Streets of Rage 2, Bare Knuckle 3, the invisible complexity of beat ’em ups, and my very unpopular opinion
Let’s get the last part of that out of the way first, because it sets the stage for everything else. Streets of Rage has an odd sort of existence within the popular memory of video games — the first and last game in the series don’t seem to exist at all when people talk about it. There’s Streets of Rage 2, and there might as well be nothing else. You bring up Streets of Rage to people who were alive at the right time to own a Genesis, then in all odds they’re gonna be talking about 2, and never 1 or 3, always talking about Max and Skate and Axel and Blaze, never Adam or Zan. If you ask almost anybody who’s played Streets of Rage about Streets of Rage, they’ll tell you 2 is the best one. If 3 is mentioned at all, it’s usually at least a little negatively.
I disagree, and my disagreement is very specific.
I think Bare Knuckle 3 — the Japanese version of Streets of Rage 3 — is better than Streets of Rage 2, but Streets of Rage 3 is not.
Of course, I need to explain myself here, and explaining myself requires talking about not only SoR2, SoR3 and BK3, but also about the beat ’em up genre as a whole, and the invisible complexity that goes into a “dumb” genre.
It’s hard to know what to talk about first, because there’s so much to talk about. Streets of Rage as a franchise? The specific traits that differentiate Streets of Rage 2, 3, and Bare Knuckle 3, tackling each one separately? The beat ’em up genre as a whole? I couldn’t decide — so I rolled a die and let it decide for me. It decided “the beat ’em up genre as a whole”.
Beat ’em ups are considered “dumb” games, and I don’t entirely disagree with that sentiment. They’re certainly not what we think of as having complex, nuanced, in-depth systems or stories. You walk from screen to screen beating the shit out of people until they die, allowing you to move onto the next screen to beat the shit out of more people, until you get to the final screen where you beat the shit out of a boss until they die and then the credits roll. Ways to change up the system are incredibly rare — skill trees or other upgrade mechanics are not a core expectation inside the genre even after decades of advancement in games technology and design. There are exceptions to the rule, like River City Ransom, which lets you upgrade your character in all sorts of ways and even lets you go through combat in a non-linear fashion, but the River City Ransom/Kunio-Kun franchise is hardly emblematic of people’s expectations of the genre. Games like Streets of Rage, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Final Fight, and others like them fill up far more people’s expectations of beat ’em ups.
But even in those expectations, there’s hidden complexities, differences inside beat ’em ups. It kind of reminds me of how “electronic” music is considered one massive genre and there’s a million sub-genres within it often with the most infinitesimal of differences between those sub-genres that nobody but the most hardcore can remember. Only in beat ’em ups, those differences don’t even have names for them. But if you point them out to people, they can suddenly see it, feel it.
I’ll give a couple of examples — starting with Streets of Rage itself. The series at large is what I’d consider a “zoning” beat ’em up. Getting ahead in the game is as much about managing your space in the game as it is about just punching the shit out of people. You can’t just run in willy nilly with how you fight in SoR2… well, you can, but more often than not it’ll end up with you getting your ass kicked and running out of lives. Paying attention to enemy behavior and the spaces at which you can hit an enemy without them immediately countering or overpowering you is crucial. The bosses are probably the best demonstration of this. Souther, Barbon, and Zamza, for example, can easily fuck you up and counter what you’ve got if you’re not looking for the best positions of attack to exploit… or just ways to cheese them, like using Max’s spinning special attack over and over. It’s a bit of a slower style of beat ’em up, seen in other games like Double Dragon, or the original Streets of Rage, or Cyborg Justice.
This kind of beat ’em up subgenre then needs a different subgenre to contrast against it, and I’ve thought up a bunch of different names for it — assault, blitz, twitch, take your pick. Let’s use “blitz” for now. My favorite example of this subgenre is Capcom’s Alien Vs. Predator for the arcade, where you don’t really have to give two hot shits about your position with regards to your enemies.
AVP dumps on you huge quantities of enemies with very low health, and gives you a massive amount of combat options to deal with them, up to and including a gun that can be used fairly regularly. If playing as Linn Kurosawa, the differences between AVP and beat ’em ups like Streets of Rage become even more stark; you become a lightning fast wheat thresher, just absolutely tearing through massive waves of enemies, and just trying to keep on your toes and react quickly enough to whatever’s happening on screen to see to it that your health doesn’t take too much damage. It’s a combination of factors that make it so AVP and other beat ’em ups like it are so starkly different from “zoning” beat ’em ups, not just one piece. Difficulty, enemy health, combat options, combat speed, everything coming together in this subtle, invisible hole.
And that’s what I’m talking about when I talk about the invisible complexity of beat ’em ups. They’re “dumb” games, but the best beat ’em ups, the ones we remember as just “feeling right”, have this tight balance underneath the straightforward, simple “punch till dead” action onscreen that make it all work in the first place. When this balance doesn’t come together, we might not remark on it in specific issues the way we do with more visibly mechanically complex game genres like RPGs or roguelikes — we’re far more likely to say it just “feels bad”. But what determines what “feels right” and what “feels bad” still comes down to those invisible mechanics and that balancing act of everything in the game underneath the hood.
How much health do the enemies have? How smart are they? How much damage do they do? What kind of attacks can you do? Do your special attacks require a meter, do they drain your health, can you do them whenever you feel like without negative consequences? Can you use the environment to hide from or hurt enemies? Is it necessary to defeat every enemy before moving on? Can you even run away? Can you run at all? Can some characters run, but others can’t? How do you recover health? Can you recover health at all? Is health plentiful, or spread out, incredibly rare? Do you have infinite lives? Infinite continues? Is there a timer? Does the timer actually matter at all?
It’s all these things that we don’t really think of as being “mechanics” in beat ’em ups that make them “dumb” games that require incredibly smart fine tuning to make a game that “feels right”. They have to be complex in a way that ultimately feels “good”, even if we can’t elaborate the specific reasons they feel good, what the key differences between one beat ’em up and another is.
There’s a few examples where the differences are obvious enough, though, that we can start to identify the nitty gritty pieces of these games and how they come together. Sidestepping from Streets of Rage for a moment, I want to talk about Double Dragon 3 for the arcade.
Double Dragon 3 has a massive, unignorable difference from 1 and 2, that’s so stark, so negative, it’s nigh impossible to not comment on it. It takes what’s considered one of the most classic and long-standing titles in the genre and plunges it straight into hell. If people don’t talk about Streets of Rage 3, then Double Dragon 3 is something they’ve actively wiped from their minds.
What Double Dragon 3 has that 1 and 2 don’t is one of the earliest examples of a micro-transaction setup in a video game.
Now, I suppose in a way, all arcade games are a kind of micro-transaction setup. You put in your money, you play a game, if you lose all your lives or whatnot, you have to put in more quarters. But Double Dragon 3 takes this a step farther — the game has item shops where you can spend real money on power-ups or “extra guys”, where instead of having extra lives, if you die, you’re replaced by one of the several new characters they added to the game. Beat ’em ups were originally designed as quarter munchers, as were all arcade games, but this design changed threw off the internal balance completely. Double Dragon was no longer “challenging but fun”, it was now “fucking horseshit”. Playing it, you can feel that active pressure to put more money into the machine just so you can buy things in-game so you can beat it, instead of getting extra lives so you can take “one more try”. It’s a tricky balancing act, even among some of the most unfair and unbalanced beat ’em ups, like X-Men. Changing that up changes how the game feels, and in this case, makes it feel like shit.
Perhaps not unsurprisingly, in the Japanese version of the game (which came out after the NA release of Double Dragon 3), the item shops are removed and you can play as any of the multiple new characters as you wish. The game balance’s negative backlash changes things back to something that hews closer to the original Double Dragon formula. But this change in game mechanics was so blatant, so obvious, you couldn’t not see it, feel it, comment on it. It breaks through the usually quietly turning gears of what makes each beat ’em up different from each other, and serves as a good way to peek deeper because of that.
Now I want to get back to Streets of Rage, and how different the ways you move between 1, 2, and 3 are, and how that changes what the game feels like entirely.
I mentioned running earlier — “can you run at all? can some characters run, but others can’t?” Running, and mobility in general, is an oddly underappreciated part of beat ’em ups, and it’s interesting that even though it’s been in the genre since perhaps the very first game — Renegade — it hasn’t been adopted as a genre standard. There are many beat ’em ups where you can’t run, or dash, or just go faster at all. Walking speed and nothing else.
SoR1 to SoR2 to SoR3 serves as a fantastic illustration of how much this mobility matters, and how much it can change the feel of a game.
In Streets of Rage 1, nobody can run. And unsurprisingly, the game feels a lot slower because of it. This helps feed into its feel as a zoning beat ’em up, though. It kind of encourages more deliberate thinking into your movement and attacks.
Streets of Rage 2 is an interesting beast, because the game can feel immediately and starkly different depending on which character you pick. Only one character in the whole game can run, and that’s Skate. And I don’t know about you, but my memories of Streets of Rage 2 as a kid involve a lot of doing your damnedest to make sure you got to play as Skate and your friend had to play as someone else. It makes the game feel so completely different. To play as Skate and to play as Max are fundamentally different experiences.
Hell, if you have Streets of Rage 2 around you in one format or another, I want you to do a hands on experiment for me. Boot it up, play as any character but Skate, and then when you run out of lives, switch over to Skate. I can wait.
It feels really, really fucking different to play as Skate, doesn’t it?
Streets of Rage 3 takes things all the way, though, and now everybody can run, not just Skate. And because everybody can run, Streets of Rage 3 feels significantly different from 2 and 1, to the point that the whole game feels like its pivoted into a new direction. Because of this mechanical change, and others, it feels like a switch from the zoning subgenre into a fusion of zoning and blitz styles in beat ’em up games. That mobility and speed makes for a subtly, but fundamentally, different beat ’em up.
So. Having brought this all around, I feel like I can start discussing why I think Bare Knuckle 3 is better than Streets of Rage 2, but Streets of Rage 3 isn’t.
It’s that invisible balance, that quiet fine-tuning, you see. Add on all the mechanics you want, but if the balance underneath isn’t right, if one of the core parts of the foundation is off, the whole thing falls apart.
Bare Knuckle 3 just adds so, so much to the series, it’s kind of amazing. There’s so much stacked on top of a basic, solid, beat ’em up groundwork that makes, for me, just a fundamentally better, more fun, game.
There’s the running like I mentioned, of course, and not having to make sure you got Skate or got screwed out of a great sense of speed and mobility entirely anymore. But then there’s also the combat options they add on top of that. There’s the running attacks, a unique one for each character, which helps keep up that sense of speed and power in the game, leaning into that power fantasy feeling and letting you get a good rush via just plowing through enemies with a charging attack. Streets of Rage 2 had “rush attacks”, but without the ability to run on ontop of them, the feel of combat is fundamentally different — it comes off as being much slower.
But there’s also tweaks on special attacks themselves. In Streets of Rage 1, it was a token based system where everyone had the same special attack: a full-screen attack that’d screech the game to a halt because what’d happen is a cop car would drive in out of nowhere and shoot a rocket launcher to where you are to do damage to every enemy visible. There were never enough special attack tokens, and over the course of the game, the special attack itself didn’t do enough damage to matter. Can’t say I’m fond of this approach.
Streets of Rage 2 had a more familiar approach to special attacks, where each character has a unique one, but using the special attack costs health. Something of a holdover design from arcade beat ’em ups that just kinda ended up genre standard for awhile, even in console beat ’em ups. Gotta extend that game shelf life somehow, especially at a time when rentals were still a big deal. In any case, you had to be pretty careful about when and where you decided to deploy your special attacks, because it’d eventually whittle your health down to nothing.
Streets of Rage 3, however, added an incredible layer onto special attacks. Using a special attack could drain your health… but only if you used it before a power meter in the middle of the screen filled up. Constantly refilling over time, SoR3 let you use special attacks far more often by implementing a way to use them without the health consequence, but also without entirely stripping it out either, making it so you still had to be a bit judicious about smashing the special attack button… cuz otherwise, hell, you’d probably just hit nothing but the special attack button. By including the power bar, the combat abilities in SoR3 felt greater, deeper than SoR2, and it just felt more exciting, because now not every time you decided to use a special attack would you be penalized for doing so. You could dish in some heavy damage with a cool looking attack and just get to enjoy it, so long as you were patient enough to let the bar fill up. Not just that, but if you also choose not to use special attacks, that very same meter makes your standard attacks stronger. An incredibly versatile addition to the usually “simple” genre.
Which isn’t even mentioning that, keeping from SoR2, your special attacks are different depending on if you do them from a stationary position or while holding down a direction on the d-pad. You’ve got choices, is what I’m saying, far more than usual.
That’s not all, either. SoR3/BK3 also has team attacks that are initiated by grabbing your partner and throwing them, adding essentially a “fastball special” into the game. You can roll up and down, giving you more movement and dodging options and opportunities. It has extra, secret special attacks — upgrades for the running “blitz” attacks, that are unlocked by getting stars on your character via improving your score and not dying. Or, with a six button controller, just inputting fighting game style controls to perform them.
The combat, the movement, in Streets of Rage 3 just has so much more to it than Streets of Rage 2. It’s faster. It’s more fluid. There are more attacks, more options, more ways to move around, more things you can do, it tweaks those beat ’em up mechanics and makes them better, reducing frustration with how limited your special attack opportunities are, making you feel stronger, quicker, giving you more ways for you and a partner to take out enemies.
So why, with all these additions, do I think Streets of Rage 3 is not the superior game to Streets of Rage 2 — only the Japanese version, Bare Knuckle 3 is?
It comes down to a crucial part of that invisible fine-tuning, and in this case, completely blowing it: Streets of Rage 3’s difficulty ruins the whole damn thing.
There’s many notable differences between Bare Knuckle 3 and Streets of Rage 3, the usual ones raised being the removal of gay stereotype mini-boss/unlockable character Ash and the story being changed/shortened. But the real deal for me is the fact that even on the hardest difficulty, Bare Knuckle 3 is not nearly as hard as Streets of Rage 3 on its easiest difficulty. Streets of Rage 3’s difficulty has just been cranked to ridiculous degrees, making all the new ways to fight and get around futile as you basically get utterly crushed by both bosses and the standard goons if you don’t know exactly what to do with each enemy and how to manipulate their attack patterns. Streets of Rage 3’s bosses even just plain have more life. Not only are they better at beating you up, but it takes longer to beat them. That score-star-special move system I mentioned? Totally meaningless in SoR3 where it’s nigh impossible to maintain a single star for more than a minute or two, making an interesting addition that base beat ’em up foundation pointless. The game feels rigged to favor the then booming rental market, and force players to rent Streets of Rage 3 over and over and over and OVER until they finally utterly mastered it. But instead of doing that, predictably, and I can’t really blame anybody for doing so, many players would just go back to Streets of Rage 2 which didn’t feel like a chore to play.
It’s that balancing underneath everything that makes beat ’em ups “dumb fun”. You don’t think about it until a game gives you a reason to think about it. Streets of Rage 3 adds so many new, interesting, fun ways to fight that it should have been an obvious, clear improvement over Streets of Rage 2, but simply by futzing with the difficulty setting, by messing with that fine-tuned balance, it becomes “dumb, and a pain in the fucking ass”. To play Bare Knuckle 3 after only knowing Streets of Rage 3 feels almost like an entirely different game…
And it’s all because of difficulty changes.
Imagine if SoR2 was the same game on a core mechanic level, but that balance, that difficulty, was changed, ratcheted it up to the same level as Streets of Rage 3. Would it still be a classic? Or would it be remembered as “Great music, fucking awful to play, though”. It feels like such a tiny detail, but how a beat ’em up handles its difficulty, and how that difficulty itself is determined, can fundamentally change how we feel about those games. What’s some of the most fun we’ve had with a game can become unbearable bullshit.
Lemme talk about God Hand for a sec.
God Hand is known as a very difficult beat ’em up, but in its marketing campaign, it had a slogan that resonated with me: “Hard, but fair”.
And that’s what God Hand feels like. Once you start getting used to the controls and mastering them, rarely do you feel like you’re getting bullshit difficulty in the game. Hell, it even has a sliding in-game difficulty meter that gets easier as you get clobbered, or harder as you get better. There are even special moves you can do to knock the difficulty down a level or two if you so choose, and hard mode is merely the game being permanently locked at the highest level of that difficulty meter. It’s a tough balancing act, but God Hand does it well, and it does it with a brilliant, clever game mechanic, understanding how much of enjoying a beat ’em up is in carefully walking that tightrope of difficulty.
God Hand is hard, but fair. Streets of Rage 3 is hard, and bullshit. Bare Knuckle 3 is about as hard as Streets of Rage 2, and because of it, it’s a fucking blast.
A beat ’em up is not merely “punch till you win”, it is all these gameplay designs and decisions coming together in ways that either simply click together or fall apart. Whether a beat ’em up is memorable or not comes down to so many of these invisible complexities to make a “dumb” or “simple” game, and some games succeed, and some games don’t, and you can even make a successful one fail by tweaking just one factor in it, no matter how good every other part of it is.
I think beat ’em ups are dumb games. I think beat ’em ups are secretly incredibly clever, complex games. I think Bare Knuckle 3 is better than Streets of Rage 2, but Streets of Rage 3 isn’t.
But I love all three of them for being the perfect demonstration of the hidden complexities of a “dumb, simple” genre that we usually don’t think twice about.