With the recent release of “Streets of Rage 4” on all major consoles, this well-received and critically acclaimed classic “side-scrolling beat’em up” franchise is just one year shy of being 30 years old. Arguably one of the best series of its genre, it only trails behind the more successful “Double Dragon” franchise published by Taito. A maverick amongst its peers, renowned for its catchy techno/electronic beats – courtesy of composer Yuko Koshiro and later also Motohiro Kawashima – its soundtrack would fit right at home at a neon nightclub back in the early 90s. The gameplay and combat were simple and satisfying, while not being overly difficult to beat, or a cakewalk to drudge through. “Streets of Rage” (“Bare Knuckles” in Japan) was a hallmark of its generation, playing into the schoolyard console debates between vehement Sega loyalists and adamant Nintendo fans. A Sega Mega Drive (Sega Genesis in the USA) exclusive, crafted to compete with Nintendo’s exclusive deal with Capcom to publish the popular arcade game “Final Fight” (and its subsequent two console-only sequels) on the Super Nintendo, “Streets of Rage” flipped the script as being a home console game first that was ported to the arcades, when the opposite was the norm.
Now this is not a review of “Streets of Rage 4” or a retrospective of the series as a whole. But rather, this is a look at how this videogame gem bucked the trend to give players a consistent and positive representation of African-American characters throughout its existence. In that regard, this beloved franchise deserves unique attention and praise. I’m speaking of the series’ audacious commitment to the perpetual presence of the Hunter family.
As I’ve discussed in a prior article, “Where’s My Black Shepherd?”, spurred by the release of the underwhelming “Shaq-Fu: A Legend Reborn” (2018) videogame remake (itself also a beat’em up), I highlighted the continuing lack of exclusive (and positive) Nubian representation in videogames over the decades, which would allow players to take on a character of African descent or embark on an odyssey based off of African folklore or religions. Needless to say we still have some ways to go to equate to the more prominent female representation in the videogame landscape and medium, but strides are being made. But I digress. Cue the obligatory opening text crawl…
The year is 1991, and an unnamed neon metropolis is engulfed in rampant crime and violence, all orchestrated by a mysterious boss known as Mr. X. Disenchanted by the prolific corruption in the police force, officers Axel Stone, Adam Hunter and Blaze Fielding turn in their badges and guns to take to the streets…with rage, to bring Mr. X and his Syndicate of crime to brutal justice with their bare knuckles.
Each of the three playable characters had a competent, rightly cliché, backstory. Adam Hunter, an African-American in his amber-colored sleeveless shirt and black long-pants was a former boxer, favoring strength over speed (translated in the game by being the most powerful of the three, but the slowest). The provocative brunette Blaze Fielding, dressed in skimpy scarlet clothes was a judo expert who excelled at speed over strength (being the weakest protagonist, but the quickest). She also wore a red headband. Rounding out the trio was the vanilla Axel Stone, the stereotypical blonde-blue-eyed white T-shirt and navy-blue jeans wearing martial artist who was neutral in strength and speed. Axel also sported a blue bandana. Like fighting games, the subtle nuances of each character’s playstyle (pros and cons) garnered individual favoritism from players.
Now Adam’s appearance as an optional “Black” avatar was nothing novel. Heroic Nubian alternatives, while still a woeful minority in games at the time, had also appeared in lesser known, obscure beat’em up titles like “D D Crew”, “Riot City” and the isometric “Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker”, all also by Sega no less, and in Capcom’s licensed “Cadillacs and Dinosaurs”. “Black people” were often relegated to generic enemy thugs and protagonist fodder, or as irreverent caricature (sub-)bosses like “Abobo” in “Double Dragon” and “Damnd” (“Thrasher” in the censored US SNES version) in the original “Final Fight” and the highly offensive “Big Mama” in the Japanese version of “D J Boy” (toned down for its more racially sensitive US audience). By comparison, Adam Hunter stood out as a paragon, a legitimate and respectable individual.
One year after “Streets of Rage”, both in-game and in real life, 1992 saw the sequel that improved most, if not all that made the first game so beloved. Many hardcore fans still revere “Streets of Rage 2” as the best of the series. While Axel and Blaze left the city to pursue other careers, Adam returned to the police force. This proved to be a grave mistake on his part, because he is kidnapped by Mr. X for revenge, instigating the premise for the sequel – to rescue Adam. While Adam was relegated to a cameo role, his younger brother Eddie “Skate” Hunter (Sammy in the Japanese version) took over his slot alongside series staples Axel and Blaze. Being a young, fad-chasing teen, proficient with roller-skates, Eddie’s playstyle was very fast but extremely weak compared to his adult companions. Interestingly enough, Skate’s sprite wears a familial yellow sleeveless shirt. Max Thunder, a strong pro-wrestling buddy of Axel completes the sequel’s quartet cast.
Admittedly, Adam’s cameo and Skate’s inclusion in “Streets of Rage 2” was a plot device. There was nothing obligating the developers to incorporate Adam or introduce his younger brother for the follow-up. In fact, there was no incentive or precedent to do this. It was not uncommon for beat’em up sequels (few in number) to keep one character from the original and add all-new playable avatars. Ex-pro-wrestler-turned-mayor Mike Haggar from Capcom’s “Final Fight” became the series reoccurring star, always joined by new heroes in the sequels. Sega’s flagship “Golden Axe” beat’em up did the same with their green-tunic dressed dwarf with the double-headed battle-axe named Gilius Thunderhead. But for “Streets of Rage 2”, they bucked that trends, and successfully so.
At face value, it didn’t make sense to arbitrarily exclude Adam, while keeping the other two veterans, and introduce a close relative; but it may have been a play to more differentiate its roster. Visually, Adam and Axel were pretty much identical. The shorter, faster Skate was aesthetically unique, while paying homage to Adam who came before, and keeping an African-American in the game for players.
Surely lightning like this couldn’t strike twice…
1994 saw the (then) final entry into the Streets of Rage series, which would see a large departure from the previous installments. It’s convoluted story, among other factors, made it the least appreciated entry, and perhaps guaranteed this was their “final fight”. Interestingly, while Axel and Blaze returned once more, so did Skate. The flimsy rationally for Adam’s exclusion this time around was that his obligations as a police officer made him “unavailable” to help out his friends. But he trusted his younger brother “Skate”, proving himself last time in rescuing him, was more than qualified to go against armed thugs, hardened criminals and ruthless murderers. The Syndicate-defecting robotic genius Dr. Zan replaces Max from the previous game, plus there are two unlockable secret avatars, the fighting kangaroo Roo (“Victy” in Japan), and the deadly kung fu master and reoccurring nemesis, Shiva.
On a side note, the Japanese version also had a homosexual boss named Ash, removed from the USA version for obvious reasons, as he was, needless to say, an offensive stereotype of its time, strapped in tight garishly-colored leather and “girlish” mannerisms.
As mentioned before, Adam’s superficial similarity to Axel may have been the precluding factor that prevented his return to the fore. Notwithstanding, the story and premise had gone in a completely different direction, so the developers had no reason to keep either Adam (who still makes a cameo in the game) or Skate in the third installment. Yet both Hunters are preserved. They could have simply made another African-American avatar unrelated to the Hunters, and one can even contend that it would have been easier to come up with a new “Black” character (or none at all) rather than try to weave in the old ones into the third’s narrative.
Even though he was no longer in sprite, Adam Hunter remained consistently presence in spirit within the trilogy, despite all odds and alternative. Even his junior brother who had filled his spot on the character select screen, managed to have surprising staying power.
Fast forward fourteen years, and the dormant “Streets of Rage” series would triumphantly bare their knuckles again in August of 2018, when it was announced that an official fourth entry was in the works, courtesy of Dotemu, Lizardcube and Guard Crush Games. A love-letter to fans, the game also brought back the original composures Yuko and Motohiro. Axel and Blaze as playable characters was a no-brainer, but it would be who came after that that would be interesting.
Unveiled at Gamescom 2019, we were introduced to Cherry Hunter, Adam Hunter’s rowdy, literally electric guitar-hauling teenage daughter. She even sports her own family’s trademark sleeveless honey top. Effectively the “Skate” of her generation, and in the game, Cherry and her playstyle is fast and frenetic, being very nimble, but very weak comparatively. The inclusion of a “permanent weapon” – her guitar – was an innovative leap taken by the developers to distinguish the new generation in the game from the old. Already, many players are gravitating towards Cherry as they play the game.
But the goodness does not stop there. In December 2019, another trailer dropped online, revealing none other than the long overdue return of Adam Hunter himself – now an undercover agent – to much applause by diehard fans. Sporting a more mature look, with grey temples and cool shades, Adam Hunter bears a striking resemblance to Baldwin “Bulletproof” Vess from that 80s action-cartoon C.O.P.S., sans trench coat and fedora (and bulletproof chest). His fighting style retains his powerful pugilist roots, with some good kicks thrown in to round out his arsenal of attacks.
Rounding out the roster of Streets of Rage 4 is another (all new) Nubian character, Floyd Iraia, who premiered in February 2020. Invoking images of a cartoonishly beefy Jax from Mortal Kombat, Floyd Iraia is a topless buff brawler from New Zealand, who is an apprentice of cybernetic-scientist Dr. Zan (remember him?). Toting two huge robotic arms that can trans-morph into energy-dispensing death cannons, Floyd’s playstyle is a mix of Max Thunder and Dr. Zan – being a lethargic grappling god and powerhouse.
The fact that the trio of developers went out of their way to not only include the criminally neglected Adam, but to also introduce his daughter as a playable character (*honestly, an adult Skate would have been low-hanging fruit), shows their love for not only the series but the Hunters themselves, and vindicates how integral they are to the franchise. They even went above and beyond by bringing in Floyd Iraia, another black character. By and large, you have a whopping three Nubian options to choose from (excluding the three retro character unlocks of Skate and Adam). To say this is unprecedented in any videogame outside of a few fighting game franchises is an understatement!
I would recommend any and everyone to go out and buy or at least try this game or its prequels in some digital Sega collection. The series itself is a piece of videogame history, and the fourth and latest entry is a blast to play with friends locally and online. This is not an endorsement just because of how many African-American characters it has, it’s simply a phenomenal game in and of itself regardless; with a gorgeously fluid and colorful art style, white-knuckle, meaty gameplay, quality head-bopping musical soundtracks, bevy of innovative features, and enough pixelated nostalgia to sate the most rabid of loyal fans. I’m just saying, with all the time and effort that went into making this series maintain Adam Hunter and his family over its considerable lifespan is an easily overlooked talking point, that’s worthy of mentioning. The original Sega crew and the “Streets of Rage 4” developers deserve our appreciation and praise. Here’s hoping we’re never left without a Hunter protecting the streets of rage, brandishing their bare (black) knuckles.
Hailing from the eastern-most Caribbean island of Barbados, Fabian Wood has long since been fascinated by the power of storytelling to inspire and invoke emotions – whether in film, comics or videogames. No longer content to be just an avid comic book reader and videogamer, he’s eager to exercise his literary acumen as an aspiring writer and reviewer.