Scrolling Pixels: ‘Streets of Rage II’ and the 16-bit beat ’em’ up

3 Nov 2014

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A still from 'Streets of Rage II'

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Scrolling Pixels is a new column focusing on retro gaming. Check back on the first Monday of every month for the latest instalment.

My first console was an Atari 7800, complete with such lo-fi classics as Asteroids, Centipede and Galaga. Playing these games in the 1980s was akin to being around to see The Wizard of Oz during its initial theatrical run in 1939. Or going out to buy The Beatles’ Revolver on the day of its release in 1966. Even my six-year-old self could tell that this was truly revolutionary stuff.

Like the expansion of colour cinema and the popularisation of psychedelic rock, no one could predict the cultural impact those tiny scrolling pixels were going to have on wider popular culture. From the generation of arcade loiterers who trawled the darkened gaming arenas with a pocket full of change, to home consoles elbowing a living room spot next to the VHS player and Cablelink decoder box, video games became as much sewn into the social fabric as films, music and literature.

I’ve just about owned a machine from every generation of console since first getting that Atari 7800 and witnessed first-hand the evolution, from taking control of Pacman and chasing four temporarily transparent ghosts (Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde, by the way) to exploring the lush open-world Chicago streets in Watch Dogs. But one of the eternally cool things about games is that regardless of how technology moves forward or how impressive visuals become, the classics will always share one identical element – playability. That’s why the great games never really feel dated. One of those greats is Streets of Rage II and, to kick off the first edition of Silicon Republic’s new retro gaming column, that’s the game we’ll be discussing today.

Bare knuckle brawling

Sega Mega Drive veterans are likely familiar with the Streets of Rage franchise (known as Bare Knuckle in some parts of the world). Packaged with Golden Axe and Revenge of Shinobi as the three piece set Mega Games II (which was often boxed with the fourth generation console) the original offered many newcomers their first experiences with the console. Revenge of Shinobi combined platform aesthetics with Ninja stylings, while Golden Axe was a hack 'n' slash delight. But Streets of Rage was always the one. Like Golden Axe, it was side-scroller beat-em-up, allowing gamers to plough their way through wave after wave of street punks with a variety of weapons to gather, props to shatter, and memorable bosses to defeat.

A traditional arcade game set up, Streets of Rage gave players a fixed amount of lives in which to complete the game in and lives could be added by building up a sufficient amount of points. Lose all your lives and you had to start all over again – there were no save points or do-overs. But perhaps most satisfyingly, the two-player game let you attack your human ally if you so desired, meaning plenty of friendly punches were thrown during arguments over who could rightly claim available power-ups.

Released in 1991, Streets of Rage was part of a golden period of 16-bit side-scrolling beat-em-ups, though the genre stretched way back to the 1984 arcade game Kung-Fu Master and really took off with the release of Double Dragon in 1987. Rather than simply moving forward and backwards, Double Dragon allowed characters to move up, down, left and right, giving a whole new dimension to the gameplay. In essence, these were the original 3D games, released at a time when Mario could only run in two directions.

But it was with the 16 bit generation that side-scrolling brawlers really hit their stride.The Super Nintendo version of Batman: Returns (1993) was a cracking adaptation of the Tim Burton movie, while Capcom's Final Fight (1989) provided an important precursor to Streets of Rage. But it was Streets of Rage II that really perfected the genre. Arriving a year after the original, it was, to all intents and purposes, a perfect sequel – it took everything that made the first game so great and added to it.

Level up

The story picks up after the events of the first game. Following a peaceful period for the unnamed city, the malevolent Mr X and his crime syndicate return to kidnap Adam (a playable character from the first game) and wreak havoc once more. It's again up to Axel and Blaze to clean up the streets, this time accompanied by Adam's young brother Skate and pro wrestler Max. Whereas Streets of Rage’s three playable characters didn’t differ majorly (I think Blaze might have been a touch quicker across the turf), the sequel's four characters all had their own strengths and weaknesses. Completing the game was one thing; you needed to beat it with all four characters to be a true Streets of Rage II master.

The gameplay was, again, fairly straight-forward. Gamers needed to kick and punch their way through the various levels, most of which were in the vein of what they'd seen in the first installment (Streets of Rage II, to me, feels more like a remake than a sequel). There was a hell of a lot of moves you could do, considering the Mega Drive only had three action buttons, and fending off multiple villains took well honed skill and timing.

Rather than the single repetitive backdrops of the first game, our heroes now fought their way in and out of bars, arcades, theme parks and other structures. There was also a wider assortment of villains. Guys on motorbikes, guys with jetpacks… One villain could throw knives and would cackle when he connected.  And every single one, right down to the most disposable, had his or her own name.

In addition, Streets of Rage II dropped the curious 'A' button action from the first game, which allowed players to call a police car that fired a high powered weapon, killing everything on-screen bar the protagonists. That was instead replaced by a far more credible special move that drained the player's health but, if connected properly, proved devastating on their enemy.

16-bit blips

But let’s talk about the music on this thing. Composed by musician Yuzo Koshiro, the original Streets of Rage featured some great orchestration, but the sequel's soundtrack – a glittering blend of house, techno, jazz and breakbeat – pushed the 16-bit Mega Drive to its limits. The theme that kicked in to announce an end-of-level boss’s arrival, for example, (click below to listen) was kinetic, claustrophobic and actually sounded like impending danger.

Elsewhere, factory scenes were scored by absolutely ear-shattering techno, while bar segment played out to the sound of cool jazz. It's a truly awesome set and raised the bar in the quality of music games could display.

But above all, Streets of Rage II was shear butter to play. You could plow through wave after wave of thugs and never tire. Defeating bosses sometimes took several play throughs to learn their weaknesses, while the city lush city backdrops made the environments as full and real as any 16-bit console game.

A further sequel Streets of Rage III was released in 1994, and while still a wonderful game to play, it lacked a little bit of its predecessors' revolutionary feel. Side scrolling beat ‘em ups went out of fashion after the fourth console generation, though elements lived on through games like the Devil May Cry and God of War franchises. But on it's own, Streets of Rage II is timeless, no less satisfying to play than it was 20 years ago.

Dean is a freelance journalist and editor covering media.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com