Sharing the love: Streets of Rage 3

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.

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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.

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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 clich├ęs – 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.

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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.

The RPG of the anime of the manga: Seima Densetsu 3x3 Eyes

Sometimes you’ve got a retro-itch and the only thing that’ll scratch it is a CD-based 16-bit manga/anime tie-in RPG, right? Maybe that’s just me. Either way it means I’ve spent a good chunk of the past week chipping away at the overlooked Mega CD title named above in a vain attempt to knock another game off my towering backlog and hopefully share something worth reading with you all.

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The good news is this 1993 RPG starts off strong, with a lengthy and eye-catching introduction showing off Pai’s life in Tibet, her time with Yakumo’s father, and eventually poor Yakumo’s transformation into a deathless Wu. All of these dramatic events fill the screen with reasonably well animated cutscene graphics and grace your ears with lines delivered by (most of) the original Japanese voice cast, helping to really kick things off on a high note.

This same level of care and attention can be found in the lush battle graphics too, where even the most ordinary of enemies are given lavish idle animations and a range of enormous side-facing attack/defend/hit recoil sprites. Party members are somehow shown even more love, with unique near-death stances, magic casting poses, and even different attack animations depending on the weaponry they have to hand. The downside to these scenes is that they take a good while to load (mercifully nothing like the horror that is Samurai Spirits RPG) and even longer to play out, but at least the designers were aware enough of the potential issue to give players the choice to turn them off for standard battles in the options menu.

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If you delve into the mechanics here there are some nifty ideas going on under the hood too – ‘defend’ lets you select an ally to protect rather than have a character stand around with their hands over their face for a turn and effects buffs and debuffs have on both your team as well as the enemy are significant and potentially deadly to both sides. To help keep track of exactly what’s what in an RPG that often feels like it’s going out of its way to call spells by especially obtuse names players can check the effects of any magical ability before casting, with the exact use and MP cost laid out in plain Japanese.

Death in battle is also handled in an unexpected way: In keeping with the idea that none of the main characters actually die die during the story killing blows reduce a character’s HP to one rather than zero, putting them in a ‘half-dead’ state until brought back with a particular spell or item. Yakumo’s canonical ability to revive himself comes into play here too, as after a few turns (assuming you can survive that long without him) he’ll return to a functioning if dangerously ill state all by himself, leaving battles open for some exciting hanging-on-by-a-thread scenarios where he can still potentially save the day after keeling over. Another interesting feature is the overpowered ‘near death attacks’ that come into play when any character’s got exactly 2HP remaining – these deadly blows deliver at least quadruple the damage of a standard attack, with the obvious drawback being that the character in question is a mere demon’s sneeze away from being completely incapacitated.

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Unfortunately it’s not all rosy in demon-fighting land, and there are a few issues here that are at odds with the beautifully presented artwork and interesting ideas. The most obvious one is having to watch party members moronically throw away items and wasted MP on allies that have fallen during a turn – there’s no reason why these couldn’t have been auto-redirected to the caster, another random party member, or plain failed due to the lack of a valid target. The other is that random battles are as frequent as they are tough, and the caves, basements, schools, and hotels you encounter them in are labyrinthine nightmares without any save points within to give you a breather. Now on the one hand the game generously supplies a variety of spells and items that can warp you to a dungeon entrance or back to the nearest save point, but on the other that still leaves you with a whole dungeon to march through again when you do find the time/patience to come back to the game. On the surface these all sound like typical retro RPG problems… until you consider this game came out the same year Shining Force 2, Phantasy Star 4 and Secret of Mana hit the shelves, so it doesn’t feel as though there’s any real excuse for the game to be as user-unfriendly as it sometimes is.

Outside of demon-bopping the actual RPGing unfortunately feels like a greatest hits collection of every bland 90’s genre feature going; stretching out the plot with endless to-ing and fro-ing between NPCs you must talk to several times in a row before they’ve give up whatever key item you need or move slightly to the side so you can get to whatever you need to go, and a vast array of shops that all sell items you aren’t sure will be an improvement over your current gear until after you’ve paid for them. The PC Engine 3x3 Eyes adventure game (apologies for the quality of the text in that ancient link) proves that the setting is more than rich enough to create an exciting globetrotting tale filled with bloodthirsty demons, but after the initial setup Seima Densetsu instead sleepwalks its way through a checklist of mediocre RPG tropes.

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But while it strangely holds the exact opposite problems as Compile’s Mega CD RPG Shadowrun – a game dripping with atmosphere and intrigue but lumbered with a battle system so bad it literally didn’t function as intended - Seima Densetsu’s clearly been made with love and effort… just not necessarily a lot of skill. The good bits don’t cancel out the bad, but if you’re curious enough to try it out they’ll certainly lift this average RPG into something that’ll at least make your reasonably cheap purchase feel worthwhile. I’d recommend taking this very helpful FAQ with you on your journey, mind -

As an added bonus the game comes with a separate ‘CD & Graphics’ soundtrack disc – always a welcome sight in any package! You’d think the ‘& Graphics’ in the title would refer to either a few ancient BMP files tucked away on the disc or even a fancy CD+G style extra, but if that’s the case I can’t seem to get these mystical hidden graphics to display via either a Mega CD or Sega Saturn (or my PC for that matter), more’s the pity. Then again I can’t say I’ve ever tried to use CD+G before now, so if you know better please get in touch!