Some games are good. Some games are great. Some games…Are Essential.
If you were to make a list of the best Mega Drive or Genesis games ever released, if Streets of Rage 2 isn’t in the top 10 or even top 5, your list if plain wrong. It’s that simple. The game known in Japan as Bare Knuckle 2: The Requiem of the Deadly Battle, is a masterclass of scrolling brawler greatness, and is also probably one of the best sequels of all time.
Before I gush any further about this pinnacle of 16-bit gaming, let’s have some facts, shall we? Released in North America in December 1992 and Europe and Japan in January, 1993, this game is the very first 16MEG cartridge that was released for the SEGA Mega Drive. That translates in modern storage as around 2MB, which sounds like a tiny amount of space, but for the time this was the hugest cartridge for the system at the time. Cartridge storage sizes were a massive part of SEGA and Nintendo’s marketing throughout the 16-bit console wars, and a game this size was a big deal.
Developed once again by SEGA’s AM7 studio, with composer Yuzo Koshiro returning to compose a cracking soundtrack to punch people in the face to – But more on that in a bit. Being a sequel, the core mechanics remained the same as the original game – That is to say you walk for a few seconds, get ambushed by a menagerie of gang members, you kick seven shades of sushi out of them, walk a bit a few more steps, fight a few more enemies, rinse and repeat. It’s scrolling brawler basics, but the base mechanics were so great and so refined to begin with, there’s was no reason to change them.
Taking place, funnily enough, after the first game, our heroes were enjoying the peace they earnt after ridding the streets (of Rage) from Mr. X and his crime syndicate. Of course, this peace is rudely interrupted by the kidnapping of Adam Hunter, one of the original three playable characters, and the return of the nasty crime syndicate that were thought to have been defeated in the first game. Of course, Mr. X is behind all of this, so the Axel Stone and Blaze Fielding take to the streets (of rage) to rescue Adam, forcibly stop Mr. X’s gang and generally do good. Joining them this time around, is the unfeasibly muscular and awesomely-named wrestler Max Thunder and Adam’s roller-blade wearing kid brother, Eddie “Skate” Hunter. Or Sammy, if you’re playing Bare Knuckle 2.
Each fighter has their own strengths and weaknesses of course. Axel and Blaze are your more balanced characters to play as, offering relatively average stats. Being a gigantic brute, Max is your slow but massively strong beast, while Skate lacks strength but excels in raw speed and agility. All four characters have their own special techniques and all feel very different from one another, and complement each other well in the always-fun two player mode.
The simplicity of a side-scrolling brawler never fails to be enjoyable and the same is of course true for Streets of Rage 2. Whether it’s with one player or two, there’s something so satisfying about mashing some buttons and smashing some pixelated faces in, and luckily this is something that this game offers in spades. With devastating new moves available for each fighter, there’s enough variety to this sequel to set it apart from the original game.
And then there’s the music. Oh yes, the music. Yuzo Koshiro’s thumping electronic soundtrack for the the Streets of Rage trilogy is legendary, and for good reason – He made the Mega Drive’s FM synthesis chip sing with tracks that sounded like contemporary techno and electronic music of the time. Each track is a 16-bit masterpiece, and are good enough to listen to away from the game. It’s the perfect soundtrack for a scrolling brawler, with the expertly instrumented electronic beats perfectly matching up to the pugilistic gameplay.
The sprite design was also massively upgraded for the sequel, with each returning hero and villain getting a gorgeous visual upgrade. What’s more, the grab bag of stages in this game span so many weird and wonderful environments that are so varied and off the wall at times, you’re not quite sure what’s coming next. One minute you’re fighting in a baseball stadium, the next, the baseball diamond becomes a lift down into an underground fighting ring. Then, there’s the amusement park in the third level, that eventually takes you through a pirate ship setting, and somehow ending up in an alien-themed area, complete with hatching eggs and a very Giger-esque xenomorph type boss. For some reason. It never makes sense and it doesn’t really matter, so long as these environments keep the game fresh – Which they do.
There is a reason that Streets of Rage 2 is a highly-revered, genuine classic. This is a brawler that still holds up, which for a 20 plus year old game, is nothing short of impressive. The soundtrack remains the stuff of legends, the two-player co-op continues to be as enjoyable as ever, and it still feels as good to play as it did all of those years ago. It’s for that reason alone that Streets of Rage 2 takes its rightful place as one of Pug Hoof Gaming’s Essentials, and I will fight anyone who says otherwise.
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