Nostalgia can be a very powerful illusion. It can also be very disenchanting, if you ever decide to return to the pleasures that sit golden in the memories of your youth. That old N64 game, that first skateboard, even your first girlfriend - all these things should be looked back on, but never brought back to the present. For nostalgia, it’s really just a yearning for something better than The Now, disguised by the mistaken notion that it can always be found in The Way Back Then. It can play tricks on us, make us forget that the TV programs we watched and the various other pastimes we partook in products of their times, only remembered because they were the better things in a more primitive age. By embracing the old once again, we only have the present to compare it to - all the more attractive, fashionable luxuries of modernity - and through that comparison alone, we promptly have our memories tarnished. Nostalgia in the mind is always a wistful, dreamful thing, but nostalgia in front of us is usually a bitch. So if you ever wanted to go back and dig out Goldeneye, pop an ollie in front of the new generation of kids down at the skate park or give Christine a ring, just remember one thing - it may not turn out like you want, and you might then have no option but to look ahead, the blissful past now too ugly to regard.
If, like me, you grew up on a robust diet of 16-bit side scrolling beat ‘em ups though, you can still play Streets of Rage 2 without the fear of the past deceiving you. It is still a masterpiece and a joy to play. Sega’s classic vigilante simulator recently also got a 3D-enhanced edition on the Nintendo 3DS - just another footnote to its legacy, along with the continued presence it enjoys in the online stores of even today’s consoles. If you’re still yet to experience this classic retro street brawler - young gamer that you likely are - then allow me to provide a convincing case for your immediate action to check it out. It may be the 2nd game of a franchise fondly remembered (and never fully rebooted), but it’s a critical milestone in gaming history; a frozen point in time when, yes, video games were less sophisticated, but were far more pure in the entertainment stakes. It has punks to beat down and a city to liberate from the clutches of a criminal cartel - and you (and possibly a mate) are the only ones capable of administering such skull-cracking justice.
Streets of Rage 2 is but one title in the history of the beat ‘em up - a genre that came to prominence in the late 80s, enjoyed its peak in the early to mid 90s, and has barely received attention since. Such games under this umbrella primarily revolve around the simple task of taking your character through a series of levels from left to right, all the while knocking down the waves of bad guys standing in your way through any means possible. 95% of the time, the plotlines to explain the reasoning behind all this wanton carnage barely deviate from either freeing your girlfriend or your hometown from some kind of evil entity - an element that hasn’t been altered since the considered godfather of this genre came out - Taito’s 1986 title, Renegade. The genre’s wave of success was largely carried on the back of two other franchises however - Technos Japan’s Double Dragon (1987, above left) which offered the chance for two players to bring the pain to their foes, and Capcom’s Final Fight (1990, above right), which largely offered the same thing but with a longer game, heaps more style and a whole array of memorable, outlandish characters. Both, too, offered the opportunities to use each level’s environment against your enemies as well. Discarded weapons could be picked up and used, and even surrounding scenery - elevators, factory equipment and ledges being particular favourites - could be used with great effect to send your assailants to an environment-assisted end. This mixture of variety in the violence was a massive hit with the teenage arcade crowds of the time, and gave their respective development companies massive financial success - both in the coin-op market, and the home computer and console ports that inevitably followed.
By 1991, Sega was getting in on this act too - the first Streets of Rage (above) was released for its then-fledgling Genesis console, and similarly received a glowing response from the gaming public. Visually, it was far grittier than its counterparts, depicting an urban landscape that made Double Dragon and Final Fight’s efforts look gaudy and cartoonish. But it was still very much a game of the same mold, with players following the storyline of three former police officers - Axel Stone, Blaze Fielding and Adam Hunter - on a vigilante mission to put down Mr. Big, a crime boss whose army of gangsters has brought their home city to its knees. It played considerably better than the by then-dated Double Dragon, but it still lost out to Final Fight in terms of playability. Even if the protagonists may have differed slightly - Axel was a well-rounded mixture of speed and power, Blaze was the swiftest and Adam the most hardest hitting - they largely possessed the same moveset. The bosses too lacked personality, and the whole experience lacked the arcade polish that Capcom’s rivalling title continued to enjoy. But it was a good start nonetheless - and a platform for its markedly superior sequel to build on.
Fast forward to the end of 1992: the 16-bit era, by this point, was flourishing. Consoles were producing titles that were far closer in technical prowess to their coin-op counterparts, and another game from Capcom by the name of Street Fighter 2 was continuing to grab arcade-goers’ attentions by the scruff of the neck. Street Fighter 2’s sphere of influence would go on to encompass the entire fighting game spectrum, but it would also have a subtle influence on Streets of Rage 2 as well, even if the two games were different in gameplay. Primarily, this was reflected in SOR2’s higher-defined look to its predecessor. From the flashing neon lights of its first level all the way through to the tropical criminal HQ that serves as the game’s climax, Sega’s sequel is thoroughly more detailed and coloured. It’s pixel style retains a timelessness only possible because Capcom’s legendary title, plus their other arcade hits, led the way with such striking aesthetics in the first place. Influence from Final Fight’s graphics, especially in the backgrounds, is also notable - but at least SOR2 manages to borrow these ideas without compromising the 90s urban realism from the first title. With that vital last component still intact, Streets of Rage 2 breathes independently. It isn’t just mere derivation - it stands out as one of the distinctive, best-looking console titles of the era.
And then there is the matter of the gameplay - revamped in just as rich a fashion, even if the storyline was exactly the same as before. Mr. Big from the former game is now masquerading under the clearly more sinister title of Mr. X, and has taken control of the city once again. This time though, he’s taken SOR1 stalwart, Adam, hostage - leaving Axel and Blaze in need of some reinforcements. Alongside this returning pair, two additional characters were available for your bone-crunching, tooth-liberating pleasure - roller-blading speed demon Eddie “Skate” Hunter (Adam’s younger brother), and Max “Thunder” Hatchett, a drop kicking, suplexing professional wrestler and good friend of Axel’s. Differences between the characters were also far more deeply pronounced, but it is the range of attacks that really made the game come into its own. Gone were the basic punch-kick combos and flying knees of the first game, to be replaced with a larger variety of offense - which again, stole more than a few ideas from a certain Street Fighter 2. Among Blaze’s repertoire of moves came a short-range fireball that didn’t look completely unlike those of a certain Ryu and Ken’s, even if it never left her palms. Axel meanwhile earned himself a furious combo flurry of punches for a special attack, that again finished with a rising uppercut that looked uncannily like a Dragon Punch. Skate’s special move of a roller-blade corkscrew attack involved an animation practically ripped out of fellow Street Fighter character Dhalsim’s book, and there was even enough room to fit in a boss at the end of the ghost house level who looked - and behaved - pretty similarly to another SF favourite, Blanka. Many would cry ‘lawsuit’ at such a flagrant attempt of copyright infringement, and looking back it’s genuinely surprising that Capcom didn’t at least try to cry foul over it. They most likely would have ultimately failed though, because these little moments of copycat are minor enhancements to a greater whole. There are more than enough original levels, set pieces and enemies packed all throughout the game to make SOR2’s little IP violations seem more like inspirations. Just like the visuals, every aspect of the game’s content comes together as a collective evolution of all of the lesser parts - and because of that, it kicked ass like nothing else.
If you don’t believe me, check out a playthrough of the first two levels (above). Sure, the digitized voice effects might grate after a while, but when else has proverbially smashing someone in the teeth sounded so satisfying? Sonically, Streets of Rage 2 is still a beast. Its soundtrack - a glorious rendition of house, jungle, hip-hop and other club music of the time - is still lavishly acclaimed to this day, and rightfully so. It is the product of Yuzo Koshiro, a video game music producer who previously provided tracks for the likes of Actraiser on the SNES and fellow Genesis classic Beyond Oasis, but the music produced for Streets of Rage 2 is undoubtedly his magnum opus. The tracks for each level weren’t just perfect dramatic scoring for the on-screen mayhem (which often provided its own percussion), they were - and still are in some places - practically identical in production value to the so-called ‘real’ dance hits being created by contemporary DJs of the time. When it’s then considered that such music was produced on a mere Genesis - a 16-bit console that officially had a worse sound chip than the SNES - such an accomplishment turns into a genuinely historic technical achievement. It’s left a legacy keenly felt in both video game and modern day music as well - Labrinth and Childish Gambino are among the artists who cite the score as influential to their own works - and without such a blistering score, there’s no way Streets of Rage 2 would possess the same kind of pace or energy, or enjoy the same kind of warm praise it continues to do. By all means come for the rumble, but stay for the rave: the early 90s were all about that attitude, and Streets of Rage 2 has it in every snare and drumbeat.
It’s an energy that sadly couldn’t be instilled into the franchise’s later titles. Streets of Rage 3 followed a year later and tried to enhance the gameplay further, struggling under a host of ideas that hampered the enjoyment somewhat - branching storylines, the removal of popular characters and the inclusion of guns as weapons *shudders* were just a few of the faux pas. After that, the series spiritually continued under the guise of Fighting Force, a Playstation-only title that curiously started development life as Streets of Rage 4 for the Sega Saturn (more on that another time), which inevitably bit the dust after two entries. For Streets of Rage - and perhaps the entire beat ‘em up genre - the second entry of this series will always be the zenith of how good it all got. Those of the current generation may find it all a bit sluggish at first, but are sure to find a deep sense of satisfaction in just how smooth the flow of body blows and overhead throws eventually becomes. And if that soundtrack can’t hook you - nothing will.
For the older gamers, the memories and the fun of old are still there - safe and intact. Jack, the knife-wielding mid-boss of the first level, is still lurking in the shadows of that garage by the bar, waiting to take you on again. Just give him a Grand Upper or two and put him back in his place. He’ll be glad you did. You will too.
Streets of Rage 2 is still available in a variety of ways:
- On PC, as part of the SEGA Mega Drive & Genesis Classic Collection
- For download on the PS3 online store
- For download on the XBox Games store
- For download on the Wii Virtual Console store
Inexplicably there is no version available for the PS4, but surely that has to change at some point...