The people have spoken, and the people wanted Streets of Rage because it is, and I know I call everything this but I believe it every time I say it, ICONIC. Play as dumb hottie Axel, cool dude Adam or poorly-dressed badass Blaze, and beat your way to the crime boss, Mr. X, who has plunged the city into ruin and corruption. Back in my childhood, this was a good way to soak up a sick day off from school (because that was basically the only circumstance where I’d be allowed to play games for longer than an hour or two) though I never made it very far in the Streets of Rage by myself.
I used to play alongside my older brothers when we had two controllers. Adorably, just before the year 2000, my oldest brother (who now has an engineering degree) dismantled our second controller because he was worried that it contained ‘The Millennium Bug’, which we believed was an actual insect at the time.
I don’t know if this game was ever meant to really be gritty, but if it was, then it is delightfully retro. This amazing intro plays over a night-time city skyline backdrop at the start:
“What was once a happy, peaceful, productive city, full of life and activity, has fallen into the hands of a secret criminal syndicate. The leader of the syndicate has somehow managed to keep his identity a secret. The organization soon absorbed the city government (anyone can be had if the price is right). They even have the metropolitan police force in their back pocket. Looting, random violence, and destruction are rampant. No one is safe walking the streets, day or night…
As the chaos continued at full strength, three young police officers tried to establish a special attack unit. They were repeatedly refused by their superiors, most of whom had either been bought by the organization or were too afraid to make a stand. One day, when they could no longer stand by and watch their city being demolished, they quit the force!
Adam Hunter, Axel Stone, and Blaze Fielding decided to forego their careers in legal law enforcement and put their lives on the line. They are without weapons, but each possesses great hand-to-hand combat abilities. Take them into the heart of the city and battle the most dangerous wave of bad dudes and chicks ever assembled. Make the city a place where people no longer have to walk the Streets of Rage!”
They aren’t very well dressed for their dark crusade through the criminal underbelly. Adam is wearing a yellow tank and bitchin’ leather pants, Axel is wearing tight blue jeans and a white tank and poor Blaze is freezing cold in the shortest red leather dress imaginable. But enough snark from me, I do genuinely love Streets of Rage.
There is a nice amount of variety in the levels, and it does a great job of fleshing out this nameless city. We begin on a well-lit street, with neon lights in shop windows behind. In telephone booths that you punch through, to reveal, if you can believe it, an apple or a turkey on a plate to revive your health. There is a constant pulsating soundtrack throughout the whole game that adds to the atmosphere, beautifully composed by Yuzo Koshiro, who has a staggering body of work, including another game I will soon cover, Revenge of Shinobi.
In this first level, the music is particularly tight to immerse you quickly in the game’s rhythm. The next level is an even dodgier part of town with lots of litter blowing around and empty oil drums. Then it’s off to the bleakest beach you’ve ever seen, with dark teal waves rolling endlessly. Then a bridge, then a boat, then a factory, an elevator, and finally Mr. X’s Headquarters. The backgrounds in these areas are slightly repetitive, as you pass the same shops or alleys or what have you, but the music keeps you bopping along like a badass as your enemies satisfyingly cry out before they flash away out of this mortal coil.
One thing that is always surprising is how the game plays around with its status quo. For most of the game, you are doing a straightforward, left-to-right side scroll. In the bridge level, there are suddenly gaps in the ground that will cost you a life if you fall down. In the elevator level, rather than the left-to-right you have come to expect, you are ascending the building while enemies attack every time you reach a new floor. And in HQ, suddenly, you are moving right-to-left. These twists and turns show that the game is playing with the player’s ideas of what is to be expected, when, in 1991, a simple left-to-right side scroll would easily have sufficed. This is one of the many reminders you get while playing retro games that, while it all may seem quaint and simple, developers have always been challenging the limits of their medium. A modern player might originally think that the repetitiveness of Streets of Rage‘s backgrounds is a flaw, but it functions more as a conscious way of deepening that immersion, nurturing the player’s sense of expectation, only to subvert that in later levels. Pretty impressive stuff, really.
In researching this, I have discovered that the many opponents you face in Streets of Rage actually have names! Well, every single type of opponent has a name. They also each have their own fighting style and, as the difficulty ramps up, they become quicker and harder to kill. Every level, you have one chance to summon a police car that will rain fire down on your enemies with a flamethrower, which is handy when the enemies all cluster around you. However, if you suffer from Shrek fingers, as I do, you will often summon this car accidentally (because the button is right beside your punching button) when you have one or no opponents. I tend not to even mind when this happens because it is super funny that this car even exists. Anyway, let’s get into some of the more common enemies you face:
Garcia: Garcia is the first enemy, the red-haired, denim-clad punchy boi. He often has a knife or a broken bottle. I think he probably listens to classic rock.
Hakuyo: Hakuyo seems a bit out of place on these mean old streets of rage, as he is a kung-fu fighter wearing traditional Chinese garb, which doesn’t seem like it will help him much if he gets stabbed or anything. He is a bit of an uncomfortable stereotype. But he does have lovely long hair, fair play to him. I had a crush on this enemy as a child, because long-haired guys with no facial hair (Legolas from LOTR, Red Power Ranger from Power Rangers in Space) were very much my type back then.
Nora: Very sensibly, Nora has opted for thigh-high stiletto boots, silver leggings, and a red leotard. She wears a peaked cap, almost a mockery of a policeman’s hat, and carries a whip. There is something unsettling about her shrill, drawn-out scream when you kill her. I could probably write a thesis about this character but now is not the time.
Signal: Signal is way more my type nowadays, sorry, Hakuyo. He’s a fashion-forward, neon-wearing, mohawk-having thug who has a sneaky, slidey way of attacking the player. You kind of don’t want to fight him, you want to ask him what underground gigs are happening tonight.
Jack: Jack is the most realistic enemy. He reminds me of a stereotypical Galway crusty. Wearing shorts and incessantly juggling, I can tell he never buys his own rollie cigarettes and always brings his own giant dubstep speaker to every festival he attends. He is less annoying here, attempting to kill the player, than he is in real life, attempting to convince strangers to let him sleep on their couch because “Does anyone really live anywhere?”
The bosses in Streets of Rage are actually pretty hard. Plus, in the HQ level, they all return for one last shot at beating you. For some reason, they are all (except Mona & Lisa) super tall and large, but at least that gives a nice David-and-Goliath feel to defeating them.
Antonio: An Italian gangster, he wears a tiny denim jacket over a stripey t-shirt and also cowboy boots. He also fights using a boomerang. You have to give them credit here because there is literally no Italian cultural stereotyping here. He also has quite elfin ears, making you wonder if perhaps this is a future vision of Middle Earth.
Zamza: This dude is creepy as hell. He has long metal claws attached to his hands which probably severely hinder his social life. I like to imagine this is why he has chosen this dark path. He has an impressive shock of bright yellow hair and has opted for all denim, except for a statement red t-shirt under his vest. Get up close to him and his claws can’t slash you as easily. Also, perhaps getting close to him reminds him of the humanity that lies beneath his scary exterior and makes him ponder on his direction in life, leaving you free to pummel him to death.
Abadede: Abadede, a pro-wrestler who you first meet as the boss of the beach level, has a strong aesthetic. He is probably so steroid-addled that he is as much of a victim of this criminal underworld as the city is. His moves and appearance are apparently based on James “The Ultimate Warrior” Helbig, which I think is a nice tribute. I wonder why he is relegated to patrolling the beach, as he is definitely not dressed for what appears to be a cold and windy night.
Big Ben: Resembling a circus strongman, this beast of a guy has everything going for him. He is strong, he is fast and he literally breathes fire. I feel, personally, that he is being shafted and deserves a higher place in the boss hierarchy, due to being a fire-breathing giant.
Mona & Lisa: These sisters do everything together, including trying to kill you. They are exact doubles of Blaze, except they have opted for a green dress as opposed to Blaze’s red. Fighting them as Blaze allows you to narrate your own interpretation of the conflict, in which Blaze is their triplet and they are disappointed that she has decided to be a good guy instead of choosing crime. It is interesting that, in this game, there are two female physical types – a long-haired woman with a very short dress or dominatrix woman in thigh-high boots with a whip. As with Nora, there’s a thesis in there somewhere.
Mr. X: The man of the hour. The man with a plan. Possibly an inspiration behind the Team Rocket leader Giovanni from Pokemon, this classy gangster is the man behind the chaos, the calm and calculating genius waiting for you after you defeat his cronies. Interestingly, he gives the player the option to join his syndicate and it is up to the player to decide. If you decide you will join, you restart from the factory level. If you are two-player and the other player decides yes and you decide no, then you fight the other player. If you decide not to, you must fight Mr X, who wisely has a machine gun. None of this punching craic for the big boss. You can throw his continuously spawning Garcia friends at him which makes him fall to the ground, leaving you time to punch his lights out, but it’s a definite slog as he has lots of health. He can afford to go to the gym all the time, I guess. Corporate fatcat.
I love this game. Yes, Streets of Rage is soaked in nostalgia for me, and that obviously affects how biased I am in favour of it. I can’t honestly say how you’ll feel about it if it wasn’t part of what shaped you as a gamer, but the madcap variety of this game is intoxicating. The bizarre and bonkers nature of the enemies you face doesn’t take away from Streets of Rage, because they are each challenging in their own way. It is both literally and figuratively colourful – every level draws you in with its solid soundtrack and distinct setting.
I love how this game did not rest on its laurels; instead, it offers different heroes and switches up gameplay once the player gets accustomed the mechanics. To me, this is what is great about retro games – you go back expecting it to be easy because last time you played it you were a child. But what you find is something genuinely engaging and challenging, and you forget about the practical limitations that were in place for games at the time. Streets of Rage was well-made and it holds up big time.