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Retro Recall: Streets of Rage 2

“One year after the battle…the city that had been plagued with crime and violence was safe and peaceful. However, evil has once again cast its shadow over the city.”

Not Shakespeare I grant you but those words began many a gamers introduction to the amazing experience that was Streets of Rage 2. Releasing just over a year after the original, Streets of Rage 2 was the epitome of the bigger, better sequel. The roster was larger, the graphics where crisper, the gameplay mechanics were tweaked & improved and the soundtrack was (and still is) regarded as one of the greatest ever in videogames history.

Streets of Rage 2 is probably my favourite game ever. It’s not perfect, no game is (looking at you Breath of the Wild) but to me its foibles and niggles are all part of its charm. I’ve bought this game multiple times and on numerous systems, most recently on Xbox One when it joined the ranks of backwards compatible titles. I would undoubtedly buy it again if it comes to the Switch. On a side note, I highly recommend the 3DS version. The 3D implementation works brilliantly and doesn’t feel even remotely out of place with the original aesthetic.
You see I have always enjoyed the side scrolling beat ’em up genre and back in the early 90’s there were a whole lot for gamers to choose from. In the arcades especially, “brawler’s” were a licence to print money. There were so many great titles like TMNT, Cadillacs & Dinosaurs and of course The Simpsons Arcade. But when it came to the home systems, it ultimately came down to two game series for the beat ‘em up crown; the SNES port of the arcade Final Fight or the Megadrive/Genesis original title Streets of Rage. Of course there had been others, like Golden Axe and the excellent Turtles in Time, but they were just the pre-fight for the main event.

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When Streets of Rage 2 was released in January ’93 (in the UK), as far as I was concerned, the side scroller had reached its peak, never to be bettered. I must have played through it over a hundred times, be it with my friends, on my own, even with my older sister. I just couldn’t get enough of what this “16 MEG” cartridge was offering.

When looked at next to its prequel, SoR2 was light years ahead. The characters where huge and beautifully animated compared to the short squatty sprites of the original. Axel and Blaze had been revamped with new abilities and the “police assist” had been removed entirely to make way for character dependent special moves. Speaking of things that were removed, the previous game’s “strong” character, Adam, was gone. Demoted to a merely a plot point but in his place were two new heroes, the gigantic pro wrestler Max and the nippy little speedster Skate (who happens to be Adam’s kid brother).

It wasn’t just the heroes that got a graphical overhaul. Numerous enemy types returned with a beefed up new look and along with them came some seriously sized bosses which included a…erm…let’s say homage to the Ultimate Warrior. The levels themselves were brighter, with more activity and depth than in the previous title. Little touches like swinging candelabras, flickering neon signs and scrolling foreground pieces brought the battle arenas to life.
One of my strongest memories of the game, and a prime example of these improvements, is going through the bar at the end of the first level. Seeing the barman shaking a cocktail in the background, only for him to randomly do a runner. Then, once we’ve cleared the area of enemies, we head out back to follow him. And there he was…..waiting. Standing in an alley, in the nicely animated rain, surrounded by flunkies and the obligatory roast chicken in a dustbin. One shirt tearing animation later, the barman had become the game’s first boss; the kickboxing master….Barbon! I know it doesn’t sound like much in today’s post Uncharted, Telltale, The Last of Us gaming world but that little narrative beat was bloody brilliant back then!

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Obviously, I can’t talk about Streets of Rage 2 without giving a call out to the genius that is Yuko Koshiro for the games amazing soundtrack. It was so heavily influenced by techno music and was considered revolutionary at the time, sounding more like something you would hear in a club than out of your tv. Even to this day the soundtrack is one of, if not the, first things people think of when remembering Streets of Rage 2.

Outside of the music though, the general sound design is equally solid. Yes, Sega’s console didn’t have the best sound chip but that did not hold the developers back. The sound effects had weight to them, there was a satisfying thud when you hit someone (which is surprisingly an area where a lot of other games fall down). Even the limited vocals of grunts, screams and screeches work nicely and don’t grate on the ears, which is vital as you do hear them a lot.

That was nearly 25 years ago, now let’s roll forward to 2017 and sadly the genre is pretty much dead. Yes, there are still brawlers but nowadays everything is three dimensional & free roaming, far removed from the arcade side scrollers of old. We do get the occasional nugget from Indie studios, trying to recapture that golden age gameplay but so far nothing has come close to nailing that Streets of Rage 2 feel (though to be fair even Streets of Rage 3 couldn’t manage it).

There is a new title on the horizon however, named Raging Justice, which seems like the best shot the industry has had in years. Fingers crossed it can live up to the swelling expectations and you can be sure I’ll be keeping my bruised eye on that one.