Tuesday, January 22, 2019

The Mean Streets

One of the first entries in the beat'em up genre was a NES game called River City Ransom.  Surprisingly, this 8-bit game was slightly more in depth than most of its 16-bit predecessors.  It had certain RPG elements baked into the design while what came not long after was in large part a distillation of the concept; stripping away everything but the actual fist fighting.  Sega's take on the street brawler subgenre was no exception to keeping things simple; a trilogy of Genesis titles known as Bare Knuckle, or (in the USA) Streets of Rage.

The franchise starter was, at the time of its release, fairly unique when compared to the rest of the Genesis library of games.  That said, much of the DNA found in Streets of Rage can be traced back to other games in the genre, namely Final Fight and Double Dragon.  Even the screen-wide AOE special attacks seen in Golden Axe worked their way into the gameplay.  Additionally, another nod to this fantasy beat'em up predecessor comes in the form of some enemy types (especially bosses) towering over the player characters.  Either Mr. X is ten feet tall like the Death Adder or Blaze, Axel and Adam are all midgets.  One thing that helped Streets of Rage stand apart from other beat'em ups was its excellent soundtrack.  Even the sequels never quite matched it in terms of quality.

Speaking of sequels, Streets of Rage 2 benefited from an increase in cartridge storage capacity.  This hardware improvement allowed for much more detailed sprites and backgrounds.  The AOE attacks in the original were replaced by special extra powerful melee attacks for each character; dealing more than usual damage in exchange for a bit of the characters own lifebar.  The result was an interesting system wherein players had to weigh the costs/benefits of using these special abilities during moment-to-moment gameplay.  The player character roster was also expanded with one of the original three being replaced by two new brawlers.

The last entry in the Streets of Rage series is a bit of an oddball.  The plot of the games had been pretty silly up to that point, but the replacing-people-with-robots throughline of the third installment feels specifically like a jumped-the-shark moment.  Gameplay-wise there are some improvements to the formula such as the ability to dash left and right or roll up and down with a quick double tap on the D-pad.  Powerful melee attacks can be used without health loss this time around provided the player lets a special energy bar refill between uses.  In theory this sounds like a good thing except for the fact that some bosses are reworked to pretty much force the constant use of special attacks in order to be defeated.

For a long time I used to think that the third game was the best of the series mostly because it was possible to play as an outlandish secret character, Roo (a boxing kangaroo).  However, I've recently replayed all three games and I now have to go with the general consensus and declare Streets of Rage 2 the game in which the franchise peaked in terms of overall quality.  The first game, while good, lacks some of the critical refinements of the sequels.  Meanwhile, the third game  (plot aside) has the weakest soundtrack, plus the backgrounds and general environments (while thematically appropriate) start to have a been-there-seen-that vibe by the third outing.  Hang on a moment though...what about that franchise reboot that's in the works?  Well...much like Golden Axe: Beast Rider, it's a game I want to come back to later.  Next, I'm going to take a look at one more classic Sega beat'em up.  It's a stand-alone title that has a more sci-fi aesthetic than either of the previously covered IPs. 

No comments:

Post a Comment