When it comes to Sega’s 16-bit library, there are classics and then there are classics, if you know what I’m saying. Streets of Rage 2 (Bare Knuckle 2 for you Asian readers) is, by any definition of the world, a straight up classic. It’s a classic’s classic. It makes most other fighting games available on the system look unsophisticated with its huge sprites and excellent animation. It makes them sound like crap, with its beautiful soundtrack which suffers not one bit for the Genesis’s inferior-to-the-SNES sound chip. The control in Streets of Rage 2 is phenomenal–if you died, it was your own fault, not because of some delay between a button press and when it registered, or because it confused your inputs. Axel, Blaze, Skate and Max pull off jump kicks, uppercuts, and spine-shattering backdrops as smoothly as dancers pirouetting around the stage of the Bolshoi Ballet. In the eternal conflict of cool fought by Nintendo and Sega through the early 90’s, Streets of Rage 2 was one huge peacock feather in Sega’s pimp hat of awesome. Today we celebrate its twenty-fourth birthday.
While games like Kung Fu Master and Renegade pioneered the “one guy versus a thousand punks” style of beat ’em up in the arcades, and later titles like Double Dragon and Final Fight went on to refine those original ideas into the format as we recognize it today, it’s impossible to overlook the enormous contributions to the genre provided by Sega’s Streets of Rage franchise.
Unlike other games on this list, Streets of Rage had no arcade roots upon which to draw. Instead the series was built from the ground up specifically for the Genesis hardware, something which gave Sega a huge advantage over other fighting game developers like Capcom and Taito, because it meant Sega could build a game entirely within the hardware limits of the system instead of taking a more complex arcade game and re-coding it to fit within the weaker home hardware.
The results spoke for themselves. While Final Fight on the Super Nintendo could boast larger sprites than Streets of Rage, the conversion from Capcom’s arcade board saw one of the three playable characters, one full stage, 2-player simultaneous play, and several enemies all get the axe, while others were replaced with different sprites to avoid controversy or renamed to get past Nintendo’s censorship policies. The resulting game was still technically Final Fight, but it lost something in the translation. Even later versions, like the one for the Sega CD, were nowhere near arcade-perfect.
Sega’s Streets of Rage games on the other hand were built from the ground up to take full advantage of everything the Genesis could do and avoid that which it couldn’t as much as possible. The difference was night and day, with the original Bare Knuckle boasting three playable characters, eight grueling stages, a far superior soundtrack, and plenty of animation sprinkled throughout the different stages–everything from trash blowing through the streets to waves lapping the beachfront shores. How do you top that? Simple: you do more of it the next time around.
Streets of Rage 2 introduced two new characters to the roster and cut one of the originals to offer four brawlers with completely different play styles and move sets, from the super fast but not-so-strong Skate to the lumbering but hard-hitting powerhouse Max. While Nintendo was busy giving the female enemies in Final Fight the most ridiculous transgender makeover since Ranma 1/2, Sega had no qualms letting the girls play for both teams: Blaze could lay the smack down on some whip-wielding dominatrix (or vice versa if things went wrong).
If there was any downside to Streets of Rage as a franchise, it’s the same one plaguing virtually every game in this genre since the days of Renegade: the story. ‘One or more friends set out to bring down enormous asshole via judicious application of martial arts’ could be written as box copy for almost every beat ’em up ever made save for the ones with really weird settings like Splatterhouse.
You know what though? That’s just fine by me. Video games that exist for the sole purpose of allowing me to break a bunch of people in half before dinner don’t need deep, sprawling, character-driven plots. They need only good controls, good graphics, and good sound–something Streets of Rage 2 delivered with all the hard-hitting subtlety of a spinning piledriver a mere twenty-four years ago today…in retro gaming.
Enjoy our super double-double bonus ad spreads, just for you, on this joyous occasion of celebration!