(Sega, 1991; Mega Drive, Game Gear, Master System, Mega CD, Arcade, Virtual Console, iPhone OS, various compilations)
I was once again quite tempted to induct an entire series here, but the important thing is that this list is about my favourite games, not necessarily the ones that are the best. As it pertains to Streets of Rage, the second entry in the series is probably the best of the three, but number one holds the most happy memories for me.
Double Dragon is pretty much to blame, so to speak, for SoR's existence. In 1987, the popular game essentially kickstarted the gaming populace's enthusiasm for side-scrolling beat-'em-ups. Two years later, Capcom would release the astoundingly good Final Fight, which has any number of classic moments and characters in it, with some crossing over into other games as Final Fight conveniently takes place in the same fictional world as Street Fighter. Also in 1989, Sega would release the first game in the Golden Axe series. Now, I like Golden Axe, it's a fun game with some neat characters, memorable music and some cool magic attacks. However, the game moves at a crawl and gets blindingly repetitive incredibly quickly. However, Golden Axe was a basic groundwork for Sega to work off of. The franchise's sequels were vast improvements over the original. More importantly, it was essentially something of a framework SoR could use.
Streets of Rage exploded onto the Mega Drive in 1991. The story focuses on three renegade ex-cops, who quit the force when they became disgusted at the level of corruption in the police force. With city officials powerless, the city falls into the hands of crime lord Mr. X. Those three former cops, Adam Hunter, Axel Stone and Blaze Fielding, must take back the streets the only way the punks will understand- by stoving their faces in!
The game's pretty simplistic, with most levels following a linear left-to-right desgn, though the nifty elevator level helps change things up (and lets you hurl foes hundreds of storeys to the pavement!). The three ex-cops each have their own strengths and weaknesses, not to mention their own special moves. They also get to call on one of the few honest cops on the force who can launch a huge missile strike and knock out all enemies on screen.
It's really in the character design that the game shines. As well as the three player characters- each of whom are well known to Sega fans from the 1990s- the enemy roster is pretty impressive. True, after a few levels you're in palette swap territory, but the individual enemies are all really well designed and their personalities shine through. It's obvious that Galsia is a useless feeb, Signal's a little bit more of a bad ass and Abadede is the Ultimate Warrior from 1990s wrestling. Well, okay, maybe not, but he's clearly based on him.
When you finally reach Mr. X, the game does something interesting. You're offered the chance to join Mr. X's crime syndicate. Any true gamer knows the only correct response is Axel's Bare Knuckle Punch to the crotch, but if you accept his offer one of two things will happen. In a single player game, you'll be forced to replay the last level (a boss rush level) and then eventually get the bad ending. In a two player game, you'll fight one another for control of the syndicate. It's a pretty neat nod to Double Dragon where two players would end up fighting to see who got the girl.
One of the best things about SoR is its awesome soundtrack by Yūzō Koshiro. The tunes in the game are all catchy and quite memorable, the theme for level one and the boss theme being two of the best. In a way it's unusual that Sega of America would decide Sonic CD's soundtrack needed altering for a North American market since the fans wouldn't accept the style of music in the Japanese soundtrack when, all considered, Koshiro's SoR soundtrack played to the same kind of music. But that debate's a story for another time.
SoR was greatly improved upon in its sequel and the third entry in the series is pretty strong too (it's largely personal opinion as to which one is better). The sequels added more characters and enemies and ramped up the difficulty factor. There were also comic strips in the pages of Sonic The Comic (which served as my first introduction to the series). All in all, if you fancy a bit of a retro treat, there aren't many classic games on the Mega Drive that can outdo the original Streets of Rage.