The biggest cliché in video gaming today just might be calling a game “the Dark Souls of something.” For developer Secret Base’s upcoming cooperative brawler Streets of Red, however, the forgiving design of From Software’s hit action role-playing series doesn’t go far enough. After all, when you die in Dark Souls, you still have a chance to reclaim what you’ve lost by resurrecting your fallen hero. In Streets of Red, once you die, that’s it: Game over.
At first glance, you might be forgiven for assuming that, like many modern indie games, Streets of Red incorporates roguelike and rogue-lite concepts, where permanent death mechanics combine with procedural or randomized world design to create a sense of uncertainty and tension. Yet that’s not quite the case for Red, either, as it features a fixed design and deliberate difficulty balancing. Instead, the game hearkens back to the beat-’em-ups of the 8- and 16-bit days, when developers mitigated the brevity of their creations with unforgiving difficulty and zero-tolerance death mechanics.
”True permadeath like this might sound a little daunting at first,” says Secret Base developer Tobe, “but the game is really designed around it. Unlike many modern beat-’em-ups that rely on grinding and leveling up ... we wanted to create something more skill-based, which allows players to improve as they learn to understand the mechanics.”
Despite bearing a title that calls back to Sega’s Streets of Rage, Red might best be compared to Technos’ NES adaptation of Double Dragon. That port forfeited cooperative multiplayer and the arcade’s quarter-pumping continue system in favor of a solo fighter with three lives, no continues, and a simplistic skill-upgrade mechanic designed to open up new character skills at a steady rate over the course of the game’s four linear stages.
Red takes something of a similar approach, though as Tobe notes, it replaces experience points with cash. In that sense, it’s not unlike Technos’ other big NES brawler, the RPG-inflected River City Ransom. In a sense, Red sits squarely between those two points of inspiration… and then, for modernity’s sake, adds lively sprite animations, internet pop culture references and cooperative play. [Update: We originally mentioned here that the game contains online play, which it does not. We regret the error.]
Red also allows players to use the in-game economy to help mitigate its strict death mechanics. “Players learn to fight with style to make more cash, which they can use to purchase upgrades or a soul token to revive themselves when they die,” says Tobe. “When the team is wiped out, and you run out of soul tokens, the game ends, deleting the player’s save data completely.”
In other words, Tobe says, Red represents an attempt to bring the ephemeral part of the classic arcade experience home: That is, the scarcity of cash that imposed a very real limit on how far kids on a tight allowance could advance into a game. Recapturing that budgetary restriction has long been a sticking point for home conversions of coin-op games from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Many games from that era followed in the footsteps of Atari’s Gauntlet by prioritizing systems and imbalances that would effectively force a steady flow of quarters. While brawlers like Final Fight and its ilk could afford to abandon pretenses of fair play in arcades by offering endless continues for 25 cents apiece, their home conversions had to offer some other form of balancing. All too often, the loss of limitations simply exposed the innate shallowness of the underlying game.
”We’ve spent a lot of time revisiting the classics, trying to understand what worked and what didn’t,” Tobe says. “That’s where the idea of using cash and soul tokens to revive comes from — to get players more invested in each opportunity they [have] with the game, just like when they were forking out token after token in the arcade. We reward players for effective strategies, like crowd control, and we encourage them to perform special abilities at the right time.”
Secret Base hopes it’s cracked the code to creating arcade addiction at home with Red, coming to PlayStation 4 and Switch later this month. “Our goal is to bring arcade-style permadeath and currency systems to consoles, but without asking players to spend their real quarters on continues,” says Tobe. While the permadeath idea isn’t new to games, Tobe says he doesn’t know of any other recent brawlers to have adopted a similar approach. “Maybe it’s because other developers are afraid that players don’t have the guts to tolerate real consequences for their losses,” he says.
”The best beat-’em-ups in the arcade were designed around risk-versus-reward systems that tempted the player to dash into dangerous but exciting situations where they could really flex their muscles,” he says. “Knowing that you were playing with not only the life of your in-game character, but your own pocket change as well, really worked to drive up the tension. Likewise, when you got good enough at a game to play for hours on less than a dollar, it truly made you feel like a king.”
Fundamentally, Secret Base has built Red on the bones of an older Steam release called Devil’s Dare. (“The name was hard to find online,” Tobe says, “always turning up ‘Dare Devil’ instead. When we started working on the console version, we took the opportunity to change the name.”) According to Tobe, it also builds on his earlier Flash project Bitejacker, which had a sepia-tinted look inspired by Metal Slug. While Red doesn’t look exactly like Metal Slug, it carries forward that series’ spirit of expressive, cartoonish characters and over-the-top violence. The color scheme has become even more stark, too. Given the horror theme of the game, Tobe says, “it made sense that we cut down on the colors and went for a more monochromatic, Night of The Living Dead look.
”We did feel the previous version was a little too muddy, so things were changed to increase the contrast for something closer to what I imagine modern Game Boy graphics might look like.”
That old-school influence permeates the game. Tobe says Secret Base has prioritized “simple control systems, more like Smash Bros. than Street Fighter, to cut down on the language barrier of learning the game and speed up the process of getting to the really fun parts.” That isn’t to say Red simply skims familiar names, though. On the contrary, the developers have done their homework, immersing themselves into the greatest brawlers of the ’90s, both beloved and obscure. “We also referred to the combat mechanics of some of my personal favorite beat-’em-ups,” Tobe says, “like Streets of Rage, Aliens vs. Predator — and perhaps less known to western audiences, Warriors of Fate 2. We also looked back to the fighting game Yū Yū Hakusho: Makyō Tōitsusen from Treasure, on the Sega Genesis, mostly for how awesome the game felt.”
Despite consisting largely of the same content as the older Devil’s Dare, Red will include significant enough changes to merit a look even for those familiar with the original Steam rendition. “We’ve taken the opportunity to re-balance and polish up the game,” Tobe says. “Since it’s a challenging game that allows up to four players, many players tends to think that it is hard because it’s meant to be played with others, which is untrue. The game actually re-balances the difficulty based on the number of players to make sure that you are always having a good time.”
Although Red juggles a great many different ambitions all at once, the developers clearly have put a great deal of thought into its design. If everything comes together well, it promises to be one of the most unique brawlers in memory. More than that, its attempts to recapture the tension of being a 12-year-old kid running low on quarters on the approach to the final boss of a particularly ruthless beat-em-up could very well redefine the rules for the genre.