Ya gotta love the brawler! The most stupidly fun genre of gaming during the 16-bit era, brawlers were everything video games were meant to exemplify back then: Walking around, just beating the living crap out of absolutely everyone in sight, not worrying about the potential consequences. With Streets of Rage 2, brawlers were at their greatest height as a genre, and Capcom's Final Fight and Sega's Streets of Rage series were about as good and fully realized as brawlers could ever be.
Streets of Rage 2 picks up a year after the end of the first Streets of Rage. Axel and Blaze have both left the city, Axel picking up bodyguard work and Blaze playing twinkletoes as a dance instructor. Adam returned to the Polce force, and he lives in a small house with his younger brother, Eddie, better known as Skate. But they get together on the one-year anniversary of their epic bare-knuckle brawl against Mr. X and reminisce about the good fights, the bad fights, and all the fights in between. Afterward, they all go home, and Axel gets a call from Eddie, who had arrived home from school one day to find a ransacked home. And you know what he didn't find? His big brother Adam. It certainly seemed nice of Mr. X to provide a hint about Adam's wherabouts, though, in the form of a picture of Adam chained to a wall which was nailed to the door. And so, it's back to the raging streets for Axel and Blaze, taking Skate with them, and some big guy named Max.
Max has always been my least favorite character, and his inclusion in Streets of Rage 2 feels like it was forced in like a celebrity cameo in later episodes of The Simpsons. What's inarguable is that he really does come out of nowhere. Without the game having the presence of a real Mighty Glacier character, Sega pulled one out of their... to fulfill the quota. Apparently having Axel there as the power guy wasn't quite enough. Max moves awfully slow, and when you're going to be as constantly surrounded by bad guys as often as you will in Streets of Rage 2, brute force at the expense of speed will only get you so far. It's one of those weird dynamics which only works one way but not the other. Also, this was Max's only appearance in the Streets of Rage series, so I'm guessing the game's players didn't take to him very well, either. He's also the only good guy in the entire series whose presence is so unexplained. Adam, Axel, and Blaze all started out from the first game while Skate had a big presence in the story of the second game and Dr. Zan had a similar introduction in Streets of Rage 3.
Skate is the new series speed guy. I can't say I like him very much either, mainly because his attack range is so short and his throwing capabilities are very limited. As his namesake suggests - as well as the roller blades he's always wearing - he can MOVE. He's the only character in the game who can dash (the regular dash and roll moves weren't introduced until Streets of Rage 3).
In case you couldn't guess by the last couple of paragraphs, each character in Streets of Rage 2 has a completely different set of moves. They're more than just cosmetic or range differences here. You need to do some real experimenting with all the characters before you go picking out your favorite, because every character has a different form of handling. This is most noticeable in the various throws that each character can use. If you grab an enemy a certain way, the throw will vary depending on if you grab him from the front or back. It will also vary depending on what direction you hold on the d-pad while hitting the attack button to make the throw. When I play brawlers, I tend to prefer throw-based offenses; they're high-risk, high-reward maneuvers which have the potential to knock down big crowds of enemies at the same time. Naturally, I want to have a character with an array of throws deep enough to handle all situations, which is why I keep choosing Blaze above everyone else. Axel is my secondary character. but he's well behind Blaze.
The special attacks from the first game have been turned into Street Fighter II-like special moves. You still hit the same button to activate them, but every time you use them, you lose a little bit of energy. I like this system because not only does it allow me to use the special moves anywhere - unlike the first game in which it was banned in the final level because of the enclosed play area - it also allows unlimited usage of them provided I don't mind the energy loss. Bottom line is I'm responsible for watching my own life, and I'm screwed if I misuse the special attacks.
No one expects brawlers to be paragons of level design, but there are a few amusing little quirks which keep things from getting too boring. In one scene, you travel down a corridor filled with Bare Knuckle arcade machines; Bare Knuckle is the name of Streets of Rage in Japan. There are conveyor belts aplenty, and one level on a ship features bad guys tossing little bombs through windows to get you. One level has you walking across a baseball field, in which the pitchers' mound descends as an elevator to a secret arena when you get to it.
The enemies can be pretty smart. They'll attack from all angles and try to keep your paws off them. The bosses have their problems with cheapness - it's a brawler and cheap bosses are part of the infallible laws of brawlers - but this game is actually better about the cheapness than most other brawlers. Some bosses actually have patterns which can be easily deciphered and then countered; the cheapness tables are then turned around, and you will at times be able to cheap out the game! It's a nice measure of revenge if you feel like you've been abused by brawlers in the past.
The graphics in Streets of Rage 2 are really cool. They're appropriately gritty, but they're also colorful whenever color is called for. Another one of the great infallible brawler laws of the universe has long ago decided that you'll get a couple dozen enemies, but they'll come through the vessels of palette swaps, making the couple of dozen into a few over a half dozen with different designs and attacks. At least those few enemies have a lot of fight in them, and there are a lot to beat up. The sprites are clearly done using the standard pixelation method. They don't try to be different from the usual Sega Genesis graphic pack, but they're detailed and clear, and the animation only missing frames with attacks. That's not a problem, though - there's enough animation there so the designers don't look like they were trying to do a halfway job, and enough missing to create the necessary illusion of fast, hard hits. Only the throws look weird.
The music rocks! Streets of Rage 2 is widely acknowledge as having the best soundtrack in the series, with dancable, rocking tunes and hard smacks dominating the atmosphere.
The controls are perfect as well. The jumps contain a delayed feel which comes off as natural, since there's a very brief animation for when the characters are preparing to take off and another brief one for when they land. The special attacks don't have any delays, and I think the differences for whether you're holding the d-pad or not when you use them are a nice touch. It doesn't feel right that Skate is the only character who can dash. It's a concept you'll have to get used to if he's your favorite character because using his dash will get you used to double-tapping the controller with the expectation of just having your other characters dash across the screen.
Streets of Rage 2 is just awesome. And it's widely available for download these days too, for only a couple of bucks! It's not as good as Streets of Rage 3, but that game is in a whole different universe as far as brawlers go. This one is still a classic in its own right.
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Nicholas Croston (BaronSamedi3)
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Though Streets of Rage 2 plays very similar to its predecessor it improves and refines much of the gameplay. The biggest change is the replacement of the original special attack, which was calling a police car to damage all on-screen enemies, with individual special attacks performed by each character, that depletes some of their health. Each character's move list has been expanded and edited to make them very individual to play instead of similar with different handicaps. Enemies are also improved; all are given life gauges (previously only Bosses used them) and names, and like the selectable ...