I see board games in the store and they always look so cool and then I buy them and bring them home, I’m so excited to open them, and then I play them, like, twice… This column is dedicated to the love of games for those of us whose eyes may be bigger than our stomachs when it comes to playing, and the joy that we can all take from games, even if we don’t play them very often.
A little known fact about me: I love side-scrolling, arcade beat-‘em-up games. They are, quite possibly, my favorite genre of video game, even though I am not especially good at them.
I love the classics of the form, of course; games where you play as a vigilante, taking to the streets to beat up the punks and criminals who have overrun the city. But I love even more the weirdo entries that take the format into other oeuvres or the realm of licensed products: Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow over Mystara, Alien vs. Predator, X-Men, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles the arcade game, Knights of the Round, and so on.
All of this is preamble to explain why I backed the Kickstarter for Streets of Steel all the way back in 2018, and why I was so excited to finally receive it back in November. Made by Wild Power Games, Streets of Steel positions itself as (and take a deep breath, because this is a mouthful), “The Side-scrollin’ 4 Player Co-op ‘80s Retrofuture Beat ’em Up Board Game.”
As the name implies, Streets of Steel takes its inspiration from, specifically, the “pure” forms of the genre: those take-it-to-the-streets beat-‘em-ups I mentioned before. Most notably Streets of Rage and Final Fight, two of the longest-running franchises in the genre, and ones that Streets of Steel nod to in ways both overt (the similarity of the character designs for several of the playable characters) and obscure (could the ninja kangaroo baddies be a nod to the boxing kangaroo character in Streets of Rage 3?).
The first thing to say about Streets of Steel, then, is how well it captures the feel of those games. It’s available in two versions – one with 2D cardboard stand-ups for all the characters and baddies, and one with 3D plastic miniatures that are more the standard for this sort of game. The minis look fine, and would normally be my preference, but in this case, I literally cannot imagine playing the game any way but with the cardboard standees.
All of the art, from the characters to the tokens to the illustrations on the cards and in the instruction booklet, is pixel art, and it captures the tone of these games perfectly. The standees are iconic character portraits that look, at any moment, like they’re going to spring into an idle animation. The box art is designed to look like an arcade cabinet, with a background that is a note-perfect recreation of a beat-‘em-up screen.
So yeah, it looks right, but it goes beyond that. The notes of how the game plays feel like the mechanics of these arcade games translated to the tabletop, too. From the simplest mechanisms – you resurrect beaten characters with quarter tokens – to the most complex boss behaviors, this is as close as I think you could ever come to smashing punks and muties on the tabletop.
Here’s one really easy example: The gameplay unfolds along street tiles. Each round, there are three street tiles in play and, at the end of each round, a new one is added to the righthand side. When that happens, the leftmost street tile drops off, and anyone or anything on it is lost. It’s an incredibly simple mechanic that feels exactly like an old-school video game and also adds to the urgency and danger of gameplay in interesting ways.
When Streets of Steel is at its best, that’s what it’s doing: tapping into my fondness for these types of games, sure, but doing so in a way that makes for fun and innovative tabletop play, rather than just a hit of nostalgia.
That’s what makes Streets of Steel more than just a cute gimmick; it’s actually a really fun game to play! And because it is fully co-op, it’s fun with one person and would be even more fun with four – just like the real arcade games it’s based on. It’s also a challenging game, but simple enough to learn and play. The first time we played we were doing it slightly wrong in a way that didn’t benefit us, and we got trounced by the Boss Mutie, but we still had a blast, and sometimes even losing was fun.
In fact, the only real complaint I have about Streets of Steel is that the rules are not always as clear as they could be. The problems we ran into are ones that I have encountered in a lot of the fully co-op games that rely on a villain behavior deck. The specific interpretation of the rules of a given card are not always clear in the heat of the moment, but fortunately it is never, in the case of Streets of Steel, enough to do more than slow the game down a bit.
The version I have is actually two games. There’s Kickin’ Asphalt, the base game, and then there’s Rush ‘n Scare, the “sequel.” Both are available separately and both are fully playable on their own, meaning that if, like me, you have both, you have everything you need to play the game twice over. Each one contains four playable characters and four types of baddies, including a boss.
As you can probably guess from the title, the baddies in Rush ‘n Scare are Russian-themed, complete with wolf packs and mechanical “Kommandroids” and a boss that attacks with a golden hammer and sickle. Which also feels extremely in keeping with the Cold War-era aesthetic the game is going for. All we need now is a “Winners Don’t Do Drugs” message to somehow appear on the table.
Wild Power, if you’re reading this, I am ready to help design the Golden Axe-style fantasy spin-off game, Swords of Steel. Call me.