In the early 1990s, as the games industry was bouncing back from its crash the decade before, Streets of Rage was one of the franchises that helped SEGA and its Mega Drive keep up with the rampant Nintendo at the top of the industry . Standing alongside such properties as Alex Kidd and Sonic the Hedgehog as one of the console’s stalwarts, Streets of Rage managed to achieve commercial success in a landscape dominated by side-scrolling beat-‘em-ups just like it and has seen numerous re-releases, and been included in multiple compilation releases, over the years because of it. The franchise’s storyline is pretty simple: Axel Stone, Blaze Fielding and Adam Hunter are detectives-turned-vigilantes, teaming up with various associates to punch, kick and grapple their way through layers of Mr. X’s crime syndicate and rid Wood Oak City and its corrupted government of his influence.
Reviving a franchise, especially one of such esteem, after more than two decades was always going to be a risk, and developers Dotemu, Lizardcube and Guard Crush Games needed to strike a difficult balance: on one hand, they would need to create a game that appeals to modern-day gamers, introducing the series to a population that was largely not even born when Streets of Rage 3 came out. On the other, more challenging hand, they also needed to create a sequel that respected the foundations Streets of Rage laid in the wonderful ‘90s, to appease fans from back then who look at the series — and so many other games from that bygone era — through nostalgia’s rose-tinted lens. Streets of Rage 4 toes that line perfectly, blending itself into the original Streets of Rage narrative, keeping much of the old guard (both good and bad) intact and leaning on gameplay, music and visuals for its modern touches.
Instead of building a modern narrative, full of details and peripheral stories to extend its shelf life, Dotemu and friends stayed true to the series’ formula, delivering a very basic storyline in Streets of Rage 4 and opting to place its emphasis on gameplay. It’s a decade after the events of Streets of Rage 3 — wherein Axel, Blaze and co. finally managed to rid the city of Mr. X and his mafia-style syndicate for good — brought Wood Oak City to relative peace, and Blaze (now a dance instructor after being expelled from the police force for punching the Commissioner in the face) learns of a new threat: Mr. X’s twin children, Mr. and Ms Y, have corrupted the police force once again, and they’re planning to use hypnotic music to brainwash the city’s entire populace into doing their evil bidding. That’s really all there is to it. You’ll find a cut-scene between each level as the vigilante heroes speak to their defeated opponents, but the storyline really only serves as a vehicle to deliver you from one arena to the other.
In fighting through those arenas, players can choose between the franchise’s three OGs (you unlock Adam after the fourth stage), Adam’s daughter, Cherry Hunter, and the beast of a man that is Floyd Iraia, a cybernetically-enhanced apprentice of ex-Syndicate scientist Dr. Gilbert Zan. As with the rest of the series, each character has certain advantages and disadvantages over the rest: Adam is a balanced, nimble former boxer with good range, a small dash and a couple of quick combos at his disposal; Axel is the unremarkable everyman, not noticeably quick or sluggish but with a simple moveset based around ease of use; Blaze is a nimble judoka with who employs slams and throw moves as well as long-range kicks and efficient blitz attacks; Cherry takes on her uncle Eddie “Skate” Hunter’s fast-but-weak slot, employing a variety of quick strikes and guitar-driven special moves while also being the only fighter who can sprint; and Floyd fills the “big, strong, slow grappler” mould left by the mind-controlled Max Thunder and his mentor, Dr. Zan — his bionic arms give him a distinct reach advantage, and he’s the only character in the game who can grapple two enemies at once.
Streets of Rage 4’s combat is its cornerstone, and it’s a beautiful mix of the simplistic, four-button action available to the Mega Drive originals and the fluidity of movement that’s possible nowadays. Regardless of which character you choose, your moveset is simple — you can run, jump, use a basic attack (multiple times in a row, or a charged version), use special attacks, and collect and use various weapons that you find along the way (or that you steal from enemies). The special attacks are where the variety comes in, with a defensive special attack that renders you invincible for a moment and an offensive “Blitz” attack that comes with a mid-air variant too. They’re also home to one of the two major additions to the Streets of Rage formula: these attacks cost health, leaving a portion of your meter green after use; you can earn that health back by damaging enemies enough, but you’ll lose it all if you get hit before you can fill it back up. You can’t use those abilities if you don’t have enough health to “spend” on them, either, so it’s important to use them at the right moments. You’ve also got a new Star attack per character, an “ultimate” ability of sorts that damages every enemy on the screen. That is, of course, limited to the number of stars you’ve collected, so once again it’s important to pick the right moments to use them!
Streets of Rage 4’s nuances move beyond managing your health and stars, too. You can throw any weapon that you pick up at an enemy by pressing the “pick up” button (circle on PS4) again, allowing you to land a hit while you’re closing the social distance between you or get that final blow in without putting yourself out of position. A well-timed press of the same button when the weapon’s in mid-air will see you catch it without breaking your stride, which saves you some time and gets you straight back to using that weapon as nature intended. Each character can also recover immediately from being sent flying by simply hitting the jump button right at the point of impact, negating some — if not all — of the damage they’d take from a bad landing; enemies can’t do that, which opens them up to the age-old fighting game trope of juggling. Perhaps the most fun you can have while fighting a huge group of enemies, though, is to be found in using them against each other: not only can you throw enemies at each other, damaging both the projectile and the recipient, but you’ll also occasionally find yourself battling against villains and corrupt police officers. Those two groups hate each other as much as they hate you, so you can throw a gang member into a pile of cops, or vice versa, and watch them fight each other while you give your hands a bit of a break. All of these subtleties will come into play at some point or another, and they increase the myriad possibilities available to a skilled (or practiced) player.
There is one major detractor from Streets of Rage 4’s combat that bears mentioning, and that’s the absolute lack of a blocking mechanic. You can catch thrown objects in mid-air if you’re quick enough, but the only two ways you can avoid punches, kicks and grapples is to either hit the enemy first and stun them, or use your defensive special ability. It’s particularly frustrating to note when you consider that some minions, let alone all of the bosses you’ll fight along the way, have moves that you can’t stun them out of and others can actually block — or, more accurately, absorb — attacks. A block button would have made certain encounters quite a lot less frustrating by simply levelling the playing field, while also increasing the skill ceiling a little further, which is why I’m surprised that one wasn’t included.
Streets of Rage 4’s story mode ships with 12 main levels to fight through, each one taking anywhere between ten and twenty minutes to clear if you don’t hit the game over screen — though you’re probably going to hit that screen a few times, so your mileage will vary, especially if you’re crazy enough to go straight into Hard mode like I did. With brief cutscenes to tie them together (typically involving the previous stage’s boss telling the heroes where to go next), the stages take you all over Wood Oak City to foil the Y Twins’ plot and then take them down. They’re presented in a hand-drawn art style that pays homage to the 8-and-16-bit original releases with a bit of a pop-art influence, and each stage is set to a unique background track that carries the same influences and is so much fun to listen to. On top of that, hitting any of the four breakable arcade machines with a taser unlocks a retro level, where you go back and fight against some of Streets of Rage 2’s classic bosses.
Of course, being an arcade experience at heart, Streets of Rage 4 includes a scoring system. You won’t be robbing yourself of too much if you choose to ignore your score and just play for the fun of it, but it does have two important functions if you’re wanting to get the full experience out of the game: reaching certain score milestones during your run will earn you an extra life to play with; and you can unlock 12 additional characters by reaching certain lifetime score milestones — these additional characters are simply 16-bit sprite-based versions of the playable cast from the previous games, along with the boss Shiva, but their mere existence adds plenty of replay value to Streets of Rage 4, and it’s fun to see how the characters have evolved over time (especially Adam and Axel, who basically switch roles between the first title and this one). As always, the best way to accrue points quickly is by chaining your attacks together in combos, but you can collect more points by picking up items dropped along the stages, and also by eating food when your health bar is already full.
Having its roots in an arcade-style genre that was popular during the halcyon days of couch co-op means that Streets of Rage 4 is even better when you play it with friends. You can link up with a single friend online, or bring up to three if they’re all in the same room, giving rise to all manner of combinations to make a playthrough quicker, easier, or just a whole lot more fun. Modern technology even allows you to link up with random players online, meaning that you can find a buddy to play with even if none of your friends are playing; of course, you’ll be subjected to any issues that come with online connectivity — especially since it doesn’t appear to make matches by region — but it’s still a good option if you’re stuck. The enemies will be slightly stronger and more numerous if you’re playing in a group, but that evens out when you consider that they’ll also have to divide their attention between you and your friend(s). You can also choose to turn “friendly fire” off in order to avoid wailing on your buddies while you’re in the fistfight equivalent of a bullet hell, or you can leave it on if you want an extra challenge… or to piss people off.
Make no mistake about it: Streets of Rage 4 is the prototype that other developers must follow if they decide to revive a long-dormant franchise. Sure, I’ve got my quibbles with it, and I might be looking at it through those rose-tinted nostalgia glasses, but Dotemu and co. have managed to release a modern sequel that is sure to appeal to Streets of Rage fans both old and new. It’s got plenty to offer, with a long-enough story for its genre and plenty of replay value in the form of unlocks and different ways to play through it, and its multiplayer offering is sure to keep players coming back for some quick fun with friends for a long while to come.
A beautiful art style and a fun soundtrack lay the groundwork for Streets of Rage 4’s fun, free-flowing, surprisingly nuanced combat to make it a worthy entry into the long-dormant, much-revered franchise.
Jake reviewed Streets of Rage 4 using a retail PS4 code purchased on the PlayStation Store.