Flashback time. My friend had that excited tone of voice when he called me about the latest video game he had rented. It was called Streets of Rage; and for me, a kid raised on the NES, that 16-bit series was an indelible experience. We fought through level after level, one sequel and then another, punching our way through the halcyon height of side-scrolling beat-’em-ups. It’s been 24 years since Streets of Rage 3 released, but I am hardly alone in my nostalgia.
"I have very clear memories of playing Streets of Rage on Game Gear in the back of my parent's car and having a blast," says Cyrille Imbert, CEO of publisher DotEmu, the company responsible publishing Lizardcube's sublime Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap. As revealed on August 27th, they’ll soon have Streets of Rage 4 to their credit as well.
"After Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap’s success, we were wondering what could be next," Imbert says. "We knew we could aim high and Streets of Rage was a clear choice for us. Short after the release of Wonder Boy, we were having a drink with Ben from Lizardcube and started talking about it. Seeing Ben’s passion for the title and later, his first artworks of Axel, I knew we had to try it."
Classic gaming properties seem to have been embraced with a renewed fervour recently. In 2017 alone we saw the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back and Sonic Mania, with the Spyro Reignited Trilogy arriving later this year. Imbert has some thoughts on why these old-school franchises are still so beloved - and in high demand.
"A good game will always be a good game," he explains. "Nobody asks why we are still playing thousand-year-old games like chess. Playing a game you loved many years ago is like watching your favourite movie or listening to your favourite band from the '70s. So of course the demand is there and, on the side of the devs and IP holders, there is also a desire to share this awesomeness with new generations of gamers."
New generations, indeed; a lot has changed in the past couple of decades, as gaming has evolved in both its technical capabilities and design sophistication. While there may be a cluster of true retro-style beat-’em-up fans out there, it’s fair to say that some work has to be done if developers are sincere about bridging the gap to new generations of players. Enter Ben Fiquet, Art and Creative Director of Lizardcube.
"Since Wonder Boy, I tried to put in a particular effort to respect the original games from an artistic standpoint. For a license like Streets of Rage, you have to try to improve the designs but at the same time, you have to keep the attributes that define them," Fiquet says. The result is a colourful hand-drawn art style that looks new while remaining faithful to the original character designs, as evidenced in a demo that debuted at PAX West.
He takes the responsibility seriously, in striving to do justice to the franchise. "The pressure is light when you start to draw few sketches and you don’t know if the project will materialize. But as the game takes shape, you start to realize it will be the legacy of these great games that fans love and it can be a little overwhelming," Fiquet explains. "I try not to focus on these kind of things and just carry on with our work. We are proposing something new, a revival after 24 years. Of course, things will have changed, but I really think people will see the improvements it brings. I think the gameplay footage is way too short in the trailer for people to really grasp what it will be."
Along with the visuals, part of a series’ signature is its soundtrack. In the case of Streets of Rage, composed Yuzo Koshiro gifted gamers with stellar music. As far as living up to such an esteemed legacy, Piquet comments, "We know how important the music in Streets of Rage is. It is a huge part of the game's identity and we want to take our time to do it right. There will be more to announce soon."
Yet, however strongly you feel about the merits of presentation, at some point you have to try and provide some actual gameplay as well. For beat-’em-ups, the challenge is to make it feel satisfying to rough up a thug for the first time and for the 237th time as well. I personally still think Double Dragon II: The Revenge for the NES has some of the most visceral combat I’ve ever experienced, but can a modern take on Streets of Rage offer genre newcomers the same gratification? Developer Guard Crush, known for their live-action beat-’em-up Streets of Fury, was up for the challenge. Cyrille Lagarigue, Lead Programmer and Co-Founder, has some thoughts on the task at hand.
"We've been working for more than 10 years on the different versions of Streets of Fury, first on Xbox 360 (2009), then the 'EX' Steam version (2015). Those are ten years of thinking about and implementing fighting game mechanics. In that time we developed an intuition about what works and what does not in that kind of games. We actually started developing Streets of Rage 4 by modifying Streets of Fury EX. It allowed us to have something up and running very quickly, and iterate on that. It has been modified a lot now, but still retains a lot of subtleties in input handling and character behaviour that we’ve spent years tuning - and still are. We are building what we call the ‘Guard Crush Engine’, an engine and toolchain specifically built for side-scrolling Beat’em Ups."
Streets of Fury’s combat features special moves, cancels, chain combos, air combos, dodges and other fighting flourishes; it's a strong foundation to build on, but Jordi Asensio, Lead Designer and Co-Founder of Guard Crush, wants to be clear that Streets of Rage 4 has other influences as well. "Basically, we studied a crazy amount of console and arcade beat ‘em ups, even the obscure ones," he says. "My personal experience as a competitive fighting game player helped us as well to experiment several battle systems and try to implement some deep fighting game mechanics into a side-scrolling beat ‘em up."
For Asensio, this is certainly a labour of love. "The beat ’em up genre is one of my favourites and I’m a bit frustrated that there are so few nowadays. I know there are people like me that are starving for a good brawler and I hope that Streets of Rage 4 can be that stepping stone to make that genre popular again. It is actually one of the reasons I got into game-making. Studios weren’t making the games I love so I had no choice but to try to make them myself." So, how do you ensure Rage 4 is the best game it can be? "We analyse the original games frame-by-frame, and look at things like enemy behaviour and level design. We also watch videos of speed runs and other videos about Streets of Rage,” Lagarigue says.
Analysis is only the beginning, however. "We had to make our custom engine to really have the frame level control and custom tools we needed," Lagarigue says. "Also, we had to make a custom graphics integration pipeline, to match the workflow of our very talented artists - Ben Fiquet and Julian You - and also to have good performance with the enormous textures we are using."
Beausoleil Samson Guillemette, a programmer with Guard Crush, speaks about some of the design obstacles. "You need at least a solid 60 fps for the fastest reaction time possible. Add to that good combos, and a variety of attacks and counter-attacks, to make sure there’s always a move to get you out of trouble, even if it’s a risky one. And then you still need the right pacing, with all the different foes."
But wait, there’s more. "I would add that you need a good cast of characters with unique feelings and abilities so every player can find his style of play and express him/herself," Asensio says. "A solid fighting system is important, too. Being able to play the game in different ways is what feeds the player’s imagination so he/she will always come back to the game to try new things."
Lagarigue elaborates on this. "It starts with the control; it must be reactive, and have good input buffering. Then the feeling of hitting an enemy must be ultra-satisfying. Then, enemies must be varied and have interesting attack patterns that make you use of all the characters abilities. Then, the game must provide an adventure, be varied and have a great atmosphere. Easy, no?" Oh, of course. Real easy.
And aside from the tangible coding and artistic difficulties, there is a more philosophical one as well. Everyone working on Streets of Rage 4 seems to recognize this unspoken puzzle, underlying every aspect of this title: How do you deliver a modern gaming experience that will please both the original fans and new players alike? "One of the toughest challenges is to modernize while staying true to the original," Asensio replies. "One of our main guidelines is 'what if the original staff was making a Streets of Rage game today?' We’re constantly comparing our game with the originals, frame-by-frame. We try to reproduce that classic feeling and once the foundation is solid, we build on it."
That challenge to modernize runs the risk of alienating hardcore fans, but Guillemette makes it clear that they are keeping ties with the source material. "We closely work with SEGA, sending versions and collecting feedback. It is important for us and for the game itself to have their approval. DotEmu are used to working with Japanese companies and the rights holders of such licenses, and getting feedback from the original creators is and has always been part of the process."
Just for fun, I tried to ask Fiquet about some specific aspects of prior Streets of Rage titles, and whether we could expect to see them again or not. For example, you may remember the missile-launching police cruiser from the first game. Will it be making a return? "The police play a role in the story of Streets of Rage 4. I wouldn’t want to spoil anything, but I hope you’ll like it. The car that launched missiles in the first game was very cool though," he adds with a knowing smile.
It’s great to see that series stalwarts Axel and Blaze are back, but will we be able to lace up some rollerskates or inhabit a kangaroo in this new outing? "Axel and Blaze are the power couple, the spine of the license for all games," Fiquet says. "It was only natural that they would be at the centre of the reveal. But Streets of Rage has never been about just two characters, so you can expect more to come." In the original trilogy, we kept seeing criminal overlord Mr. X up to no good. Will he also resurrect for the fourth entry? "The last time we saw Mr. X, his brain might have been blown up by an explosion. It might be difficult to come back from that," Fiquet says. He has a point.
Streets of Rage 4 is a game still early in its development. As of press time, it has no release date nor confirmations as to platform availability (DotEmu’s Imbert could only say about the Nintendo Switch, "We can’t confirm anything at this stage but that would be great, wouldn’t it?"). While it remains to be seen just how well-received a new Streets of Rage experience can be, the general attitude surrounding its development is optimistic. Imbert reflects on the lessons learned from working on Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap.
"The main lesson that we learned is that if you want to bring back a classic, the team working on it has to be absolute fans of the game. I think the love and attention to detail - along with the generosity of content that Lizardcube managed to deliver for Wonder Boy - is a huge part of the game’s success. Guard Crush have been developing a beat ‘em up engine for ten years just out of pure passion. That’s dedication. If you love the material you’re working on, people will feel it and that can only be positive. But of course, being passionate is not enough and talent is of a great importance - as Lizardcube and Guard Crush Games have already proved with Wonder Boy and Streets of Fury."
I asked Cyrille if there’s room yet to look forward, perhaps consider what other SEGA franchises he’d love to be involved with someday. "SEGA has really been supportive of us and our visions for both projects. There are plenty of great classics like Alex Kidd, Outrun or Shining Force that deserve to be brought back to the light. We hope to keep establishing a relation of trust with SEGA and the fans by working hard on Streets of Rage 4 and that we will be able to continue to work with them in the future."
Reinventions of Alex Kidd, Outrun, and Shining Force? Even in conjecture, that sounds like a beautiful thing. Hopefully, DotEmu and SEGA continue taking steps forward in their relationship. I have to imagine part of that path will be blazed by the reception to the fourth Streets of Rage game, for better or for worse. In the meantime, Fiquet hopes players give Streets of Rage 4 a chance and find themselves enjoying it. "I hope they like the new art style, the hand-drawn animations and the beautiful backgrounds. It might be new, but I really think it fits well with the original games and it breathes a lot of life into it." We look forward to finding out.