While the original Streets of Rage always stood in the shadow of Capcom's genre-defining Final Fight, Sega's homegrown beat-'em-up series really came into its own with Streets of Rage 2. Released two years after the original, Streets of Rage 2 offered markedly refined gameplay and improved presentation, both technically and stylistically. The game was released on the Wii Virtual Console earlier this year, and now it's on Xbox Live Arcade with a few new bells and whistles.
As with any beat-'em-up worth its salt, Streets of Rage 2 starts off with a kidnapping. The victim this time is Adam, one of the three playable characters from the original Streets of Rage, and the perpetrator is the satisfyingly named Mr. X, the same crime boss whom the three of you thought you had defeated previously. And so, returning characters Axel and Blaze, along with newcomers Max, a wrestler, and Skate, Adam's similarly color-coordinated, Rollerbladed younger brother, hit the mean streets to beat their way through hundreds of increasingly bizarre thugs.
While there were minor differences between the three playable characters in the original Streets of Rage, they're much more pronounced here. Most significant is that each character has a special attack that effectively replaces the ability to call in an artillery strike from the first game, though even basics like run speed, attack strength, and how grapple moves are executed look and feel unique to each of the four characters. Other additions, such as a lunging attack, improve the overall depth of the game. You certainly end up mashing on the attack button more often than not in Streets of Rage 2, but there's enough variety to keep the action satisfying.
Part of that variety comes from the enemies you'll face. While they find strength in numbers, with plenty of generic hoodlums padding out the population, you'll face unique foes like Muay Thai kickboxers, XXL baseball players with a penchant for belly flops, kung fu masters, lunatics with jetpacks, spiked-shoulder-pad-wearing road warriors, and more. The constant stream of street toughs is interrupted regularly with a boss fight, usually against some imposing hulk of a man. Part of what keeps Streets of Rage 2 fresh throughout is that characters from early boss fights often show up later as little more than cannon fodder. It also helps curb some of the enemy repetition that is endemic within most beat-'em-ups.
Though you can solo your way through the eight action-packed levels, it's arguably better with a buddy. The game facilitates this with single-system as well as online co-op play, and save for a few minor hiccups, the online co-op seems to work pretty well. The same can't be said for the online versus mode, with which we experienced chronic lag issues. The versus mode is just a best-of-three brawl between two characters, and though the lag makes it basically unplayable, it wasn't much of a selling point in the game's original release.
All of this action is great fun to watch as well, thanks to the large, stylishly animated characters and the variety of environments you'll fight your way through, with plenty of background detail and sharp parallax scrolling effects. As with Sega's previous XBLA releases, Streets of Rage 2 features an enhanced visual mode that softens the sharp pixel edges on the now 15-year-old graphics. It's a trick that worked pretty well on the simple, cartoony visuals in Sonic the Hedgehog, but in Streets of Rage 2 it obscures some of the great background detail, and gives the characters an odd, embossed look. As good as the game otherwise looks and plays, though, it might be the music in Streets of Rage 2 that stands as its greatest asset. Underlined with a cacophony of battle cries, death knells, and the various cracks and thumps of hand-to-hand combat, Yuzo Koshiro's poppy, synthesized soundtrack is consistently catchy and evocative, and it lends a greater sense of drama and urgency to the action.
Though Streets of Rage 2 for XBLA doesn't feature the sound-test mode where you can listen to the game's catchy soundtrack on its own, there are other perks, such as the ability to save your progress at any time, full online leaderboards, and some fairly attainable achievements. Streets of Rage 2 is one of the best beat-'em-up experiences you'll have anywhere, and this is a really solid version. For 400 points, or about $5, it's a great deal for a classic game.