Monday 25 July 2011

Streets of Rage Remake

You'd think, what with my stint as leader of a fangaming website, the topic of fangaming would pop up more often on this blog of mine. Well, your non-existent wishes have been granted.

...for this is Streets of Rage Remake, fangame extraordinaire. Born among us eight years ago, slaughtered at the hands of Sega's legal team, it stands as a figurehead of all things mighty in the world of fangaming. Oh and it's probably the greatest beat-'em-up of all time, but who cares about that?

The reason fangames don't get much attention on this blog is fairly simple - they usually suck. Fangames are, by and large, tacky, badly designed, bloated pieces of shovelware which fail on all fronts to deliver a quality gaming experience. Of course, you have to bear in mind it's my job to stop the world from seeing a lot of these monstrosities - the stuff you see on the net tends to be more acceptable, though it still largely falls short of "official" products.

Most of the time, fangames think too big and thus fail to deliver. Many aren't released, and those that are usually have glaring issues that may never be addressed. Also unless you want to play demos for the rest of your life, the user usually has to settle with a broken product, because the really highly polished stuff doesn't make it past the finishing line. That's not to say people shouldn't try, but it's something to bear in mind.

It takes time and effort to produce a quality fangame, and it's fair to say the twelve year olds that take on the challenge have no clue what they're doing. Those in the industry have training, salaries and tons of help to keep them motivated, while those confined to their bedrooms have to make things up as they go along. The benefit of fangames is of course the fact you don't necessarily have to obey copyright law, so if you want Sonic the Hedgehog to shopping for biscuits in the future, you have the power to make it so. The cost of "Sonic's Digestive Adventure" though is that it will never put food on your table, so the logical conclusion is to drop the "Sonic" and try and market the game as its own new thing.

This is what makes Streets of Rage Remake so interesting. To work on a fangaming project for eight years and to be able to deliver a product at the end is remarkable. It just doesn't happen - people don't have the patience to work on freebie software for such a large chunk of their lives, let alone one that is in constant danger of being axed by the big wigs at the top.

Unsurprisingly Streets of Rage Remake is a REMAKE of the Streets of Rage trilogy, Mega Drive pioneers from the early 1990s (though there's a hint of Master System and Game Gear in there too). It's essentially a spiced up compilation of the three games all mashed up into one story loosely based on Streets of Rage 2 but with multiple endings. It's primarily a PC game, though with the homebrew application of choice you can find GPX2 and WiiWare versions (and I'll be damned if a Dreamcast port doesn't show up one day).

To accurately describe the game I might as well brush over the Mega Drive series. The first Streets of Rage is had you play as one of three vigilante police officer people who have been brought in to clear the city of late 1980s American youth culture. You have shouty-man Axel to punch people in the face, kicking female representative Blaze to kick people in the face and token black man Adam to... also kick people in the face. Though the game offered nothing particularly new to the table, it was well executed and had a fantastic soundtrack provided by Yuzo Koshiro. It's probably the lesser of the three games but I still prefer it to Golden Axe if that means anything.

Streets of Rage is overshadowed by its direct sequel, Streets of Rage 2, which in my mind, is still the greatest beat-'em-up ever created. This one was all about rescuing Adam from the clutches of the main villain of the first game, Mr. X, back from the dead to let dated fashion trends linger across the city once more. Bulky man Max takes up the role of Adam, and a fourth character, Adam's younger brother "Skate" shows that even the kids can't stand purple mohawks. He's a roller-skating child with the ability to stab sex workers. I don't think they could make this game today.

Streets of Rage 2 improved on its prequel in every area and is a game I could harp on about for days. Streets of Rage 3, however, ruined everything by being stupid. At best it's a game that hurts your ears, at worst it's an unbalanced mess of poorly thought out ideas. Localisation hit this one badly - Sega of America butchered it during its trip from Japan leading to questionable "gender neutral colours" and a removal of anything even remotely offensive, like homosexuals... and legs. Max was replaced by a cyborg called Zen and there's a strange story about chemicals or something. No thanks, but kudos for the gameplay additions.

What Streets of Rage Remake does (brilliantly, I should add) is take all the levels and characters from each of the three games, and try to tie it all together into one plot. The game is still eight stages long, however there are multiple paths to take, which means your quest may lead you through the areas seen in all three games. Predictably it's more skewed towards Streets of Rage 2 and 3, as these share a similar engine and graphical style, which means all the Streets of Rage 1 content has been re-drawn to fit.

Streets of Rage Remake is effectively Streets of Rage 3's engine with a truckload of added features and put in an environment more similar to Streets of Rage 2. As confusing as this may all sound, this is exactly what you want from a beat-'em-up like this - Streets of Rage 3 is unbalanced and stupid but it is technically superior to its prequels. Streets of Rage 2, however, is the one that's fun, and has the vastly superior soundtrack and story. The unison of both creates an unstoppable force in the world of beat-'em-ups.

Because content was borrowed from the non-censored Japanese Streets of Rage (or should I say, Bare Knuckle) games as well as the western trilogy, Remake is a much more varied game. There's less of a feeling that you're fighting the same people over and over again (even if you are), and because it re-instates features such as the scrapped bike sections from Streets of Rage 3, you're not simply spending your days walking right. It's also not afraid to try new things. You can shoot people, with guns, which would have been my plan from the beginning.

All the music has been re-masted, leaving 76 fantastic tunes, and there's a heap of options to tweak the game to your liking. There's also a lot of content to unlock, though in order to do so you need to beat the game at least once, and that's a challenge in itself. There are far fewer restrictions in SoRR, meaning more enemies can be on the screen without slowdown and it can afford more special effects.

Also important to note is nothing was left in the dust, bar the boring bits and story elements. You want Streets of Rage 1-esque sprites as an option? Sure thing. You want that button that makes the police car launch rockets at the on-screen enemies? Done. Enemies are faster and more aggressive, and there's a mode that has the computer control your partner, just as if you had a real friend. And I should note that the computer isn't stupid - it dies less often than I do.

Sadly there are two concerns I have with the game. The first is impossible to remedy - it's the Streets of Rage 3 soundtrack, which even in its remastered state, still sounds horrible in a lot of places. Without a doubt it's better than what we had before, but I would almost be tempted within those eight years to draw up plans for an entirely new set of tracks for the SoR 3 levels. But this is a personal preference of mine - apparently some love the SoR 3 soundtrack more than the first two.

Second is the graphics. The cutscenes and numerous character edits seem to have come out for the better, but my concern is the Streets of Rage 1 conversions. Every graphic from that game needed to be re-drawn in order to match those from its sequels, and though the team have painstakingly re-worked every sprite and background to keep it in line, too much of it, to me, looks odd and out of place.

I'm not much of a pixel artist, but when I walk down the beefed up Streets of Rage stages I see things which my brain thinks are wrong. Areas I would gladly touch up on myself if I had the time and patience. A lot of these issues really should have been noticed and fixed within in the eight years of production. I also see palette entries that would be wasteful in the eyes of a Mega Drive artist, prompting the question as to whether they were aiming to obide by Mega Drive graphical restrictions or making up things as they went on. There's a lack of contrast and detail in some sections, with blatant copying and pasting used to create scenery. Dare I say it? Some things feel rushed.

I suppose the point I'm making here is that it's easy to identify the custom work. You can blatantly see that Adam was made from scratch while the others were ripped. You know when you're walking into a Streets of Rage 1 environment, but yet the music is consistently good for every featured game. Some of this can indeed be fixed with the built-in palette editors, but with more than ten artists on this project someone should have spotted that there's more work to be done.

Generally it's not a bad looking game. The problem is, of course, that the Streets of Rage series was fairly impressive by Mega Drive standards and much of the art from this remake was made by Sega's crew in the early 90s. A graphical verdict would depend on whether you think Streets of Rage Remake should conform to Mega Drive rules or explore the 16-million colour palette on offer to modern day computer users. It also depends on how you want to define "Remake" - only a third of the graphics have been "re-made" here.

One thing I can't really fault is the music. Some tracks are better than others, but the game still houses a selection of some of the greatest Streets of Rage remixes and remasters of all time. Put that on top of the fact the Streets of Rage series was already dishing out some of the finest tunes from the era and you've got yourself a real winner. The music was always the key element to this series - on a gameplay perspective nothing really jumped out as being fresh and unique, and that still applies now, albeit to a much lesser extent.

It's worth pointing out though that much can be learned from this particular fangame. The brightly coloured youths of 1991 aren't particularly relevant to the modern age, but this is a game that manages to get the grim, crime-ridden city slumps out to the general public without stupid blue, grey, brown or bloom shaders. It doesn't cut music to make way for ambiance. It's serious, but there's a fun side to it. As a Kangaroo you can take down a vicious crime syndicate. It's entertainment, but not strictly for kids - you know the people you're slapping around are drug addicts and prostitutes but it's still satisfying to throw one down a hole.

Overall this is certainly a fangame worth checking out. Yes, it may be a gamble for those who either aren't a fan of fangames, aren't really into beat-'em-ups or are scared at the 200MB+ download, but it really is a fantastic experience. Sega have made it slightly more difficult to obtain in the interest of protecting their intellectual properties (which they don't appear to be using much, outside the constant re-releases), but it's still an easy find. Just sad that eight years worth of work was wasted.

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