As soon as Final Fight: Streetwise
climbed into the ring, I knew I was in trouble. This was going to be a nasty brawl, a no-holds-barred, chicken-wire cage match with knives strapped to the ankles. If I was to get out of this one with two unpunctured kidneys, I had to aim low and bite hard.
That did the trick. Underhyped and unloved, this reincarnation of the old beat-em-up slunk into our offices with fists pumping and weapons drawn. Unfortunately, the one-time king of the streets has grown into little more than a washed-up bum.
Contrary to everything you ever knew about the mindless joy of Final Fight, Streetwise tries to have a plot. You hoist the fading torch of the franchise as Kyle, the younger brother to series mainstay, Cody. Reminiscing about the good old days, your older brother absconds with some Mafioso types who promise that they can fix his knees. You search the city for him, pounding on faces as often as you can. When you find Cody, he is doped up on a crazy new drug called "glow" that turns men into flesh-eating mutants.
The premise of searching for your brother serves as a license to mayhem, but the dripping, undead mutants seem entirely out of place in this urban "streetwise" title. What's more street than a drug addict? One that is fifteen-feet tall and luminescent? Spare me. The game's plot ironically sends the message that it was a huge mistake for Cody to try to go back and recapture his glory. If only the series would take its own advice.
Abandoning the two-player mode that made Final Fight fun in the first place, Streetwise's main game lets you explore Metro City as Kyle. The gameplay is "open" in that Kyle can take on missions at his leisure, buy crappy music at the electronics store, or take on unimaginative side-missions for cash to buy said music. The city's four neighborhoods are all very small, and while getting lost is never an issue, getting bored certainly is.
We've seen this cheap "open" dynamic in brawlers before, most recently in another Capcom abortion, the terrible Beat Down: Fists of Vengeance. The neighborhoods feel like elongated rooms, full of invisible walls and aimless pedestrians, more psychiatric ward than ghetto.
Besides, a fighting game lives and dies by its fighting mechanic; put that way, Streetwise mostly dies. To knock out foes, you will push the quick punch button an awful lot, switching sometimes to the heavy punch button just to stop your thumb from cramping. You can also pick up enemies and throw them, but varying your tactics is just for style points. The combo list is short and weak; you'll find more style in a high-school science teacher convention.
The game includes a promising 'counter' mechanic, though it turns out to be pretty negligible. By timing your defense correctly, you can treat yourself to a slow-motion counter move. This is nearly impossible to pull off against the bosses, which are the only battles that require more than your trusty button-mash.
The boss battles are actually challenging, but require a lot of dodging, at which Kyle is remarkably bad. In every boss battle, Kyle will run around in tight circles interminably, smacking at the bad periodically until he stops moving. The trailing camera isn't set up for this, which results in Kyle alternately running and stopping in the retarded dance of the soon-to-be dead.
Story mode also includes a smattering of bad mini-games. How bad? One of them is that archaic puzzle game where you slide one tile at a time to assemble a picture. Yeah, it was packaged with the first Macintosh and it still sucks after 30 years. Other mini-games have Kyle stepping on bugs and rats, which are precisely as fun as they sound.
If only the designers had stepped on the bugs in the programming. Sometimes the game freezes, losing all data since the last time you played. There are no traditional "save points," which is thematically apt since nothing short of a miracle could have saved this tequila-inspired nightmare.
Money, though, might have helped. The whole package just looks and feels low-budget. On either console, the graphics fare badly, with environments reeking of cheap Hollywood sound stages, unnaturally lit and as flat as Nebraska. Punches don't feel very powerful and the hit-detection is awful. During the "nose pull" move, you will frequently reach through your opponent's head entirely. You can't blame the characters for their lack of grace or dexterity, though, because most of their fingers are uniformly glued together - even in the cut-scenes.
The lack of attention to detail is staggering. While Kyle actually has a roughly human shaped shadow that moves along with him, the giant, multi-limbed monster that he's fighting casts a simple round shadow, about the size of the dime that it cost to program it. Shoddy work.
The music is a curious mix of mediocre hip-hop and hardcore rock. Some big names like Lil' Flip and Slipknot are snuck into a list of no-names and up-and-comers. The voice-acting is oddly decent, being handled, surprisingly, by actual English-speaking humans. The script writing isn't horrible either, although it does seem to suffer from the same Tourettic outbursts that plague any "street" game.
The only saving grace in this futile exercise is Arcade mode, which can be genuinely fun in the old Final Fight way. In this short romp, you and a friend make your way down a three-dimensional path through the city, fighting side-by-side against hordes of thugs and katana-wielding Japanese schoolgirls. While it might be unbearable for one person, it's perfect for two. One wonders why the developers couldn't have spent more time updating the old formula instead of ditching it for the broken Story mode, though that's not to say it's flawless - the wonky camera and lax hit detection are here, too.
Still, Arcade mode reminds us why the beat-em-up genre ever existed in the first place. A version of the original Final Fight is also packaged with the game, but is not updated graphically, and so is little more than a nostalgia piece.
The same cannot be said of Final Fight Streetwise, though. Instantly forgettable and certainly regrettable, this fighter is preposterously short on both brains and brawn. Here's to hoping that Streetwise listens to its title and is indeed the final Final Fight.