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Sega launched its classic Streets of Rage on the Genesis console in 1991 specifically to counter Nintendo’s acquisition of the 1989 arcade hit Final Fight. Its sequel, the creatively named Streets of Rage 2, came out just one year later—a follow-up so quick you might assume it was a half-assed cash-in.

But Streets of Rage 2 is a much better game than the story so far implies. It has a real narrative to tell in between brutal beatdowns, and with its recent re-release on Nintendo’s modern 3DS handheld, it’s worth revisiting.

With gameplay reminiscent of another nostalgic classic, Double Dragon, both Streets of Rage and Final Fight featured protagonists in a white shirt and jeans, fists bulging with protective tape. They both took place in cities corrupted by crime. But Final Fight is about a rise from the ghettos of its Metro City to vibrant luxury. The original Streets of Rage was, in contrast, a downer. The city didn’t even have a name. It was deserted anyway. Posters on walls were left in tatters. Littered cans rolled in the wind. There was limited color—all hues of desaturated grays and blues. Streets of Rage was a “me-too” clone of earlier games, yes, but it was distinct.

Streets of Rage 2 is where the series hit its stride, with a raw, idealist fantasy where four friends punch through a syndicate attempting to re-condemn the still nameless, but newly revitalized, city. You can see the effects of change brought on by the events of the first game. The difference is color. Locations are often the same but neon lights are now vivid, bridges are under construction. The beach is cleared of debris, while baseball stadiums and theme parks have re-opened. The desperate seediness is gone. The city is livable.

With Streets of Rage 2, revitalized in July as part of Sega’s exquisite 3D Classics line on 3DS, the four heroes—Blaze Fielding, Axel Stone, Max Thunder, and Eddie Hunter—have been turned from police to vigilantes. They no longer have to keep the peace as a career; they do so willingly as citizens. The distinction is critical to Streets of Rage 2’s underlying positivity.

Axel, still in a white shirt and jeans, is an everyman. Eddie is that all-too-rare video game character—a black teenager—gimmickry putting him in ‘90s era rollerblades. Max, the flexing muscles as a pro wrestler, and Blaze, the fiery female with a nimble high kick, balance one another. In all, they’re inclusive caricatures.

The call of the opening text scrawl, “Make a stand for peace and friendship,” is corny, but it represents Streets of Rage 2’s zeal. Crime can be defeated if change is desired, although beating up gang members is an admittedly ineffective way to do so—in real life, at least.

Of course Streets of Rage 2 is ridiculous. It has ninjas (now in 3D!). There are men with jetpacks, obese people who breathe fire, strippers with whips, robots, and even a deadly carnival attraction. They add charm and soften the ounce of reality Streets of Rage is determined to present.

Once you reach the city limits in the game’s final levels, stage design shifts to depict a war zone. Sandbags replace the cleanliness, and the once generous color wilts. It’s a depressing turn, readying you for a finale with machine guns—and more ninjas.

While so few sequels seem to understand what form to take—Final Fight 2, for comparison, chose to eliminate the urban aspect for a worldwide jaunt brimming with less endearing stereotypes—Streets of Rage 2 is utterly confident. It’s marching through identical zones with established, identifiable landmarks. The city has changed, the heroes’ actions in the first game shaping future events. And Streets of Rage 2 does other things to accentuate itself as a sequel, mostly marketable back-of-the-box items: additional fighting moves, longer (and more) levels, and other expected improvements. But, surprisingly for this type of cheesy ‘90s beat-em-up game, it’s the narrative through-line that’s beautiful and even innovative.

There are no politics to Streets of Rage 2. A syndicate wants this city for, well, reasons. It’s not even clear why. In Final Fight, Metro City mayor Mike Haggar is one of the playable characters who takes to the streets to clean them up, punching the trope of the “do-nothing” politician square in its jaw; then again, maybe that is Streets of Rage 2’s point: the heroes ignore the system of on-the-books police work to defeat corruption from the ground up. That corruption was likely brought about in the first place by inept leadership—how else does a city succumb to this scenario twice (and a third time by Streets of Rage 3)?

So let the citizens do the work. Remove the government influence. In that way, Streets of Rage 2 is deeply conservative, or rather as conservative as something this crudely violent and goofy can be. The foursome are not pandering to a droll anti-capitalist narrative, and Streets of Rage 2 is thus unprecedented. Few other games are optimistic to this degree. Further still, nothing in the genre has matched its style, look, ideas, or bravery yet. How unique a classic this is.

Matt Paprocki has critiqued home media and video games for 15 years. His current passion project is the technically minded Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Paprocki.

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