with the department's inability to root out organized crime in the city, three police offers quit the force and take their fight to the streets. Armed with nothing more than their fists, the trio will do whatever is necessary to take down the syndicate.
Gameplay is fairly direct in Streets of Rage, with a single button dishing out attacks and another controlling your jumps. A third button releases a limited, but powerful, special attack that clears the screen of all normal enemies. Attacks are context sensitive, with the game dishing out a punch or a kick depending on the situation. One exception is the rear attack, which is done by pressing jump and attack at the same time.
Throws and holds are automatic, based on range, though there is a surprising amount of depth here as well. It is possible to attack other opponents while being held. If thrown, you can recover with a button combination to avoid damage and land on your feet.
Where Streets of Rage shows its age is in the enemy AI. Though it was first released for home consoles, the game was designed with arcade mechanics in mind, and that is most visible in how the enemy attacks. Challenge is maintained not by skillful combat, but rather by giving opponents faster movement and better range. The first time you face off against the twins Mona and Lisa, you're likely to espouse a few choice words of rage yourself.
Streets of Rage 2 is easily the best of the series. Though it drops the multiple endings of the first game, it makes great strides in both gameplay and graphics. Players are still limited to three input buttons, but the single-use special attack has been changed to a multiple-use super move. To prevent players from spamming it, the super move consumes a bit of your life bar. Basic moves are still context sensitive; however, attacks can be modified by using the directional pad. For example, Blaze's standard special is a flip kick, but pressing forward and special results in a powered-up punch. Additionally, weapons can now be thrown, and a rush attack makes it easy to close distance with quick opponents.
Visually, Streets of Rage 2 keeps the bright, colorful look of the first, while giving every graphic component a complete upgrade. Character sprites are larger, more detailed and better animated. The UI now shows names and life bars for all opponents, making it easier to fight strategically when you're trying to thin out a group.
Interestingly enough, Streets of Rage 2 also borrows liberally from the pop culture of the day. One level in the game is set in an amusement park that looks to be inspired by Disney's Magic Kingdom. You even fight your way through a pirate ride. Also present is an "Alien" themed section, complete with Giger-esque walls and the iconic Xenomorph head visible in transparent eggs. One enemy looks similar to (and moves like) Street Fighter II's Blanka, while another looks like an overweight Mario.
Streets of Rage 2 also introduces a basic versus mode for player-vs.-player match-ups. This versus mode also appears in Streets of Rage 3.
The third and final game in the series is visually similar to the second, though character animation and movement appears to be sped up. Where Streets of Rage 3 attempts to make its mark is with more versatile controls and enemy AI. Due to compatibility reasons, the old three-button control scheme is still present, but for Genesis owners who had the now iconic SEGA six-button controller, the additional buttons add functionality.
One of the extra buttons is merely a way to press jump and attack at the same time, but another allows you to execute upgraded rush attacks at any time. Normally, these upgraded attacks must be unlocked by earning stars. By inputting the right button combination, you can perform them at any time. Also new to the move set is the ability to quickly roll up and down as well as run left to right.
By default, Streets of Rage 3 only has four playable characters (the same as Streets of Rage 2), but additional secret characters can be enabled via codes and in-game play. Two of these, Roo and Shiva, are available in all versions of the game, but the third, Ash, is only available in the Japanese version. A stereotypical caricature of a flamboyant gay man (complete with high-heeled boots), Ash was cut from the western releases of the game.
Story-wise, Streets of Rage 3 is a bit over the top, but it does feature multiple endings, much like the first game.
One question that is sure to arise from players is, "Why bother with this collection when all three games are already available on Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection?" Emulation quality. While Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection is a steal for the price, the emulator doesn't always get the Genesis sound right, and it also doesn't support online play. For most games, that's not a big deal, but for Streets of Rage, it's worth noting, especially because the games all shine in co-op play and the soundtracks feature some of the best music to grace the 16-bit generation.
Sound-wise, Streets of Rage 2 is at the top of the pack, but the other games also hold their own. Composed by Yuzo Koshiro, all three soundtracks are impressive uses of the Yamaha YM2612 sound chip in the Genesis. Koshiro composed the soundtracks using a custom programming language and looked to Roland's analog synths as inspiration.
The music itself was heavily influenced by the nascent techno, ambient and house movements. Fans of Enigma are sure to notice the main riff from "Sadeness (Part I)" used in a few places. While commonplace in clubs today, back in the early '90s, the genres weren't just starting to go mainstream. Even then, Koshiro was ahead of the curve, using randomly generated sequences in his compositions for Streets of Rage 3 well before the technique became popular.
Like the other 2012 SEGA Vintage Collection releases, the Streets of Rage collection is developed by M2. In addition to the notable sound emulation, each game also features a separate jukebox option in the main menu. Fully customizable screen settings allow for pixel-perfect displays along with optional scan lines and a smoothing filter. Each game also features a set of basic high score challenges that post to the leaderboards.
Purists will appreciate the fact that all three versions of each game are included. For the first two, this isn't a big deal, but given the changes that were made to Streets of Rage 3 when it was released in the West (harder difficulty, removal of Ash), this is the first time North American players have easy access to the Japanese original.
If video games were movies, the Sega Vintage Collection: Streets of Rage would qualify as a remastered collector's edition. The only thing missing is some sort of digital archive section to highlight the original manuals and packaging. Although the Streets of Rage games can be had in alternate forms, you would be hard-pressed to find a better way to experience these three titles outside of the original cartridges.
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