Few video game genres are as iconic as the humble beat ‘em up. Everyone’s got their favorites, but crucially they maintain their popularity through approachability and spectacle. Enter Wild Power Games with Streets of Steel, a game that wants nothing more than to put the arcade experience in a box. And spoilers: it succeeds.
This review isn’t going to have a twist. The game doesn’t have secret hidden depths or a revelatory moment where you “get” it after several plays. You already get it even if you haven’t played it, because you’ve probably played a beat ‘em up before and that is exactly what this is. Walk right and throw them bows until you can’t anymore or you win. Chuck dice. Laugh, because treating this game with any seriousness is a mistake. That is intended as a compliment. It’s dumb, good dumb, comfortably dumb. Pulling that off is an accomplishment, not an admonishment.
If I took a paragraph to tell you how SoS plays from a mechanical perspective you’d be forgiven for thinking I just copy and pasted the Wikipedia entry for “Beat ‘em up”, so I’ll stick to the interesting differences. Fighting is resolved via dice, specifically dice with different odds depending on what kinds of attacks are being performed. Punches are fairly reliable, kicks hit harder but less often, and power dice are swingy. Characters and enemies perform different combos, making which character you send after a particular threat an actual choice. Speaking of choices: power tokens. These are effectively your super meter and can be spent on special moves, but you can also burn one to reroll any die on offense OR defense so you’ll constantly be yanked in different directions and forced to make short term VS long term calls. This economy of power is fueled by taking out enemies so you’ll get a constant influx, often softening the cost of spending power to ensure you take out a baddie. It’s as simple as it is satisfying.
A major mechanical standout is the behavior deck. This is your typical co-op “bad stuff happens at the end of each player turn” setup, only with thematic grounding out the wazoo. Rather than a simple Pandemic-esque “put bad thing on location X” every turn each card has specific enemy types taking actions as a unit and performing a variety of maneuvers, not all of which are attacks. This helps make the game feel much more alive and gives each mook a distinct personality. For example, I hate Firebugs with a burning passion because they throw molotovs from long range and torch anything they’re remotely near, even themselves. Killgaroos, by contrast, could try to intimidate you and take some of your power tokens or just ambush you from halfway down the street. You know what they’re generally capable of but not what exactly they’re going to do, and that’s inspired stuff.
Like the best Ameritrash games it isn’t afraid to make sacrifices in order to achieve thematic cohesion. Sometimes the dice just refuse to go your way no matter how much power you burn. Sometimes you whiff a super completely. Accidentally waste a much needed health-restoring chicken because you touched it before your wounded buddy got a chance? Who among us hasn’t? It’s as true to genre as it could possibly be, down to occasionally being completely unfair and greedily devouring your quarters. Is it annoying? Sure, but not nearly as annoying as it is funny. Plus the game’s over so quickly that you can easily just reset if your run is scuffed. Feed the machine, the arcade owner’s gotta pay rent.
I’ve spent a lot of time praising the game but I won’t pretend there aren’t flaws here. It lacks variety in terms of hazards and enemies. Streets of Steel consists of two separate expandalones that you can mix and match but I wouldn’t have minded a bit more in each individual box. Where this void is really felt is in the bosses because there’s only one per set. You’ll never be surprised as to who you’re facing or need to vary up your approach in any way. This is somewhat exacerbated by the difficulty scaling, or lack thereof. Rather than make enemies tougher or smarter the game is only scaled by how many quarters you start the game with. That said it’s yet another intentional thematic decision so I’m writing it off as a minor quibble.
I’m also torn on the minis. To their credit Wild Power Games understood that the sprite art looks way too good to not go for standees as the default, but they also realized that people like plastic so they made them an available add on and sent those for the review as well. This is definitely the best way to tackle this from a consumer perspective as it keeps the price of entry lower, making the game an easier recommendation for non-plastic enthusiasts. The box even has a valley with a form-fitted spot that’s specifically designed to contain the plastic trays so they don’t get dinged, and the sculpts are really nice. That said, the game just looks and plays better with the standees. Aside from the sprites being gorgeous and setting-appropriate they’re instantly identifiable with clear colors and silhouettes, meaning the game plays faster and you never find yourself asking which is which. Granted I’m not a minis painter and a fully painted set would probably alleviate this problem, but there’s so much joy in flicking the mooks off the board after a particularly hefty roll and I would be terrified to do that to someone’s work.
No more nitpicks. Let it be known in no uncertain terms, this game’s greater than the sum of its parts. Yes, it’s just going straight and throwing punches and that is a GOOD thing. You want to talk about a board game made with respect for its subject matter? The game does such a good job of emulating what makes beat ‘em ups fun that I suspect I even know which ones designer Ryan Lesser is a fan of just by playing it (for the record my money’s on Streets of Rage). You can feel the love emanating from the box. That deserves a commendation.
Calling Streets of Steel a beer and pretzels game implies a bit too much substance. This game isn’t the tabletop equivalent of microbrews and Snyder’s or whatever, it’s a 7-Eleven hot dog and a 64oz Big Gulp. Do I want that all the time? God no, but when the craving strikes and I absolutely need some playable junkfood Streets of Steel hits the spot dead on.
Review copy provided by Wild Power Games.