From cartridge to disco: the lasting impact of the Streets of Rage soundtrack

We are in 2018, I am in a crowded nightclub in Paris and things are starting to liven up. Two DJs stand in front of the crowd, firing effects with an FM synthesizer, and people don’t seem to have enough. Next to me a fan yells ‘grraaaaand upppppppperrrr’, and by the end of the night he has yelled those two words at least thirty times.

We are all here, a thousand or more people, it is said soon, to see two composers interpret what is surely their best known and most applauded work; Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashina, the creators of the 1992 Streets of Rage 2 soundtrack. For an hour, the nostalgic people enjoy melodies that make them travel to beautiful beaches, bridges under construction, elevators and chases with excavators.

What makes the Streets of Rage soundtrack so special? Their melodies and rhythms were much more than the background music of a trilogy of beat ’em ups. These songs managed to encapsulate a decade of dance music genres in just three games. They covered 90s house to trance to techno, drum ‘n’ bass, juggle and gabba, and the impact they had on a generation of young people was truly profound.

Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima get the Mega Drive and its Yamaha YM2612 chip to sing. Its soundtracks continue to be recognized to this day as some of the best and most influential songs to ever appear in a video game.

I meet Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima the day after their live DJ performance in Paris. It was one of many concerts that have been held over the last year as part of Red Bull’s Diggin ‘in the Carts Tour, which was born as a radio show and documentary series created by Nick Dwyer to celebrate the Japanese composers of video game music. It really seems that it has been successful, judging by the numbers of audiences that these concerts have had.

“We could never have imagined this,” Koshiro explains. “When we were creating this music we wanted to teach techno and electro music to the kids and make it popular, or maybe you could say we wanted to introduce techno music into video games. We believed it was to plant the seed of music in the minds of the people. We talked about this when we were composing. “

Koshiro and Kawashima smile as they recall the performance of the night before. Starting with the main theme of the first Streets of Rage, their live DJ set covers almost all the phases of the saga, coming to life with the projections shown behind them. Whether it’s the slow waves on the beach in phase three of the first game or the tribute to Alien in the sequel, those projections amplify the incredible experience that other fans and I had in reliving some of our best youth memories. Maybe that explains all the screaming and the story that went on at the concert.

“People who play games get emotionally involved with them. When we play video games, sound effects excite us, right? I use sounds to reproduce that experience,” says Koshiro. “Since the music in a video game is something you listen to continuously while playing it, the music stays with you. The better the music, the more likely it is that the game will become a huge hit.”

Koshiro’s programming skills allowed him to create his own software and harness the full power of the Sega Mega Drive’s sound chip. The best example of this is the Automated Composing System used in Streets of Rage 3, a piece of software that he created himself that randomly generates experimental sound sequences.

“He could make music using programs he had created. Although the hardware was limited at the time, he could use it freely,” recalls Koshiro.

“If composers couldn’t program, the sounds of techno and house music couldn’t be used in games, but my programming skills made it possible for me to create those incredible sounds. It’s something that made those soundtracks different from those of other composers of the time “.

Koshiro has always been a talented musician – his teacher was none other than Joe Hisashi, famous for his compositions for Studio Ghibli or for Takeshi Kitano films, although he also worked as a freelance for Nihon Falcom in the Ys series – and it is a name applauded thanks to his work in the nineties. Kawashima’s name, however, is not as well known. Many people, in fact, still believe that the music in the Streets of Rage series was solely the work of Koshiro.

It is true that Koshiro composed the music for the first Streets of Rage solo, but Motohiro Kawashima joined him for the second and third installments. The addition of a second composer resulted in a more varied soundtrack than its predecessors. Kawashima’s taste for more experimental and heavy sounds is gradually becoming more noticeable as the game progresses phase after phase. These influences are especially noticeable in songs such as boss Shiva, Jungle Blass or Expander, this being the song of Kawashima’s favorite saga, and one of those that had the best reception from the public at the concert.

The intensity of these songs, as well as Kawashima’s compositions for Streets of Rage 3, make them the perfect accompaniment to a dance floor. But despite the positive response from the room to songs like Bulldozer or Cycle, Streets of Rage 3 did not enjoy such a warm reception from fans at the time of its release. Using the Automated Composing System produced a heavier and more experimental soundtrack … perhaps too experimental for some.

“I wanted to experiment to see if I could work with distorted drum sounds in video games. I asked Koshiro-san and he let me use them,” Kawashima explains.

This new and creative way of composing was ideal for Kawashima. His passion for thinking outside the box and wanting to do something unique is demonstrated when I ask him what advice he would give to other composers.

“Create music that you haven’t heard before,” he says smiling.

“I basically always wanted to use FM, rock, and distorted sounds in games. Normally video games at that time used clean synthesizer sounds, but I wanted something dirtier. I usually like that kind of dirty and distorted sounds.”

Following the release of Streets of Rage 3, the franchise slept for twenty-four years, until the surprise announcement of a sequel in August this year. But for many fans it won’t be a true Streets of Rage if it doesn’t feature Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima. At the time of writing the top rated comment in the Streets of Rage 4 trailer is one that simply says “YUZO KOSHIRO PLEASE”.

“We are very happy that people think of our music and the game as a whole,” acknowledges Motohiro. “We really appreciate it.”

Of course, the big question on Streets of Rage fans’ minds is whether these two songwriters will be working on the new game. It is something that, for now, will remain a secret.

Whether Koshiro and Kawashima are involved or not, the challenge for the game’s composers will remain the same: how do you manage to replicate the success of a soundtrack that was so deeply rooted in the music of its time? For the developers of Streets of Rage 4, finding the balance between pleasing hardcore fans of the series while ensuring that it holds up like an original game will be a challenge.

“About the Streets of Rage saga, we wanted to make the leading music of the time and it turned out to be the music of the nineties. The choice in this case would be to do something new, continue with the music of the nineties or find a middle ground,” he explains. Koshiro.

Aside from raising the bar for composing video game music, Streets of Rage’s soundtracks have directly influenced some of the world’s greatest musicians and producers. They also fill some of the most iconic nightclubs, concert halls and festivals around the world. I think that’s not bad at all, especially for a video game that was published almost a quarter of a century ago.