Retro or Reboot?: Streets of Rage 4

(I’d like to preface this article with an apology for the lack of activity lately. I just wasn’t feeling motivated to write any more articles for the past couple of months, mainly due to writer’s block. Fortunately, I’ve got some ideas now and I’ve decided to make up for the hiatus by posting two articles each for the next two months.)

One of my favorite series to write on this blog was Sum of Its Parts. Unfortunately, lately I’ve been lacking proper topics to continue it. I’ve received some outside suggestions, but they were all inappropriate: they were either series that I’m not familiar with or, worse still, series where there’s already an ideal game in the series (which kind of defeats the entire point of a series dedicated to fashioning together elements from numerous games to form an ideal sequel, don’t you think?). Still, I enjoyed writing those articles too much to just completely give up on the idea, so I decided to try retooling it a bit, to create a sort of “successor” to the original concept. Having said that, I hope you enjoy the first of what I hope to be many articles in this new series, Retro or Reboot?

But what is the point of this new series? Basically, I’ll be taking a series that has been inactive for at least two generations (so, at this point, we’d be seeing stuff from the PS2 era or earlier), preferably one that saw all of its releases in the span of a single generation and speculate two potential avenues for a modern revival: a retro-themed revival that would simply try to recreate the original concept (albeit with more modern technology and likely end up as a budget release) and a higher-scale reboot that would take the original concept and try to transpose it onto a genre that would be more palatable for modern audiences. Of course, both of these could go wrong very easily, but I’m going to back away from my standard cynicism and just go with what I’d consider the ideal for both iterations could be.

Today’s topic is, obviously, Streets of Rage: one of my all-time favorite beat-‘em-up series. The entire trilogy was released on the Genesis back in its heyday, though the first two games also received scaled-down ports on Sega’s Game Gear. Since then, the original games have seen multiple re-releases on modern platforms. Aside from that, the series has laid dormant since the third (and currently, final) game was released. Of course, that’s not to say that there haven’t been attempts to revive the series. The short-lived PS1/Nintendo 64 3D beat-‘em-up Fighting Force was originally an attempt at making a fourth Streets of Rage game on the Saturn. There was also an attempt at a series revival on Dreamcast, Bionic Commando Rearmed developer GRIN was working on a 3D remake before their closure, Backbone Entertainment pitched a new game, and even Ruffian Games (developers of Crackdown) made a pitch for an updated revival on what is assumed to be 7th-generation platforms. Unfortunately, none of these projects ever came to fruition and alas, the series has remained inactive since 1994.

Retro

Simply put, we’re talking about going back to basics here. A straight-up, good old fashioned multi-plane beat-‘em-up, in either a fully 2D or a 2.5D style. Of course, Streets of Rage 4 may not be the best possible title for a game like this, considering Sega’s previous attempt at an old-school revival with that number, but for the time being, let’s just use that title as a placeholder.

Potential developers for a retro-themed revival would be a good start, but before we get to that, I’ve got a couple of honorable mentions that were disqualified for various reasons. It’s a shame Sega scared off the team behind that awesome fan-made Streets of Rage remake, they were literally perfect for this kind of a project. Likewise, Double Helix did an amazing job on the Strider and Killer Instinct revivals, so seeing their work on a SoR game would’ve been great. Alas, they got bought out by Amazon and are likely relegated to making shoddy smartphone games for the rest of their tenure there. Just as well though, I wasn’t really fond of their designs for Jago or Hiryu anyway, so I shudder to think how they would’ve done up Axel.

With the honorable mentions out of the way, I do have a few developers in mind that I’d love to see work on this. First and foremost, WayForward Interactive. They did an amazing job on Double Dragon Neon (my favorite beat-‘em-up of last generation) and they have a previous relationship with Sega (they developed the Metroidesque Aliens: Infestation for Sega on the Nintendo DS). Another developer I wouldn’t mind seeing work on this would be Vanillaware. Sega did buy out Atlus, with whom Vanillaware has a previously established relationship, and they’ve done some amazing work in the beat-‘em-up genre with Dragon’s Crown. Finally, in spite of my mixed feelings on their work in the Sonic series, I feel like Dimps Software would be another good choice for a Streets of Rage retro revival. Ignoring their hit-or-miss record on the Sonic franchise, Dimps has actually made a great number of good games, including work on the recent Street Fighter games and the Game Boy Advance title Dragon Ball: Advanced Adventure (a great example of a full-2D beat-‘em-up), Spikeout: Battle Street (a sequel to a Sega Dreamcast game that was considered a successor to the Streets of Rage series) and even Demolish Fist, an arcade-exclusive 2.5D beat-‘em-up in the same vein as Final Fight or Streets of Rage.

Now let’s go even further into detail on the most important part of the game: the gameplay itself. The most important thing any developer put in charge of this project must consider is the “feel” of Streets of Rage and how it compares to other beat-‘em-ups. Yes, I’m aware that this is as vague as “soul”, “emotion” or whatever buzzword people who don’t like modern games says in order to justify their inability to articulate what it is they think the game lacks, but trust me, it’s not quite that bad. I’ll elaborate. Beats of Rage is a fan-made engine that has been floating around the internet for a number of years that is based on the Genesis-era SoR games. Many games have been made in it, including fan-made sequels and/or remakes of other classic beat-‘em-ups such as Battletoads, Double Dragon and Final Fight. Of course, these games don’t feel quite right as entries in the series they’re supposed to take place in, they feel like reskinned versions of the later two Streets of Rage games. This is an important distinction to make and as such, the original trilogy’s gameplay engines (especially those of SoR2 and 3) should be the basis to shoot for when it comes to making a brand new game in the series.

A new game in the series doesn’t necessarily have to be a 1:1 recreation of the classic games in order to be a good Streets of Rage game. There are some modern conventions that SoR4 could take on that would improve the quality of the game. As an example, I’d like to bring up the evasion maneuvers in modern beat-‘em-ups like Double Dragon Neon and Dragon’s Crown. Old-school beat-‘em-ups were arcade games through and through, with cheap mechanics that guaranteed that the average arcade gamer would feed their machines with a thousand allowances’ worth of quarters. As we know, the arcade scene is pretty much dead outside of Japan, but beat-‘em-ups never really made the jump properly and still relied on their old tactics like unstoppable cheap beatdowns for the sake of difficulty. DD Neon gave players an evasion roll (ala The King of Fighters) which, if timed correctly, also gave players a boost in damage. Dragon’s Crown gave players the ability to backflip to avoid attacks, which could be leveled up to allow up to 4 evasions in a row. Branching paths, like those found in the cease-and-desisted SoR Remake would be another element I’d love to see brought into the series proper. I’ve always been a sucker for that gimmick. Maybe timed boss fights like those in SoR3 could be interesting, but only if they’re properly balanced. One last thing that I think would be a good addition to the series would be to make good on some lost content. I am, of course, referring to the motorcycle segment that was excised from the third SoR game. Let’s face it, it looked fun and it would definitely add some diversity to the gameplay.

Finally, let’s discuss the aesthetic. Earlier, I mentioned that I didn’t really care whether the game was done in true 2D or “2.5D”. I’d like to expand on that and say that regardless if SoR4 uses pixel art, high-definition 2D graphics or 3D models in its artstyle really doesn’t matter to me. What I find more important is whether or not the game resembles those from the Genesis era. As I mentioned earlier, there were numerous attempts to make another game in the Streets of Rage series and what I’ve noticed about most of them is that many of them barely resembled the games of old. Sure, Fighting Force and the Dreamcast SoR4 had their excuses, they were trying to apply a new spin on a then recent, if slightly outdated series. Less forgivable is what Backbone entertainment’s pitch entailed. The concept art that was released for their pitch was…unsettling, to be polite. In fact, the only pitch with an artstyle I really liked was GRIN’s, because it actually resembled the old games to some extent. Keep the old games in mind when handling the game’s art design and you can’t go wrong.

Reboot

An old-school beat-‘em-up from the arcade days might work well for a low-budget release, but for something demanding a decent budget, it would just be a waste of money. Fortunately, we’ve got a perfect successor to the genre: the modern action game. Games like Dynasty Warriors, Devil May Cry and God of War all stem from the beat-‘em-ups of old, so revitalizing Streets of Rage in this genre would be perfect.

Having said that, there’s really only one real choice for this one: Platinum Games. They have the action game pedigree (Madworld, the Bayonetta games and Transformers Devastation to name a few), the pre-existing relationship with Sega and the popularity with core gamers necessary to even attempt a revamp of this magnitude with minimal pessimism. Having said that, if they couldn’t get Platinum to do it, I’d have at least a little faith in Dimps if they got called in to handle this one.

With that out of the way, let’s go a bit more in-depth with the gameplay. Like I said earlier, the best way to modernize Streets of Rage would be to turn it into an action game. The question is, what level of craziness should we expect from a modern translation of SoR? Considering the fact that the first game allowed you to call bazooka support, the second game included locales like a baseball stadium and an amusement park and the third game’s plot involved resurrecting main villain Mr. X as a cyborg and replacing key figures around the city with robot duplicates, it’s safe to say that the series was never really grounded in reality. Fighting hordes of gangbangers across a location as interesting as “The City” is bound to be amazing to say the least. If Platinum ends up working on it, I’d want them to crank up the insanity levels significantly though. I’m talking “fighting the Statue of Liberty with your bare knuckles” (ha ha) insane.

Aesthetic is a much different beast in the reboot compared to the retro revival. As I said earlier, most of the later attempts at a new entry in the Streets of Rage series had aesthetic problems in my opinion. In this case, I feel like the Ruffian Games version best described my fears of what a big-budget SoR revamp could look like: a bland realistic-looking world. Personally, if they decide to go all-out for the graphics in a brand new game, I’d love for them to take artistic cues from the Japanese box art of the Bare Knuckle games. Keep everything really colorful with high contrast. Neon signs and other interesting effects in the city areas and maintain the series’ tendency towards crazy locales. Even the first game, which was more down to earth than any of the others, had a level on a cruise ship. Basically, make the game look like 1990s concept art fully realized. Finally and perhaps most importantly, if you decide to redesign any returning characters, make sure they actually resemble their original designs in some tangible way.

With the two options for a series revival fully realized, I’d like to wrap up my thoughts with some miscellaneous thoughts: elements I’d like to see in a new game in the Streets of Rage series, regardless of the direction it takes. First of all, it is imperative that they get Yuzo Koshiro back for the soundtrack. Next, as for a roster of returning characters, it would be great to see all of the characters from the first two games return. Yes, seeing Adam fight alongside Max would be great, and you’ve got to bring back Axel, Blaze and Skate as well. I was never really fond of Dr. Zan, but I wouldn’t really mind it if he and the other SoR3 characters returned as well.

And so the first article in the Retro or Reboot series comes to its conclusion. What do you think? Would you rather see a Genesis-style revival or one that’s more up-to-date? Do you disagree with any of my opinions about how either take on Streets of Rage should turn out? Let me know in the comments section.

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