The Restart: Streets of Rage

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(Welcome to The Restart, a new feature where we revisit old favorites to see how well they hold up today. We may have to destroy a few childhood memories along the way.)

The Restart: Streets of Rage

For a demographic so keen on nostalgia, gamers can be remarkably selective about what they choose to remember.

Streets of Rage, for instance, is fondly regarded as one of the preeminent 2D brawlers from the glory days of the Sega Genesis, and with good reason. The no-holds-barred gameplay epitomized the 16-bit era of vigilante justice.

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But no one ever seems to bring up Blaze Fielding, ex-police officer and playable female protagonist, an oversight that seems particularly noteworthy given the industry’s recent struggles. While Ubisoft is bemoaning the extra workload of lady assassins, SEGA was including female protagonists as a default option in 1991. It’s almost as if the developer implicitly understood that audiences accustomed to interacting with women in the real world would not have any difficulty doing so in a digital one.

Kind of makes you wonder what happened, doesn’t it?

Of course, gender parity probably wasn’t the key selling point of Streets of Rage when it debuted, which is what makes the discovery so unexpected. It feels strangely novel to be presented with options without any additional commentary. That really shouldn’t be the case. Streets of Rage effectively gives the lie to modern PR, casually doing what so many marketing departments say audiences won’t tolerate.

In Streets of Rage, Axel is the only playable white male. Women are well represented in the enemy ranks. The third protagonist, Adam, is black. SEGA doesn’t seem to be making a statement. It’s diverse because that’s just how it is.

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Meanwhile, my friend Brendan and I had an argument about who would get to play as Blaze, who never feels out of place in a franchise so overstuffed with machismo that one of the bosses breathes fire. If adolescent boys didn’t mind female avatars in 1991 – I don’t recall having an issue with it, even if kid me probably played as Axel – why are game studios so terrified of empowered femininity in 2014?

Are we really that insecure?

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(On second thought, don’t answer that.)

So how does Streets of Rage hold up beyond the egalitarian politics?

The level and character designs are bursting with color, while most of the bosses look like they signed up for thug life immediately after getting tossed from the Royal Rumble. Measured against grittier descendents like Batman: Arkham Asylum, the Streets of Rage aesthetic is unabashedly silly, which – like Blaze Fielding – is another cornerstone design feature that studios seem to have forgotten.

Gameplay, however, has evolved since 1994. There’s an old sporting axiom that the best defense is a good offense, but even the most high-scoring NFL team still fields a set of linebackers. The developers of Streets of Rage didn’t even manage that. You can’t block, dodge, or do much of anything to avoid taking damage.

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That’s the biggest problem with the classic. The brawling heart of Streets of Rage beats as fiercely as ever, and the game is a blast when you’re punching your way through the endless tide of goons.

But it’s a lot more frustrating when you’re getting hit, and the balance is not weighted towards the player. Unseen enemies regularly attack from offscreen, and while the boss animations can be patterned, the window is usually too narrow to respond. It makes you far too reliant on one-use special moves once your attacks get interrupted (and they will get interrupted).

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That’s where the latest generation of 2D brawlers has surpassed its predecessors. Games like Shank and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game added incredible depth to the gameplay through the simple implementation of block and dodge mechanics that make it possible to take on much bigger hordes of enemies. Defensive features replace luck with skill, and do so without sacrificing the core that made Streets of Rage so much fun.

And make no mistake: Streets of Rage is still a riot, especially when played co-op in the presence of alcohol. It may not be as forgiving as the brawlers that followed, but that only means there are fewer combos to distract you from the beautiful mayhem.

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