The beat ‘em-up is back in Streets of Rage 4, a stellar fan revival that in many ways surpasses the predecessors it is paying homage to.
This review of Streets of Rage 4 is based on the Xbox One version. It is also available on PS4, Switch and PC, and is currently available as part of the Xbox Game Pass service.
I’ve been waiting for Streets of Rage 4 for almost 20 years. A lot of my childhood is bundled up in the three games that graced Sega’s Mega Drive (or Genesis) in the 90s; the most betrayed I’ve ever been was when my own mother, sympathetically playing the first game in local co-op with me, accepted the sinister Mr. X’s offer to become his right-hand man. It still stings. But Streets of Rage 4, nearly two decades late but somehow right on time, is here as a belated salve for those long-ago wounds inflicted by this classic neon-techno-punk beat ‘em-up. And it brings me immeasurable pleasure to say that it’s better now than it perhaps ever was.
As sacrilegious as that sounds, I honestly can’t fathom a way in which Streets of Rage 4 isn’t better than the three games before it. While officially endorsed as a proper sequel, it’s a game made by dedicated enthusiasts who have not only constructed a follow-up but a loving homage to everything that ever made the series great in the first place. Like Sonic Mania, which received the same treatment, this is a pretty compelling argument that if we’re going to revive long-dead retro franchises, we might as well just let die-hard fans do it properly.
Let’s be clear, though: This hasn’t been knocked together in someone’s bedroom. It’s a stellar piece of work, especially aesthetically; play with the built-in “retro” filter and marvel as the gorgeous hand-drawn artwork pirouettes and punches atop the scuzzy backgrounds, some inspired by previous settings and others dreamed up entirely for this outing. Ben Fiquet’s art feels as true to the classic designs of the series’ stalwarts and diverse adversaries as it does the passage of time that has occurred since we last saw them; franchise frontman Axel Stone is even getting saggy around the middle. But every spiky-haired henchman has received a loving contemporary makeover, as detailed and striking now as they’ve ever been. Character cameos are nestled everywhere, as are cheeky remixes of old environments and ideas. The nostalgia is as weaponized here as the pipes, bats, and bottles that litter the stages.
But Streets of Rage 4 doesn’t peddle nostalgia for its own sake. There’s a point to its faithfulness, which is to insist that the beat ‘em-up, a mostly forgotten genre, can still fight its corner. The game feels much the same to play as it always did. You can still cheekily lock an enemy in place with a half-second pause between each hit. You still need to approach baddies from above or below when you want the sprites to overlap to initiate the grapple moves, which still have satisfying directional variations. Using special attacks still depletes your life bar. Your most powerful ability is still governed by limited – and collectible – stars. Virtually none of the core gameplay is any different.
What’s new are minor tweaks that allow that gameplay to shine as brightly in 2020 as it did in 1994. Now, enemies can’t wander off-screen to interrupt the flow. Now, attacking immediately after using your special attacks allows you to recoup that lost health Bloodborne style. Now, enemies will bounce off walls so that you can continue a juggle combo. Thrown weapons clatter off enemies and can be caught in mid-air. It’s a glorious, fast, surprisingly malleable system that, when it’s firing on all cylinders, feels so satisfying to play that it’s quite an ordeal to stop.
Streets of Rage 4 is also generous in providing more and more reasons to continue. Of the four starting characters, Axel and Blaze occupy their usual slots, but two are new; Cherry, a nimble replacement for Skate, and Floyd, a hybrid of the bulky pro-wrestler Max Thunder from Streets of Rage 2 and the bionic Zan from Streets of Rage 3, though his robo-arms evoke Jax from Mortal Kombat more than anyone. After the first few story chapters, the original game’s Adam Hunter makes a playable appearance for the first time since then, and there are many more classic characters hidden away.
And the stages! They’re beautiful to look at, yes, but also replete with level-specific gimmicks and hazards, and buried secrets that reward experimentation and playful prodding at the seams. By design Streets of Rage 4 isn’t a long game, but it also isn’t intended to be played through and then put down. The long-term appeal is in revisiting stages with different characters, and racking up higher combos as you master each fighter’s clutch of special moves. Online co-op and a suite of additional modes make for compelling arguments to keep playing, but they’re arguments already made convincingly by how satisfying the crunchy combat is in its totality. One has to wonder how this genre ever fell out of favor in the first place.
What Streets of Rage 4 convincingly proves is that a mistake was made somewhere along the line in that regard. While there are plenty of improvements here, there aren’t so many that you get the sense the game would be disastrous without them. It’d be a bit worse, sure, but it’d still be great fun on its own terms; a stylish, swaggering old-school beat ‘em-up as enjoyable now as it was when we were kids. Somehow, all those years spent waiting suddenly seem worth it.
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