Boy, the streets sure have been quiet the last 25 years. That’s roughly the length of time since Axel Stone, Blaze Fielding, and Big McLargehuge roamed the streets taming, titulary speaking, the “rage”.
Streets of Rage 4, similar to retro franchise revivals like Mega Man 9 and Sonic Mania before it, wants to keep the party going as if no time had passed. Developed in tandem by Guard Crush Games, Lizardcube, and DotEmu, it’s a direct sequel to the third Streets of Rage game, a 1994 beat-'em-up sidescroller originally for the Sega Genesis. This new one plays roughly identically to any Streets of Rage game you’ve ever played, but with very subtle modern conventions baked in, which we’re happy to report turns out to be a satisfying balance.
The only obvious liberty taken with this sequel is its new art style. Unlike those Mega Man and Sonic call-back sequels, Streets of Rage 4 ditches the pixel look for a bold, hand-drawn, comic-book aesthetic. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but only the biggest Streets of Rage purists will likely have a problem with the decision to go with a fresh look. Reasonable people and newcomers will agree: the game looks slick and memorable. By using full animation, it allows for far more expression than had ever been possible in the era of the old Streets of Rage games, and if anything, gives the franchise some much-needed identity. The neon signs of the dive bars in the background flicker in fatigue, large bullies wince in pain as they go flying from your roundhouse kicks, and the food that gives you more health actually looks like appetizing, steamy food. It’s not a bad switch.
Gameplay-wise, a beat-’em-up is a beat-’em-up is a beat-’em-up. Having played a build of this game a year prior, however, one can tell the gameplay is tightening up. There’s thankfully just a little bit more nuance to your attacks than there was before, with hits and jumps landing a bit harder and chaining a little more fluidly. At PAX, we played as the new character Cherry Hunter, a quick but technical fighter who flips bad guys around with the best of them. Each character has a special attack that sacrifices their own health to use, and hers was a swinging electric guitar that feels great to bonk enemies with, El-Kabong-style.
It’s good to find there’s definitely some strategy to be found in your move kit. Herein lies the tiny elements that make a potential sequel to this series a lot more appetizing: you need to strategize when to use your specials, as opposed to button-mashing. Cherry’s short-hop back kick allows you to guard attacks from the back (which we accidentally kept doing maybe a little too much). You can pick up and utilize a wide range of strewn items and can actually hit them out of the air. And yes, team attack is permanently on, which means for best results, you really need to coordinate the inertia of your attacks when you’re playing with a friend.
And you should play with a friend, because it’s more fun that way. It’s very satisfying to knock out a bad guy that’s being grappled by player two with a jump kick that narrowly misses hitting your ally – especially when you had accidentally kicked them in the face the previous three times you tried it. Also, there’s the tried-and-true debate over who gets to take the health pack, followed by the inevitable argument when your stupid friend with the nearly full health bar takes the turkey all for themselves. Some things never change.
DotEmu tells us is hugely important to them that Streets of Rage 4 strikes a surgically precise balance between iteration and homage. Every individual developer was quick to tell us they’ve agonized over pleasing fans of the series, from recruiting veteran series composer Yuzo Koshiro to creating pixel-perfect updates of the original fighter duo. Right now, we don’t know a lot of important things – such as release date, the length of the game, roster size, online play, or pretty much anything other than the couple of levels we played from start to finish. Streets of Rage 4, as it’s being shown right now, still feels like an elaborate proof of concept.
What we can say right now is that, for better or worse, if putting a quarter into an arcade cabinet and punching people sounds like a good time to you, Streets of Rage 4 is no cheap imitation. It’s a highly laboured-over experience that wants to live up to the hype. We’re looking forward to telling you how it’s all come together when DotEmu announces more.