It’s been 26 long years
Scrolling beat ’em ups in the modern gaming world are a novelty. Relics of a bygone era where the arcades ruled the world and games were designed to be played in short bursts to take as much money off you as possible. But for a while, beat ’em ups were the first person shooter of their time. A genre ruled by Capcom, Konami and Sega. Classics like Final Fight, Captain Commando, X-Men and Golden Axe were some of the most played games of the day and console players yearned for arcade perfect ports which often home consoles like the SNES and Mega Drive just weren’t capable of delivering on.
But there was one console-only franchise that stood alone atop the mountain of clones and wannabes, that could stand toe to toe with the arcade giants. That franchise was Streets of Rage. Streets of Rage defined what a beat ’em up built around console limitations could be. The original game laid the foundation for what was to become the pinnacle of not only the franchise, but arguably the genre. Streets of Rage 2 took the best elements of it’s predecessor and skilfully grafted elements from 1 on 1 fighters like Street Fighter and infused it with one of the most iconic soundtracks in video game history to produce a true masterpiece in the beat ’em up space. Streets of Rage 3 refined and modernised some of the mechanics while not taking the leap the second game did.
Streets of Rage 4 looks to straddle the line between revelation and refinement that we saw between the second and third games. Luckily the game is in great hands. Lizardcube showed their wares by tackling another classic Sega franchise in Wonder Boy. 2017’s Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap wasn’t a sequel, but a modern remake of the 1989 classic Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap. Lizardcube faithfully recreated the original game all with the same hand drawn artwork seen lavishly poured upon Streets of Rage 4 complete with the Halo: Anniversary visual style switching between original and new graphics, which was a great touch for Wonder Boy.
Their careful handling of a beloved but somewhat niche franchise was enough to gain the trust of Sega who once again handed them the keys to another hallowed and long dormant Sega IP. But this task was far larger than a simple remake. Creating a sequel to a hardcore IP that has been dormant for 26 years in a genre that is no longer the darling of the video game industry is a herculean task. One Lizardcube knew they couldn’t do alone and so they’ve partnered with Guard Crush to help with the underlying systems. Have they managed to pull it off?
Faithful to a fault
I need to get this out of the way early. I’m reviewing this game as a huge Streets of Rage fan and one who still frequently plays the classic games in this genre. My expectations are high, but also realistic. But make no mistake, Streets of Rage 4 isn’t trying to be anything more than a hardcore, old school, side-scrolling beat ’em up. With that said, Streets of Rage 4 is incredible. It manages to capture the same feelings the original games did decades ago, but with a brand new gorgeous sheen and some modern flourishes here and there for good measure.
Personally I don’t see the game bringing in many (if any) new fans to the genre but I’m not certain that was the intention. This is a beautifully hand written love letter to older, side-scrolling beat ’em up fans and there’s probably a few too many gaming conventions from previous eras for it to really resonate or click with a younger gaming audience. For example, the game is hard. Surprisingly hard. My initial play-through was on Normal and I saw a few Game Over screens throughout my 12 Stage journey. Which brings me to my next point – checkpoints. Today’s gamer is used to having them doled out in spades. Streets of Rage will do you no such favours. No matter what point of any given stage you’re at, if you lose all your lives, you’re right back at the start of the level. This may frustrate most that are used to games being more generous with their check and save points. If the sound of that isn’t appealing, then be sure to stay away from Arcade Mode. Where you have to beat the game in one sitting. You die? Start all over again.
But everything you loved about Streets of Rage is here. Lizardcube has taken bits and pieces from all 3 games and spread it out over various elements of the latest instalment. Classic characters have either been brought back – like Adam Hunter – or we fight old enemies like Shiva. Or maybe we’ll enjoy a cameo from our favourite video game kangaroo?
But it doesn’t end at the characters. Stages have been re-created or reimagined, fan favourite weapons are back for you to be able to dish out all manner of punishment on your enemies with.
Handle with care
But how do you successfully bring back a franchise that’s been dormant for almost three decades and inject enough ‘new’ to make it feel fresh without alienating and potentially angering long time fans? By understanding what made the old games great in the first place.
Guard Crush games, the studio responsible for the mechanics and underlying systems behind the game have clearly tread a fine line here when deciding what should be kept, removed, changed or merely tweaked. I can obviously only speak from my perspective but I’m quite happy with the results. This is mostly a due to the fact that the studios have chosen Streets of Rage 2 for their inspiration in the overall gameplay, which also happens to be my favourite. But gone are off-screen enemies. Once an enemy is in the frame, they stay there until they’re dead.
Much like Streets of Rage 2 introduced some systems from 2D fighters of the time to revolutionise within the genre, Streets of Rage 4 also adds some 2D fighter nuance to its fighting mechanics. Juggles and lengthy combos (mostly as a result of the juggling) make their way into the franchise and when combined with the enemies’ inability to fight off-screen, can make for some incredible moments and combo opportunities.
Much like the second game, only one character can run. One of the new additions to the roster, Cherry Hunter, who is Adam’s daughter and plays in a similar fashion to a past character Eddie “Skate” Hunter, Adam’s nephew. Anyone who has played as Skate will instantly feel right at home using Cherry and I have to say, she feels incredible to play as. Like her cousin she’s not strong, but she boasts an awesome arsenal of offensive options that make her hard not to go with.
The other newcomer is Floyd, who most will immediately assume is the Max replacement and while yes, he is a lumbering hulk of muscle much like his predecessor, Floyd is definitely his own man and has a move set that really makes use of his robotic arms and brute strength. He’s definitely fun to use in the right circumstances.
Adam makes his return after a two game absence and it feels great to have him back. While he effectively keeps his standard attacks, the fact that he was absent for the introduction of special moves mean Lizardcube and Guard Crush could effectively build him from the ground up and honestly, he feels like a more fluid version of Axel and he’s probably the best all-round fighter to use.
Each fighter feels genuinely different to play as, which in turn makes your experience playing the game different with each one. The game further reinforces the variety by allowing the player to change fighters between stages. This also results in more replay-ability as you discover which character is better suited to certain stages and enemies.
Also new to the series are factions – yes, there are now prison guards and riot police thrown into the mix that are not only fighting you, but keeping the inmates and other degenerates in check. In a game like this it really adds another layer to the way you can play and plan out how you tackle each scenario, but at its core this game really remains more of a zoning beat ’em up. You need to really observe how enemies move, what their attack patterns are and poke at them to discover what their move set is. It’s a great way to keep the gameplay from getting stale, which is all too common in this genre.
There’s even been a change to the button arrangement. Which I will say was immediately noticeable for me and threw me right off. “A” is set to Jump. “X” is set to attack and “Y” is set to special attack. Nothing out of the ordinary right? But then when I found I wasn’t picking up items off the ground with X I panicked a bit. Until I figured out “B” had become a dedicated pick up button. This was alongside changing the setup for “back attacks” combined with the new Super Attack, which is a throw back to the star attacks from the original Streets of Rage. While you don’t call in a police officer to shoot a mortar with your super, you do collect star tokens that allow you to unleash an “ultra” in the vein of games like Street Fighter. Needless to say, I very quickly switched back to “Legacy” button layout.
Beauty is only skin deep
As stunning as this game looks even in stills, still images simply don’t do this game justice. It’s absolutely gorgeous and anyone who played the Wonder Boy remake will know that Lizardcube know exactly what they’re doing when it comes to creating beautiful hand drawn art to revive classic franchises. While the overarching tone to the visuals and colour palette is slightly darker, the colour variety and the neon the series is famous for still remains in tact.
It would have been easy for any indie developer to do what so many others have done by sticking “true” and going with pixel art for Streets of Rage, but the step up to hand drawn animation fits perfectly and makes it really hard to go back. But once again, like Wonder Boy, the pixel art origins haven’t been forgotten. As you play the game, you build a “lifetime score” which goes towards unlocking retro characters as well as retro versions of existing characters. All in their pixelated glory, which actually blends surprisingly well against the hand drawn world. Be warned though, using a retro character brings all that goes with that character….and the game they came from. For example, using original Streets of Rage Axel means no Grand Upper, no modern move set and the mortar launching cop car replacing the ultra move. While this isn’t quite as limiting when using the Streets of Rage 2 and 3 models, it’s quite jarring trying to play 4 with characters from the first game.
But the game also feels as good as it looks. Punches have weight, special attacks feel powerful and are visually grand. But we take certain things for granted in gaming, like rumble. It’s easy to forget rumble didn’t really exist in the 90s and it’s use of it here is sublime. It’s astonishing how much even subtle rumble can add to how fighting feels in this game. I’m not sure I’m looking as forward to my next Streets of Rage 2 play through as I normally would knowing rumble won’t be there.
How do you top the best gaming soundtrack ever?
The simple answer is, you can’t. While Streets of Rage 4 boasts an impressive roster of composers, including the legendary Yuzo Koshiro – who composed the music for the first 3 games, I felt like this game had an impossible bar set for it. Not that the soundtrack isn’t good, but it just doesn’t have the instantly iconic house, jazz, techno and synth sounds Streets of Rage 2 does.
You can literally hear the attempt at reimagining “Go Straight” in the first stage, but it never hits those heights. Many of the tracks felt like they were trying to put a different spin on older tracks rather than doing what was done with 2 and simply making new great stuff.
While the options exists to use music from the original games, it’s not quite the same when those songs are paired with levels they weren’t designed around. It just doesn’t feel right.
A well rounded package
Side scrolling beat ’em ups aren’t known for being overly long games, nor are they known for offering a generous suite of modes, replay-ability and unlocks.
Luckily this isn’t much of an issue here. Streets of Rage 4 introduces a ranking system to each stage (think Devil May Cry) which encourages the player to improve their rank and go for the S, which based on my attempts already, will be incredible tricky to do, even at easier difficulties. As someone who is a fan of short games, this feels like just the right length to me. Given the type of game it is. It’s just long enough to not feel short but no so long that it outstays it’s welcome or grows stale. A simple start to finish run shouldn’t take you more than a few hours.
The real meat come in the form of unlockables, going for higher ranks and playing with friends in co-op. The game features 2 player online co-op and 4 player local, which is fun as hell, if a little chaotic. As I was expecting, the online has some lag to it, much like the Xbox 360 and PS3 re-releases of the older games and honestly the returning Battle mode was nigh on unplayable for me with the latency issues, which was unfortunate. I’ll endeavour to try again at various times of the day to see if maybe it was a “peak time” issue or not.
Streets of Rage 4 is everything I could have wanted in a sequel to such a venerable series that I’ve always held in such high regard. It’s clear that both Lizardcube and Guard Crush get it. They managed to create a sequel that belongs right alongside its predecessors despite having to manage fan expectations and the ever present nostalgia that can inflate people’s memories of the old games, particularly after some three decades and change.
It’s a prime example of how to modernise a bygone genre without abandoning the spirit of it, all while capturing the feeling of what made it so special and fun all those years ago.
This is an absolutely mandatory play for any Streets of Rage or scrolling beat ’em up fan. I also recommend anyone with a penchant for old school gaming sensibilities to definitely give this a go.