Streets of Rage 2 Soundtrack (Sega Genesis), Motohiro Kawashima / Yuzo Koshiro, 1992
Often enough, sequels to successful games or movies follow a predictable path – repeat the formula that made the first outing a winner, but make sure to tweak and polish your approach. If all goes well, the result is a product that doesn’t innovate, but makes a good thing even better. That’s precisely what happened with Streets of Rage 2. Its predecessor was a strong entry in the very crowded genre of early 90s beat’em ups. It didn’t stand out as a classic, though – but Streets of Rage 2 definitely got there. With nearly flawless gameplay and outstanding visuals, Streets of Rage 2 might well be the greatest beat’em up released for the Sega Genesis – and one of the entire genre’s all-time greats.
However, Streets of Rage 2‘s most noteworthy feature is its music, with a whole range of electronic artists (including Jay-Z producer Just Blaze) influenced by Yuzo Koshiro’s groundbreaking work. A trip to LA in 1988 had introduced Koshiro to emerging styles of electronic club music – which would only take off in Japan two or three years later. Inspired by these new influences, Koshiro even wrote his own programming language to harness the Sega Genesis’ full audio capabilities for the first Streets of Rage game. The effort was well worth it. Streets of Rage managed the revolutionary feat of credibly replicating contemporary electronic music on a non-CD gaming platform. What’s more, Koshiro wrote this technological marvel on the PC-88 – a Japanese home computer system first released in 1981. According to Koshiro, the key to successfully recreating club music sounds was to mimic the timbres of particular Roland rhythm machines.
Part of Koshiro’s motivation to use electronic club music on Streets of Rage had been his assumption that this would make the game more popular among Western audiences. The game’s commercial success certainly proved him right, and his return as composer for Streets of Rage II was assured – netting him a mention on the game’s title screen (still a rare honour for any game music composer). Koshiro’s own company Ancient was one of the co-developers of Streets of Rage II, ensuring that the composer had early access to the game’s visuals, upon which he would base his music. Koshiro was joined on a few tracks by Motohiro Kawashima, a young composer who had previously worked on Shinobi II: The Silent Fury and Batman Returns for Sega’s 8-bit platforms. On these two games, Kawashima had collaborated with Koshiro as well.
The result is a masterpiece indeed deserving of the accolades and many re-releases that the Streets of Rage 2 soundtrack has seen since its initial release. As much as Streets of Rage introduced gamers to sounds previously unheard in video games, at times it felt like a genre exercise for Koshiro – led by the game’s main theme, which sounded like the composer’s take on Enigma’s Sadeness. On Streets of Rage 2, there’s no doubt that Koshiro has truly mastered each of the musical styles he’s deploying – and that he can now bend and meld them to suit his artistic vision.
As Koshiro himself stated, Streets of Rage 2 saw him moving towards hard-core techno and more electronic influences. However, what sets this score apart from its predecessor isn’t so much a different musical style, but instead the music’s more complex rhythms. It’s a joy giving these cues a close listen on headphones – Koshiro layers his beats in intriguing, syncopated layers that never once lose their groove. Acid house-inspired first track “Go Straight” heralds these virtues right from the start. Of course, the track gets the necessary sense of urban cool and grittiness across right away, but what’s most intriguing is how Koshiro balances all the small rhythmic details with the single-minded focus of his two metallic lead instruments.
Not surprisingly, several other tracks on the Streets of Rage 2 soundtrack reprise this approach to scoring the game’s urban locations. “Under Logic” rides along on beautifully interlocking, punchy rhythms while also throwing in catchy melody leads that contrast with the composition’s industrial elements. “In the Bar” does its name proud and proves that Koshiro can fold genres outside of electronica into his formula. In this case, he elegantly alludes to jazz’s complex rhythms and improvisatory elements with little, unexpected flourishes in the organ accompaniment that competes with the lead melody for attention. Koshiro’s most spectacular genre mix is “Wave 131”, a swaggering, irresistibly grooving combination of electronic beats, pumping R’n’B grooves, and snappy, joyous Hammon Organ leads.
Those tracks are not the only occasions when the Streets of Rage 2 is easy on the ears. Other pieces pick up pop elements – aiming for a simpler rhythms and a greater focus on anthemic, sing-along ready melodies. “Dreamer” and “Slow Moon” base their excursions into pop territory on house-inspired piano chord progressions that back sweet, memorable melodies. Koshiro’s tremendous technical skills are not only apparent in how utterly ‘realistic’ his beats sound. Listen to how he shapes the vibrato on those tracks’ melody leads, giving them so much more life and vibrancy. “Good Ending” harnesses the soundtrack’s pop instincts for a relaxing comedown after 40 minutes of music that has been firing on all cylinders. Here and on “Back to the Industry”, the music’s complexity for once doesn’t lie in its rhythms, but rather in the melodic counterpoint that Koshiro establishes – traces of his classical musical education shine through.
Streets of Rage 3 is easily the franchise’s most divisive score – but listen closely enough, and you’ll find that the Streets of Rage 2 soundtrack in many ways hints at the direction Koshiro and Kawashima would take on the game’s challenging sequel. In fact, those tracks that feature collisions of jarring rhythms, abrasive leads and eerie, skeletal melodies come to dominate Streets of Rage 2, more so than their tuneful or danceable counterparts.
Sometimes, it’s the game’s locales that make this style a necessity. Of course, “Alien Power” turns out to be the score’s spookiest cue, but Koshiro still executes stylistic expectations in brilliantly creative fashion. A deep, thudding bass line destabilises the whole rhythmic foundation of the track, always ending early due to its unusual metre. After a high-pitched squeal backed by metallic percussion moves uncomfortably closer and closer, hammering industrial riffs swallow up the entire piece in an abrupt, hugely effective shift. “Jungle Base” is another opportunity for the composers to prove they can create rich atmospherics just as easily as tight layers of beats. The cue’s quivering tension and enigmatic quirks are led by a spectral melody that feels almost Gothic. “Too Deep” derives its effect from the constant tension between a full-bodied, swaggering groove and fragmented melody leads that use relentless repetition to turn blisteringly intense.
However, the Streets of Rage 2 soundtrack truly cranks up the heat on a trio of cues that sees Koshiro and Kawashima pull out all the stops. “Never Return Alive” pits abrasive leads – often aggressive sounds rather than hooks or melodies – against elaborately arranged industrial beats. The cue reaches fever pitch when a dramatically oscillating synth lead races back and for between the ends of the stereo field, so that its dissonant notes start to overlap. “Expander” features an even harsher collision between beats and piercing sound effects, dominated by grimey, aggressive synth chords – as if someone had taken “Never Return Alive” and put it in a pressure cooker. “Spin on the Bridge” takes this experimental approach and applies it to the soundtrack’s longest cue – flirting with progressive techno as the brilliantly constructed piece overflows with frantic, edgy ideas. It’s another artistic triumph on a landmark game score.
Porting a technological achievement like the Streets of Rage 2 soundtrack to a platform as limited as the Game Gear might appear a futile prospect. Surprisingly though, Koshiro’s Game Gear version emerges as one of the Game Gear’s most substantial scores. There’s arguably little reason to listen to it if you have access to the original (different to say the Donkey Kong Country 2 Game Boy downgrade). Still, it is impressive how much of the score’s grooves and melodies survive the transition, even as tracks are shortened and several omitted.
- 01 - Go Straight Kawashima, Motohiro / Koshiro, Yuzo 3:10
- 02 - In the Bar Kawashima, Motohiro / Koshiro, Yuzo 1:20
- 03 - Never Return Alive Kawashima, Motohiro / Koshiro, Yuzo 3:40
- 04 - Spin on the Bridge Kawashima, Motohiro / Koshiro, Yuzo 4:26
- 05 - Dreamer Kawashima, Motohiro / Koshiro, Yuzo 2:15
- 06 - Alien Power Kawashima, Motohiro / Koshiro, Yuzo 3:10
- 07 - Under Logic Kawashima, Motohiro / Koshiro, Yuzo 1:54
- 08 - Too Deep Kawashima, Motohiro / Koshiro, Yuzo 3:39
- 09 - Slow Moon Kawashima, Motohiro / Koshiro, Yuzo 2:26
- 10 - Wave 131 Kawashima, Motohiro / Koshiro, Yuzo 3:10
- 11 - Jungle Base Kawashima, Motohiro / Koshiro, Yuzo 3:40
- 12 - Back to the Industry Kawashima, Motohiro / Koshiro, Yuzo 1:16
- 13 - Expander Kawashima, Motohiro / Koshiro, Yuzo 2:30
- 14 - SOR Super Mix Kawashima, Motohiro / Koshiro, Yuzo 3:44
- 15 - Max Man Kawashima, Motohiro / Koshiro, Yuzo 2:04
- 16 - Revenge of Mr X Kawashima, Motohiro / Koshiro, Yuzo 1:24
- 17 - Good Ending Kawashima, Motohiro / Koshiro, Yuzo 2:27