When 3D Streets of Rage 2 arrived on the Nintendo 3DS eShop last week, I made it a point to buy it. Not too many brawlers still hold up today, but Sega's classic action game is one of them.
It all came rushing back as I booted it up over the weekend - that amazing soundtrack, the distinctive crash of the punches and kicks, the digitized yells as a foe went down. It still looks great today, but its faded colors and harsh '80s anime art also gives it that distinctive Sega Genesis "look." On the 3DS, it sparkles.
Originally released on the Sega Genesis back in 1992, Streets of Rage II quickly became one of the console's most popular games. Its predecessor had made a name for itself with its arcade-quality graphics and solid action the previous year, but Streets of Rage II was when the series came into its own. Though superficially similar to the first game, Streets of Rage 2 brought with it new special moves, more sophisticated enemies, and a bigger roster that dispensed with Adam Hunter but introduced Max Thunder and Skate (Sammy in the original game). Consequently, it's remembered as the best game in the series.
That's not the only reason it still stands out, though. As most people are aware, the brawlers that we used to love have not fared well over the years. Graphical showcases back in the day, many of them have little to offer beyond their pretty looks. Even a beloved brawler like The Simpsons hasn't held up all that well, eventually devolving into a repetitive slog that overcomes its attractive graphics (sorry, Bob).
Some of it is structural. By their very nature, brawlers are about beating up waves of enemies, which can get tiresome after a while. But they also suffer from the fact that many of them got their start in arcades, which means that they are by definition unbalanced and exploitive. Take them out of their natural environment, and their true nature as quarter munchers becomes painfully obvious. The SNES port of Turtles in Time is one of the very few arcade brawler ports I can think of that has managed to shake off its roots and become a legitimately great game in its own right.
Streets of Rage 2, on the other hand, was never in the arcades. It was designed from start to finish to be a compelling console experience, and it shows in the way that most attacks are avoidable, life and weapons are plentiful, and the movesets are comparatively deep. Nowhere is that more obvious than the boss battles, which can be frustrating at time (hello, Jet!), but can be mastered with the right attention to detail. Particularly important is the ease with which most of them can be knocked down, leveling the playing field and making the fights less frustrating. In a genre where unbalanced boss battles generally serve as chokepoints, this difference is key.
Beyond that, of course, Streets of Rage 2 is just really fun to play. I already mentioned Yuzo Koshiro's thumping synth soundtrack, which features a mix of early trance and dirty electronic funk that meshes perfectly with Streets of Rage 2's gritty anime art. Aside from the usual bars, parks, and elevators, Streets of Rage 2 takes the opportunity to include distinctive levels like a Xenomorph-like hive that comes by way of an amusment park. And most important of all, it offers players the tools to succe0ed via knockdown attacks, powerful special moves that have the side-effect of chipping away at your health, and strong weapons that can be used to clear crowds.
M2 has done their customarily outstanding job of translating all of this to the Nintendo 3DS, featuring both the original Japanese version and the international version with added 3D effects and the clever Rage Relay, which makes it possible to use all four characters in a single playthrough. Streets of Rage 2 has appeared in many different collections over the years, but it's fair to say that this is the definitive port.
These days, brawlers are quite rare, with most of them injecting RPG elements to add some semblance of depth. The days of the pure arcade brawler are long gone. In that, Streets of Rage 2 is a throwback in more ways than one. Its merits go well beyond pure nostalgia, though. M2's port is proof that even an old-fashioned genre like the brawler can still sing in the modern era.