Gavin has had a passion for writing almost as long as his passion for video games. Which came first, the controller or the pen?
Game: Streets of Rage 4
Developer: Dotemu, Lizardcube, Guard Crush Games
Genre: Side-scrolling 2D beat 'em up
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch
In 1994 my brother and I huddled around our CRT television and Sega Mega Drive to play Streets of Rage 3. Many hours were spent hammering 32-bit gangsters into the ground; slamming metal poles into the head of thugs, and throwing knives at dominatrix villains in the hunt for Mr. X and The Syndicate.
In 2020 my brother and I have connected online to play Dotemu’s Streets of Rage 4, the follow-up that’s 26 years in the making. To say it has some big shoes to fill is an understatement.
Streets of Rage 4 isn’t looking to break the mould and revolutionise a genre here. Instead, it’s a love letter to the original series of side-scrolling 2D beat ‘em ups. The gameplay is largely unchanged— players take on the role of one of five unique characters and move from left to right across a series of levels, violently assaulting enemies until reaching the level boss.
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Like the earlier games each character has a jump, a running attack, two grabs/throws, and a unique special attack in two varieties for extra damage output. New to Streets of Rage 4 are “star attacks”, activated by using a trigger button. For the cost of one star, which can be found throughout the levels, these attacks pause the screen momentarily whilst your character performs a nearly screen-filling animation that does extreme damage to anything it touches. It’s like the cop car interventions from the first Streets of Rage, but with a smaller damage coverage. Series favourite Axel Stone performs a flaming flying uppercut that Ryu would be proud of, whilst newcomer Cherry Hunter skids across the floor on her guitar creating shockwaves as she moves.
Joining these two on the roster are the two characters from the very first Streets of Rage, Blaze Fielding and Adam Hunter, and Floyd Iraia the cybernetically enhanced juggernaut. The three original characters play largely like their early game counterparts, but the two new roster members have been tweaked with some interesting changes. Cherry can leap onto the shoulders of enemies, triggering a series of combos that allow her to jump around and do damage, whilst Floyd can use a special attack to grab enemies across the screen— he can also move whilst holding enemies and by grabbing two enemies at once, can smash them together for a combo.
Combos have been given extra gravitas in Streets of Rage 4, with a combo meter that builds in the corner of the screen for bonus points. Points make prizes, and here that means extra lives and unlocks in the form of the original sprite-based characters from all three previous Streets of Rage games as playable characters. Combos are empowered here too, by a small but significant change to the way the edge of the screen is handled. Where in the Mega Drive/Genesis games enemies could be knocked out of reach off either edge of the screen, resulting in players having to await their return, in Streets of Rage 4 the edge of the screen acts as a barrier. Thrown enemies bounce back off the edges, allowing Streets of Rage 4’s other modern concession: juggling. Juggling changes the gameplay significantly, allowing you to reel off combos against enemies before they even stand back up, effectively neutralising weaker enemies completely. Unfortunately, this works both ways and enemies will just as liberally do the same thing to you in return.
Some of the other changes to combat are more baffling. Streets of Rage 3 introduced running and upward/downward rolls, which were essential in that game for dodging enemies’ attacks. Perhaps in tribute to the better-known Streets of Rage 2, these changes are removed despite familiar enemy patterns from Streets of Rage 3 returning. This makes certain enemies, especially the fire-blowing Big Ben, almost impossible to avoid. For a Streets of Rage 3 veteran, it also makes the characters feel inexplicably slow and bulky. Imagine if every character felt like Max from Streets of Rage 2, and you get the idea. Highlighting this inexplicable change, new character Cherry has been given the exclusive ability to run. This makes her an almost essential pick for anyone accustomed to the movement mechanics from the previous game.
Another questionable change is the new mechanics for using special attacks such as Axel’s flaming fist or Blaze’s cartwheel kick. In previous games, these special attacks burnt health unless used with a full “OK meter”. This meant timing your attacks for a full meter or burning some health as a concession to escape difficult situations, such as being surrounded or stuck in an attack animation from a tougher enemy. In Streets of Rage 4 this mechanic has been replaced by green health. Using a special will now always burn health, but for a time this lost health appears green on your meter. If you then successfully land strikes on enemies this health is replenished, but take so much as a single hit from an enemy then the entire green section is lost. On harder difficulty settings this means using a special is most often not worth the risk, as it’s easy to lose an entire life from just a couple of burnt specials. Further compounding this problem, Streets of Rage 4 has also made special attacks interruptible; you can lose a chunk of health before you’ve even completed your special attack animation. This is especially problematic for long combos, such as Axel’s punch flurry, where a fast-moving enemy can come in from off-screen and strike you before the combo is over. Rather than just costing you the move, it also costs you a large percentage of your health bar. Finally, some enemies have been given temporary “super armour” meaning they don’t flinch when taking damage— with no mobility for a quick escape, this often means being punished for even attacking these enemies at all.
Whilst frustrating for old school fans, none of these changes can underpin the sheer enjoyment of Streets of Rage 4’s core gameplay, which successfully mimics the originals with a new coat of paint. The game is gorgeous to look at with beautiful cell-shaded graphics, intricate varied backgrounds and character models that bring the franchise up-to-date— not just visually, as characters like Axel and Adam have also been aged gracefully to show a passage of time almost resembling the real-life 26 years. Oddly, Blaze looks barely a day older than her previous incarnations (though she does now wear a leather jacket). A slew of interesting new characters debut as bosses, including police heroine Estel, and the game also deals liberally in cameo appearances from series favourites.
Long-time fans may be disappointed to know that none of these characters, old or new, are playable. It’s a Streets of Rage tradition to unlock bosses by holding a button down, but that joy does not return here. Existing characters don’t even come with a variety of skins or recolours. For a game built so firmly on nostalgia, it seems a huge misstep to not provide the fan service of upping the player character count to at least include old series favourites like Skate, Shiva, Max, Roo or Zan. Especially baffling is that some of these characters appear unplayable with new character models and move sets already built. Cynically, I’m inclined to wonder if these are being intentionally withheld for purchasable DLC, which may disgruntle fans who already feel that the $25/£25 asking price is steep for the content here. The campaign takes just three to four hours to complete on hard difficulty and (unlike those Mega Drive/Genesis classics) has save points between levels. Replayability exists only in repeating that campaign to gain “lifetime points” for the aforementioned sprite unlocks or playing the handful of other modes. Battle mode returns from the previous games and is a 1v1 versus mode that poorly simulates its fighting game brethren. Boss rush mode is exactly what it says on the tin, allowing players to fight just the bosses in one long successive run. Sadly, there’s nothing new here that you won’t have already seen completing the campaign, which is a requirement to unlock the mode.
None of which is to say that Streets of Rage 4 isn’t a fun play. Nostalgia definitely improves a playthrough, and that’s most likely why this is Streets of Rage 4 and not a reboot titled Streets of Rage (2020). The gameplay is not modern, despite the handful of quality of life changes (including separate key binds for picking up items and using the back attack). However, the same gameplay enjoyment that made those originals so successful in the 90s is still a good time in 2020. For many, the fresh new look and the prospect of co-op with a friend (or yes, a sibling) is enough to carry Streets of Rage 4. If developer Dotemu continues to iterate— tweak a few issues and add content to their game— then this could be a dream fulfilled for many 90s kids.