2020 has already been a crazy year. And yet somehow in the midst of all this mayhem I never would have imagined that the weirdest thing of 2020 is that I’m playing Streets of Rage 4. I never saw this coming. I never once considered that after 26-years since Streets of Rage 3 we’d get a sequel. How did this even happen? Where did this come from? I don’t know. I don’t care, because Streets of Rage 4 is a hell of a sequel.
Here’s what Streets of Rage 4 does not have: levelling systems, loot, microtransactions, tough moral choices, a massive open world, side-missions or a min-map cluttered with so many icons that it all becomes one giant blur.
And here’s what Streets of Rage 4 does have: punching, kicking, side-scrolling, boss fights and occasionally annoying enemies. If that sounds terribly simple in this time of vast triple-A games then kindly leave this review. Streets of Rage 4 is not for you. While there are certainly improvements over Streets of Rage 3, this is a game focused on staying true to the franchise and delivering a tight, simple experience. If you want innovation then look elsewhere. If you want to smash some people in the face, then look no further.
The story is simple and over the top as you’d expect from the series. Ten years after the defeat of Mr. X at the end of Streets of Rage 3 his children, the Y Twins, are out for revenge, and they’ve got some fancy brain-washing tech to help. To step them old gang is back: Axel, Blaze and Adam. They’re joined by a few characters, including Cherry – the daughter of Adam – whose the fastest of the bunch, and Floyd, a hulking tank of a man who uses his bionic limbs to dish out heavy damage. These newcomers slot nicely into the roster, and all five of the characters feel nicely distinct and fun to play. It’s tempting to stick to a single one throughout the few hours it takes to fight through the campaign, but it’s much more fun to jump between them. Plus, there’s some unlockable additions to the lineup.
Your basic move is a straight punch or kick. It can be turned into a short combo, or you can hold the button down to power up a slightly more powerful strike. You can also flick out a quick back kick to catch sneaky enemies coming up from behind, while double-tapping forward and attack will unleash a blitz move. The nimble Cherry, for example, will deliver a shoulder barge that’s great slamming enemies backwards.
If you sidle up to a foe you can grapple them and deliver a couple of swift blows to them, or you can slam them. You can even chuck them into other enemies for added awesome.
You can also launch three special attacks, the first being a ‘defensive’ special that gives you some breathing room, a jumping special and a normal offensive special. The important thing to remember is using a special attack eats up a small portion of health. However, if you can land a few regular punches or kicks that health will be given back to you, but if you get hit that health instantly disappears. It’s a solid risk vs reward system that encourages you to pick your moment smartly.
The defensive special I mentioned is the only true defensive option you get in Streets of Rage 4. You can’t parry attacks, block or dodge. Even the ability to run that was introduced in Streets of Rage 3 is now only usable by Cherry. If you’re new to the series this lack of options when it comes to fending off foes could take some getting used. The trick to mastering fighting is learning how to manage the surrounding enemies, learning their attacks and knowing when to launch into a quick combo and when to stay away.
The final move in your arsenal is a special star attack that deals hefty damage to anything stupid enough to be nearby. You need to a star to perform it, though, and those are quite rare. Plus, having spare stars at the end of a level bumps up your final score, so there’s a good incentive not to use them unless you really, really have to.
A bunch of classic enemies re-appear and are joined by a raft of new bad guys, too. It’s a diverse and fun selection of arseholes to battle, each of them with a clear ability, strength and weakness that must be learned and exploited. The old sneaky goon with a knife still loves to catch you off guard while you’re busy dealing with a crowd, but there are also hefty biker ladies who love to deliver a powerful head butt. Admittedly, there are a few enemies that feel like they are a bit overpowered or have moves that feel almost impossible to counter or avoid, but some updates should sort that out. A bigger issue is that Streets of Rage 4 does occasionally throw too many enemies on the screen at once, and the combat mechanics don’t give you the tools to really deal with that. It can feel unfair at times. But it was never enough to make me feel too angry at the game, and overall the diversity of the enemies and the way they all behave uniquely is very impressive.
So are the bosses, too. Every level finishes up with a boss fight because that’s just what you do in a Streets of Rage game. Again, it’s a mixture of old and new here, and there are a few with annoying abilities. Shiva brings some fun martial arts and shadow clones to the mix, there’s Max and his powerhouse style and so much more. Like the regular enemies it’s all about learning their moves and how to avoid or counter them, and picking your moments. There wasn’t a single boss fight I didn’t love, even as I swore at the screen and held the controller so tight it nearly cracked. This is the kind of game that bring your inner jerk to the fore and almost make you rage quite on the higher difficulties. And that’s why it’s awesome.
Another wonderfully smart piece of design is how Streets of Rage 4 ties lives into points. In short, if you can get your score high enough you’ll earn a free life, which is pretty valuable. Beating up enemies and snatching up cash that’s just lying around on the streets nets you some points, but the biggest way to increase your score is to build up your combos. The catch is that getting smacked in the face will break your combo and lose you those lovely, lovely points. You have to be careful and make smart choices about when to back up and bank those points before jumping back into the fight.
Sticking on the topic of racking up the points, Streets of Rage 4 is built around chasing high-scores. The story mode will only take an hour or two to blitz through, and while that might be a negative to some people I rather think it’s a positive: as sublime as the gameplay is, a story mode that lasted any longer would outstay its welcome. You can head back and tackle individual stages on any of the five difficulty settings. You could also hit up Arcade mode where you get a single credit to beat the entire game, a challenge not for the feint of heart even on the easiest setting. There’s also a boss rush if you want to hone your skills against them. Finally, an online battle mode gives you a chance to square off against another player. There’s not really enough depth to support one on one fights like this but it’s a fun distraction.
Or you can play through the game in co-op mode with another player either online or local split-screen if you happen to be stuck in a house with an actual live human being.
I’m really not doing Streets of Rage 4 justice. On paper it sounds so absurdly simple and lacking in depth, yet in action it’s anything but. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an easy game to learn and to play, but getting good at it takes time. Lots and lots of rewarding, satisfying, controller-destroying time. And it all feels so perfect. There’s nothing that feels off about the combat or clumsy or like it doesn’t quite fit correctly. Once you’ve got used to relatively slow movement speed – and have learned to attune your eyesight so you can correctly judge the depth of field so that you don’t flail madly at thin air while the bad guy just below you looks on in amazement – it feels outstanding to play. It’s downright addictive, too, each level lasting around 5-10 minutes and thus perfect for that ‘one more go’ feeling.
The brand new art style for Streets of Rage 4 caused a bit of a stir when it was revealed, but once you see it in person I think any doubts will wash away. The hand drawn environments and characters look beautiful, and there’s plenty of nice details in how everything is animated. The way that Axel has bulked up, for example, and bounces up and down on his feet, or the way that moves transition into each other. The whole look does a good job of keeping the tone and style of the original games while also looking like something you’d want to buy in 2020. But if you do fancy a bit of the retro look you can head to the options and pixelate the characters or environment, or both. Plus there’s the original character models to unlock which look great when contrasted against the detailed backdrops.
One of the things that stuck with me over the years about Streets of Rage was the stellar. Luckily both Koshiro and Kawashima agreed to come back, giving the music a strong foundation, but they got some extra help, too. The result is just like the rest of Streets of Rage 4: a compelling mixture of old and new. The techno soundtrack gets the vibe of the originals right, but has some modern twists. It’s damn good stuff.
I suppose I could tear Streets of Rage 4 apart for being an incredibly safe sequel that has only made small changes and improvements in the 20+ years since the last game. And I think that would be fair, in some ways. But the kid version of me who spent dozens of hours playing Streets of Rage on the Sega Genesis would never forgive me. And I wouldn’t blame him. Sure, Streets of Rage 4 does not innovate, but I don’t think myself or any of the other fans of the franchise wanted it to. What we wanted is what we’ve got: a pure Streets of Rage game with enough tweaks and small additions to make it feel like it can hang out in 2020 while still being true to what the franchise is all about. By which I mean punching dudes in the face. And Axel’s glorious facial hair does Streets of Rage 4 do punching dudes in the face well! Like, really, really well! This is a glorious example of the side-scrolling beat ’em up genre, perhaps the very best we’ve got. It’s easy to learn but hard to master. I can’t wait to spend dozens more hours seeing if I can master it, or if I’ll forever be stuck getting measly C-grades on every level.