Out back of the Hardcore Gamer office you’ll find our Graveyard, where countless long-dead classics lie. We come here to pay our respects, to reminisce, and to wonder aloud what a passing mad doctor might be able do with all these corpses and some high-definition lightning.
Long, long ago, in the time when the Gamecube was but a twinkle in Iwata’s eye, “xbox” was just an unfortunate typo, and waggling your Wii-mote with your family was punishable by jail time in every state but Alabama, we had games known as beat-’em-ups. This genre was the king of the arcades and the standard-bearer for titles seemingly written by five-year-olds. Unfortunately, when new technology arrived that allowed games to look more impressive than an Etch A Sketch drawing, beat-’em-ups underwent the evolution with all the dignity of a platypus. For some reason, be it the death of the arcade or players realizing that these games were kind of terrible in the first place, beat-’em-ups dwindled in number until the point that the National Wildlife Federation classified them as an endangered species. Confused scientists tried to force Final Fight and Streets of Rage to breed in captivity. Nowadays, you will see an occasional indie release that honors the genre, but its days of domination have been over for a while.
While the collective gaming public threw a celebration when other awful genres died – like text-based adventures and whatever the hell Bubsy was supposed to be – no such parade was conducted when beat-’em-ups nearly disappeared. To this day, you can find gamers who pine for the glory days when the gameplay was king, the stories were peasants with leprosy, and the only puzzle you needed to solve was how many guys could you punch in the face with only two fists (answer: surprisingly many). Streets of Rage II was one of the definitive games of the era, featuring straightforward gameplay, mindless fun, and as many red headed men to bludgeon with a pipe as you could possibly want. Even now, the game is mildly enjoyable in short bursts, so long as you aren’t looking for a very complex experience. It also demonstrates why beat-’em-ups are more or less extinct, as it is plagued by the same sort of repetition and diminishing returns that nearly killed the genre off decades ago .
The plot is dumb even by beat-’em-up standards, which (and I’ve run the numbers here) is just impossible from a mathematical standpoint. The plot to Streets of Rage II is so bad that it’s only a matter of time before Adam Sandler adapts it into a movie. Some time after the events of the first game, the nefarious Mr. X has returned and is seeking vengeance against our heroes. Their absolutely foolproof plan of breaking into a crime lord’s place of residence, punching him a bunch of times in the face, and then leaving somehow failed to resolve the conflict. Now, Mr. X is back and seems upset about something (perhaps the breaking and entering followed by the fracturing of his jaw). Mr. X floods the streets with criminals, you punch him for it, and then you just assume everything else will resolve itself. It’s like if the policed tried to end drug use forever by breaking into a drug dealer’s house, eating all of his ice cream, and urinating in his toaster. This is less of a crime-fighting measure and more of a crime taunting measure, because all you’re doing is angering the criminal and giving him time to plot revenge.
Mr. X ends up kidnapping Adam from the first game in the hopes of luring Blaze and Axel into a trap, although “trap” is used in the loosest sense possible here. He sends out waves of brightly colored goons out to go punch them, which is more of a straightforward assault than any kind of ruse. This is the point most sane people would just call the cops and tell them about the guy who admitted to kidnapping their friend and has a known residence on the edge of town. This is, of course, the coward’s strategy, as Axel and Blaze never agree to any plan that lacks at least two distinct punching-based phases. Besides, the years of punching every person they come across has rendered their hands unable to use phones or open doors. Our two heroes decide to tackle the situation themselves the only way they known how: punch stuff really hard. They recruit Axel’s friend, Max, a professional wrester (because who better to combat real violence than a person who pretends to be violent on TV) and Adam’s younger brother, Skate, so named because he skates around everywhere. When you’re building a crack team to take down a criminal organization, and your second recruit is a little kid who refuses to take his stupid roller skates off, the third person on your list should be a specialist in child-sized coffins. Now, your crew must punch their way past henchmen so they can punch their way through the city and punch their way up to Mr. X so they can punch their punches through the punching punch PUNCH PUCNH OH GOD SO MUCH PUNCHING.
Obviously, the story is only there to give your crew an excuse to keep punching that dominatrix in the face. The gameplay is kept simple, with the two key buttons inputs the one used to punch a a guy in the face and the one used to move your character around so he can punch other guys. Move and attack are essentially all you need to know to get through the entire game, but there are some other actions for people that don’t think repeatedly punching people in the face is enough gameplay (-these people are clinically-diagnosed nerds that can only be cured with 50 ccs of face punching). You can jump, which is useful in extremely limited cases if you’re using one of the more agile characters like Skate, and absurdly useless if you’re using max – unless you’re hoping the enemies will be paralyzed with laughter at your failure to clear the curb. Each character also has a couple of slightly more complex attacks, which are actually vital to clearing out the levels on harder difficulties. The most significant of these is executed with a simple combo to pull off a more powerful, moving attack. This alone is enough to power Axel through the game, as his Dragon Uppercut is as deadly to enemies as it is amusing to use, since he sounds like he is yelling “GRAB A CAR” every time he throws it. There are a couple of special attacks that characters have at their disposal as well, but they should be used sparingly as they drain your health. I guess it makes them a bit more strategic, since you don’t want to spam them or you’ll be dead from exhaustion by the time the first goon with a knife shows up.
Beyond the punching, moving around, more punching, accidental jumping and looking like an idiot, and also punching, there isn’t much more you need to know about the gameplay. You can heal yourself by picking up food you find in garbage cans or alien egg pods throughout the levels, which is quite different from real life where dumpster food only gives you diphtheria. Besides rotting food, you can also find money, which adds to your score, and various weapons, which add to the list of felonies with which your character can be charged. The simplicity here both helps and hurts the game, and as a result it just hasn’t aged as well as some of its more complex contemporaries. There’s a decent amount of fun to be had in the mindless combat, and wiping out wave after wave of goons is entertaining to this day – especially if you can find a friend to play with you. However, the limited variety causes a lot of the levels to blend together, with nothing to differentiate them besides slightly altered backgrounds. Your strategy for clearing out the first areas is exactly the same as clearing out the last, and while good games give you a sense of progression, like climbing a hill, Streets of Rage II feels more like you are strolling along the same level path, hiking through a nature preserve and occasionally punching squirrels and tourists.
The feeling of repetition certainly isn’t helped by the enemy variety in the levels. Most levels are flooded with the same two or three thugs wearing palette-swapped clothing and all employing the exact same attacks throughout the game. Even early bosses or mid-level foes make repeat appearances, wearing a slightly different shirt and hoping you won’t notice all the bruises on their face from the last time you gave them a sound beating. I’m fine with a little bit of redundancy, and I don’t expect every single encounter in a beat-’em-up to be unique, but Streets of Rage II reuses enemies with the same tenacity most designers put in to designing new ones. Every single enemy makes multiple appearances except for the final bosses, and that was only because the game ran out of levels in which to reuse them. Even the boss fights are fairly boring and the tried and true strategy of punching until you can punch no more will essentially guarantee victory against nearly every one. The enemy design is dull, the fights are repetitive, and the combat is about as simplistic as you can get. There are really only enough ideas here for the first level, and the developers never grasped how to ramp things up from there.
Also, the individual in charge of designing the levels was clearly intoxicated throughout the entirety of his employment, as I can think of no other way the level segments ended up in the order that they did. One level has you fighting thugs in an amusement park before battling ninjas on a pirate ship (a ninja ship, technically speaking) and ends with you in an alien lair fighting ninjas, thugs, a floating head monster, and a profound confusion as to what the hell is going on. If that description sounds like anything other than a fever dream brought on by some potent hallucinogens, then you’re most likely too busy scanning this article for codes from our alien overlords to read what I’m writing anyway. Maybe they went around at a meeting, with each person shouting out set pieces they like, and by the time someone shouted out “secret alien lair” after “pirate ship filled with ninjas” they realized they didn’t have an eraser handy. I don’t expect the levels in a beat-’em-up to be seamlessly executed with a clear sense of purpose, but I also don’t expect them to be based on the ramblings of a paranoid schizophrenic.
There are a couple of other minor issues that make the game less enjoyable. The enemies have this annoying habit of walking just offscreen and hiding from you, and since you don’t have any way to force them back you’re left to guess where they are until they feel like coming back into view. A couple always have a particularly bad case of stage fright, and will hide off screen for ten seconds or so before shyly popping their head in on the very edge and trying to run away when you get close. These sorts of enemies tend to be in the minority, but it’s still are annoying when you can’t move on because one thug has performance anxiety. The grab mechanic always seems like a bit of a crapshoot, as there’s no button allocated to grappling with the random goons, and you’re supposed to be able to do it automatically by moving into them. Unfortunately, they can also grapple you by moving into your character, making the whole thing kind of useless since you risk being grappled instead. It would have been nice to have some other way to trigger the move, because as it stands you can’t really tell who’s going to start hugging who until it’s too late. The characters also don’t seem well-balanced. Axel and Blaze are well-rounded and good at everything, Max is strong and slow but useful for someone who wants a challenge, and Skate moves fast and dies faster for the sake of players who have things to do and don’t really want to play the game anyway. The character variety is nice, and there’s most likely a character that fits your playing-style well, but it’s clear that not all of the characters are created equal.
Streets of Rage II is one of the quintessential “popcorn” video games. It is good for a playthrough every once in a while in between more substantial games, but it isn’t all that satisfying. The game is simple, mindless, and somewhat fun in short doses. The beat-’em-up mechanics all work well, and if you’re looking for a decent brwler to play you could do a lot worse than Streets of Rage II. However, repetition, a lack of depth, and some questionable design choices mean the game is only passable and unlikely to draw in a new audience. Streets of Rage II is only an hour or so long, and it doesn’t even have enough clever ideas to fill up that time. Every level plays the same, and the game is crammed with more repetition than a zoetrope. You can play on harder difficulties for more of a challenge, but that really doesn’t do much to help the underlying issues. This is often pointed to by fans of the genre as one of the highlights of the era, and if that really is the case it’s easy to see why the genre was forced to evolve or risk dying off. Next time Mr. X kidnaps one of the team members, I hope he brings a bigger threat than a nagging sense of deja vu.