Streets of Rage 3 Soundtrack, Motohiro Kawashima / Yuzo Koshiro, 1994
By the time Sega got around to developing Streets of Rage 3, the company faced a bit of a conundrum. Streets of Rage 2 had left its mark on one of the most popular video game genres of the early 90s. It emerged as a true genre classic by making smart, incremental changes to the formula introduced by Streets of Rage. There was precious little left to improve, so where could the developers take the franchise with Streets of Rage 3? The answer: add a few new gameplay mechanics, change the game’s visual style somewhat, but otherwise leave well enough alone. Well, that last point applied to the Japanese version of the game. When ported to the West, the game’s difficulty was significantly cranked up, to the point of unfairness and frustration. Sadly, to this day, Streets of Rage 3 serves as a reminder of how not to localise a game.
Not everyone involved in Streets of Rage 3‘s development played it safe, though – case in point: composing duo Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima. Their score for Streets of Rage 2 had become as much a classic as the game itself, moving from the first game’s R’n’B sound to more electronic stylings that no one else had previously managed to replicate so convincingly on a non-CD console. For Streets of Rage 3, Koshiro and Kawashima were not content to rest on their laurels. Firstly, Koshiro’s decision to write the music on a PC-98 (rather than on the PC-88 as before) required him to write a new music generation program. That turned out to be the “Automated Composing System” – a program that generated music on its own, based on parameters and conditions that the composers submitted. Koshiro and Kawashima would then take the best of the computer-generated patterns and compile them into compositions.
This reliance on aleatoric elements – a radical idea for mid-90s game music – would have already made for a challenging listening experience. However, Koshiro and Kawashima wanted to push the envelope further still. Inspired by Rotterdam’s high-speed Gabber, the composers went for a more hardcore style of techno than on Streets of Rage 2. As Kawashima put it in an interview: “Usually games at that time used nice-sounding synthesiser sounds, but I wanted something dirtier. I generally like dirtier and distorted kinds of sounds.” Both composers were aware that charting such new, daring territory would prove divisive. In contemporary interviews, Koshiro and Kawashima – somewhat jokingly – mention how they felt they were probably overdoing it. Still, according to Kawashima, both artists thought that “if we’re really doing this, we might as well go all-in.”
Indeed, there’s no doubt that the Streets of Rage 3 soundtrack is a work of conviction – the result of two composers entirely disregarding game music conventions and aiming for a sound that decades later is still rarely encountered in game music. Streets of Rage 3 is not an unqualified masterpiece like its predecessor, although it is a lot better than the many scathing contemporary reviews would lead you to believe. What’s most alienating about the score are Koshiro’s abstract sound collages that can indeed feel like aimless, random sequences of bleeps and other synth sounds that evoke little atmosphere or emotion. At other times, Koshiro’s cues use repetitive motifs well past their breaking point. While his compositions’ exploratory, innovative nature is appreciated, they come off as experiments that are more interesting in their concept than their execution.
However, Kawashima’s half of the Streets of Rage 3 soundtrack is a different story. No, his compositions don’t make for easy listening either. However, Kawashima manages to turn his cues into a logical continuation of the abrasive stylings already heard on Streets of Rage 2, welding his aleatoric motifs to powerfully off-kilter beats that hold the tracks together. What’s most apparent about Kawashima’s compositions is the mind-boggling amount of ambition that flows into what is some of the most intense, complex 16-bit music ever written.
From his first track “Fuze” onwards, Kawashima leaves no doubt that he will take absolutely no prisoners. The track immediately settles into a pounding, punishing beat that powers sharp, irregular synth noises. You would hardly call these cacophonous electronics “melodies”, but at least they provide recognisable motifs that help shape the raging swirl that is “Fuze”. As confronting as the music might be though, there is no denying that it is impeccably crafted, piling up intricate layers of rhythms and counterrhythms and restlessly moving from one episode to the next. It’s hardcore techno at its most epic.
That Kawashima sustains this level of quality across most of his compositions is genuinely remarkable. “Cycle I” manages to one-up the already manic “Fuze”. It’s a whirlwind of industrial, eccentric beats whose disorienting layers still create their own ruthless groove. Kawashima mixes this fierce rhythmic foundation with a sense of unease and panic, thanks to whining, sustained synth notes. The resulting nightmarish atmosphere proves that the Streets of Rage 3 soundtrack is anything but a collection of ineffectual noise devoid of any emotions. “Dub Slash” predates dubstep by several years, riding a monumental, all-consuming sub-bass rhythm that sucks all the air and light out of music. Just before the loop, those siren-like synths that once played a twisted, blaring melody hurl themselves into a dissonant fury that takes the music’s ferocity to new heights. “Boss” takes the soundtrack’s perplexing, aleatoric elements to their logical conclusion on a track that miraculously still maintains a laser-like focus.
Still, walking that sort of tightrope isn’t quite enough for Kawashima. Other tracks on the Streets of Rage 3 soundtrack push the envelope even further. “Bulldozer” and “Cycle II” skew closest to the no-holds-barred, confrontational Gabber aesthetic. Outside of Koshiro’s compositions for this score, there is probably no 16-bit music as outright atonal as these two compositions. However, what might be most challenging about these tracks is not their furious melange of superbly layered, grating beats and apparently random leads. Instead, it’s the way these compositions seem to purposefully undermine the tension they’ve built up by throwing in obnoxiously bouncy beats and blippy sounds. It’s an open challenge to the laws of how game music creates emotional involvement – but again, there’s no denying the astounding level of craftsmanship on display in these flawlessly constructed pieces.
And don’t forget that characterising the Streets of Rage 3 soundtrack as a heap of grinding noises misses its more melodic moments, mixed masterfully into the score’s harsh template. “Percussion”, for example, mixes distorted smooth jazz stylings – stuttering organ leads, brassy hooks – into the soundtrack’s experimental formula, creating a surreal, hypnotic cue that defies categorisation. “Moon” maintains some of “Percussion”’s warmth while tying its unsteady rhythms together with a more elastic groove than usually. “The Poets I” and “The Poets II” don’t desert the music’s enticing unpredictability. However, they let their synth melodies develop relatively uninterrupted, slowly unwinding and developing far more patiently than one would expect from such a hyper-active score.
It’s another demonstration of how this soundtrack is far from simply a work of random electronica. Instead, during its strongest moments, Streets of Rage 3 is one of the most daring, original – and demanding – game scores ever written. It also completes the franchise’s astonishing musical development across its first three entries. Koshiro started with the genre exercise of Streets of Rage 1, proceeded to the mastery of various styles of electronica on Streets of Rage 2 – and on this game, Kawashima and Koshiro go further still to establish their very own musical language.
- 01 - Fuze Kawashima, Motohiro / Koshiro, Yuzo 2:57
- 02 - Cycle I Kawashima, Motohiro / Koshiro, Yuzo 3:32
- 03 - Dub Slash Kawashima, Motohiro / Koshiro, Yuzo 3:52
- 04 - Percussion Kawashima, Motohiro / Koshiro, Yuzo 3:03
- 05 - Bulldozer Kawashima, Motohiro / Koshiro, Yuzo 2:47
- 06 - Moon Kawashima, Motohiro / Koshiro, Yuzo 2:26
- 07 - The Poets I Kawashima, Motohiro / Koshiro, Yuzo 3:44
- 08 - The Poets II Kawashima, Motohiro / Koshiro, Yuzo 2:55
- 09 - Cycle II Kawashima, Motohiro / Koshiro, Yuzo 3:26
- 10 - Boss Kawashima, Motohiro / Koshiro, Yuzo 3:04