Title: Streets of Rage 2 (Japan: Bare Knuckle II; Europe: Streets of Rage II)
Developer: Sega (and Ancient)
Publisher: Sega
Date Published: 1992 (First released January 14, 1993 in Japan)
Platforms: Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, Sega Master System, Game Gear
Players: 1-2

When Sega released the first Streets of Rage game in 1991, they proved that they were still a force to be reckoned with when it came to scrolling beat-'em-ups, and gave the Mega Drive user base a desirable game that was not only exclusive to their platform, but also compared favourably to the arcade offerings of the time (such as Vendetta and Final Fight). Streets of Rage sold extremely well, and the public's appetite for fighting games was still growing, fueled by the newly-arrived arcade phenomenon that was Street Fighter 2. Given these conditions, a sequel to Streets of Rage was inevitable, but no-one expected it to be quite such a radical improvement on its predecessor.

Streets of Rage 2 was to be one of the first 16-Megabit (two megabytes - four times the size of the first game) cartridges for the Mega Drive, providing plenty of room for more (bigger, better-animated) sprites, levels, music tracks and sound samples. The game uses a new engine and does not reuse any of the content from the original. The game was developed by a different team than the original, with the exception of composer Yuzo Koshiro, who once again provides the soundtrack. (His sister, Ayano Koshiro, is credited as an artist and character designer.) For later projects (such as The Story of Thor) the core of this team would work under the banner of Yuzo Koshiro's company, Ancient.

Streets of Rage 2 picks up the storyline (such as it is) one year on from the events of the first game (assuming that the 'good ending' took place). It turns out that Mr. X (the crime lord who was defeated in the first game) wasn't as dead as previously thought, and has returned to the city to exact revenge on the trio of vigilantes who destroyed his empire. He kidnaps Adam Hunter in a bid to lure the others (Axel Stone and Blaze Fielding) into his trap. So once again the street-fighting ex-cops must traverse eight stages packed with the crime syndicate's best fighters (and most of their worst ones too) before they can challenge Mr. X himself.

In addition to Axel and Blaze, two new playable characters have been added to the line-up. Max Thunder is a hulking wrestler (a little like Mike Haggar from Final Fight) who is slow and unable to vault over enemies, but makes up for this with brute strength. 'Skate' Hunter (known as Sammy in the Japanese version) is Adam's brother, a teenage kid on rollerblades whose moves include a breakdancing spin and the ability to jump onto enemies' shoulders and repeatedly smack their heads (the "piggyback of death"). Each character now has two special moves (replacing the 'call for backup' ability from the first game) that can be pulled off at any time, at the expense of a little energy. For example Blaze has a (very) short range fireball or a flip-kick, whereas Axel can perform a spinning 'Dragon Wing' punch or a fast flurry of blows.

Graphically, the game is a vast improvement on the original, with big, beefy character sprites and (for the most part) fast and fluid animation. There aren't any attempts to 'fake' effects that the Mega Drive was not capable of performing in hardware, but for a scrolling beat-'em-up the only important criterion is whether it looks as good as an arcade game, and on that count Streets of Rage 2 succeeds. The game's controls now seem a lot more responsive, and when coupled with the fast animation and solid, kung fu movie sound effects (your feet and fists whum through the air and crack as they connect, and there are lots of exclamations and screams) give a satisfying sense of feedback. The larger sprites mean that the maximum number of enemies on screen is slightly lower, but still nowhere near as catastrophically low as, say, Final Fight on the SNES. The techno music is as good (and instantly recognisable) as that in the original, although it sounds slightly less 'meaty' (I think that this is a result of giving up more sound channels to effects).

The game now features more types of enemies, many of which are loosely based on the basic enemy types from the first game (which, in turn, were 'inspired' by Double Dragon). The bosses are now not as jarringly out of proportion with the rest of the game world, although they're still a noticably exaggerated scale. All the enemies in the game now have their name and energy bar displayed at the top of the screen as you fight them, although not all enemies have unique names. For example the two most common varieties of punk are usually called Donovan (the bald one) and Garcia (the red-head) - although this has been incorrectly romanised as 'Galsia'. In all there are 19 unique types of enemy in the game (roughly twice as many as in the original), which is fairly good going.

The game follows a linear path through the eight stages (or 'rounds'). However unlike the first game, each stage is now made up of several linked shorter sequences set in different locations. Many of these stages end with their own miniboss, or have unique hazards. They can now scroll in more directions than just horizontally or vertically as well.

The first stage illustrates this new approach quite effectively. It starts out on (where else?) a downtown city street, complete with waves of easily-dispatched low-level thugs. After an encounter with a knife-tossing punk, the heroes enter a seedy bar. After clobbering the patrons and smashing up the furniture, the barman slips out the back and the chanteuse propping up the bar attacks, with a whip. After she's been 'silenced', the scene shifts to an empty lot behind the building, where it is now raining heavily and the barman (a rather tall, muscular gentleman) and his companions attempt to remonstrate with the vigilantes in a somewhat violent fashion.

The same style of progression is used in most of the stages, although for the first four levels of the game there is no particularly obvious link from one stage to the next. (Perhaps the developers at one point intended to allow the player to select the order in which to play these stages.) Some of the levels adopt the basic 'theme' of stages from the first game (e.g. the ship level, the factory level) but are not direct rehashes. Whether these stages are an 'Evil Dead 2' style attempt to do justice to the concepts in the first game, or are just indicative of a lack of imagination on the developers' part, I'll leave for the player to decide.

The second stage sees the heroes crossing a partially constructed suspension bridge, while being attacked by Hell's Angels on motorbikes (who can be made to dismount with a well-timed flying kick), before fighting a frustratingly evasive boss equipped with a jet-pack. The third and longest stage is a trip through an amusement park, including a video arcade (where hoodlums are busy playing 'Bare Knuckle' coinops), a swinging pirate ship ride (cheesily, the ship stays level while the background swings, although this was quite an ambitious effect at the time), and an 'alien house' (an Alien™-themed house of horrors). The boss of this stage (Zamza) is an odd, feral creature that seems to be a cross between Blanka and Vega from Street Fighter 2.

Veering still further away from plausibility, round four is set in a baseball stadium, which happens to be built over a subterranean prize-fighting arena (accessed from an elevator built into the home plate) where the heroes must fight a giant wrestler. Round five is set aboard a ship heading for Mr. X's hidden island fortress (and features a rather comical-looking boxer as its boss). Round six takes us from the island's beach through the jungle interior to battle with the returning bosses from stages two and three (bosses and enemies are re-used liberally throughout the game, 'disguised' with new names and colour palettes).

On entering the fortress, the vigilante team discover that Mr. X has set up shop manufacturing weapons of mass destruction (a theme that is explored further in the third game in the series). Round seven is the obligatory factory stage, complete with conveyor belt floors and freight elevator sequence, and ending with an encounter with a pair of killer robot prototypes. The final stage is another elevator ride (that's three so far) where most of the earlier bosses are wheeled out again, before the elevator comes to rest conveniently in Mr. X's 'throne room'. The players are not offered the chance to join the crime syndicate this time around. After defeating a handful of punks ("coffee? tea? handful of punks?"), the players face Shiva, Mr. X's right-hand man and a particularly fast and skillful martial artist. Only when Shiva has been defeated does Mr. X enter the fray, armed once again with a Tommy Gun. Beat him and you've won. Adam is freed and a rescue helicopter arrives. Although... you did make sure he was dead this time...?

On balance, Streets of Rage 2 is the best of the trilogy, bestowing the core gameplay with an arcade-quality standard presentation, while steering clear of needless complication and excess. The inclusion of the new characters and expanded range of moves and enemies extend the game's lifespan. However there is one fly in the ointment- as with many high-profile Sega games of the time, it is much too easy. In EASY and NORMAL modes, it is possible to complete the game without using many extra lives and certainly not without needing to use continues. With the exception of occasions where the player is mobbed by several enemies at a time, it is often possible to defeat almost any enemy in the game by repeating the same moves, without them managing to land a blow. It seems that Axel has now been made too powerful as well. Still, at least nowadays the player is spared the hefty price tag for their entertainment- as the game was manufactured in large quantities, it is easy to get hold of for a few pounds, and can also be emulated with total accuracy by most emulators (e.g. Gens). Streets of Rage 2 is one of the creme de la creme of titles released for the Mega Drive, and it's well worth checking out.

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