Streets of Rage 2 (Genesis) review
"Streets of Rage 2 is, apparently, one of the most beloved Sega Genesis titles ever created – rarely have I found so much near-unanimous gushing praise for a side-scrolling beat-‘em-up. I’ve read more than once that this is the best brawler of its generation. The problem: I don’t see it. "
There is a problem I’ve had for a while now, and it goes something like this:
Streets of Rage 2 is, apparently, one of the most beloved Sega Genesis titles ever created – rarely have I found so much near-unanimous gushing praise for a side-scrolling beat-‘em-up. I’ve read more than once that this is the best brawler of its generation.
The problem: I don’t see it.
I’ll admit right from the start that I have always preferred Final Fight to most other brawlers – even the admittedly weak Super Nintendo port – and I’ve played a lot of them. Some have unique qualities that serve to make them stand out, and I’ve been searching high and low for the attributes that make SOR2 the masterpiece that everyone alleges it is.
Why is this game so highly praised, so loved? Which of its qualities are so outstanding?
It can’t be the story. This isn’t very significant in most beat-‘em-ups anyway, but for the sake of thoroughness, let’s establish that SOR2 uses perhaps the most hackneyed plot as an explanation for your adventure: someone has been kidnapped by a crime syndicate and this nefarious organization must be toppled. The head of the organization is the evidently evil Mr. X (who was originally the villain in the archaic Kung Fu -- SOR2 is struggling to find something of its own already). The kidnapped is Adam, the popular, mountain of a character from the original Streets of Rage.
This isn’t fatal, as most other brawlers accomplish about this much (one of the exceptions being Cadillacs & Dinosaurs, a game a lot more atmospheric, action-packed and entertaining than this one, partially because of its story).
It can’t be the selectable characters. There is nothing unique about them, and in a brilliant move of inefficiency, none of them are interesting. Two of the four are not even really that inviting to use for reasons of balance: Max is the prototypical powerhouse oaf of the bunch, a “former wrestler” (and amazingly, not a former mayor), but he’s too slow here, and Skate, Adam’s eight year old brother, flies around the screen on roller-skates like a queer, dealing miniscule damage. You shouldn’t want to use him for obvious reasons, but he is the only character that moves at even a respectable speed -- SOR2 doesn’t get up past ‘crawl’ very often. Outside of the two extreme heroes are two medium ones: the blond guy in blue jeans and a white t-shirt, Cod—I mean, Axel, and the femme fatale Blaze, whose outfit this time around is a cross between a whore and Wonder Woman. It has been proven by other brawlers that for a game of a genre this repetitive in nature to find success, the protagonists have to be interesting in some way. SOR2’s simply aren’t – they’re standard archetypes that just aren’t that special because a) we’ve seen them before, b) two of them are too extreme in their speed/strength balance, and c) a prepubescent-looking kid on rollerskates is just retarded.
There is, however, one aspect of the characters that is significantly responsible for the all the lavish praise for this game -- its characters’ special moves, a rare quality for beat-‘em-ups of this era. Each fighter is outfitted with a couple tactics that are unique to him. Axel flaunts a mini-version of the Ryu/Ken dragon punch, Max has varying bodyslams and piledrivers, and Skate can somersault. While these are all well and good, I absolutely refuse to overstate their value. They do provide a cosmetic variation in the combat, but because the combat itself is already slow and vanilla, and the characters are bland in every other aspect, their presence here just isn’t that monumental. Skate’s jumping flip and rollerblade kicks don’t make me want to use him any more, and the fact that Max has three different slams doesn’t really bolster his appeal or change the fact that he is brutally slow-moving, even for being the big oaf of the bunch. While I do appreciate the backhand that can be delivered to enemies coming up behind you, the slow, dull combat with boring, unimaginative, unappealing characters can’t be saved with a couple novelty maneuvers that mainly serve the function of escape tactic when cornered on the hardest difficulty levels.
It can’t be the enemy characters. SOR2 utilizes the usual stock of henchmen fodder, recurring at unbelievable rates and minus the memorability. No beat-‘em-up is going to escape the wrath of this complaint, as repetitive goons are a genre mainstay. Here, they’re repetitive and dumb. Two of them, the sexually ambiguous Galsia and Donovan, will almost always be on screen in twos or threes from beginning to end. The rest is a mix of fools ranging from guys with motorcycle helmets and flamboyant shoulder pads color-coordinated with their leopard-print tights, to morbidly obese fire-spitting truckers with names like “Heart”.
SOR2 also sports a fetish for throwing boss and semi-boss characters at you repeatedly later on. While I appreciated the brazen stupidity of Jet, a long-haired loser that flies around the screen with a jetpack (seriously), he was overstaying his welcome by popping up eighteen more times under different aliases. Not since Final Fight’s Andore family have characters been so overused. It wasn’t until I was battling a pair of robots – robots! in a modern ‘street’ brawler! -- that I really wanted to kill myself. Stock villains – The Samurai, The Boxer, The Whip-Wielding Dominatrix – make upwards of 20 appearances.
It can’t be the locations or situations. The different environments that a brawler spans is a critical component of it success of failure, and SOR2 fails with authority.
- The first level – inarguably SOR2’s high point in terms of level design and its single genuine attempt at creating an appropriate atmosphere – is an incredibly weak opening in the form of the ‘mean streets’ stage. There are a few beat-‘em-ups out there that do this well, but the one that sets the bar is Final Fight’s Slums – abandoned buildings with shattered windows, graffiti covered brick and littered streets serve as the memorable backdrop to your opening encounters. SOR2’s streets aren’t nearly as interesting – excessive neon signs flash senseless words like “DUNK” and “RIM” above the drab buildings, and there are about fifty signs stuck to the fences that all say “Clap!” The only thing I can come up with is that the flashing neon signs refer to the specific sexual activities that our heroes take part in here, and clap is what Blaze finds troubling her on a weekly basis. Thanks, Streets of Rage. The dull streets area is followed by a dull barroom area, also done far better in Final Fight, and the one single cool sequence in the game – a fight in the rain.
- The road to our lost friend is one that winds through – wait for it -- a theme park. Some added parallax effects don’t change the fact that I feel like a total jackass beating up thugs in front of a balloon stand in the middle of the night. Of course this moment is topped a minute and a half later when you’re placed aboard a thug-ridden pirate ship, which is about as bad-ass as. . .
- A PLANT. FIGHTING INSIDE A PLANT. Not a plant as in a factory (that mundane level comes later on), but as in, A PLANT, where you’ll punch exploding eggs and battle with a demonic alien attached to the wall while still carrying out fisticuffs with plain ol’ bad guys. Beat-‘em-ups are rarely completely logical, and often pretty weird, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a grand idea to throw in a PLANT at the end of the THEME PARK, just after the PIRATE SHIP. Ninja Baseball Bat Man was far more coherent, and that was a game about three ninja robots out to recover stolen Babe Ruth equipment. These levels are senseless, uninteresting, unexciting, and not really in keeping with the original ‘massive crime syndicate has kidnapped our friend’ theme.
- A visit to the baseball stadium reveals that there is a hidden elevator under the pitcher’s mound. Of course there is. This pointless segue into the genre-standard elevator battle sequence is followed by a trip to an underground ring where you’ll battle with The Ultimate Warrior. Final Fight’s weird-but-awesome subway-to-underground fight club where you battled Katana sees some phenomenally stupid variation here.
Whoever designed SOR2’s levels is in dire need of testosterone.
It can’t be the music. SOR2’s themes are supposedly the best of the genre, and the cross-eyed fan will waste no time trying to sell them on you. Maybe it’s just another thing I don’t “get” about this game’s popularity. I sit here and think back to Final Fight’s first level slums and second level subway, and I can recall the fast, menacing beats that fit the in with the thug-infested territories and the broken glass and graffiti and poverty. The prevailing thought is, “Man, this is a bad neighborhood.” I slog through SOR2’s lifeless first-level streets and hear the jumpy, jazzy synthesized tracks and the prevailing thought is, “I’m going to walk through a Siegfried and Roy show any minute now.” The scores are strange and out of place…but then again, I guess I’d be a crazy for expecting a haunting melody for the lurid Pirate Ship Theme Park Battle.
So my original inquiry goes unanswered -- Streets of Rage 2 offers a little variation in the form of individual maneuvers, evidently at the expense of unique characters, cool enemies, enjoyable fisticuffs and gruesome levels.
Despite the beat-‘em-up genre’s tendencies of repetition, there are quite a few games out there worthy of recommendation – but SOR2 can’t be one of them.
Staff review by K T (June 07, 2005)
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