You need to play Sega's best retro beat-'em-up on Nintendo Switch ASAP
Back in the 1980s, a player’s physical location shaped their gaming experiences. There were consoles and computers, sure, but the marquee games appeared in arcades. The quarter-swallowing machines offered players what the kids today would call a microdose of gaming. You’d enter an arcade with a fistful of quarters, do your best to ignore the obvious traps like the claw-arm, and find the right game.
In 1991, the right game was Street Fighter II. Capcom’s brawler took the arcade world by storm. Players were fascinated by its vibrant, distinctive characters and seemingly endless combos, pumping quarter after quarter into the machine.
Two huge fans of SFII were Yuzo and Ayano Koshiro. The brother and sister had a professional interest in Capcom’s hit, considering they both worked at another game studio, Ancient. When they began developing their next game, 1992’s Streets of Rage 2, Ayano recalled in a 2015 interview that they liked SFII so much “we bought a cabinet and had it installed in the office.”
That influence is evident throughout Streets of Rage 2, a game widely hailed as one of the best beat ‘em ups of all time. You can play it for yourself, since it’s available right now if you’ve subscribed to Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack.
The original Streets of Rage featured police officers Axel, Adam, and Blaze, quitting a corrupt force to take down the man behind all of their city’s crime, Mr. X. They defeated Mr. X, but wouldn’t you know, he’s returned. Axel and Blaze are back for the fight, joined by Adam’s younger brother, a rollerblading teenager named Skate and their friend, a professional wrestler named Max. They’re going to take down Mr. X once and for all.
Right off the top, you’ve got two balanced characters in Axel and Blaze, one speedster in Skate, and one tank in Max. Streets of Rage 2 offers variety in player selection, enough that it is clearly hinting towards multiplayer as the best way to play. That’s reinforced as players get swarmed by enemies, even if they do have the generosity to attack one at a time.
Each enemy in Streets of Rage 2 gets a health bar, however small, and a name. One of the game’s real strengths is its baddies, perfectly drawn leather vest and shirtless punks ripped right out of a Black Flag show. These punks appear everywhere, from the city streets to Alien-inspired caverns. How did they get there? It’s a good question, but they’ve got knives and pipes, so better to punch first and ask questions later.
But it’s not just regular punks you’re fighting. There’s Electra, a dominatrix with an electric whip, Zamza, a gray nod to SFII’s feral green Blanka, pink-haired nuisances flying around on jet packs, riding around on motorcycles, and more.
Games like Streets of Rage 2 have a maximalist “everything but the kitchen sink” quality to them, tossing in more and more, that works because the game moves so fluidly, just about any enemy in any scenario will feel natural.
In that 2015 interview, Koshiro says that Ancient “had about 120 percent worth of ideas for every stage, and we had to downsize that to about 90 percent. So there was a lot that got removed.” It’s hard to tell that from the gameplay.
Button-mashers should take note that three lives can get used up surprisingly fast, and the game’s health pick-ups can often feel meager. You’re allowed one continuation after a game over, but that’s it. But even if your run is short, jumping back in with a friend is what makes Streets of Rage 2 so worthwhile.