A Tale of Three Brawlers

With everything that’s happened last year, it’s been easy to miss some of the more interesting tid-bits – like the universe gifting us updates to three classic 8/16-bit brawlers in the space of 18 months: River City Girls, Streets of Rage 4 and Battle Toads. Just as the originals pushed the genre in slightly different directions, the three updates all have slightly different approaches to how they update the genre. What can these three titles tell us about updating a deadgenre for the 21st Century?

First a couple of quick notes about the games themselves. River City Girls is a side entry in the (mainly Japan-only) Kunio-Kun series. Taking most of its influence from the classic NES title River City Ransom (Street Gangs in the EU,) the plot inverts the traditional setting and has girlfriends Misako and Kyoko setting out to rescue kidnapped heroes Kunio and Riki. The gameplay is remarkably faithful to the original. Though the core mechanics are those of a brawler, the game is enthused with role playing elements, including the ability to undertake side quests, upgrade moves and and equip stat-boosting items.

Battletoads, meanwhile, is as scatterbrained as both the heroes it features and the original series it’s continuing. Though brawling is undoubtedly the glue that holds it together, Battletoads stages feature multiple genres and minigames – including a return of the original title’s infamous and excruciatingly irritating turbo tunnel.

Streets of Rage 4 remains the one that plays most-like an arcade game from the late 80s or early 90s. Picking up ten years after Streets of Rage 3 left off, The game follows the original heroes (minus Skate for some reason) and a couple of newbies as they wander through the streets of Wood Oak city and casually beating down anyone who stands in their way.

One immediate point of interest is that when it comes to visuals, all three titles are reasonably straight forward updates of the originals – retaining their original sprite-based styling. This is a huge shift from how these titles would have been conceived even a decade earlier: An aborted Streets of Rage 4 for the Dreamcast was to be a fully 3d affair (potentially with a first-person perspective) while the likes of Final Fight Streetwise and Golden Axe Beast Rider took classic arcade franchises and turned them into ill-advised three dimensional adventures. Even demos produced for Sega later later – including the recently released ‘Golden Axed’ – were also 3d titles, even if they did retain the series’ classic gameplay. In light of the likes of Sonic Mania it might seem perfectly natural for a new Streets of Rage or Battletoads to be a 2d sprite-based title, but this is probably more of a recent development than you’d expect.

Though all three of the new titles opted to stick with sprite-based visuals, each title has its own distinctive style. Streets of Rage 4 remains the safest of the three, keeping the original character designs but rendering them in developer Lizard Cube’s distinct flat cell shaded style. In the world of River City, meanwhile, developers Way Forward opted to ditch Technos’ distinctively stylized sprites in favour of a heavily-pixelated style that feels closer to a modern Indie game. Battletoads is another cell-shaded affair, but the characters and world have been completely redesigned with more cartoony proportions. The cut scenes are pretty much indistinguishable from the kind of cartoons my daughter watches on Cartoon Network.

Who wins? I’d say this department is an emphatic win from the Toads. As i’ve mentioned previously, though I love Lizard Cube’s style (it worked perfectly for their reimagined Wonderboy) I think it looks a bit too clean for the Streets of Rage world. Meanwhile, though River City Girls features some beautifully animated cut scenes, such generic in game pixelart seems like a missed opportunity when Technos’ original brawlers had such a distinctive style.

As divisive as it seems to have been in certain quarters, I think Battletoads artwork stands out because it manages to look like a beautiful modern game while staying true to the spirit of the originals. On a technical level the animation is fantastic (a number of the toads’ attacks are comparable to the highly accomplished Cuphead) but what really makes it special is the way it channels the original titles. Cartoonish expression seems a highly important aspect of the original Battletoads, so having it baked into every aspect of the character design feels like a respectful and fitting way to adapt the series for a modern audience.

When it comes to audio, Battletoads can definitely be said to be a lot less remarkable. In writing that it seems a little unfair: from the crunchy rock rendition of the Battletoads theme right through to the closing credits the music and sound effects are entirely fitting and do a good job in the context of the game – it’s just not quite enough in the context of one of other titles.

Is that other title Streets of Rage 4? It’s definitely true that the soundtracks are a central pillar of Streets of Rage’s identity. More than simply being excellent tunes, Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima’s soundtracks pushed at the very boundaries of what video game music could be, recreating tracks that required thousands of pounds of samplers and synthesizers on a sound chip you would expect to find in a single mid-range keyboard.

In that context, Streets of Rage 4 was always going to be a difficult game to soundtrack: The original’s defining quirk – recreating club-ready music on underpowered hardware – is entirely unremarkable in an era where pop music is just as likely to take its cues from videogame soundtracks than the inverse. Realistically it was never going to be possible for the soundtrack to Streets of Rage 4 to have the same sort of impact to the originals.

To be fair, the new soundtrack also has its fair share of moments. Yuzo Koshiro returns with a couple of tracks including a main theme which hits the right notes of wistful nostalgia, while Motohiro Kawashima brings the same kind of superb chaotic energy he brought to Streets of Rage 2 and 3. The tracks by newbie Oliver Deriviere also fit in well and bring an early ’90s vibe that is (helpfully) quite fashionable again, although they aren’t quite as memorable as you would hope they’d be. It isn’t a bad soundtrack by any stretch, but it does feel like it’s second guessing itself in places, trying to live up to impossible expectations.

Unlike Streets of Rage, the Kunio-Kun series isn’t one that’s particularly well known for its’ music – as nice and catchy as the original’s catchy Rockabilly theme was. Consequently, the incredible quality of the River City Girls soundtrack comes slightly out of leftfield. As a soundtrack it’s difficult to fault. Though there’s plenty of fan service (like the return of River City Ransom’s shop music) Megan Mucduffee has remixed everything into a singular – almost glacial – synthwave vision that helps gives the different areas of River City a consistent character.

This is particularly the case on the tracks when she performs vocal tracks as in-game songstress Noize, whose breathy songs about danger, violence and malevolence do a perfect job or setting the scene for Misako and Kyoko’s adventure. Throw in superbly edgy, chaotic boss themes written by chip artist Chipzel and you have the partnership that probably has the best claim to that (sigh) “god tier” mantel held by Koshiro and Kawashima. In a way, the soundtrack is almost too good – the incredible world weaved by the threads of the music almost makes a slight mockery of the games detailed but slightly generic visuals. The River City Girls soundtrack is the perfect example of how a perfect soundtrack can improve the entire experience ofa game as whole.

Of course, as important as sound and visuals are, its the game underneath that really matters. The underlying gameplay was probably the biggest challenge facing all three developers and it seems to be the one that’s posed the most problems.

In the gameplay department, the River City template was the one that probably went in with the highest chance of success. In terms of taste, its blend of brawling and role playing has probably aged the best and comes closest to what your average gamer would expect from a game today. Consequently, the underlying mechanics have largely just been given a bit of a nip and a tuck: with a greater variety of moves and unlockables being offered. I don’t want to downplay the amount of work that’s gone into the combat engine – it really is impressive how it feels like an improved version of the 8 and 16-bit games rather than being an entirely new entity – but it really is remarkable just how little WayForward have had to change in terms order to create a 21st century-ready Kunio game. Still though, it’s difficult to escape the fact that’s it’s by far the safest of the three upgrades.

On Paper, Streets of Rage’s traditional brawler gameplay should probably have been the most challenging of the three. With the original game’s being more or less perfected by the first sequel, even the contemporary Streets of Rage 3 found it difficult to meddle with the recipe in a way that improved things and didn’t simply add change for change’s sake.

What’s really frustrating, then, is that Streets of Rage 4 actually contains some really good ideas that fundamentally improve to the experience. Its combo system feels like a completely natural addition to the gameplay and the decision to prevent enemies from being able to flee beyond the bounds of the screen is an absolute masterstroke that single handedly fixes one of the worse elements of traditional brawlers. These two changes alone would have made Streets of Rage 4 a brilliant addition to the series. Unfortunately they then undermined these with some terrible design decisions: In the default game mode the flow of the game was completely broken by making each stage a self contained entity having its own score and live supply. The balance of the new characters (particularly the new version of returning hero Axel) was originally completely off plus there were also some gratuitous changes to the way special moves worked and the addition of enemy characters with broken artificial intelligence. To the developers credit some of these have now been patched, but nonetheless I think they point to a wider uncertainty about what needed to be kept and what needed to be changed.

Battletoads finds itself in a similar position to Streets of Rage. Originally designed for limitations of the 8-bit NES, modern Battletoads benefits greatly from deepening the battle system to includes different kinds of attacks, combos and a number of chewing gum/tongue based attacks. While for the hardcore there is also a mode that reproduces the original’s notoriously punishing difficulty, the game’s accessibility is expanded infinitely by also having a couple of easier options for those who fancy a more casual experience.

In fact, the only bits that let Battletoads down are the sections that move away from the core brawling gameplay. Not for the reason you’d expect, mind you: though there are a couple of jokey mini games, the alternate gameplay types – including a decent twin-stick shooter and passable platform-puzzling – actually play pretty solidly. The biggest issue with Battletoads is some really weird pacing: after walking players through the new mechanics, brawling stages are largely absent from the back half of the game. Admittedly the cartoon cutscenes do a good job of justifying this from a story perspective, but approaching from a purely gameplay-based perspective this feels like a bit of a misstep: though great as an occasional diversion, the the limits of the supplementary gameplay types become more and more obvious the longer they spend in the spotlight, leaving the game feeling disjointed as a result.

So in conclusion what can these games tell us about the difficulties of updating ancient franchises for the 21st century? I think we can see some general themes across all three titles. In the nineties 3d games were at a rudimentary state and generally required expensive extra hardware to perform at any sort of speed, so for most games hand-drawn two dimensional art was the only way to go. More than that, however, artwork could be further restricted by the physical limitations of the hardware running it – such as the amount and size of sprites it could handle and the colour palette it could utilise. Unless your updated artwork is going to be a direct homage to the original, deciding on a final art is (perhaps predictably) more art than science. There’s a line in the sand to be drawn and – Regardless of which way you go – you’ll most likely alienate a portion of the original fanbase.

Sound is another difficult area for the potential remaker. Back when games were released on cartridges, so much of the games sonic identity came from the individual characteristics of the sound hardware used in the console that played them. Back then, the overall goal was normally to get as close to CD-quality sound as was possible with the tools available at the time. The impact of the best soundtracks – like the iconic Streets of Rage music – was achieved just as much by how it used the hardware as it was through the melodic content of the music itself. Fast forward 30 years, and having a CD quality soundtrack is completely unremarkable. If creating a visual style that pleases everyone is hard I would argue an impactful update to a memorable 16-bit soundtrack is probably even harder. It’s definitely notable that the best performing soundtrack from the ones we’ve examined is the one that arrived with the lightest baggage.

Finally, the most important factor is how you update the classic gameplay. Realistically this area is trickier still. Though it would be wrong to say that the original games was flawless, all three of the series we’ve examined evolved to a point where their core gameplay was delicately balanced. As can be seen from the incredibly haphazard updates to Streets of Rage, I think it can be extremely difficult to separate the good from the bad when updating these titles for a modern audience. Too often well-meaning tweaks in one area can be counter balanced with disastrous changes in others.

Overall I think the difficulties in updating all of the different areas tell us something about the nature of why people enjoy retrogaming. Just like movies and music, old games were made with a different set of ideas and prejudices from games made today. Despite the huge number of remakes, modern blockbusters aren’t just 80’s films with computer graphics. Films like The Artist and La La Land may play with some of the conventions and technical restrictions of the past, but are both easily recognisable as modern films inspired by the tenets of modern film making.

As all three of these titles demonstrate, the same is true for games. Even with the changes in art style, there could be no mistaking Streets of Rage 4 or Battletoads as entries into their respective series’, but these titles look very different from the games that would have been released in 1995 or 2001. In the case of Streets of Rage, at least, this isn’t idle conjecture: leaked footage of a prototype for Sega’s Dreamcast reveals a fully three dimensional brawler which included a new first-person perspective.

The Cancelled Streets of Rage 4 Prototype

New games are good. New games are exciting. I’m happy – and slightly daunted – by the fact we’re producing more games than I could ever play. But new games – even remakes – will never be direct replacements for old titles. Aside from being fun to play in themselves, like old movies, books and albums old games speak volumes about the preferences, tastes and ideas that inspired the people who made and played them. Preserving that can only be a good thing.