If you’re anything like me, you’ll remember swaddling up underneath a Power Rangers blanket while playing the original Streets of Rage with a friend or sibling. The franchise is held in such high regard by fans that it’s a miracle Sega never tried to revive it once gaming went 3D (although, considering how Golden Axe: Beast Rider turned out, that’s probably a good thing). Now, a quarter of a century later, Streets Of Rage 4 is here to defend its well-earned legacy. Note that this is a numbered sequel, not a reboot. Immediately, this establishes the developers’ objective to preserve the series’ identity rather than reinvent the wheel. Though the gameplay may not surprise, this trip down memory lane occasionally delights while establishing a new standard for modern-day beat ‘em ups.
King of the Streets
A decade after the events of the last game, Wood Oak City is once again under threat of a criminal syndicate. The now-aging heroes, Axel Stone and Blaze Fielding, join forces once more to bring down the Y Twins, the creatively named offspring of Mr X, the late series’s antagonist. It’s a simple, if thin, premise, serving mostly as a vehicle to spirit away the cast to their next fighting location. You still roundhouse kick and bodyslam anyone foolish enough to interrupt your relentless rightward march, but some new systems and fighters successfully spice up the familiar gameplay.
The two brand-new characters round off the roster nicely. Cherry Hunter doesn’t hit hard, but she’s capable of whizzing across the battlefield while the bulky bruiser Floyd Iraia is all about big grabs and bigger damage. Whoever you brawl as, special moves still drain your HP, but à la Bloodborne, you can recover that lost health by dealing follow up damage. Take a hit before then, though, and you’ll lose that chunk of life for good. That risk/reward concept manifests in the game’s revamped combo system too, which puts your ego on the line for hefty point payouts and invaluable extra lives. These smart additions mesh seamlessly with the existing gameplay, resulting in brawling that’s exhilarating and consistently engaging.
Going solo is doable, but it’s a decidedly more challenging and solitary affair. Not only is co-op the way to play, it’s also where all the game’s new systems blossom. The new characters synergize elegantly with coordinated teamwork, and the ever-growing shared combo meter encourages many shrieks of ‘Did you see that?!’ which are always best shared with a friend, preferably one within high-fiving distance.
The one thing that cannot be overstated is just how good the combat feels here. There’s something innately satisfying about planting your boot into a hoodlum’s chest to send him hurtling towards a gang of thugs like a tattooed bowling ball. Another small, but genius, touch is the short animation delay when attempting to throw chunkier foes. It gives the impression that you’re suplexing a skyscraper, and the resulting crash is all the mightier for it. The well-tuned difficulty curve ensures you’ll emerge from boss fights by the skin of your teeth. Only the tough survive these streets, and every successful fight feels well-earned.
Below The Belt
There are a few speed bumps to endure along the way though. Cheap hits have always been present in the classic games and, while they aren’t as prevalent here, they still pump the brakes on the good times. Stepping onto environmental hazards sometimes ping-pongs you into new traps, thus dishing out hefty damage penalties for honest mistakes. One enemy type loves throwing AOE firebombs, and attacking her while she’s holding one forces her to drop it, resulting in an explosion that almost always hits you too. A handful of bosses also dish out attacks that feel unavoidable, and when the game gives you no real means of dodging or blocking, you’re often forced to soak up the damage. It’s appreciable keeping the gameplay faithful, but cheap hits frustrate, especially when they can swiftly turn the tide on a level’s run.
While the core fighting is polished to a mirror shine, some gameplay variety would have been welcome. Even back in the day, many of Street of Rage’s contemporaries offered some vehicles to mess around with; Golden Axe let you ride dragons, and even the Ninja Turtles had wacky surfboarding stages. At one point in Streets of Rage 4, your character hops on a motorbike, teasing a vehicle segment, but instead, the next level starts as usual with the bike disappointingly parked just off the edge of screen. The series has never strayed off the on-foot style of gameplay; it’s a pity this new installment decides to once again stick rigidly to this structure.
The stage ‘Night Train’ is the closest the game ever comes to a non-walking stage. In gaming, train levels are almost immediately cool, and this one makes a hell of a good first impression as the iconic city skyline zips by in the distance. Unfortunately, the stage itself is a bit of a wreck. Signal light hazards force you to jump over them in an unmemorable pattern, and the level’s final encounter is lazily just two of the game’s previous bosses taped together. It’s also the only level without a scene transition. We never go inside a carriage to trash the upholstery or ram dining carts into thugs. We just stay on the train’s roof, pensively staring into the yonder as we dream about what the level could have been. It’s the only dud in an otherwise stellar line-up of stages.
City of Artists
The scrolling beat ‘em up genre is classically rife with Hanna-Barbera-style repeating backgrounds, but never once does Streets of Rage 4 re-use its environments, a statement all the more impressive considering every asset is lovingly hand-drawn. Graffiti gilds soot-stained bricks while the seedy city streets shimmer with neon lights, giving the impression that the world is illuminated by the gentle glow of an arcade cabinet. It’s a marvel in motion, and even amidst all the on-screen carnage, performance never buckles, maintaining 60 FPS, even on Switch.
The music has always been a celebrated part of this franchise, and thankfully, this new installment maintains a high standard. The synth-heavy soundtrack plays like a PG-13 version of Hotline Miami – it never goes in as deep, but occasionally one song will get your blood pumping. The track ‘Call the Cops’ is an early-game highlight that begs you to crack your knuckles and slam down foes to its thunderous drop. The jazzed-up presentation breathes new life into Wood Oak City, and half of the campaign’s fun is in seeing and hearing what’s around the next corner.
There’s a palpable and infectious sense of adoration for the franchise that emanates throughout Streets of Rage 4. While it wears a familiar face, the gameplay will make you pump your fist with glee, not because nostalgia dictates you should, but because the game earns that right on its own merits. The raw gameplay is the best it’s ever been, and it shines all the brighter as a couch co-op experience. This ain’t simply a series love letter; it’s an all-new game that could confidently go toe-to-toe with some of the best beat ‘em ups of yesteryear.
This review for Streets of Rage 4 is based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game.
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