The gameplay features a large increase in pace from Streets of Rage 2. The heroes move and attack faster, but so do the enemies. Enemy attacks can also be avoided with new running and vertical-dodge moves, though most player attacks deal less damage than in the predecessor. The level timer has been removed, replaced with the 'power meter' (see below). The end-of-level 'Time bonus' has been replaced with a 'Life bonus', determined by the amount of life-bar a player has left.
A significant change is that special moves no longer always drain the player's life bar, thanks to the power meter. The power meter takes a few seconds to fill, and when empty, the player is weaker in attacking, and takes more damage when hit and when using special moves. When full however, the player attacks and defends at full strength, and use of a special move will not drain the player's life bar at all, though it will drain the power meter to empty again. However, although the power meter makes a large difference to the player's strength in Bare Knuckle 3, in Streets of Rage 3 the difference is barely noticeable. The change means special moves can be used much more often, extending a character's normal repertoire. Though this is balanced by the moves being weaker.
The player's semi-special (blitz) moves, although initially much weaker than in the previous game, can be upgraded, with the 'power star' system. When a player gains 40,000 points on a single life, they receive a power star (maximum 3), which gives them a more powerful blitz attack. Losing a life will lose the player a power star, so they can be difficult to keep on the later stages.
Traps in the scenery make a return from Streets of Rage 1; enemies can once again be thrown into pits or off the side of an elevator. Trains and various electric/laser devices also make appearances. Other features to make a return from the first game in the series are co-operative attacks, and the inability to throw the heavy fire-breathers, where attempting to do so will fail, with the player taking damage.
There are also increases in enemy intelligence: more enemies can pick up weapons, or block attacks, some enemies employ co-operative attacks, and some enemies can even steal exposed food items.
Use of weapons differs from Streets of Rage 2. Each weapon picked up has its own lifebar, meaning it can only be used for a few attacks before expiring. However, each weapon gives particular characters added special moves:
- Knife: A usual kitchen knife. The most common weapon and the weakest along with Kunai. Blaze and Skate can perform special moves with it.
- Lead Pipe: A strong, large pipe. Very good range and power from this weapon. Axel and Skate can use it to perform special moves.
- Baseball Bat: A wooden bat, returning from Streets of Rage. Used exactly like the Lead Pipe, so Axel and Skate can use it to perform special moves.
- Plank: A wooden plank, used exactly like the Lead Pipe and the Baseball Bat, so Axel and Skate can use it to perform special moves.
- Katana: A Japanese sword made for Samurai warriors, with superior reach and power. Axel and Blaze can perform some impressive and damaging moves with this.
- Kunai: A Japanese knife carried from Mr. X's Ninjas. It works exactly like Knife. Blaze and Skate are able to use this in special attacks.
- Grenade: Causes a large amount of damage though has to be thrown accurately.