That most websites and blogs tasked with reviewing older games, particularly those re-released through digital distribution networks like Apple’s iTunes Store, would view having to actually play something ‘older’ a chore is beyond me. I see this every time they cobble a quickie review of the latest reissue together without much thought, no doubt so they can focus their attention on ‘newer’ and ‘better’ games waiting for them. How tragic, as many times these so-called fossils are superior to just about anything that’s released today. Streets of Rage 2 deserves better than this. It certainly deserves better than the slapdash emulation that Sega has given it on the iOS platform, which uses their outdated iOS emulator to bring one of the very best 16-bit games ever made to the portable screen. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but its not exactly a perfect fit, with the results being anything but music to the ears of anxious Sega fans hoping to rage a little on the go.
In true 1980s and early 90s fashion, there isn’t much to the game’s story, except to say it follows the rules and conventions of a proper arcade brawler to the letter. In any self-respecting videogame series the bad guys are like cockroaches, and leaving even one alive means you’re just opening yourself up for re-infestation. Likewise, despite being thrashed thoroughly in the original game, it seems the villainous Mr. X and his evil syndicate have once again risen to power and kidnapped Adam Hunter (the black dude from the first game) with an eye on vengeance. So now it’s up to Alex Stone (the white guy), Blaze Fielding (the hot chick), professional wrestler and massively bulked Max Thunder, and Eddie ‘Skate’ Hunter (Adam’s roller skate-wearing younger brother) to band together and risk everything…even their lives…on the Streets of Rage for a second time.
With every necessary videogame archetype satisfied (missing only the third game’s cyborg grandpa and kung fu kangaroo), we’ve got the basics of one of the very best side-scrolling brawlers every created, and for many of you reading this, simply the best.
While the original Streets of Rage was clearly Sega’s attempt to compete with Capcom’s popular (and one-time Super Nintendo exclusive) Final Fight, it left a lot to be desired. That it looked, played, and felt like an urbanized Golden Axe was not the issue (you’ll hear no complaints from me), but in the visual and gameplay departments it definitely felt a few steps behind, despite having one of the best Yuzo Koshiro soundtracks thumping in the background. If the original SOR was better than Final Fight in theory, than Streets of Rage 2 was better in execution, and practically every other way possible, bringing everything that was missing from the first game to vivid life with superior graphics, sound, and gameplay that went far beyond anything we’d ever seen in a simple brawler, a genre that was fast being made obsolete by that other Capcom juggernaut, Street Fighter II.
No worries, because this time Sega came prepared, as Streets of Rage 2 not only stole the best bits from Final Fight and improved them, but also carried several of Capcom’s immensely popular Street Fighter II game over for the ride as well. The World Warriors impact can be felt in every molecule of SOR2, from the immensely improved sprites to the characters new super moves (is that a Dragon Punch I see?), to the new character life bars that give each and every baddie their own name. Don’t tell me you didn’t think the carnival dwelling Zamza was the mutant offspring of Blanka + Vega (the spin-dash and claw kind of give it away). The game even copped the SNES Street Fighter II’s most esoteric bragging right; it packed a full 16 megabits of bone-crushing, knuckle-burning power.
By far the biggest addition was the expanded gameplay, which added much-needed variety to what might have been another punch-punch affair. You’re able to grab, slam, pummel, and even tag-team the baddies with a creative flair, often letting your inner psychopath take flight like never before. Having Axel smack a baddie for a few, grab him, backflip around him, and then violently slam him to the curb is exhilarating and too much fun. Taking back these streets with a friend is sublime; games like this just work better with a partner who’s similarly dedicated to some late-night raging marathons. Gone are the Golden Axe-style power “calls”, replaced with energy sapping power moves that can help turn the tide in the thick of battle, which is more often than you’d like.
As much fun as this sounds, the real reason we played games like this – apart from spending quality time with our buds – had little to do with the game itself. I don’t think I’m lying when I say a major factor was being able to listen to the outstanding soundtrack, composed by none other than Yuzo Koshiro, returning to bless us with some of the best tracks he’s ever committed to silicon. Few have so thoroughly mastered the Genesis’ hardware as Koshiro, and even one listen to his blistering (and copyrighted) work here helps explain by its gathered a cult-following of its own and become one of the most remixed videogame OSTs on the club theme. Highlights include the perfect “Go Straight” (first level), which literally sets the stage for what’s to come, while many consider the titillating “Under Logic” (Fourth Level) to be their favorite, or the long-playing epic “Slow Moon”. For me, it was always the stellar remix of the first game’s “Intro” theme, which samples Enigma’s Sadeness (Part I), and played to perfection during the game’s emotional final stages.
Its small touches like that that kept us playing long after we’d beaten every boss, seen every sprite, and kicked Mr. X’s butt again and again. Has there ever been a brawler that so completely “got it” before or since? The short answer – nope. Special mention must be made towards the game’s nearly crystal-clear samples and effects, a rare treat on Sega’s hardware, which helped bring every smash, crash, and slash to vivid 16-bit life. Axel’s incredibly awesome uppercut (Get Da Pah!) is a highlight worth revisiting, and often.
If any of this sounds like glorious fun, it is – on the right hardware. If you’ve played any one of Sega’s Genesis iOS releases you’ve played them all. That is, you’ve played with their less-than-stellar emulator on Apple’s platform. Barebones is the right word to describe it, as you’re pretty much stuck with what you get. This means no changing settings as you like, and unless you’re keen on the virtual d-pad and buttons overwhelming the playing area you’ll have to opt for the itty-bitty scaled-out view to see everything.
Surprisingly, the controls are decent enough to play without much struggle, though the emulator’s larger A/B/C virtual buttons make dual-presses nearly impossible to perform quickly, meaning many of the game’s back-punches and rear attacks won’t save you when they’re needed most. There’s still 2-player co-op, but only through local Bluetooth connections, and the Japanese version (Bare Knuckle 2) is available if you change your device language to Japanese if you’re interested.
But all of this is forgivable, as the game remains as graphically impressive and playable as ever, even if some of your favorite strategies need a little re-jiggering to get the timing right; a small price to pay for having Streets of Rage 2 in your pocket. What isn’t forgivable and a likely deal-breaker for most, is how badly the emulator ‘emulates’ the game’s epic soundtrack. From the first note to several sound-effects, it just sounds off, almost as if there are layers of instruments missing from the final mix. While nowhere as bad as the decrepit Dreamcast Sega Smash Pack edition (yuck), it’s clear that whoever was responsible for this re-release cared little on making sure the game’s singular feature survived the translation. Again, this has happened before with Sega’s lazy ‘porting’ to their failed Dreamcast console, which only makes experiencing it again all the more puzzling.
Streets of Rage 2 was and will always be considered one of the very best games its genre has ever produced, as well as shining example when everything comes together just right. Unfortunately, much of this magic is missing from Sega’s lazy emulated version for iOS devices. In all honesty, there isn’t much wrong with how the gameplay translates to the virtual buttons, save for some difficulty in trying to press two buttons at once for combo attacks. The real culprit here is how Sega’s iOS emulator fails to faithfully reproduce one of the most stunning and popular 16-bit videogame soundtracks of all-time, rendering Yuzo Koshiro’s themes into jittery messes that lack the original compositions’ depth and balance. If all you want is the gameplay, by all means, but those seeking perfection should probably hold off.
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