Final Fight when mentioned is generally taken as the first game whereas Streets of Rage is seen more as a collective series, so as this debate could span a time frame which would see Connor MacLeod grow a bit grey and creaky, it's best to stick to some brief points focusing on the more famous titles of each - mainly the Final Fight arcade game vs the first two Streets Of Rage games. We will however comment on the other entries in the series later on.
Our first section looks at who did what first, and the first points won without a doubt go to Final Fight. Released a full two years before the first SoR game came along, it's various themes and concepts became ingrained in the beat 'em up world in a genre changing way that was seldom rivalled in the years after.
Before Capcom's game there had only really been Double Dragon 1 & 2, Shadow Warriors, Renegade and the Irem games. Various clones popped up here and there but nothing really of note, and most of those games featured separate punch and kick buttons. Final Fight was the first to almost completely redefine the formula and introduced a specific one button mash attack combination along with the now famous yellow on red lifebar theme and special move (also known as a panic move). All of which were absolute staples of future scrollers in the 90's and beyond. Other features like interchangeable weapons and food items were introduced, and while breakable objects were first shown in Shadow Warriors, the feature of the player being able to smash them with their bare hands instead of having to lob a bad guy into them was a new one.
It's common knowledge that the first Streets of Rage game was made in answer to the SNES port of Final Fight (and to address the rather noticeable lack of beat 'em ups on the Megadrive at that time).
The attack combo system, the bad guys character design, and even some of the levels were blatantly based on Capsom's brawler. Even the blonde haired, white t-shit, blue jeans wearing design of Axel was obviously based on Cody, and this went one stage further with Streets Of Rage 2 where they introduce a burly wrestler as a mirror for Haggar and even included the yellow/red lifebars with matching baddie info beneath which again was first seen in Final Fight.
Now here's a section which is hard to get a grip on. Both are fantastic looking but each undoubtedly has it's own unique feel.
Final Fight again was the first of it's kind to really push the boundaries and have MASSIVE sprites on screen. It was one of the arcade game's most talked about features and so it'd be mad not to give points for it here.
The game itself goes with a much more gritty looking environment, and as such Metro city is filthy and grimy with a really seedy feel to the whole thing. Even the nicer parts of the city look a bit dowdy with drunks at the bar and people watching fights in the background. It's a wonderfully created look that serves the game well in bringing a certain amount of harsh and gritty realism to the proceedings.
Streets of Rage has a different look but it's one that is equally impressive. Everything in 'The City' has a much cleaner and more cartoon like look to it, feeling very much like an upmarket place and the game absolutely excels at colour. The first level of the first game alone with its animated neon everywhere is just amazing. This is mimicked in the second game too for its first level and the beautiful detail is stunning.
There is a difference in sprite detail in the games though. Final Fight (arcade and SNES) obviously wins over the first Streets of Rage game which had smaller sprites and more limited animation, but Streets Of Rage 2 thundered on with some very mighty graphics indeed which saw the sprite size and animation frame count balloon.
It's hard to say who wins this bout. It depends on what kind of decor you prefer when you're mashing someone's head in with your foot so you pays your money and takes your choice.
Now this section may seem irrelevant....and it is but it's not so clear cut as people may think.
Streets of Rage has one of the most famous soundtracks in game history, and it's true! The music is brilliant, emotive, inventive and chock full of amazing melodies. The only thing better was the Soundtrack to Streets Of Rage 2 which was a masterpiece. It's problem is that it's SO rooted in the dance and house genre that it can be offputting to some who just aren't into that style of music. I actually do know people who don't like the soundtrack becasue it's 'too dancey' and although I adore the music I can also see their point.
Yuzo Koshiro wasn't shy about blatantly ripping off certain European EDM songs either (seriously, "Under Logic" from Streets of Rage 2 is a pretty shameless lift from "Move any Mountain" by The Shaman).
Final Fight's music is certainly one of its weaker points in that, quite honestly out of the whole game there's only really about 3 or so tunes which are any good, and a lot of the time the songs are lazily re-used for later levels. This is surprising as there is enough actual music in the game for each stage, but it's distributed really weirdly. For example Westside starts with by re-using the slums theme before changing to original music at the cage fight, and Bay Area has THREE separate pieces of music for the whole stage - one of which just lasts the short length of the toilet section (Eeee!). The standout tracks are certainly The Slums theme, the aforementioned Westside Part 2 (Cage fight), and the absolutely brilliant and melodic Bay Area theme Part 1. Aside from perhaps the Rolento elevator theme the rest of the songs are actually fairly bland, and some are even downright weird and overly happy considering the tone of the game. However, to be fair in the arcade environment they served more as a 'feel' rather than a listenable experience.
Sound effects wise Final Fight absolutely kills and has some truly amazing high quality samples with possibly some of the best sounds effects EVER in a game of this sort. Every punch and kick sounds thick and painful with special note going to the highly distinctive voice samples. Who could ever forget Guy's amazing "AY-YA!" scream or Haggar as he launched into a growling spinning lariat. (TRIVIA - Cody's special move voice sample was taken from the Bruce Lee film "Fist Of Fury". You can hear it when the Karate master throws Lee over his head in the first confrontation in the Japanese martial arts school. Similarly the scream that Belger makes when he falls from the building seems to be taken from a film too as if you listen to the sample on it's own you can hear slight harp like music at the tail end).
Streets Of Rage 1 doesn't fare quite as well, with the main punch FX sounding like a cardboard box being kicked. Others are just too 'synthy', and are interspersed with some rather distorted sounding voices (The Megadrive's sampling capabilities were always lo-fi and very rough). It's all passable stuff, but these days it's incredibly unspectacular and makeshift.
Streets Of Rage 2 improved apon this with some beautiful crunchy sampled sound effects which hit the spot so well it's hard to remember that this is a console game. Even the voices had some clever effects added to the to mask the dreadful sample quality.
All games undoubtedly have their strengths and weaknesses, but I think it's safe to say that Streets Of Rage wins this bout in an overall contest with Final Fight just scraping past the finish line first with it's foley design.
Now for the tricky part. Both games have incredibly similar play mechanics due to pretty much being the same game at heart, but there are some not so subtle differences.
The main complaint with Streets Of Rage 1 was that all the player characters were pretty much the same. They were the same size, they had pretty much the same moves, and there was just no real variety between the characters. It also suffered from a lack of any real re-usable panic move, featuring instead a 'reverse' move (Possibly a throwback to Golden Axe) and an annoying bug of not being able to hit enemies if they were off the edge of the screen but they could hit you. The game somewhat makes up for this by adding in some very smart counters to things like being thrown so that the player can land on their feet (a MAJOR advantage over Final Fight) and much more co-op interaction between the character in two player mode.
Final Fight was one of the very first ever games along with Golden Axe to offer true player character variety, as up until then it had just been red/blue clones fighting with each other as in Double Dragon and Shadow Warriors.
Of course Final Fight isn't without it's problems. Haggar is fine, he is unique in look and style but there honestly isn't 'that' much difference between Cody and Guy and it's a bit of a bummer. Both have spinny kicks as special moves, both do a knee and a shoulder throw as grab moves, and aside from Cody's stabby-knifey talent, both handle weapons pretty much the same.
It's a bit of a waste as there are three weapons which could have been tailor made for each character, and I'd have loved to have seen Guy do something a little more flashy with a sword given his Ninjutsu background, but he just swings it the same as any old goon. Cody could have had a few more dirty 'street brawler' or jujitsu style moves added to add further differentiation and just make Guy the proper martial artist.
Streets Of Rage 2 has a real advantage in that there are 4 characters to choose from and each are MEGA different to one another. Max with his lumbering speed but immense power, Axel and Blaze as the middle (wo)men and that little shit Skate who should have been shot at birth. The level design of Streets Of Rage 2 offers vertical scrolling sections (first seen in Sega's own Dyamite Dux), and while it doesn't change the play much it does make it feel like there's more going on than usual.
Pacing is another difference between the franchises. Both Streets Of Rage 1 and 2 play at quite a controlled and slow pace but this is offset by some more stylish moves, and it helps to appreciate the coolness of it all when you slam someone into the ground in a rather snazzy fashion. Final Fight however has an advantage in that it's speed is just out and out mental! The game is so frantic and there are so many enemies just piling on to you at any given moment that you just can't help but feel a surge of concentrated adrenaline. This is doubled in two player mode and it's just one of the biggest rushes you will ever experience in any game of this genre - sadly one that is missing in any Streets of Rage game.
As we all know both Streets of Rage AND Final Fight are trilogies, and although the Streets Of Rage games did not received any ports to different systems bar one unofficial title, here we ask what the rest of the sequels and various conversions were like.
Streets Of Rage 2 has been talked about and I think everyone knows the score here.
Sega took their original game and improved everything - and I mean EVERYTHING!!!! The graphics, the sound, the gameplay, the moves the tone, everything was shifted up a gear, and so was born one of the greatest games for the Megadrive, or indeed any system! My only complaint is that Adam was replaced by Skate who is a vastly inferior character and there could have been a touch more blood with the swords and knives, but that's it.
Interesting enough, the phenomenal sequel was developed not by Sega, but by Yuzo Koshiro himself and his company Ancient. His sister Ayano Koshiro was responsible for the art and character design in the game, with Yuzo handing all the audio work and everyone designing the gameplay with the help of outsourced programmers - most of whom worked on the first game.
Two new characters make an appearance - one of whom gratefully breaks the 'male only' trend of the first game. Maki is a great addition, and her history with the popular Guy character only makes her even more interesting. Carlos however is rather a bland and forgettable chap who appears to be somewhat of an amalgamation of Guy and Cody but with none of the personality. The price of these newcomers is that Cody and Guy themselves are both absent which is a major downer for fans of the original.
The music was a blend of some overly happy, inappropriate, and unmemorable tunes mixed with some decent tracks later in the game, and the sound effects were a collection of splatty thwacks lashed with that horrible SNES delay/echo. Aside from the lack of anything new, Final Fight 2's biggest flaw was taking the action out the grimy streets of Metro city and into an international setting (most likely to capitalise on the Street Fighter II craze which was absolutely rampant at that time). This shift from sleazy urban wastelands into posh French street cafes, Italian waterfronts and Dutch countrysides completely changed the feel of the action and not for the better either. Make no mistake though, the game is solid and the graphics are sumptuous, but there is nothing original here whatsoever.
Remember that issue I pointed out with the SoR soundtracks before? Well times it by a million and you have the music to Streets Of Rage 3. You will either see this as an incredibly innovative work of pure sonic art or you'll find it one of the most annoying pieces of aural bullshit masquerading as music you're likely to hear in your life.
Yuzo Koshiro's name maybe be on the credits, but in all honesty this score sounds like it's 90% Motohiro Kawashima's work, who provided the more hardcore Techno songs of the second game such as "Expander".
The soundtrack for Streets of Rage 3 went full on Spaz techno, and something that extreme was bound to ruffle a few feathers as well as gain some hardcore fans. Pretty much gone are all the beautiful melodies that were entwined in the previous game's work, and the score is a much more raw and sinister affair this time round. The sound effects sound a bit more 'slappy' and not quite as impact-full as the second game, and often they don't even fire when you hit a bad guy too due to some sample priorities overlapping. It's still good fun to play although it feels more like a fan made expansion pack rather than a true sequel, but if you're game for a shot then go with the Japanese version as the western release is crazy hard.
Final Fight 3 was a sad case of being too late to the game. It was an improvement over the second entry in terms of new moves, and Guy made a welcome return to the series, but by 1995 one-on-one fighting games were all the rage and the Playstation was about to change the face of gaming forever. With that in mind, a poxy scroller on a 5 year old console which was already saturated with similar games just wasn't going to make any real waves.
It was a decent enough game, although seeing what looked like a badly animated and asthmatic Haggar walk like he'd shat himself while sporting a mullet pony tail was a little much to take for us hardcore fans. The game also felt more like a second rate Jaleco brawler rather than a super finely tuned Capcom classic. This was most likely due to the fact that some six years on, it was a safe bet that none of the original team who made the Final Fight arcade game were involved in this sequel.
The colour palette is dreadfully drab, and there is some animation lag when a player swings a weapon or performs a grab move on a bad guy. The jump height in some of the moves is a bit less too although it doesn't affect the gameplay any. Apart from that it's pretty much a carbon copy of the coin-op original with the added bonus of some awesome CD quality renditions of the music and a few extra time based stages. Due to the developers seemingly trying to fill all that masses of memory on the disc, the game is also home to the world's worst voice acting EVER, and the bad thing is that there is no option to switch it off to just have the original text based intro and ending.
The game was highly praised at the time for accurately duplicating the arcade machine's graphics and play mechanics to a level unseen before on a home system, and it scored very well in magazines of the time for both it's Japanese and Western releases. It was also heavily lambasted for the lack of a two player mode and the omission of the Guy character and the Industrial area level.
This was simply due to limitations of the time as the game was one of the launch titles for the Japanese Super Famicom which was the first ever version of the console which would become the Super Nintendo in the west. Due to this, third party developers like Capcom would not have been familiar with what was at the time brand new hardware and wouldn't know all the processing and RAM saving tricks and techniques to include a two player mode.
Some blame must line with Nintendo itself for cheaping out and loading the SNES with a woefully slow CPU in the Ricoh 5A22 which ran at a pitiful 3.58Mh. When compared to the Megadrive's Motorolla 68000 CPU which clocked in at over twice that speed at 7.60Mhz, it's easy to see why the SNES struggled with all these large sprites on screen and why the port of Final Fight was limited to just three baddies on screen at any one time. Due to being a relatively lesser known CPU, the assembler programming language for the Ricoh 5A22 wouldn't have been quite as well known as the very popular 68000, and that would have been eve more time spent by the developers trying to work it out.
Had Nintendo not been so stingy and loaded the SNES with a 68000, or even a faster 68010 or 68020 CPU, PLUS all those custom chips, then it could have easily been a near arcade perfect port with tons of baddies on screen, a two player mode and no slowdown.
The other omissions were due to the fact that in 1990 the largest storage memory size for a Super Famicom cartridge was 8 Megabits (1 Megabyte) and as such there was simply no room for absolutely everything. There are indications that it was perhaps a bit of a rush job, and it's not really a game you would bother with these days what with MAME being freely available.
However, the fact that it was released just a year after the arcade game came out while still managing to retain most of the original's popular features deserves a good bit of respect.
The game reinstates the Guy character but at the expense of Cody, and this update angered fans as by 1992 a two player mode could have been easily implemented and the Industrial area level could have been swapped for the Bay Area creating a truly complimentary game. Final Fight Guy was seen by fans as a cash grab by Capcom as they released the game at full retail price but deliberately did not make one version of the game better than the other in order to encourage people to buy both.
The 16-Bit versions on the Amiga and Atari ST fared a little better and featured some excellently accurate graphical rips and some smooth foundations, but were completely ruined by a lack of music and stripping the main characters of pretty much all of their moves thus creating sterile and hugely monotonous play mechanics.
U.S. Gold were notorious for producing poor quality ports on the home systems due to them being famously stingy with resources to their developers. They often hired just one person to handle all of a port from scratch with only a bare arcade PCB as a reference and a few months to complete the task in.
The game was written from scratch over a staggering EIGHT year period and featured some newly drawn graphics such as a Streets Of Rage 2 version of Adam and larger versions of the original Streets Of Rage 1 Axel and Blaze.
The game has a few small flaws in that the attack combos will occasionally go through their sequence whether you hit an enemy or not, and the enemy stun time is reduced making grabs a bit harder.
The re-done music, while good, also annoyingly changes the structures of the iconic songs with no option to select the originals which, if you are a saddo freak like me who likes to time doing cool things to the tunes, is more than a little shit. Aside from that it is without a doubt an incredible achievement. Sega came under heavy fire from fans when they issued a cease and desist to Bomber Games as many felt that both companies could have worked together to bring the game further afield to fans in an official status to perhaps the console market but were being unreasonably brutal to what was a lovingly made tribute. The game is nevertheless still widely available on the internet and is well worth checking out so fuck you Sega!
So who wins the battle then?
Actually no-one does becasue at the end of the day it's all subjective. We all each have our tastes and preferences based on totally different things and to say one thing is better than another is a false absolute as all it takes is for one person to disagree to make the argument crumble. Popularity is not a sign of quality either so at the end of the day you just go with what you like.
All I can do is give my humble opinion on the subject and for me I actually consider the Final Fight arcade game to be the greatest scrolling beat 'em up ever made. This is simply due to the fact that originality plays a big part for me and Final Fight not only came first, but it invented most of the features seen in pretty much all future games of this sort - including the Streets Of Rage series.
Innovation is always much harder than imitation. It's easy to copy something and then add new things when you have a point of reference, and Sega not only had that reference, but it took them two games and three years to really come up to par. While Streets of Rage 2 is undoubtedly great, it only reaches it's lofty heights by standing on Final Fight's shoulders.
One could argue that Final Fight did the same with Double Dragon, but aside from scrolling from left to right and hitting people, the two games have vastly different play mechanics.
That's not to say I don't love Streets of Rage becasue I do (Oh I do!), so here's a breakdown of all the games against each other in my modest opinion -
Final Fight arcade > Streets Of Rage 1 & 3 >= Streets of Rage 2
- The king daddy of the heap. It's game changing Innovation just makes it top of the pile becasue no matter how you look at it, everything else which came after is just a clone of the Final Fight formula.
Streets Of Rage > Final Fight 3 & Final Fight 2 < Final Fight SNES & Final Fight arcade
- Beats out Final Fight sequels in just sheer style and fun, but I can't deny that the SNES port of the original had bigger better graphics and more dynamic and varied playing.
Streets Of Rage 2 > Final Fight SNES, Final Fight 2, Final Fight 3 <= Final Fight arcade
- No contest, the Final Fight sequels don't stand a chance against this masterpiece. Streets of Rage 2 stands almost equally in pure quality against the Final Fight arcade machine, and for a game that was made on a home console which was inferior hardware and wasn't even new tech anymore is absolutely incredible. It's one of the few games I can still play objectively and not dismantle in terms of code routines or other technical details and simply enjoy for enjoyments sake.
Streets Of Rage 3 = Final Fight 2 > Final Fight 3 < Final Fight arcade & Final Fight SNES
- I personally play Final Fight 2 more than I do Streets of Rage 3 or Final Fight 3 as I find the play to be smoother even if it is more limited, but SoR3 is a bit of an annoying yappy dog for me and I'd rather play anything else rather than this if I'm honest.
So there we have it. At the end of the day both franchises are here to stay and everyone's opinion is valid, so just enjoy whichever series does it for you.
Remember, there is no "best" - there is only "favourite".
Striding forth from his lair at Castle Stareskull one morning, Prototron decided to not reign down terror on the villagers, but instead go back inside, crack open a beer and load up Streets Of Rage 2. One hundred years later, he's still there. A avid music maker (of TERROR!) and retro gamer, he can be found whooping any and all heroes at all manner of SNK-based challenges.