If you had told ten year old me that videogames would look as good as they do today, I would have answered “it’s a given!”, but there’s something to be said about the ones that use hand drawn graphics, from studios like WayForward, DotEmu, and Lizardcube. Obviously, even though the old sprite-based graphics from the 8- and 16-bit generations were done by hand too, they had to be translated into the final visuals you’d see on your old CRT TV. Stuff like Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, the numerous Shantae games, to name a few, are a whole other thing when it comes to that, and to someone like me, who grew up loving animation and games, it’s a dream come true seeing cartoons come to life like they do these days.
Streets of Rage 4 is absolutely what I wanted out of a sequel to a long dormant franchise. It pays homage to its heritage without going too far over the edge, and introduces new gameplay innovations that are more than welcome. The original trilogy paved the way for beat ‘em ups back in the day, so there’s a lot that this new entry has to live up to, and it certainly does when it comes to just about every part of playing it, be it the lively cast of characters to pick from and unlock along the way to just how well it translates the pixely visual style from the past into modern day with beautiful designs and fluid animation.
It’s been years since the last time we got to beat some thugs with the SoE crew, and the city has gone back to being a hotbed of crime and violence, urging old heroes to come back and beat some bloody justice out of its highways, top of trains, sewers, elevators, high rises, you name it in Streets of Rage 4. Old favorites like Blaze and Axel throw on their knuckle gloves and join forces with some new faces, such as Cherry, guitar playing and beating daughter of the original Streets of Rage’s Adam, as well as Floyd, who takes a page out of the Jaxx handbook and wears metal cybernetic arms thanks to the technology of Dr. Zan, one of the playable characters from Streets of Rage 3. That’s not mentioning other unlockable bruisers that you’ll bump into as you play through the story mode.
Developers DotEmu and Lizardcube have done a tremendous job making each of these guys and gals feel and play uniquely, not just in the matter of balancing their speed and strength, but in the kinds of moves they can pull off, their range, moveset, and of course, looks. Streets of Rage has never been shy about having a wildly varied cast, and Streets of Rage 4 ups the ante and then some by having the biggest one yet. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Blaze, so it was with her that I first started playing the game, but I eventually ended up settling with Adam, who gets unlocked very early on. Regardless of your gameplay style, it’s very likely you’ll find someone you just click with at some point.
For anyone who’s a fan of the original games, they’re going to feel right at home playing the newest entry because it mostly plays like them. It’s a 2D game with left to right scrolling as well as some vertical movement depending on the level you’re playing, with plenty to punch and kick your way through. Old enemy designs share the stage with many new types that mesh incredibly well, working in tandem to keep you on your toes at all times. Stages don’t last too long and usually close off with a boss fight, but there are some slight variations here and there that break that up somewhat, which are best left unspoiled. Depending on what difficulty you end up playing, the story mode in Streets of Rage 4 should take you around 2-3 hours to get through, but there’s plenty of reason to jump back into it.
That’s because this game is built to be played with other people, and in true beat ‘em up fashion, plopping down on the couch to brawl with a friend is more than recommended since it makes playing through it that much more enjoyable, if not mandatory in order to survive higher difficulties and attain the coveted high score on the leaderboard. Locally, Streets of Rage 4 can have up to two players going at it at once, with that being upped to four when taking things online. It’s a shame that you can’t have four players locally, but given the current world situation of social distancing we’ve been living for the past few months, maybe that’s for the best.
Regardless of your skill level, Streets of Rage 4 is very approachable. Upon getting to a game over screen, you’re treated to some options to ease your time playing by giving you more lives and special move stars in lieu of your final score, so even if you’re new to this sort of game, it’s very likely you’ll make it to the end eventually. If you sit on the opposite side of the equation and want to get a real challenge out of it, you’ll find it here as well, especially in Mania mode, the hardest setting that Streets of Rage 4 has to offer. A runt like me wouldn’t dream to try this on my own, but hey, if I can rope in some folks to play online, maybe I’ll live the dream of attempting to make it to the end of this thing, who knows?
Out of the new gameplay mechanics, which include variable moves that can be used depending on your positioning and what direction you push, my far favorite is how special attacks work in this game. Like beat ‘em ups of old, you can use a powerful move by pushing both of the attack commands, and in SoR4 that’s limited to the amount of stars you’re holding — this time, however, there’s a dedicated button for the classic stronger attack that takes away some of your health. But there’s a catch to this: in Bloodborne fashion, you can gain back some of your lost HP by landing attacks, making using these moves a dance of regaining and spending resources and not simply button-mashing your way through the game.
As was mentioned in the opening, Streets of Rage 4 is absolutely a spectacle to behold when it comes to its presentation. Be it the levels you’ll tear your way across or the way characters move and look, there isn’t a single part of this game that obviously has not gotten a whole lot of love, and that shows. It’s cool to see old faces being brought into high definition even if the end result might have been pushed a little too far. I’m talking about Blaze, the absolute heroine of the series, who no doubt kicks some serious ass in this game, but is a tad exaggerated when it comes to the over-sexualization of her updated design.
Another aspect of Streets of Rage that can’t go unmentioned is how the music has always played a rule part of playing each entry. Streets of Rage 4 is no different, marking the return of Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima, the original composers from the original trilogy who lent their talent once again for some of the tunes you’ll hear in this. And they don’t disappoint!
It’s incredible to think of just how far videogames have come, but having a measured approach when bringing back a classic game franchise and updating it is even more impressive. DotEmu, Guard Crush, and Lizardcube have hit it out of the park in just about every way with Streets of Rage 4 and leaves me begging the question of what’s next on their docket and what other old beloved series could be revived as beautifully as this game. One can dream of a Super Mario game done in this style…