In the '90s you couldn't walk five feet without tripping over a beat 'em up game. Often when a video game genre becomes oversaturated, you end up with mostly stinkers. Not so with the beat 'em up, no sir! It seemed that, the more their popularity grew, the more inventive they became. Soon you had six player X-Men games, babies piloting robot suits along side ninjas, mummies, and commandos, and the freaking Simpsons, of all things. But of all these fantastically fun beat 'em ups, two franchises stuck out as the kings -- Streets of Rage and Final Fight. Now we're pitting these two in a final fight, of sorts, to determine which face-punching, pile-driving, two-player badguy-beatdown-fest is the best.
Streets of Rage
Best Hero: Axel. Tight, skinny legged jeans? Check. Bandana? Check. Ridiculously awesome martial arts moves? Check. Axel's everything you could ever hope for in a '90s hero. He's got a wide variety of special attacks, and his powerfully outdated clothes can be enjoyed as ironically or genuinely as you please.
Best Villain: Shiva. If Axel's the hero every '90s martial arts hero wanted to be, Shiva's the villain all other '90s villains looked up to. With his martial arts gi and badguy bandana, Shiva is not to be trifled with. He's the pre-final boss in Streets of Rage 2, and a secret character in 3, and when you face him, be prepared to lose more than a few lives to his fearsome attacks. The man doesn't even have a regular run, for crying out loud. He's so badass he just glides along the ground like some kind of murderous ice skater.
Best Special Attack: Bare Knuckle. Axel's forward, foward+attack, otherwise known as mass-a-cre, is one of the best moves in the entire series. It's a handy finisher to any combo, gives you a temporary bit of invulnerability while performing it, and it just looks freaking cool.
Best Hero: Mike Haggar. When the Mad Gear gang offers to bribe this 300 pound pile of muscles-turned mayor, what does he do? He tells them to go to hell. When they kidnap his daughter he rips off his tie, oils up, and hits the streets with an all-you-can-eat buffet of knuckle sandwiches. Haggar's co-stars may change from one Final Fight to the next, as do the villains he faces, but when it comes to doling out justice there's no one greater than the mustachioed mayor.
Best Villain: Poison. Sure, there may be badguys who are more intimidated than this pink-haired hottie, but few have the rich backstory that she does. LGBT people aren't exactly widely represented in video games, which is what makes Poison so interesting: despite her smokin' hot body, she was, in fact, born a dude. She's gone on to make cameos in several other Capcom titles, and became a playable character in the recent Street Fighter X Tekken. She's hot, she's got a domineering streak a mile wide, and she may just awaken in you some hidden desire you never knew you had.
Best Special Attack: Double Lariat. Fun fact: according to Capcom canon, Zangief's signature attack, the Double Lariat, is actually a move he picked up from Haggar! That's right! It's the least showy, but most effective of all beat 'em up attacks: Haggar spins with two fists extended, pulverizing any punks caught in the way.
Winner: Final Fight
While, of all the Streets of Rage and Final Fight games, Streets of Rage 2 is probably the best, the Final Fight franchise comes out as the overall winner. Its formula had a stronger impact on the beat 'em up genre, and its characters have had a farther reaching influence. The Street Fighter and Capcom Vs. games are littered with Final Fight characters. Even though the Final Fight may seem over for these heroes, the desire to make a difference (preferably by pounding some badguys), never goes away.
Streets of Rage did have some sweet music though.