After 26 years (!!) without any entry in the series, you would think that fans of the long-forgotten Streets of Rage/Bare Knuckle franchise would have to resort to relishing in the glory of the Genesis/Mega Drive heydey with the first three titles with little hope for any sequel. While the hope was kept alive that one day that a new entry would come to pass, I suddenly don’t feel as bad about the wait I had to endure for Shenmue III.
Lately, SEGA has seen fit to give their blessing for new entries in their well-known franchises in a few limited circumstances. In the case of Sonic Mania, it was a passion project developed by well-established fans in the Sonic hacking community who ultimately gave us the best title in years for the oft-struggling icon. Yu Suzuki was able to not only obtain the rights for a new Shenmue title, but ended up becoming a crowdfunding darling thanks to the outpouring of support for Shenmue III. Ultimately, the end result can best be described as a mixed bag, but it’s safe to say that the desire was there for a new title.
Enter developers DotEmu, Guard Crush Games, and Lizardcube. They may not be the most well-known developers, but looking at entries in their back catalog seem to make the perfect case for bringing them on for the insurmountable task of reviving a long-dormant franchise. This isn’t Lizardcube’s or even DotEmu’s first time working with SEGA or even remaking one of their games. Since they both cut their teeth on a remake of the Master System game Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap, it’s not a bad place to start. Guard Crush’s contribution and love for Streets of Rage took the form of a Mortal Kombat-esque art style of the go-right beat-’em-up titled Streets of Fury. So it’s safe to say that they’re familiar with the gameplay environment they’re working in here.
Developed by DotEmu/Guard Crush Games/Lizardcube and published by DotEmu, Streets of Rage 4 is set for release on PS4/Xbox One/Switch/PC on April 30, 2020. The Steam version was played for this review.
Return to the Mean Streets
Set ten years after the events of Streets of Rage III, Wood Oak City lived in peaceful times thanks to the efforts of Axel Stone, Blaze Fielding, Skate, and cyborg scientist Dr. Zan. The Syndicate, once led by the menacing Mr. X, is now a distant memory, but not completely snuffed out. Turns out that Mr. X found time to have twins, and they saw fit to pick up his mantle and terrorize Wood Oak City yet again. Known as the Y Twins, they set out to violently stake their claim on the city in an aggressive push to control everyone and everything they can get their hands on.
Naturally this catches the attention of detectives Axel and Blaze. They decide to team up with Adam Hunter’s guitar-weilding daughter Cherry and a cyborg apprentice to Dr. Zan who goes by Floyd Iraia. The four venture out into the streets to take down the Y Twins as well as their army of goons to take back the city once again.
If I’m being completely honest here, I wasn’t expecting much of a story from this title to begin with. The original Genesis/MD titles definitely did their best to tell a story with the hardware limitations they had, especially in the latter two titles. The decision to make Streets of Rage 4‘s story more akin to the story of the first game might disappoint a few fans.
While the plot development here isn’t anything deep or confusing, it is a fun (and occasionally goofy) story that’s told through interstitial static cutscenes with no voice acting. Nothing wrong with going with something straightforward, obviously. But while it’s not a surprise that they’re working within the confines of their budget, making the story as direct as possible seems like more of an artistic choice to help it shape the gameplay more than anything else.
Then again, I consistently had to remind myself that this game is doing its damnedest to pay respects to what came before it. Making any decisions that might irk longtime fans wouldn’t exactly help sales any. So playing it safe just seemed to make sense, maybe to the point of afterthought in the minds of some fans. It may not win any sort of writing awards, but I can’t say I wasn’t entertained either.
Go Right, Punch Everything
Nostalgia junkies can rest easy. If your first thought is that there would be some sort of wacky deviation that diluted the gameplay in any form or fashion, I kind of don’t blame you for being pensive about that. It’s not an uncommon occurrence for any sort of long-running franchise to deviate from what made it a hit in the first place, and sometimes that effort falls flat on its face. From a creator’s standpoint, sometimes experimenting with different elements and mechanics might bolster the overall gameplay for the better. It doesn’t always work, but going outside the box isn’t something that this game does all that much.
That isn’t to say that what it does inside that box is bad. Hell, far from it. I’d go so far to say that stepping into this space again feels as solid as ever. The series in general always held true to a real street brawl approach with a series of simple punches, kicks, throws, and suplexes. Weapon pickups from prior games to diversify combat? Yeah, it’s there. Picking up whole chickens and apples for health? Yup, that’s there too. Streets of Rage 4 doesn’t want to rock that boat too much, but what’s on the boat is presented with pride.
Each character has their own attributes, strengths, and pitfalls to take into consideration. Do you want to be super mobile and whack foes with a guitar while not being as durable as your peers? Cherry’s your girl. Would you rather be a slow, hulking cyborg with extendable arms and try your hardest to plow through everyone in your path? Floyd has you covered there. Every character is different, and I found myself swapping between different characters to get a feel for how each of them play. Part of me was annoyed that some characters weren’t as mobile as others simply because of the sheer amount of goons on screen, but it’s by no means a deal breaker as it’s perfectly playable.
One feature worth noting, though, is the straightforward special move system. While it gives you more variety in your moveset, it does so at the expense of your health. You can gain it back in a series of successful strikes, but getting hit at all will cancel out what hasn’t been gained back already and then some. It turns into a risk-reward game that I found myself on the cautious side of, only using it for desperate or safe situations. Having a simple air special/ground special/ground defense system works in practice, though you really have to be on your combo game to fully appreciate how fluid this system is when you’re running full bore with the skill to match. Flowing that into a Star Move (basically a character super move) can feel quite satisfying to pull off.
Sure, the gameplay is firmly rooted in the past., but that doesn’t mean that the controls that come with it would be in this day and age. Once I got past each character’s unique attributes, general controls feel tight and responsive for everyone. Hell, even classic unlockables (of which there are many) play like the game they came from, like they never left the ’90s. Even the special moves from the game they hail from is left untouched and available in combat.
While laying waste to foes and trying to strategize is all well and good, combat can run into a timing and priority problem. Oftentimes I found myself getting whacked when I was feverishly trying to avoid attacks or just barely missing the window to strike my opponent into a well-deserved juggling combo. I also found myself unable to block attacks, while many enemies could do just that. Even with controls laying the lack of skill at your feet, it can be frustrating. In the heat of gameplay, it can be rather annoying. But these are pointed nitpicks at best, really.
Casual players might end up balking at the staggering difficulty of the game, even on Normal. This game does not care if you can’t bring skill to the table, and will constantly remind you on how you need to get better. It’s not uncommon for the game to throw wave after wave of foes and you’ll really have to think on your feet and make regular on-the-fly combat choices to win the day. Checkpoints are nonexistent, and losing all your lives means you start the stage over. You can change your character if you restart or fail outright, though. Failing at all gives you the choice to get extra help at the expense of your score. But even considering taking that option can feel like a cop-out for those who want to work on unlocking everything quickly and showcase their skill. This game wears its old-school difficulty like a well-tailored suit, and low skill is not rewarded here whatsoever.
Opportunities to cheese the system are relatively low, but besting the game on anything above Easy (which even then is still what some would consider normal) requires a hefty amount of skill and precision to get anywhere. This skill is important if you want to make the ‘A’ grade in each stage, which increases your lifetime score. This is where the unlockables come into play, as better scores will unlock stuff way faster than casual runs. Though if you’re a masochist, the difficulties of Hard, Hardest, and Mania are there for you to show your beat-em-up prowess if that’s more your thing.
Upon completion of your first story mode run, you’ll unlock the “single-quarter and you’re done if you fail” experience of Arcade mode meant for the most skilled of street brawlers. You’ll also be able to replay stages from the then-unlocked stage select and take up a boss rush if you choose to do so. While some of these bosses are varied between title-specific characters, old-school characters, or even classic foes, these fights are generally no slouch even with pattern memorization and the right strategy.
Streets of Rage 4 isn’t an exclusively single-player experience, as couch multiplayer comes back in a big way with this game. This series is known for co-op play in story mode, and this game isn’t any different. For the first time in the series, up to 4 player co-op is possible. If you’d rather play a co-op campaign online, that option is available too.
Also included is a battle mode that has eight stages included. If you ever wanted to have a Streets of Rage fighting game, this is the closest thing you’re going to get. Yeah, the amount of stages are kind of low for that sort of thing. However, having this exist at all is just begging for heated evenings and general shenanigans with your buddies. Having this mode here just helps add more bang for your buck into an already value-packed package.
Drawn to the Groove
One of the great things about modern gaming is that unless you’re going for photorealistic 3D graphics, you basically have free reign to make whatever artistic design choice that you want. While the development team was/is well aware of the original game’s 16-bit aesthetic, they didn’t completely ignore it. In order to stay true to Streets of Rage’s 2D roots and make something that looks striking and fluid, they made the decision to go in a fully-hand drawn direction with 4, while also throwing a bone to old-school fans with the inclusion of sprites from the prior games.
I have to say, I am absolutely here for this artistic decision. They could have just as easily went the Sonic Mania route and went for a more Saturn-esque graphical presentation and I would have been fine with it. But the level of detail with this hand-drawn style is just absolutely gorgeous. You owe it to yourself to see it in action, because it’s clearly obvious how much work was put into making this look the way it does. Environments throughout Wood Oak City are active and brimming with life, and details relevant to the stage aren’t half-assed in the slightest. It simultaneously leans on the over-the-top 90s aesthetic with the ridiculousness to match while also doing as little as possible to hamper the gameplay.
Character designs are clean and distinctive, while some artistic designs might irk some. Axel isn’t the trim buff guy he was in prior titles, instead built like a Mack truck and sporting a sweet beard to boot. Blaze looks like she hasn’t aged a bit, Cherry’s fluid movements match her personality, and Floyd’s lumbering cyborg self looks as menacing as he is huge. Seeing them in combat is just as fluid as you’d expect, and seeing them pull of their various movesets are appropriately stylized and fun to watch.
Being a 2D game on PC, it runs fine on modern builds and most gaming laptops. Since I haven’t seen it in action on consoles, it’s hard to say if the performance is on par. But I’m sure that the proper adjustments were made to each platform available today, especially in the Switch’s case.
Another “don’t rock the boat” decision took the form of the soundtrack being in line with the 90s era that spawned the franchise in the first place. While the primary composing duties are headed up by veteran Oliver Deriviere, original Streets of Rage composers Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima also contribute to the soundtrack, among a smattering of other well-known gaming music figures.
Unsurprisingly, the soundtrack they laid down for this game is fantastic and absolutely up to par with the rest of the franchise. One of the things that this franchise is known for is how ’90s the soundtrack is, and it wears that aesthetic with pride. You’ll be bopping your heads to that and some retrowave-esque sounds as you play, but listening through it makes it abundantly clear that this part of the game is far from an afterthought.
Even then, the sound design takes the straightforward approach here as well. You’re not getting any weird sound effects when you’re tearing through the city, and all of it just works. Though nostalgia will come through here with the classic characters, as they’re not afraid to use the sound effects from the appropriate game in this one. Hell, you can throw on a Master System-esque version of the soundtrack if you want to for maximum nostalgia overload. No stone seems to be unturned for this game when it comes to variety.
I can’t help but walk away with seeing this as anything other than one of the most painstakingly detailed love letters to fans of Streets of Rage that have waited nearly three decades for a new entry. While it lifts specific elements from modern gaming, it has one foot planted very firmly in the past in the best way possible. There’s a lot of fanservice, but the amount of fanservice here just feels like toppings on an already delicious offering. Factor in the ridiculous amount of content for the price, and this game feels like a collaboration between a master chef and very competent proteges.
Simply put, this is the return that fans have been waiting for. Streets of Rage 4 delivers in so many ways that the $24.99 price point seems more than reasonable with all the included content, even with the short story mode. It may prove to be overwhelming for those unfamiliar with what it brings to the table, but you can’t deny how much love was put on the screen for beat-’em-ups and this franchise in general. If you can take the heat, you should absolutely jump in and send a signal that this is a game worth playing.
Review copy provided by DotEmu for PC. Screenshots captured by reviewer.