When we cast our minds back to nineties gaming, it’s hard not to think of the early battlegrounds of the console wars and the many versus scenarios that faced us back then. You couldn’t simply sit on the fence; you either had a Mega Drive or Super Nintendo, you either preferred Sonic or Mario and when it came to scrolling beat-em-ups you were either a Final Fight kid or a Streets of Rage kid. There was nothing in between. The battle rages on to this day, but the consensus reached after years of seething internet angst is that Final Fight may have held the title of a better arcade experience, but when it comes to the consoles Streets of Rage, (especially the second) was king.
There were a lot of things going for the SOR franchise. The action you controlled with a three-button pad was impressively diverse, allowing you to pull off a large manner of manoeuvres from back punches, jumping kicks and weapon throwing that made you feel like a king when you got everything down. The Setting had this gloomy, yet neon aesthetic which felt right at home for the era, harking back to classic martial art cop movies of the time and then there was the music. My god that music. Series composer didn’t only know how to make great Eurobeat enthused beats, he made the Mega Drive sing in ways that would make even the most ardent SNES fan stutter. This marriage of gameplay and style made Streets of Rage what it is today, even if it was just a fond nostalgic memory. That is of course, until now.
It may have taken twenty-six years, several failed reboots (one of which becoming Fighting Force on the PS1) and a large daunting mark on Sega’s legacy since the fall of the Dreamcast, but here we are. Dotemu, Lizardcube and Guard Crush Games have decided to come to us finally with the latest instalment to the previously assumed retired franchise. The question is though, can a franchise like Streets of Rage still feel fresh after all these years? This is especially after scrolling beat-em-ups have been ultimately forgotten or dropped in favour of flashier 3D affairs?
The answer is not so simple. There is a lot riding on what people will think of Streets of Rage 4. It’s one of those franchises that lives and dies by its template and any sort of deviation can lead to disappointment, such is the standard that fans hold the first two outings to. Admittedly, SOR3 was the only game in the series that could have held such scorn, It held such minor deviations from the core concept as a whole but for some reason, if you read about it online you would think that Sega had messed in the cereal of anyone who played it. Somewhat undeserved, but this is the hurdle that SOR4 must leap over to be considered a return to the classics or root of the franchise.
As an admitted fan of the franchise, I can happily say that I enjoyed my time with Streets of Rage 4. The previous conceptions over art style, concern over the soundtrack being handled by anyone other than Yuzo and the general malaise I have with playing retro reboots these days have been mostly quashed thanks to the moment I pressed start and Axel Stone walked onto the screen, accompanied with an not so dissimilar tune to ‘Go Straight’. Immediately the combat felt recognisable, like I was back in my badly kept room playing SO2 again.
The controls are tight and as simple to tune to as ever. With multiple presses of square allowing me to pull of the usual combo flurry of attacks, triangle enabling a special attack that slightly drains health while most of the other buttons laying dormant in favour of a simple command spread. Of course, it also feels upgraded to a degree, with combo’s being extendable with a mixture of the two attack buttons and blitz attacks (performed with two forward presses and square) and the new heavy hitting special move that can be performed by jamming your thumb over circle and triangle respectively.
Mix all of these moves and buttons together and you get one of the most fluid and combo-heavy beat-em-ups out there. The simplicity of the button layout makes for quick mastery, allowing the player to get in tune with more ways to dish out damage, such as using stage hazards to your advantage or bouncing enemies off walls to further juggle them as they flop helplessly against an incessant flurry of attacks.
The key to getting to use this toolset of course comes down to how you deal with each enemy type, which involves a healthy mixture of new and returning foes. By the end of the twelve-chapter campaign, you will have to understand and learn to defeat all of these, from the meat-headed Galsia to the hulking presence of the Wood Oak city police force. In typical SOR fashion, each enemy is built around a limited move set and tactic. Galsia is exactly as you remember him, he either gets in your way as fodder or becomes that annoying guy that runs across the screen with a knife held out in front. Another example is in the biker ladies you meet around the mid-point, they attack mostly with sliding headbutts or piledrivers if they get close.
There are many examples that I could reel off about each enemy, but the truth in SOR4 is that no one enemy is particularly difficult to beat when faced alone. It’s when the screen fills with multiple foes that the game becomes truly challenging. SOR4 then becomes a test in strategy, challenging the player to select a priority list for enemies as they appear, keeping watch of attacks and tells while dodging others. This happens a lot throughout and makes for some of the best seat of your pants moments that can happen in a beat-em-up. Of course, there is a frustration factor to this, you won’t necessarily know or feel that dealing with Donovan is better than focussing on the fire breathing Big Ben is the better way to go first time and this can and likely will lead to retries that seem unfair. Stick with it though and you will soon find yourself able to handle group situations like this better, with latter stages taking less lives as you go.
That is not to say that Streets of Rage 4 is destined for that ‘Git Gud’ crowd. It’s generally more forgiving than that. Throughout each stage you are given multiple power ups for health, extra special moves and plenty of points to gain an extra life or two, if you are the type of player that is economic with your usage of special buttons then you will have a much better time out of the gate, so that may be something to keep in mind if you are wanting to give SOR4 a try.
Moving on to the story, this is where things feel a bit formulaic. Now, I am not going to pretend that the story had any major part of the original trilogy, the truth is that it simply existed to present an opportunity for Axel, Blaze and co to head out onto the streets to smash some skulls. What I will say however, is that the original storyline had character, or particularly one major character that we all saw on the opening screen. While it is difficult to think of how Mr X could return after years of rotting in a grave, his replacement comes in the form of the Y twins, his son and daughter who have taken the reins of the Syndicate that created all the crime back in the nineties.
In SOR4, the Y Twins have fashioned a brainwashing song which when played causes the citizens of Wood Oak City to become violent. It just doesn’t have quite the same intrigue of the original motivation, which centred around corrupt police forces, violent outbreaks caused by crime and kidnapping. Luckily, these characters are made up for by returning and new roster of bosses and playable heroes that you interact with more.
Returning to the fray on the playable side is Axel, Blaze and later Adam Hunter, reuniting the SOR1 cast for the first time since ’91. New to the roster is the hulking Floyd Iraia, a protégé of Dr Zan from SOR3 who has hulking prosphetic arms and a moveset that is mixed between the good doctor and Max the wrestler from SOR2. Next is Cherry, yet another member of the Hunter family who specialises in swift combo attacks and specials involving her electric guitar. Both of the new guys are excellent additions to the roster, Floyd makes Max from SOR2 seem limited by comparison as Floyd is able to extend combos with a grappling arm and Electrical attacks. Cherry also feels like an evolution of Skate, taking the series place as the speedy character that can dish out especially fast combos while using dashing abilities to get in and out of danger.
Representing the boss side, you get some excellent new additions, such as Estel Aguirre, a recurring cop presence that features throughout the story mode. Returning favourites such as the dominatrix styled Nora and angry barkeep Barbon make an appearance also with new movesets and easter egg laden battle arenas to fight around. While these characters don’t really say much or stick around long, the mixture of nostalgia upon sight and the clear love that has been put into the backgrounds of their stages speaks volumes and is sure enough what fans will love.
Speaking of backgrounds and characters, lets talk about that art style. When SOR4 was initially announced, this was one of the most contentious points of the sequel, particularly when viewed as a still image. While I too would have loved to see a Sonic Mania styled return to the pixel art aesthetic that I grew up with, I will say that in motion, this graphics style fits Streets of Rage to a tee. Each background has a painted look to it, with characters popping standing out clear from these to ensure you never miss an incoming attack due to confusion over what you are seeing. The fluidity of animations has to also be the strong suit, Dotemu and co have taken great care with ensuring that attacks have the same impact that they should have, while also making movements around the screen feel organic at the same time.
This presentation also is presented in the music. Again, while Yuzo Koshiro does make a return for a few tunes in the soundtrack, there are plenty of new faces involved with the project also with names such as Olivier Deriviere, Motohiro Kawashima, Das Mortal and others contributing. Considering the legacy of SOR’s legacy of great tunes, the new team do a great job of fitting and have managed to emulate the original music style while also intermingling new musical styles in the mix.
Lastly, lets talk game length. Considering the original titles were 1-2-hour affairs, based entirely on Arcade rules it is reasonable to expect SOR4 to have a similar run time and it does. I clocked my first playthrough of the campaign mode at around two hours. Upon beating the game first time around I was then presented with multiple options to play on, from a mission select to replay stages and gain better ranks to an arcade mode which gives you a single credit to clear the entire game. To be honest, this kind of game length is to be expected from something like Streets of Rage, but this could sting for players looking for a bit more. Dotemu and the team have sweetened the deal somewhat by giving replay value in unlocking retro characters, with original versions of Axel, Blaze and every other playable character from the original trilogy becoming available as you accumulate an overall score over time.
For me, that’s fine. Streets of Rage has always been a game that I would pick up with friends over time and play through time and time again. Also, playing through the game with the retro versions of characters can be a blast, they have been balanced for the new mechanics, so they are not gimped by being slightly more simplistic versions of their new counterparts. Your mileage will vary however as to how well this will sit with you, so you can adjust the score a point should this not sound that good to you.
So, is Streets of Rage 4 a success? Based on the amount of fun I had throughout the initial playthrough and the several other runs at harder difficulties as I unlocked more retro versions to play, I would say so. It is not quite the Sonic Mania reboot that I’m sure many are hoping for, but to me, it is a great modern retread of a classic gaming franchise that has spent way too long in the dark. This is one I would recommend to fans of the series as there is a lot of fan service. I would also recommend for anyone who wants to see beat-em-up action done right.
+ The new characters make for a great addition to the series
+ Excellent soundtrack, exactly what you would want from Streets of Rage
+ The art style fits the series brilliantly, adding more personality and colour than ever
- I would have liked more unlockable characters through the main story mode
- The Y Twins are no Mister X