Review by BareknuckleRoo
It's fun, and was amazingly important to my childhood, but it's got some serious balance issues holding it back.
When I was young, the Game Gear was the first handheld I ever owned. I was in love with it. I had played the Genesis version of Streets of Rage 2 at a friend's house, and when I saw there was a Game Gear version, I absolutely couldn't resist asking for this for my birthday. And I played the heck out of it. Many, many batteries got sucked away during car rides. Long hours late at night were spent playing this game with the AC adapter as I played through each difficulty mode with the characters.
Basically, I'm saying I'm super nostalgic about this game. It was very influential to my current gaming tastes. With that in mind, I never really noticed the various issues that the game had when I was younger, namely because I didn't have much opportunity to actually play the Genesis games aside from occasionally at a friend's house. As I grew older, I kept playing beat 'em up games, and finally got to seriously invest time in the Genesis games as well as in the highly polished fan remake. Once I'd done that, it was hard to go back to the Game Gear port. Nostalgia or not, the Game Gear ports had some serious issues.
Both the Game Gear ports of Streets of Rage and Streets of Rage 2 have fantastic music. Possibly the best soundtracks on the system to be honest, featuring incredibly enjoyable renditions of the original music on the Game Gear's hardware. The sound effects and graphics are quite good too for a handheld release, and work well. While the sounds and visuals are perfectly fine for both of the Game Gear releases, sadly the gameplay didn't fare as well during the transition to a handheld release.
The gameplay in the Game Gear port of the first game is, frankly, a mess. Basic punches are slow and awkward as the collision detection on basic attacks feels really iffy, with enemies not seeming to register all the hits in a basic attack combo. Grabs no longer let you knee enemies for some reason, leaving you only the option to back throw or vault over to suplex. Jumping attacks have a really awkward attack height and angle. Police specials are also completely absent. The game feels really muddled, and doesn't play as smoothly as the Genesis does.
Streets of Rage 2's Game Gear port is an alarmingly vast improvement over the first game. Basic punch combos come out quick and feel like they hit solidly. Nearly all of the attacks from the original games are replicated here with some tweaks to the moveset. They even incorporated something akin to Police Specials in the form of Super Attacks - press and hold the attack button while standing still, and as soon as your character gets into a kneeling position you can let go of attack to use the Super Attack. Axel's Soul Striker is powerful, but only hits enemies the fireball touches, whereas Blaze's Whirlwind Attack and Skate's Pinball Assault hit all onscreen enemies.
Unfortunately, Max is absent completely from the game, which is a bit of a shame since for many people he's their favorite character. There's a few enemies and stages missing as well - you never visit the baseball diamond, and you never encounter Abadede or any of the kickboxer enemies during the game. There are thankfully a few exclusive enemies in this version, such as the Predator-esque boss who makes a couple appearances, as well as the exploding robots in the factory. While the game is trimmed down a bit due to time and cartridge space limitations, it doesn't detract too much from its enjoyment.
Basically, the SoR2 GG port handles much more smoothly and feels truly like a Streets of Rage game in handheld form... at least until you start taking notice of what's been adjusted. And there's a lot of tweaks to how the game handles that don't all feel for the better. For instance, damage on attacks have been rebalanced. Throws in particular feel quite weak relative to what they were on the Genesis version. Special attacks are still in the game, but the defensive special is executed via a left->right, attack or right->left, attack input, and the offensive special is executed via left or right + jump + attack at the same time. The defensive special is awkward to use in a crowd situation as you can accidentally grab an enemy when you meant to give yourself breathing room. As a consolation, specials no longer drain health when using them, making them spammable now. Considering Blaze's offensive special is awkward to hit with and Skate's is both awkward and weak, this change doesn't actually feel too unreasonable. It's odd, but this change doesn't make things feel overpowered, and this is due to the unusual difficulty adjustments.
Also missing are two of the jump attacks; you no longer have a unique standing jump attack or a down+attack move that doesn't knock down an enemy. Your jump attacks always inflict knockdown. It's a shame these are missing, but it's not a huge issue.
One of the biggest difficulty tweaks in the game is the damage output. On Hard mode, several enemies in the game kill in three hits. The boxer enemy first encountered on the boat kills in two hits with his jump attack, as does the final boss, and the exploding robots can kill Skate in one hit at full health (Axel and Blaze at full health just barely survive if they're caught in the blast). You really can't take many hits before losing a life when you're up against serious enemies. This wouldn't necessarily be as troublesome if it weren't for the fact that there is no recovery invulnerability in the game whatsoever.
Normally, when you're knocked down, you have a few frames of invulnerability when you stand up. This gives you a chance to escape a crowd that would otherwise just knock you back down again. In the Game Gear version, you have absolutely no wake-up invulnerability at all, so it's entirely possible to be knocked down, and knocked down over and over as you try to stand up until you die. Only if the enemy gives a brief opening to use a defensive special or to escape can you get away. It's especially jarring to see when there are enemies like the barechested kung fu guys or the black and yellow bikers who deal ridiculous amounts of damage - getting knocked down once and surrounded can mean an instant death at full health. It's really easy to lose a ton of lives at a difficult section unless you plan ahead with those Special Attacks. This also applies to enemies; unlike the Genesis version where enemies like the whip ladies are invulnerable as they stand and will counterattack if you're close, every single enemy can be exploitably attacked as they stand up. Even the final boss with his unusually rapid recovery be jump kicked repeatedly as he tries to recover. The lack of recovery invulnerability for the player is a massive, frustrating change that feels really unfair as if three Signals surround you they can slide kick you into oblivion if you let them hit you once. That sort of thing doesn't feel fun.
Accuracy is also a problem. In order to land a punch you need to be roughly at the same height on the screen vertically as an enemy. However, enemies can hit you from above and below at a point where your attacks can't touch them. A good example is the boss with the claws and the green outfit. He can use his attacks and connect with you a good distance above or below you - even if you try to jump kick him, you'll whiff as he slices you to ribbons. You require way more accurate positioning than the enemies do in order to connect with attacks, whereas on the original console version generally when enemies are positioned vertically where they can hit you, you can hit them.
The characters are also very, VERY badly unbalanced. Blaze's blitz and offensive specials are both difficult to hit with. Worse, she doesn't keep her leg out for the full length of her jump kick, and the third hit on her basic punch combo has so much lag that basic enemies can punch her out of it! Skate's not much better - his attacks are more reliable, but they're all really weak. His Roller Uppercut grab, his Corkscrew Kick, his blitz attack, his throws, all of these have seen a massive damage nerf. Also, his blitz as well as Corkscrew Kick both have issues reliably knocking down enemies (sometimes you'll pass right through the enemy dealing one measly hit that doesn't knock them down). Thankfully, his Migraine rear grab move is still quite strong, but late game enemies in the Game Gear port can break out of grabs, punishing you immediately after a vault or after a second of holding them and damaging you at the same time, which effectively means Skate's shut out of his strongest move. If you somehow manage to grab one of these enemies from behind, you'll get at most two punches out of Migraine before being knocked away. Lame.
Axel on the other hand is absurdly powerful. His basic combo kills Galsias before he gets to the finishing kick. His blitz attack Grand Upper connects easily to his basic combo and does massive damage as well as having huge priority. His defensive special has great range and damage, and his offensive special is super powerful (though leaves him vulnerable). Axel's only flaw is his jump attack; instead of a kick he uses his knee as if it were his SoR1 jump attack, so it's quite short ranged. Still, he has other options against jet, such as that fireball special attack that does enormous damage when it hits. While Blaze and Skate are tricky to use, you can basically sail effortlessly through the game with Axel by comparison.
Another issue that affects all three characters is how difficult it is to throw enemies into one another. It feels really tricky to do so for whatever reason. Maybe smaller hitbox size is to blame for this, maybe enemies just don't wander as close to each other as often... but I never felt like throwing enemies into one another was as useful or worthwhile at is was on the Genesis version.
The game has a two player mode available if two people with Game Gears and two cartridges use a link cable. It doesn't appear to have any lag issues and works well... but nowadays, why not just play the Genesis version in that case?
It's a surprisingly solid handheld port considering the hardware they had to port it to, and really the issues I have with the port are not related to the hardware but rather to the unusual rebalancing changes made to your own attack damage , enemy damage, and most importantly the total lack of recovery invulnerability, which leads to frustrating moments where you make one mistake and you're knocked down over and over and over until you lose a life, without any way to escape. Honestly I love the music and I find it enjoyable (in spite of how unbalanced it often is), but with the various gameplay issues the handheld port has I can't seriously give Streets of Rage 2's Game Gear port a review rating higher than 6/10.
Product Release: Streets of Rage 2 (US, 12/31/93)
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