Sega Vintage Collection: Streets of Rage Review

Here’s a word of advice: walk away from your computer right now, head for your Xbox (or PS3, if you’re weird that way), and buy the SEGA Vintage Collection: Streets of Rage arcade package.  Trust me.  Just do it.  I’ll be waiting here patiently.

See, I’m waiting.  Go on.

Are you back?  Good.  Let me tell you about what you just bought.  It’s a compilation arcade game putting together three classic fighting titles from the early 1990s: Streets of Rage, Streets of Rage 2, and Streets of Rage 3, all originally released for the Sega Genesis (or ‘Mega Drive’ as it was known abroad).  That’s the entire series, and I’ve instructed you to buy the collection because at ten bucks, it’s a steal; these games are the sorts of endeavors we invented the word awesome for.

Now, what’s Streets of Rage about, you might ask?  In a word, brutality.  It’s about beating the living s*** out of everything and everyone in sight, including your partner in co-op, just because you can.

Yes, I’m aware there’s probably more to it than that.  A text-based cutscene prefaces each game, growing increasingly complex throughout the series, but I figure that if you’re familiar enough with Streets of Rage to correct my simplified analysis, then you surely don’t need me to spell out the plot for you.  I’m equally positive that the uninitiated simply don’t care about the specifics, and like me, would rather focus on what happens during each level.  And if you are like me, and share that point-of-view, then I’m guessing we’d get along, and I’d have no need to break every bone in your body like a foe in Streets of Rage, and it’s probably a good thing you’re reading my review instead of someone else’s.

So like I said, Streets of Rage is about violence.  It’s about anger.  It’s about raw, unimpeded emotions of fury channeled into one’s fists, expressed by moving from left-to-right through run-down city streets, bridges, bars, warehouses, and wherever else punchable objects may reside, to pound every last ounce of crap out of every human being – man, woman, child, it doesn’t matter – one comes across.  If you feel like it – and let’s face it, if you’re playing Streets of Rage, you probably do – you can fuel your vehemence by pummeling boxes, poles, and other non-sentient objects into submission as well.  The game doesn’t even have friendly fire, so if your bloodlust cannot be satiated by bludgeoning hostile combatants of all shapes, sizes, and ethnicities to death, you can also take out your aggression on the co-op player, which may lead to punching in real life (which is why this collection’s internet feature is much appreciated).

Now, why are the game’s characters so disturbingly bloodthirsty that they must get their literal kicks in this manner?  Let me put it this way: If you were toned, ripped, skilled in a brutal mash-up of various martial-arts, and had several buddies with similar talents, and lived in a semi-apocalyptic s***hole of a city, and had nothing else to do on a Friday night except go out on the town and find people weaker than you to pound on (because it’s a future based on the eighties before internet and technology indicated one could have fun in more productive ways), and were assured there would be awesome 16-bit techno music playing to get the energy flowing, then I think you would partake in the exact same brutality.  I know I would.

Alas, we do not live in such happy times.  That’s why God gave us Streets of Rage, and that’s why Streets of Rage is good.  Though the games differ slightly in content, and hugely in quality, they each tap into that special, indescribably primal spot in the heart of every gamer – that spot that shamelessly lusts for mindless violence – more directly than any modern game could.

Modern games, you see, are encumbered by things like story, characters, morals and the like.  In a modern game, we have to actually think about the violent acts we’re committing.  If we’re going to gun down an entire platoon full of enemy soldiers or rip someone’s spinal cord out, we have to be given a good reason to do so.  We sometimes call this a story; it clearly defines that we’re good and the people we’re hurting are bad, and it’s typically filled with characters we grow to care about and fight forOnce the reason we’re out for blood has been established, we have to come up with strategy to overcome the obstacles between our avatars and the A.I.’s jugular.  And once we’ve repeated this process several times, we’ll probably be taught a moral of some sort, one that makes us reflect on the cost of the atrocities we just committed.

In short, modern gaming puts a wall between us and our violence.  You won’t notice it, of course, until you play a game like Streets of Rage that has no such wall.  There’s no story to tell us who’s good and bad; conventional logic tells us we’re righteous, but who knows?  We could just as likely be the world’s most prolific serial killers.  There are no characters to speak of; caring about others would just slow us down.  There’s no strategy whatsoever; you just pummel relentlessly in a small number of delightful variations.  There’s no moral, other than that it’s really awesome when the big guy from Streets of Rage 2 performs a back-kick and seemingly shatters every bone in his opponent’s body in one move.

The point is, Streets of Rage is just violence, with no distractions whatsoever, and as soon as you pick up the controller, the game immediately nuzzles its way into that angry internal zone that needs nothing more than a good half-hour of punching to feel satisfied.  Think of it as Chicken Soup for the Soul, only less lame, devoid of words to read, and filled with a hell of a lot more people being hastily beaten to death.

Each game fulfills this cathartic function quite well, though the individual installments don’t do so equally effectively.  The original Streets of Rage is the weakest of the bunch, with somewhat clunky controls, a poor sense of depth and scale, and the least practical ‘special move’ of the series.  When one executes their ‘special move,’ the camera pulls back to the start of the level, shows a cop car fire some ridiculously over-the-top weapon, and returns to your location so you can watch your enemies get fire-bombed.  Awesome?  Yes.  Best reason to play the first game?  Absolutely.  Well-paced and germane to the flow of combat?  No, and that’s why the move is abandoned for Streets of Rage 2.

The sequel is the best game in the trilogy, a flawless Streets of Rage experience that is just disgusting amounts of fun from beginning to end.  The biggest immediate difference is the replacement of the special move – it’s now several character-specific physical attacks that drain one’s health when executed – but players also have a few more moves at their disposal, like the back-kick, and main attacks have more imaginative animations.  The graphics are a huge step-up, with creative, colorful level design and greater enemy variety, and the pacing is a bit more fluid.

The clearest improvement comes in the characters though; as in the first game, there are four – two new, two returning – but unlike the original, each character plays differently, with varying skills and uses, and each is tremendously fun to play.  The only problem is that one of the new characters, Max Thunder, is so much fun to play that I hardly ever want to select anyone else.  Max is this giant, lumbering brute of a man, the kind of guy who doesn’t take s*** from anyone.  I suspect if you ever put the controller down without pausing, he’d take out every enemy in the vicinity without you, then jump out of the TV and pound you into submission for ignoring him.

Max’s main attack is to bring his fist down from overhead and forcefully whack the enemy, and it never gets old; his special attacks are even better, from rushing a foe like he’s breaking down a door to picking up the opponent and flinging him off screen.  Max is sort of like Hulk in The Avengers, smashing away at everything in his path with reckless abandon, though you sadly don’t get to pick anyone up and fling them around like a rag doll.  That would probably make the game my favorite of all time.

You want to know how awesome Streets of Rage 2 is?  Just look at the original Japanese title: Bare Knuckle II – The Requiem of the Deadly Battle.  Oh yeah.  If that combination of words doesn’t get you itching to play, there’s no hope for you.

Streets of Rage 3, strangely, is a step back.  Not a huge one; it’s better than the first game, certainly, and makes some minor improvements to its predecessor, but on the whole, it’s just not as fun as number 2, and without any clear distinguishing characteristic – like the fire-bomb attacks in the original game – it’s the installment I imagine I’ll return to the least.  The music’s a tad less interesting, the graphics are slightly less imaginative, the difficulty curve is a bit too steep, and combat has been polished to the degree where the hilariously fun lumbering qualities of game 2 are absent.  In some sense, it’s probably the ‘best’ of the three under conventional critical standards, but if you’re using those standards to judge Streets of Rage, you probably deserve a savage smackdown yourself.  On the adjusted Streets of Rage fun-scale, it’s a solid, average installment, one that’s worth at least a single play-through.

Now, one thing that’s true about all three of these games is that they absolutely must be played in co-op mode.  It’s easy to do; a friend just grabs a second controller and presses start, or you hop on Xbox Live and find a bloodthirsty companion across the Internet.  Either way, the Streets of Rage games only reach their pinnacle when you have someone else to revel in the violence with, and though online play is a solid way to achieve this, your second player really should be sitting next to you on the couch so you can yell at the screen, laugh at the cheesy enemy names and designs, get mad when you start pummeling the other player on accident, and so on and so forth.  Any given Streets of Rage installment provides one of the most purely entertaining co-op experiences in gaming history, and I’d say you haven’t really lived until you and a friend have beaten a ninja to death together with your bare, pixelated hands.

There are a million ways to own the Streets of Rage games at this point, and this Sega Vintage Collection release is merely the latest in a long line of ports.  It also happens to be the best, and even if you own these titles in another context – I for instance, have them all in the Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection game – you absolutely need to download this SVC release.  It truly is the perfect, definitive archive of what the Streets of Rage series has to offer, and developer M2 should give themselves a pat on the back for a job well done.

The games themselves are just the games, of course, presented in excellent quality with no noticeable alterations to speak of.  But the way one plays those games has been dramatically enhanced; there’s the aforementioned online support, which is deeply customizable, very fast, and works with both Co-Op and Versus.  You can adjust the screen settings to your heart’s content, making the actual gameplay area as large or small as you want (though I’m perfectly content with the default size M2 has set), and can even swap background wallpapers (the 16:9 image behind the 4:3 video).  There’s a simple yet effective save game system with many different slots, and even a replay function that allows you to save video of your play-throughs to share with others.

Best of all, M2 has made the controls completely, 100% customizable, a feature I wish all retro titles had.  From the option screen (which you can access at any time), you can map the original Sega Genesis buttons wherever you want on the Xbox controller.  It only took a minute or two of tinkering for me to find a configuration that was completely comfortable and intuitive.  The only downside is that in local play, the co-op player cannot configure their own controls.  That’s a minor disappointment, but M2 could potentially address it in a future update.

The collection’s main menu screen is very fun, a 3D display of retro TVs and Genesis consoles, each housing a different game.  There are several other fun things to access from here, like the Jukebox, which allows you to listen to any piece of music from any game (sweet!).

Like I said, this is the definitive archive for the Streets of Rage series, and it’s shocking to me how well these games hold up.  I had Batman: Arkham City in the disc tray during all my time playing through this collection, and yet I never once felt the urge to go play the deeper, modern fighting system that game offers.  Streets of Rage really does provide that kind of cathartic, deliriously fun experience one can only get with retro gaming, and the highest praise I can give this collection is that now that my review period is over, I’m sure I’ll be returning to these games with increasing frequency.

NOTE: This article is based on a copy of the XBLA version provided to us for review purposes.

Sega Vintage Collection: Streets of Rage Review
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I can't sum up the awesome might of Streets of Rage in a sentence. Read the review and buy the game to really live this experience.