Monday 8 September 2014

Streets of Rage 2 for the MegaDrive/Genesis

Here we go, Streets of Rage 2. Be warned, the following statement may be flecked with nostalgia. This 1993 title for the Sega Genesis/MegaDrive is one of the best video games ever made. It is easily the greatest side scrolling beat 'em up of its console generation and it's arguable whether it's ever been surpassed. It was a must-have game at the time for any self-respecting MegaDrive owner, and remains so. To state it boldly: SoR2 is a masterpiece.

I was one of those who did pick it up at release. I remember queuing up in Derby's ComputerGenie of a Saturday morning just as the SoR2 shipment came in and eagerly handing over my £44.99. Yes, it was a lot of dough then but I certainly wringed every bit of value from this 16 megabit beastie (that's just two megabytes in today's money, in case you were wondering). It still got an occasional whirl long after I'd gone off games, that was until some arsehole nicked it from the communal MegaDrive pile in my halls of residence. I never forgot it though, and in 2012 - a gap of 16 years - I was able to reacquire this gaming tour de force for a reasonably priced tenner.

What's the fuss about? 22 years ago the battle for market supremacy between Sega and Nintendo was at its height. The Super Nintendo Entertainment System was kitted out with hardware that, pound for pound, knocked Sega's machine out the ring. However, the front line was not so much what each console could and couldn't do. It came down to the games. Just like today, system exclusives helped drive sales and back then Nintendo had locked down pretty much all the large Japanese and American software houses. Until US courts forced them to scrap anti-competitive licensing arrangements, the big coin-ops and franchises went to the SNES. One such game was Capcom's Final Fight, which was (then) exclusively converted to Nintendo's 16-bit console (an outing for Sega's Mega CD was to come). Final Fight was a huge deal in the arcade with its pseudo-3D play field, choice of three characters and multiple moves. The sprites were large and the fighting action especially meaty. As a package, it was a step up from what went before: a logical progression from Technōs tired-looking Double Dragon series and its epigoni.

At this point, Sega was having to rely on a stable of exclusive conversions of its own arcade games and specially developed software. Hence many Nintendo titles were "replied" to by Sega for the MegaDrive and the 8-bit Master System. The first Streets of Rage was in this mould. Three characters to choose from, multiple moves, pseudo-3D play field. You get the picture. Unlike the SNES conversion of Final Fight, you could have two players simultaneously who variously combined to produce unique special moves. It also had a stomping techno soundtrack the likes of which had never previously been heard in a video game. As a defensive riposte, it was arguably a Final Fight beater, received almost universal praise and sold bucket loads. A sequel was inevitable.

Coming just shy of two years later, Streets of Rage 2 improved on its sibling in every conceivable way. The sprites were heftier than Final Fight's, there was more enemy variety, better bosses, more moves, longer levels, four playable characters, meatier sounds and, good grief, the most technically accomplished soundtrack of its generation and one of the greatest ever to grace a video game. I blame this for my dance music fixation. But most importantly, it played like an absolute dream. All you're required to do is walk to the right and kick the ass of everyone you come across. Simple. Mixed in among the usual goons and hoods are knife-wielding punks, Thai kick boxers, fire-breathing fat men, and blokes with jet packs. That's not counting the customary end of level bosses. A number of weapons can be picked up along the way (the sword, keep the sword!!) along with apples and roast joints(!) that help refill your life bar.

The four characters have their own unique sets of moves, strengths and weaknesses. The strongest is the lumbering Max, a man mountain whose spine-busting knee smash is the game's most devastating attack. Next is Axel, modelled closely on Cody from Final Fight. In my opinion he's the dullest character with the most boring move set, but his uppercut comes in handy for airborne foes. The best is Blaze, the all-rounder. As the game's token woman her moves are the most acrobatic but best equipped for a single player play through. Lastly there is Skate, a streetwise kid who can dart all over the screen and unleash some devastating attacks. Have you ever been kicked by someone in rollerblades? Ouch.

The original Streets of Rage was notable because, as far as I know, it featured the first black player character in a video game. Adam returns in the sequel, but this time he's gone and got himself kidnapped by the evil Mr X. Luckily, his kid brother Skate is to hand ... This itself is an interesting about turn of beat 'em up conventions. Typically the plot of these games revolved around rescuing some hapless woman - a girlfriend in Double Dragon, a girlfriend and a daughter in Final Fight, etc. Playing as Blaze you have the then unheard of scenario of a woman fighting through hordes of enemies to save her pal. A nice subversion of the not-so-fine tradition of abduction in video games.

One thing Streets of Rage 2 shares with other beat 'em ups of the time is the lawless backdrop. I can't think of one predecessor game - Ninja Warriors, Shadow Warriors, Crudebusters, Vigilante, Renegade not set in a city fallen to the ravages of organised crime. As a plot device, there is an element of practicality to it. Who is it okay for good guys to beat up? Crims are ideal punch bags. There's no moral quandary for starters and it reinforces a sense of right and wrong. But also, SoR2 and co. feed off late 80s/early 90s cultural anxieties: a feeling that social mores are decomposing, that the law was fraying and breaking, that urban spaces were places of danger. After dark, law abiding citizens were at risk of getting mugged or murdered. It's not for nothing that all of SoR2's urban levels take place at night. Coincidentally, in the early 90s city centres across Western Europe and North America were getting cleaned up and made safer as spaces for consumerism. What SoR2 draws on is the cultural memory of how New York had decayed into a risky place in the late 70s and early 80s. Yet alongside the crime it retained a gritty sort of urban glamour. This is faithfully reproduced in SoR2. As you cleave into Mr X's syndicate the flashing neon of a hip, happening city is your canvas. The pumping soundtrack underlines its dangerous but enticing allure.

Let's return to Blaze. In the original game, she was kitted out in a tasteful red jacket and matching tight miniskirt. This time the skirt is still in, accompanied by a boob tube. A good outfit for clubbing perhaps. Not so ideal for street fighting. And she has moves that play up her sexuality. Her aerial arm slice stretches her sprite out, accentuating her breasts. Her finishing flurry ends with a high kick - there would be little left to a goon's imagination before her foot smashes through it. Annoyingly, the other women in the game are even more sexualised. Cut from an identical type, woman enemies have bubble hair, come clad in a dominatrix outfit replete with over-the-top heels (surprisingly, Blaze is practical and wears flat-footed comfortable shoes), and are quite handy with a whip. These are direct homages to Double Dragon, in which women were exactly the same. It's interesting. The evil men SoR2 throws up are either freakishly styled or plain grotesque. They wear their characters on the body. The evil of the women is denoted by their sexualised outfits and choice of weaponry.

Tell a lie, there are other "women" in the game, but blink and you'll miss them. They are these sexless looking robots, and they're spiky automatons under the control of Mr X. Hmmm.

SoR2 draws on what were dated, questionable memes back then. But it demonstrates perfectly the double edge of video games. As a medium it is the most modern, most contemporary of art forms. In its day, SoR2 was at the vanguard of video game design. In every way it was a technically accomplished product assembled by a programming team at the top of their game. Its combined pushing the MegaDrive to its limits with the most perfect beat 'em up playability. SoR2 has long held its place in the canon, and deservedly so. Yet even then, the dazzling pixels and amazing sound were bundled with some pretty grubby social attitudes. This game came out 21 years ago, and so could be alibied by referencing the attitudes of the day. And yet product with exactly the same sorts of issues continue to pollute contemporary games systems. What's their excuse?

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