You are launched into a dark street, with violent hoodlums looming into view and circling menacingly. Brawling through eight stages of unspeaking, violent thugs, your goal is to eliminate the clichéd gang lord, Mr X.
Streets of Rage is a rhythmic experience. The fusion of control, movement and music.
Feeling, seeing, hearing, thinking, reacting, planning ahead.
Immersing yourself into a state of consciousness where you feel directly and immediately connected to the cause and effects of the world you are traversing.
An abstract world, processed and enhanced by the capacity and range of your imagination and empathy.
You move in eight directions, have a jump button, a special button, and a single attack button.
With that single attack button you are able to unleash a plethora of devastating combinations by varying the timing, pauses and rhythm of your button pressing. If you down a stronger opponent too quickly, they’ll spring up again, all the while your screen will be fill with other creeps. If you come to the brink of felling a powerful bad guy with your final blow, you can pause for a split second to break the chain, then resume with a fresh volley to put them down for good, or even use their death throes to launch their spent cadaver into a group of nearby unfortunates.
The beauty of the game comes from combining short and long combos with powerful judo throws, and controlling your position on screen to take cover behind human shields, and avoid getting swarmed.
To grapple, simply embrace a foe by walking into them, and for a few seconds you are free to decide what to do with them. A Glasgow kiss and a knee to the groin? Throw them over and behind you like a rag doll, spilling the enemies behind you like bowling pins? Reposition to their back by Jumping, followed by a quick standing spoon, and ending in a lethal suplex?
Whether your strikes meet flesh or air, they are punctuated by an impressive sound response. At times, your character grunts or whines with the focus of power. In Karate this is called kiai. The theory being that making a noise while you attack makes the attack more powerful, e.g., Sonic; Boom!
I am not entirely convinced of the efficacy in kiai, having seen its misuse by [a thankfully small number] of meatloafs in the gym. However, as a sensory and fear-inspiring climax to your attack, it can be quite impressive. Also, see Muad’Dib’s army of fremen and their sonic weapons, made even more popular in David Lynch’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s brilliant novel, Dune.
Back to the Streets…
When the screen fills with enemies you can summon a police reinforcement special attack. This pans the screen to the left, a police car rolls up and screeches to a halt, then an officer pops his top-half out the passenger window and fires a bazooka into the play area, resulting in a wall of flames or raining fire, toppling bosses and eliminating weaker enemies on contact.
Interestingly, there is no block button. A block mechanic might have added another dimension to the game but was not easily possible as the stock Sega Megadrive/Genesis controller only had three main face buttons and no shoulder buttons. By default the special summon attack is mapped to (A) but would have been far better off mapped to the (select) button; the amount of times I wasted a summon by my thumb slipping off (B) and onto (A).
While writing this pice, I imagined a block, attack, jump setup opening up even more attack options. For example, in the current game, if you press the attack and jump button together, you perform a back attack. What if there was a block button that let you parry or stagger the enemy? Akin to modern Batman brawlers. Upon reflection, the attack-only approach keeps the action moving forward at an intense pace, which is in perfect harmony to the music.
Cid[SID] is in every one
The game is accompanied by an absolutely banging techno soundtrack, which squeezes a lot of interesting sounds and voices out of the Megadrive’s Yamaha sound-chip. I'm not a big fan of most Megadrive tunes. I grew up with the gorgeous C64 SID chip which produced a richness of sound and symphony that made a lifelong impression on my soul. I now plug my C64 into a sound system far more competent than the little B&W telly I had as a child, and can relive the greats of my youth, such as Silkworm and Pit Stop II (both also hold-up well for two-player gaming today).
To my ears, the Megadrive’s sound often felt muddy, flat, and lacking in dynamic range. But Streets of Rage has a pulsing, throbbing techno-beat throughout, with the game's composer, Yuzo Koshiro, matching the mood of each level with a layered, thrusting effort. I've bought the soundtracks for Streets of Rage 1 and 2 from iTunes, which I listen to often, and they bring me great joy, even though I'm not sure if the remastering adds to the experience.
Sharp, Grimy, Fast, Sleek
From the outset, Streets of Rage burns grimy, neon patterns into your retinas. Outside the Pine Pot diner, its luminous sign shines upon a cold, blue cobbled city street. The player lands gracefully, and their sprite is expertly animated with a smoothness to their walking and jumping, and a snappiness to their attacks. This juxtaposition makes the whole movement of the game, the flow and fury, so slick and harmonious. Each of the levels has a distinct theme, graphically and aurally distinct from one other. There are incidental touches, like a gust of particle-filled wind as you enter the inner city, waves lapping onto the beach, the sickening bobbing onboard the ship, and the flashing beacons within the industrial complex.
The replayablity factor is huge as the core mechanic of gracefully beating everyone you see into pulp does not easily dull. The other timeless factor is the two-player mode, or in modern parlance: same-screen couch co-op.
This elevates the game into my top-ten of all-time, as you must carefully manage and adjust your tactics with your partner so as not to accidentally kill them with a misplaced combo, or immobilise them with a spoon embrace at a juncture where several "Nora" dominatrices/lion tamers[?] are funnelling towards you both with whips tensed.
You could also use the spoon embrace cooperatively, with the spooned player able to kick out their legs in front of them to knock down approaching enemies. Another tag-team move is to grab then vault over your partner to perform a high-jump attack on unsuspecting opponents.
Double the players also means double the bosses, which keeps things exciting. Also, when you make it to the end of the game and are invited to join forces with the evil Mr X, three endings are possible in co-op mode, with my favourite, the bad ending, occurring when one player wants to join Mr X, and the other doesn't. This leads to a duel to the death, followed by the bad player dethroning Mr X. A fitting end.
Then and Now
The Megadrive II has the superior sound-chip (to the Megadrive I), as Koshiro says himself. In 2015, a special remaster was published for the Nintendo 3DS which comes with many options, including MDI/MDII sound emulation switch, and an excellent stereoscopic 3D effect, which actually helps in aligning vertical position of self and enemies. The 3DS version also has a two-player mode (wirelessly connect two 3DS handhelds).
In my opinion, you can't beat playing on a big TV screen as part of the PS3/XBOX 360 Sega Mega Drive Ultimate Collection, Steam, or even iOS (AirPlay).