The acclaimed beat-em-up franchise from the heyday of the Sega Genesis (a.k.a the Mega Drive in North America) returns after a 26 (!) year hiatus, courtesy of French nostalgia-freaks Lizardcube (who made the Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s trap remake) and Dotemu, the dev/publisher responsible for a ton of new-age ports, including fighting game cult classic Garou: Mark of the Wolves and Final Fantasy VIII Remastered.
Lizardcube worked in collaboration with a multinational team, sharing co-development credit with Guard Crush Games (who brought in their Streets of Fury engine), and even having the original SOR series composer Yuzo Koshiro tag along for the ride once hype built up after 2018 announcement of the new game.
It’s certainly an experience from a bygone era of short playthroughs and simple overall mechanics, but it sure holds up not only as a faithful love song to the arcade culture of Japan and the 90’s idea of a dystopian near-future, but as a stalwart tentpole of the (long-thought-dead) genre of pressing a button to send your fist into a goon’s face while walking left-to-right.
Streets of Rage 4 is the new sequel to an old trilogy that hasn’t put out an entry since the 90’s. The art direction is snazzy (that’s some appropriate 90’s lingo right there) and crisp, portraying a down-on-its-luck urban landscape teeming with corruption. The animations are fluid and smooth, and there is virtually negligible input lag whenever you press something on your controller. Combined with a set of rad tunes (there I go again), and the option to play the retro soundtrack, it makes for an immersive old-school vibe with a pinch of today’s more modern sensibilities. It is by no means breaking new ground, but it doesn’t feel too left-behind in spite of its obviously dated gameplay.
The premise is simple – a horde of bad guys stand between you and peace for Wood Oak City, and they all need big dose of punching and kicking and throwing, and whatever your selected character does for a Star Move (a special signature area-of-effect attack).
How I learned to appreciate beat-em-ups as an adult
We start the game with only Story Mode and the 4 main characters unlocked: series vets Axel Stone and Blaze Fielding are joined by newcomers Cherry Hunter (teenage daughter of SOR1’s Adam Hunter), and Floyd Iraia (a cybernetically enhanced apprentice of SOR3’s Dr. Zan). The story doesn’t promise anything outside of the scope of your average Hollywood crime-doesn’t-pay cop show except there’s cyborgs and that bullets don’t kill you in one hit (oh wait, that screams Hollywood more than anything else). But that’s okay: I barely paid any attention to the story and it’s STILL the most fun I’ve had in a while (well, at least since I’ve played Doom Eternal).
I didn’t think it was fun at first: I had a hard time going about throwing my fisticuffs thinking that “hey, these used to be easy when I was a kid” – it was not, and I may have forgotten that I have rarely finished any of these games without help (including a ton of extra coins for the arcade). Normal difficulty sets you with 2 full health bars, and earning a good score nets you extra lives mid-stage. Stringing together consecutive hits without getting hit back multiplies your score by quite a bit, and helps you get closer to a stage’s end-boss with a backup life or two. Sounds easy enough? WRONG. Hella wrong.
Your life meter is a resource (another special move with invulnerability frames also costs a bit of health), and the game is not going to hold itself back in taking it away from you if all you expect to do is mash buttons. It beat me back hard, forcing me to use the provided Retry Assists – extra lives at the cost of dividing my total score by a factor. I refused to go down to Easy difficulty because I’m trying to prove that I was as stubborn as some of the game’s enemies (looking at you Ruby and family).
After 4 hours of banging my head against the many brick walls I encountered, I finished Story Mode shouting, “what a bad game!”. I had many complaints: I had no dash and walking through the side-scrolling levels felt like a slog through a muddy swamp, the hitboxes of some enemies felt so unfair (you’ll learn to hate Galsia holding a knife), and the 2D plane of movement is going to fry your depth perception. I was so ready to write this off as an “ignore it” and tell you that I wasted my cold hard cash on it… until something just *clicked*.
I put the game on Easy, and it was one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life, right next to buying a Wii U when everyone else was getting a PS4 (I will fight people). I had read on a forum that Easy is the mode you play at if you like everything about beat-em-ups except getting beat up.
Lowering the difficulty didn’t turn me soft as I had naively clung to previously: it instead afforded me a luxury that arcade beat-em-ups never did when I was a kid – it gave me a chance to learn the mechanics in a less-pressuring environment. Stage after stage and gangbanger after gangbanger, I grew more comfortable with how to best utilize the few buttons I had to work with, and even distinguishing my preferences for each character’s fighting style. Cherry did have a dash, and it was her gimmick: run around the room and smash enemies with your flying knee and guitar before they and their cohorts had a chance to retaliate. Blaze had the ability to pick up grounded opponents for a few more hits, and her aerial Y-attack can cover a lot of distance, handy for escaping grenades and molotovs and other painful obstacles. Floyd? Well, he slow, he punch strong. These only expanded as I began to unlock more characters, starting from the pixelized SOR form of Axel (you can switch in-between stages).
After a full no-game-over run at Easy, I took my newfound skills to the test at Normal, and it felt more natural when I wasn’t button-mashing any longer. I waited for enemies to finish their turn first, then attacked conservatively, not pressing any more than I needed to. I learned which attacks of mine would allow me to juggle enemies as long as it was safe to do so: I had no idea beat-em-ups had these sort of mechanics, EVER, and I was like a gamer reborn, suplexed into the wet baptismal afterbirth of popped thumb callus. Every complaint I had about hit- and hurtboxes, of unfair attacks and punishing situations disappeared.
Two (and sometimes three) fists are better than one
It is short at 12 standard levels (there’s a Boss Rush and Arcade mode, too – plus some Easter eggs: try Taser-ing an arcade machine), ranging at around 1-4 hours per full run, but don’t think that’s all it has to offer. This is the kind of game made for couch co-op (however hard that is to achieve at this time depending on your circumstances). I fortunately have a housemate living with me, and definitely, plying the Streets of Rage with a buddy was the most fun way to play SOR4. It feels like the general difficulty is also tuned for 2 players (the maximum is 3, as SOR tradition goes, apparently) as the enemies don’t increase in number or damage with the addition of another player. Playing with a friend means you can hit each other, so some amount of coordination and spatial awareness is needed before someone breaks a controller in half when they get hit with a thrown lead pipe for the 15th time.
I’ve also tried joining in online co-op games around maybe twice now before I started writing this article, and I think I ruined some rando’s weekend night by interrupting his throws with my excited mashing. I had played this game on Steam, and without cross-platform play, the open game list wasn’t too long at 2 or 3 options each time I looked, although the experience was lag-free and actually enjoyable too (I had learned from the people I joined). There is no quickplay/auto-join feature too, but maybe that’s for the best lest you interrupt someone’s session, but it would’ve been cool to have us join with a tag-in attack to help out some brotha that’s getting clobbered.
There’s also a PvP Battle mode, if you fancy beating your friends up as the actual goal of the game, but it’s sparse and seems like a bonus as opposed to a full-fledged game mode (after a match, you just get dumped back straight into character select, and nothing is unlockable via Battle, at least as far as we’ve played).
What we liked:
- It’s a tried-and-true formula, but it’s going to school you still
- Short and sweet, but easily replayable, especially in co-op
- 17 characters!
- Great bang for the buck
What we didn’t like:
- There is little to do past beating people up and getting a higher score
- No cross-platform means online play is sparse at the moment
- Hitboxes and misleading depth can get frustrating
Verdict: Buy it!
It’s an easy choice to go for the PC / Steam version of the game for PHP550 but even as the PS4 and Switch versions are priced much higher, I’d still recommend it as a straight buy. It’s a throwback to the olden days that’s got hardly anything to prove beyond being a ton of fun in short bursts of play. I see myself playing this months from now whenever I need a break and don’t want to think about loading up anything more committal than a game that asks me to move forward and kick stuff. Hell, get it on Switch and thank yourself whenever you go to the toilet and want something to do other than your business and some “mild reading”.