1994 was a funny old time for the Mega Drive as a lot of great games released that year showed just how sweetly the hardware could sing in capable hands (Castlevania)... yet somehow failed to make much of an impact at the time; leaving the likes of Ragnacenty, Panorama Cotton, and Contra: Hard Corps to garner little more than a dab of niche praise and some frankly ridiculous resale prices over the following twenty three years. Sadly Streets of Rage 3 has suffered this same fate, arguably best known in modern times for being ‘not Streets of Rage 2’ and ‘butchered’ on its international release: Yet as with many games that have had their molehills transformed into mountains both of these points are true and yet not the world-ending issues they’re made out to be, as I’ll hopefully be able to show you as we go.
But before we get stuck in to the good stuff let’s start with the one sticks-out-like-a-sore-thumb, really-can’t-defend-this problem with Streets of Rage 3 – Zan. People (still) miss Adam. People quite rightly miss Max too. Nobody misses Zan. Nobody picks Zan. Being neither old man enough to pass as the team’s cool martial arts wizard or cyborg enough to add some tough robo-chic to the team, Zan is an unwelcome and unnecessary replacement who fills the ‘strong guy’ role in a way that can only make you think ‘I wish the secret kangaroo boss was a default character’. Plot-explaining cutscene-only NPC? Fine. As an alternative to the scarred man-mountain in tight-tight lycra? GET OUT.
The silver lining here is that at least Robo-Gramps can be easily ignored as we’re still graced with three fantastic familiar faces to
senselessly beat up punks investigate crimes with, and they’ve all been gifted with a greatly expanded set of moves that takes the best bits of the original Streets of Rage’s brilliant co-op system, the sequel’s flashy special moves, and then adds a further layer of tactical depth on top with dodge-rolls, individual weapon specialities, back attacks, upgradeable dash attacks… there’s an awful lot to try and take in on your first go, and many of the finer details aren’t obvious unless you spend some time looking through the Japanese manual and its accompanying move sheet, or go and read the FAQ I just linked you to.
Enemies weren’t forgotten in the gameplay overhaul and can now perform all sorts of tactical trickery including blocking, grabbing dropped weapons, throwing other bad guys at you, and generally making a nuisance of themselves in ways that weren’t possible one game ago – square up to a whole gang of assorted troublemakers and you can throw a few of them down a nearby pit, get grabbed from behind and still kick approaching enemies in the face, then throw the guy that grabbed you over your head… the attention to detail is so great that the fat guys have real weight this time around! Make Blaze suplex a rotund chap in Streets of Rage 2 and she’ll crack his head into the pavement without any trouble. In 3 though? She’ll fall flat on her back and the rotund chap will get up and laugh at her. By giving both sides a wider range of options even standard goodies-vs-goons battles in Streets of Rage 3 become more interesting and unpredictable than they otherwise would be, even when the play area’s just a flat rectangle of floor dressed up as a back alley or warehouse.
Thankfully levels are rarely that uninspired and most of them are happy to throw in a unique environmental hazard for you to learn how to avoid and then later twist to your advantage – anything from falling metal drums to trap rooms filled with lasers to everybody’s favourite, the Bottomless Pit of Doom. There’s a feeling of constant inventiveness as you punch, skate, and fireball your way through the levels serve up anything from a free-roaming race against the clock to save the chief of police (or General Petrov if you’re playing Bare Knuckle III) to a rather lopsided fight with a digger. Much as I love the genre a lot of the games within it feel as if they’ve supplied an incidental scrolling image just so you’ve got something to look at while you knock out another palette-swapped bruiser’s teeth but the stages here really feel – as they do in other great games – just as integral to the experience as the bosses, weaponry, or the player characters. On repeat plays you may find yourself stumbling across one of several secret routes within the ninja hideout stage, or get to see how the game splits in two completely different directions (with their own stages, bosses, and endings) depending on how well you do in stage six too: You simply cannot experience everything the game has to offer on a single run, and even when you do get good enough to pick and choose where you go the sheer variety of events and unique scenarios found in each stage help to prevent the game from feeling like its in danger of overstaying its welcome (as Shadow over Mystara and Guardian Heroes sometimes do).
Now to tackle the elephant in the room… the dreaded localisation changes.
‘It’s awful! They changed… things! Things I tell you! I read all about it one time on some website!’ You know what? You’ll live. Really, you will. It’s the plot to a 90’s side-scrolling beat ‘em up for starters and in any case the changes here, while collectively quite different to the Japanese script, don’t actually amount to anything like pulling a Probotector or Vay’s gold vortex, and are in practise just an equally flimsy excuse for a citywide brawl. I’d say the biggest offense is Axel’s awful yellow/black costume recolour - famously removed miniboss Ash is a walking collection of (at best) ignorant clichés – and what else…? Um, ‘Victy’ is possibly a better name for a violent marsupial than the more generic ‘Roo’? Maybe? Anyone? There are two things to remember here – first off, the changes here aren’t large enough to turn Streets of Rage 3 into a game that’s notably different from Bare Knuckle III. Yes, they’re there – but you’d have to have played through both releases extensively to really notice the difference as they aren’t especially obvious unless you compare the two side-by-side. Secondly, and the most important point of all: These changes happen all the time. Think of Nier's Japan-only ‘Replicant’ release, or the headache that is ‘Which version of Metal Gear Solid 3 actually has all the extra stuff?’ (I ended up answering that question with the Japanese first-print run of Subsistence on PlayStation 2, if you were wondering). Looking back around the time of Streets of Rage 3’s release there’s Castlevania’s eternal cross/boomerang switcheroo, Metal Slug’s ‘sweat’, and Link’s Awakening’s hippo boobs and mermaid bikinis. Changing things – for better or worse – is not and has never been unique to Streets of Rage 3.
Then there’s the oft-cited difficulty increase to contend with, casually thrown around as if Streets of Rage 3 is (forgive me) the Dark Souls of side-scrolling beat ‘em ups. It’s not. It’s not even anywhere close to being the Guardian Heroes of Mega Drive side-scrolling beat ‘em ups, never mind Battletoads! In any case this was – again - not an unheard of change for the era as pretty much every mainstream Konami game from the nineties was made more difficult for its overseas release, as was Dynamite Headdy, Ninja Gaiden 3, Popful Mail, Astal, Resident Evil…
And there’s a very simple reason why this practise was so commonplace – we wanted games to be that hard. Let’s use some snippets from UK gaming bible Mean Machines Sega’s review of Bare Knuckle III (pages 42-45) to illustrate the point – ‘marred by exceptional easiness’ ‘extremely playable – if a tad easy’ ‘Lastability: Too easy’. Were we right to demand all our games be so tough? In hindsight, no. A game that takes a solid month of blood, sweat, and tears isn’t better than something that ‘only’ lasts the weekend but keeps you coming back to every year just because you always finish that short session with a smile on your face. But back then Japanese games weren’t viewed as being ‘balanced’ or ‘fair’ but ‘easy’ – and an easy game was a bad game (or at the very least, a kid’s game) to a reviewer’s mind back in the distant past of 1994, and as such Sega (and Konami, and Capcom, and everyone else) adjusted their games to suit the tastes of the overseas market at that time. Sega did nothing more than give us what we asked for.
To talk more specifically about the standard difficulty in Streets of Rage 3: yes, it is significantly harder than the default setting in Bare Knuckle III but it’s far from an unmanageable slog. Most of the standard opponents still go down in a single flurry+throw combination, and the larger crowds just mean you can do a really satisfying amount of damage when you fling an enemy across the room and see them all get knocked backwards. Harder? Yes. Still fun? Absolutely.
Whether you go for the original Mega Drive cart or the cheaper Steam/XBLA digital versions of the game (M2’s XBLA port is the superior experience) you’ll find Streets of Rage 3 in all its forms to be a deep, challenging, and inventive game featuring an enviable mix of meaningful co-op play with six truly unique playable characters, silky-smooth yet lightning-quick brawling, and an excellent soundtrack – undoubtedly a shining light in its genre, and one that’s well worth anyone’s time.