The Classic Mechanics of ‘Streets of Rage 2’ Are Never Getting Old
With the 3DS version of SEGA's brawler out now, I play it twice through to see if it's still my favourite game ever.
Ask me what my favourite game is, any time of day, after any number of drinks, and the answer will usually be Streets of Rage 2. Usually because sometimes I wake up cranky, or come home crankier, and all I want to do is play OutRun 2. But for the most part, pin me against any shop front or pulling-away bus and demand to know what game I'd take with me when I go, and that's my reply: Streets of Rage 2, SEGA's bright-like-neon beat 'em up of 1992, originally on the Mega Drive and since ported to just about every bloody system under this sun that will one day swallow us all.
The problem with having a favourite game, against a movie or record or book, is that this medium is dictated by technology like no other. It's entertainment driven by mechanics, behind-the-scenes processes and mathematics, while time-resistant narrative quality comprises a secondary concern for many players and makers alike. Those pseudo-3D Mode 7 graphics of F-Zero on the SNES looked amazing in the early 1990s, but look at them today and, hmm, not so much. F-Zero's still a speedy delight, the lead title of a franchise long overdue a revival, but it's got nothing on the sumptuous sights and sounds of something like Mario Kart 8. Given a choice in 2015, between playing a 16bit classic and a contemporary equivalent, most gamers would surely go for the latter.
So when I say Streets of Rage 2 is my favourite game of all time, that's as much informed by my memories of playing it in the early 1990s than any methodological measuring of its qualities beside the thousands of other titles I've sat down with since. Would I rather play it right now, over The Witcher 3, Dying Light, Rocket League, LEGO Jurassic World or any other games still cluttering the area around my consoles and their dashboards? I put that to the test two ways.
Firstly, I left my 360 edition of the Mega Drive Ultimate Collection just lying around in my living room, beside the current-gen options. It's got Streets of Rage 2 on it, as well as the original game and the series' under-loved but still pretty solid third instalment. (A boxing kangaroo! A cyborg geriatric scientist! A not-at-all-offensive-even-for-1994 homosexual character who's more depressing stereotype than he is digital skin and bones! Honestly, I don't know why this game's popularity stalled compared to its predecessors.) It takes me a while to get around to it, but eventually in the disc goes, and I'm right back there, smacking down returning crime lord Mr X's goons as Axel and Blaze, side-scrolling and fly-kicking my way through to victory and the salvation of our pal, the kidnapped Adam.
The only disconnects between the experience today and my memories of the Mega Drive era are my 360 pad's sticky B button and the massive brickwork frame surrounding the original 4:3 display. Otherwise, the feelings are the same. It's not like I haven't played Streets of Rage 2 since the time when I bought most of my clothes from Makro, as I did get this Ultimate Collection for a reason, and it wasn't to remind myself of the questionable thrills to be found in Altered Beast and Flicky. But it's been a long time, with the 360 barely being on at all since the PS4 became my console of choice (for everything that isn't Nintendo, at least). And yet this game's class shines clearly through its crisp yet aged looks. It's a phenomenal little fighter, each playable character given their own special moves – some of which chip away at your health bar, so need to be used sparingly – and a great amount of variety in enemy types, even if they are regularly repeating by the sixth stage of eight.
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And it looks even better in its most recent port, for the 3DS, released as part of Japanese developer M2's series of 3D conversions of SEGA classics for the handheld system. It comes after a cracking version of Out Run, released earlier in 2015 (and featured on VICE Gaming here), as well as Sonic the Hedgehog, Shinobi III, Space Harrier and Fantasy Zone II, all of which are terrific (and cheap!) additions to the Nintendo eShop.
"It's hard to say which of these titles is our favourite, as we've enjoyed working on every one," says M2 president Naoki Horii, who kindly answers a bunch of questions I compile for him (and his translator). "But, Streets of Rage 2 is certainly up there. It's a fantastic game." M2's work on the 3D Classics series began, as Horii tells me, as a "what if".
"What if 3D stereoscopic technology was applied to Space Harrier," he says. "How wonderful would that be? How cool would it look? Both SEGA and M2 wanted to see what would happen if we added a little bit of spice to these titles, in the form of modern gaming technology. Would it enhance the entertainment factor? I think the reception that the releases have had from critics highlights that these games are as relevant today as ever, and that means we've succeeded."
Nintendo Life look at how the 3DS 'Streets of Rage 2' compares to the Mega Drive original
This is my second test: will playing this game when it's been "remade" for modern tech put me off its once-pure appeal. Not one bit, it turns out. The 3DS Streets of Rage 2 is already up there with 2015's best "new" releases, for me – and I count the 3DS Out Run amongst those, too. The console's 3D slider is best placed at maximum for this one, at least when the effect's set to fall-in rather than pop-out, the mist of stage three's climactic alien tunnel and the gently lapping waves of stage six's opening beach looking particularly sweet with increased depth.
The controls are super responsive, though it's best to stick to the D-pad over the Circle alternative, and there's the option to play through either the Japanese (titled Bare Knuckle II) or PAL versions – they play the same, and you'll get to smack about enemies called Donovan, Wayne and Martin in either mode. Further options unlock on the game's completion – finish it once and you can replay with "Fists of Death" activated, meaning one-hit kills for all enemies, including bosses. Useful, for when you want to fit a complete session into a Central Line journey, or for overcoming that stage three difficulty spike without breaking a bead of sweat.
Looking at the pixel-art titles that indie publisher Devolver promotes, as well as several more projects coming from smaller developers, the graphical style of Streets of Rage 2 really doesn't seem out-dated. Character sprites are big, moves are exaggerated, and backgrounds are swarming in tiny details. I appreciate that it's got nothing on the wholly immersive worlds of today's finest RPGs, but the environments of Streets of Rage 2 – at first an unnamed, once-peaceful city overrun by crime; later a ship bobbing on the ocean, motorcyclists spilling bombs across the deck; later still a factory full of go-nowhere conveyer belts and annoying battle robots with spiked-balls on the ends of extendable chains (oh, the clunk noise as they bounce off your skull: brilliant) – are intense and inviting. You don't need to wait for the "Go" arrow to press onwards – you desperately want to see what the designers have in store for you next, even on the nth playthrough.
It's all utterly ridiculous, of course, a relic of a games-making era long gone, where sandwich boards and sandbags can be busted apart to reveal health-restoring roast chickens, because... that's just how games were, in the early 1990s. Fire-breathing fatsos called Big-Ben and Balloon represent real threats to your progress here, more so than fit young things bearing steel pipes and blades (although they're not at the same headache-inducing level of severity as the Blanka-crossed-with-Vega level-end bosses Zamza and Souther, who greedily gobble up the extra lives I've picked up prior to encountering them). The story is so basic as to be non-existent, too, simply: the bad man that you beat in the last game is back, he's taken your mate, so go and rescue him. Still, at least we're saving a dude for once, right? The overall end boss is a bit of a dud, too, Mr X's machine gun his only means of attack, and you can easily enough nip behind his cigar-puffing face and forcefully introduce it to his penthouse's ever-so-plush carpet.
And yet it's all so compelling. I finish the 3DS version and immediately start another game, getting to the first level climax with brawling barman Barbon before realising I should probably do some "proper work", like write about Streets of Rage 2. Which is still, 100 percent, after two complete plays inside 24 hours, my favourite game of all time. I don't know what objectively makes a classic, but I know in my heart that this gem amongst so many SEGA greats is one, for me.
"A classic is defined by whether it introduced new ways of doing things, or design ideas that didn't previously exist at the time," is Horii's line on the matter. I don't think that Streets of Rage 2 innovated particularly, but it certainly refined a formula previously explored by Final Fight and the arcade version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, as well as the original Streets of Rage, into a symphony where once there were only simplistic melodic structures.
(Oh shit. I've not even mentioned the music, have I? Yuzo Koshiro's scintillating electronic score is cited by a host of artists and producers operating today as a huge influence. It deserves a full article of its own, really, so all I'll say here is that if you loved the music on the Mega Drive original, plugging some half-decent headphones into your 3DS has it sounding even sweeter still. Sound effects, too, are bone-snappingly satisfying.)
I was going to choose just one track from Koshiro's soundtrack, but here's the whole lot (I've a particular soft spot for 'Slow Moon', which starts at 28:10, and the ending theme, at 48:07).
"When you look at modern games, they're still just a collection of simple mechanics," Horii says. "It's the quality and the consistency of these entertaining factors that matter the most, rather than the number of them. So I think all of these classic SEGA titles have much to offer, in terms of evergreen gameplay appeal." The simple mechanics of Streets of Rage 2 haven't aged a day, and I doubt they'll feel stale another 20 years from now. Kick, punch, chop, block... Beat up an Ultimate Warrior impersonator beneath a baseball field and eat apples fashioned from splintered chairs. It was fantastic then, it's fantastic now, and it'll probably still be my favourite game when my thumbs are too arthritic to play it.
3D Streets of Rage 2 is available in the Nintendo eShop from the 23rd of July, and will cost you about as much as a pint of lager in a central London pub.
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