The beat ‘em up is one of the simplest genres around. You play a character who walks along a straight road and beats up anyone who dares cross their path. This is classic ‘easy to learn, hard to master’ territory, and this simplicity is key to the cooperative dynamic which made a lot of these games popular with any of us who had siblings.
This is one of those classic genres which faded away in the early days of the medium, though I’d argue the ‘character action game’ genre captures the spirit in a new form. There simply wasn’t much variance between games in the genre, so there was little reason not to stick to the best of the best. Streets of Rage 2 stood at the top.
More than any other video game, Streets of Rage 2 is indebted to its soundtrack. I would argue this is the greatest video game soundtrack ever. During early video game eras, music was limited by technology. A few ingenious composers worked their magic and invented what would become a new genre during the NES era. The Genesis had a bit more power, but not much. Even a classic like Final Fantasy VII on a later console has many people who prefer the soundtrack in a fully orchestrated form – the game itself was limited to what the PlayStation could handle, with most of the tracks suggesting something beyond the actual sound.
Meanwhile, the music from Streets of Rage 2 cannot be improved beyond what managed to fit inside the Genesis cartridge. Yuzo Koshiro looked at the Detroit techno scene and made a masterpiece in the genre. This is the type of music so simple the Genesis can process the sound flawlessly, yet complex enough to be truly excellent dance music. The music perfectly reinforces the game’s aesthetic of a city being overrun with crime, where every alley leads to another mugger or three waiting for a roundhouse kick to the face. Between its pulsing beats, shrill sirens, and frenetic rhythm, it’s simultaneously anxiety-inducing and an absolute jam from beginning to end.
It’s hard to define what makes the gameplay of one beat-em-up better than another. But I’ve played quite a few, and Streets of Rage 2 simply feels smoother than most. Despite the easy inputs, the game gives a ton of options beyond simple punch and kicks. Approaching a character can lead to a grapple, the characters can do a mid-air kick, and so on. Many enemies are designed around cancelling out a few of these techniques – that flying kick is essential when someone runs at the player knife-first, for example. The many weapons can also be picked up for longer range or to be thrown. The playable characters offer their own variety, from the aptly-named skater known as Skate to the slow but powerful professional wrestler named Max.
Even the character designs are wonderful, from the central cast down to the bosses and even the minor mooks. There are fat fire breathers, bikers who torment the player until knocked away from their machines, women with electrified whips. One boss uses a jetpack and another boss fight consists of two robots. The sprite design of all of these are lovingly detailed. As minimal as the narrative can be, so much is suggested purely through these unique designs.
Streets of Rage 2 is simply a masterwork of Genesis-era presentation. From the music to the visual design, everything about this game will stick with you. Many beat ‘em ups fall quickly into repetition, but Streets of Rage 2 overcomes this with a stunning aesthetic and consistently smooth gameplay matched with ever more complex enemy designs.