This is an editorial piece. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of, and should not be attributed to, Niche Gamer as an organization.
During the 90s, it was common practice for Japanese action games to get a bit of censorship, and in some cases get some tweaking done to the gameplay. Sometimes this meant a game might get easier or harder. In other cases stages might get remixed, and the gameplay could be sped up or slowed down.
If you grew up playing on a SEGA Genesis/Megadrive in the 90s, you most likely played some of the Streets of Rage games (also known as Bare Knuckle). This was one of the best beat ’em ups that one could play on a console. It was a franchise that saw it all at once as the second sequel came out. It was drastically made inferior when it came to the west, and even for its day it was too spicy for gamers.
The changes between Streets of Rage 3 and Bare Knuckle III made them totally different experiences. Some of the most notable cuts were towards content that would definitely ruffle the feathers of the socially conscious who enjoy bullying. Just what was in Bare Knuckle III that not only would get it banned today- but also got it banned yesterday…
Right out the gate, Bare Knuckle III was rife with offensive pixel art that was too spicy for gamers in the 1990s. While it was not uncommon for minor changes to some sprites for games during the localization process; examples of kanji being replaced or religious imagery being removed for specific cultural guidelines, Bare Knuckle III had to dial back the sex appeal dramatically.
The Streets of Rage/ Bare Knuckle games always dripping with sexual energy. Many of the female characters featured through out the series always had really tight and athletic figures, and wore tight or revealing outfits that emphasized their more desirable characteristics. Every entry faced some censorship, but Bare Knuckle III was the biggest victim of them all.
In Streets of Rage 2, Blaze’s jump kick frames had to be slightly modified to that her underwear couldn’t be seen (God forbid). Every single female in Bare Knuckle III were all completely edited and covered up so that they are wearing more clothes than grandma in church on a Sunday morning.
This aggressive approach to covering up all female characters was confusing back in the day, and it is still confusing now. At the end of the day Axel Stone and the gang are still beating up these bimbos, but now they’re covered up more so it’s OK.
Electra, the dominatrix lady with the whip, is especially sloppy with the edit that was done to her sprite. The way how her new red jacket hugs her form makes no sense, and she appears to be wearing thigh high nylons on top of new leather pants. Was showing off a bit of hip and arm too much for SEGA in the 90s?
Soozie’s editing was so heavy that the artists ended up changing her combat stance. Her tight skirt and top made a statement, and changing her to wearing a black onesie under shorts only makes her look like she can barely breath in that get-up. Her appearance in Streets of Rage 4 loses the ridiculous black tights, but she is still wearing the shorts.
By far the most infamous and tragic censorship in Bare Knuckle III is Ash. Why would SEGA cut this mini-boss from the roster? For being too fabulous, of course. Ash’s character is unusually well developed for such a minor boss fight; you can learn a lot from him just by how he acts and his animations.
Before fighting him, like a good captain of his boat, he unloads his seamen first to soften up the heroes. After giving them a rough pounding; only then will this macho muchacho get sweaty with the player and show them what a real gnarly fist feels like (across the jaw).
Ash is prissy, and even though he prances around on the battlefield like a sugar plum fairy who is probably smuggling a few plums, his attacks are devastating for a guy with limp wrists. Leaping and bounding like a graceful gazelle, this lubed up Village People reject can put up a decent fight; and if you know the trick, he becomes playable too.
Bare Knuckle III is pretty ground breaking to have an openly homosexual playable character in a popular action game. Sadly, it was not meant to be for the localized western release. Sure, players can play as Shiva and the stupid boxing kangaroo, but Ash was just too fabulous for western gamers in the 90s, and he is too fabulous for gamers today too.
Streets of Rage 4 makes a ton of references to past titles in the franchise, and often makes a few nods to the Japanese versions as well. Regretfully, the one thing that the newest entry won’t touch is Ash. The best Streets of Soy 4 can do is a distant poster in the background.
Ash will never get the recognition he deserves for his contribution to representation in video games. Many would accuse his character of being an offensive stereotype, not the fact is he is inspired by the famous “leatherman” Glenn Hughes, of the Village People.
Sadomasochistic sex is a core pillar of “leather” lifestyle, and Ash was an accurate embodiment of the men who lived liked this during the late 70s and 80s.
Streets of Rage/Bare Knuckle was a series about the rough lifestyles from those decades, and the kind of dog eat dog violence that one had to participate in. In Bare Knuckle III Ash proved to be a one tough hombre, and despite his effeminate cadence, he flourished as one of the heavies.
Most importantly, Ash was never a victim, and was always strong- even his stats are above average when playing as him. He represents an underground lifestyle that is not talked about much in the modern era of virtue signaling activism; probably because leathermen’s core values lie in being tough, along with taking and giving pain.
He may have been censored out of the western release of Streets of Rage 3, but with the help of a Game Genie cheat device, it is possible to play as him. SEGA did not entirely delete Ash from the game; they merely disabled the means to get to him.
The kinds of self righteous whiners who would be offended by our loverboy are likely the kind of people who would never play any beat ’em up, let alone Bare Knuckle III/Streets of Rage 3. Was Ash too offensive to be in the game? It is more likely that SEGA was afraid to feature a character with a strong resemblance to Glenn Hughes and wanted to avoid a legal battle.
The true reasons why Ash was censored from the western release of Streets of Rage 3 may never be revealed. However, his exclusion from “Streets of Soy 4” is apparent, and was done out of fear. Fact is, there is no pleasing some people, and making any attempt at representation of any group in a game will always be met with aggressive thugs who shriek how offensive it is, no matter how tasteful.
Ash had a lot of character. Anyone who encountered him while playing Bare Knuckle III will never forget the impression he made. He stood out thanks to his striking design and unconventional fighting style. He may have worn a pendant of the Venus symbol, but Ash was all man, and could put up a decent fight; and for that, we will always be proud of him.