It may be twenty-six years since Streets of Rage 3 released back in the spring of 1994, but jumping into this brand new chapter in the series, a joint venture between Lizardcube – makers of the excellent Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap – Dotemu and Guard Crush Games, it genuinely feels as though very little time has passed since we were last kicking and punching our way through the thug-infested streets of Wood Oak City. Streets of Rage 4 is a beautifully-crafted return to a beloved franchise; a direct continuation, celebration and revitalisation of the classic side-scrolling beat-em-up series that manages to stay entirely true to its roots while refreshing and improving almost every aspect of its gameplay, resulting in the very best Streets of Rage to date.

Picking up ten years after the events of the third game which saw Mr X and his crime syndicate defeated, a new threat has emerged in Wood Oak in the form of X's children, the Y Twins, and their shadowy criminal empire. It's up to returning heroes Axel Stone, Blaze Fielding and Adam Hunter – alongside newcomers Cherry Hunter and Floyd Iraia – to take to the mean streets in search of answers while dishing out a relentless beating to everyone who stands in their way.

As soon as you jump into the action here you can tell you're in safe hands; Lizardcube's intricate and wonderfully detailed hand-drawn visuals bringing the familiar environs of the game's opening chapter to sumptuous life. The neon signs of arcades and tattoo parlours – newly liberated from their pixelated pasts – now flicker, buzz and reflect off pools of water, steam drifts up and out of sewers surrounded by overfull trash bags and grimy graffiti – Wood Oak doing its very best seedy '80s NYC impression – as groups of enemies you'll instantly remember from the original games rush in from all sides of the screen, making a beeline for your ever-ready fists and feet.

From this opening on the gritty streets of the city, through toxic neon sewers, the top of a speeding train, a great glass elevator shooting to the top of an enemy's lair, grungy biker bars, wrestling rings and gaudy modern art galleries, this is a game that looks fantastic from beginning to end, with each and every location, enemy and playable character dripping in hand-crafted detail. Oh, and in case you were wondering, we've compared the Switch version directly with the PlayStation 4 edition, and the game runs identically on both machines (and runs in at the same, silky-smooth 60fps in docked or portable modes) – port specialist Seaven Studio has done a superb job here.

All of the classic Streets of Rage thug-types have returned here too and with their signature moves intact; familiar foes who haven't switched up their tactics in the quarter of a century since they last hit the scene. Short and stocky biker-helmeted goons headbutt-charge in your direction as denim-clad thugs wielding knives hang back at the edges of fights waiting for just the right moment to move in quickly for a stab. R and Y Signal enemies – still wearing their signature skull emblazoned parkas – attempt to slide into you from a distance while Donovan types arrive onscreen wielding metal pipes and bats and are uniformly excellent at punching you out of the sky should you attempt to attack them from the air. There are leather-clad electric whip ladies to deal with, high-kicking Thai fighters, fire-breathing fat boys, robots, cops, gun-toting gangsters and everything else in-between. All the old team are here, present and correct; a carefully choreographed mix of enemy types conspiring to take you down.

In order to successfully navigate this constant barrage of bad guys Streets of Rage 4 reintroduces all the old moves you'll remember from back in the day, now gently expanded with some new offensive options. Your basic punches and jumping kicks combine with stronger variations – pulled off by double-tapping forward and hitting punch – and super-charged defensive attacks that use up a slice of your health bar every time you perform them and are hugely useful for manoeuvring out of tight spots. The main difference in the gameplay here is that the portion of your health bar you choose to sacrifice by performing these super-charged moves can now be regained by successfully attacking foes directly afterwards without taking a hit. This gives the combat a much more flashy and offensive feel, allowing you to throw out barrages of seriously heavy-duty hits, draining your own life bar and taking the calculated risk that you can regain it all by throttling goons while avoiding all incoming attacks. In short, it makes for some truly thrilling moments.

Grappling with enemies, putting them into headlocks or throwing them is still achieved by simply walking into them, but you can now chain bigger combos together by throwing enemies off of each other or against the side of the screen to keep them in the air, where you can juggle them with attacks and create massive, score-boosting combo chains. Super Special moves are performed by pressing A and X together – be sure to keep an eye out for one or two returning classics – and are now earned by collecting stars that you'll find hidden around levels, so it's always best to make sure you put your fist through every piece of destructible environment you come across as you make your way through chapters. Oh, and it's worth noting that picking up items such as stars, weapons and food is now achieved using a dedicated button rather than the attack button (although a 'classic' control method is available if you'd prefer – if you have an 8bitdo M30 pad handy, you can enable this three-button system and give the game that true 16-bit Sega feel).

Moment-to-moment, the action here feels most similar to that found in Streets of Rage 2, much more complex than the first game but stopping short of the divisive running and rolling (and soul-crushing difficulty) of part three – it's also crisper, smoother and much more responsive. Using a modified version of Guard Crush Games' Streets of Fury engine, the gameplay here feels fantastic; attacks are satisfyingly meaty, combos look and feel great and manoeuvring in and around enemies, jump-kicking your way out of crowds, grabbing melee weapons to throttle opponents and breaking open barrels and bins for health is never less than a ton of fun.

By sticking closely to the combat rhythms that made the original games so addictive, keeping attack options simple and not weighing the action down with a ton of fussy modern bells and whistles, the gameplay in Streets of Rage 4 manages to strike a perfect balance. This is instantly accessible old-school brawling that anyone can pick up and play, but there's also enough depth here to satisfy those who wish to perfect their runs, racking up huge combo scores and earning top rankings in every chapter of a campaign that's designed from the ground up to be replayed incessantly with its twelve bite-sized levels, each one topped off by an excellent boss battle.

In terms of the playable characters, Axel, Blaze and Adam's move-sets will be familiar to fans of the series but have all been expanded with a few flashy new additions. Of the two new characters, Cherry is absolutely our favourite; Adam's daughter is clearly based on her uncle, Skate from Streets of Rage 2, and wields an electric guitar which is fantastic for crowd control as well as a lightning-fast chaingun-style knee attack – she's ruthlessly fast and can do big damage to groups of foes very quickly as she's one of the only characters blessed with a 'double-tap' run move. Floyd is probably the weakest of the lot in our opinion; he's big and heavy, does huge damage and has a spectacular special move but we found him a little slow during boss battles and when surrounded by packs of quick-moving thugs. However, there were some levels where his brute strength and impressive reach were a massive benefit, so the ability to switch characters between stages makes sense – and also allows you to see all the cast has to offer rather than sticking with just one fighter for the duration of the adventure.

Having said that, any slight disappointment we may have felt about not really connecting with Floyd was quickly extinguished once we started unlocking some of the twelve classic characters that you'll gain access to as you play through the game's various modes. Each one of these pixelated pugilists come with their full original move-sets and add a huge amount of variety to subsequent replays of the campaign mode. It really does feel like a total celebration of the series; a huge roster of classic characters in their original pixelated forms sat alongside their modern counterparts. Further to this, you can also choose to play through the entire campaign with either a retro or retro CRT filter enabled, maximising the old-school vibe, and the game still looks absolutely excellent with its graphics masked by either of these options.

There's just so much to love about what Dotemu, Lizardcube and Guard Crush Games have achieved here – everything you remember fondly from the classic series has made the jump to this slick new entry and grabbing a friend to blast through the whole thing in co-op – you can also now play through the campaign with up to three other players on the same Switch – is just as much fun now as it was back in the '90s.

The soundtrack too, primarily the work of Olivier Deriviere with contributions from Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima amongst others, is an absolute delight; an eclectic, expansive mix of old-school chiptune, Daft Punk-esque pop, Jazz, funk and full-on pumping dance tracks, it eschews the experimental madness of Streets of Rage 3's divisive soundtrack in favour of non-stop crowd-pleasers. It's also been fused together with the onscreen action perfectly, tracks sometimes only kicking in fully when first contact is made with the enemy; you might also notice the odd thug kicking some piece of background scenery in time to the music here and there. Streets of Rage has always been about battering baddies in time to some delicious beats and the developers have given us the ultimate representation of that here; the music every bit as vital to your enjoyment of proceedings as the non-stop action. As a bonus you can also unlock remixed soundtracks from the first two Streets of Rage games, so you're absolutely spoiled for choice with regards to what music accompanies the beatings you hand out.

Alongside the roughly two to three-hour-long campaign which is playable at five difficulty settings from easy to soul-crushing mania, the game also packs in an old-school arcade mode which challenges you to complete the story using just one credit, dumping you right back to level one should you fail (the main campaign generously lets you pick up from the beginning of your current chapter upon death) as well as a tough as nails boss rush mode, returning battle mode and online play so you can buddy up with friends or randoms to take on Wood Oak's criminals in two-player co-op.

From its opening fistfight to its final spectacular boss battle, Streets of Rage 4 feels like a pretty much perfect modernisation of a beloved franchise. The action here will feel wonderfully familiar to series fans; this is still the same old Streets of Rage you know and love, carefully upgraded and expanded for a new generation – a brand new entry in the series that's better in every way than we'd dared to dream it could be.

Conclusion

Streets of Rage 4 is the very best the series has ever been. Its hand-drawn graphics breathe new life into Wood Oak City and its inhabitants, the soundtrack is outstanding and the combat feels better than ever. Lizardcube, Guard Crush Games and Dotemu have managed to completely modernise the look and feel of Streets of Rage, expanding on the experience without losing sight of what made the original games so popular to begin with – and the handful of additions made to the action here serve only to enhance the classic core gameplay, resulting in one of the best side-scrolling beat 'em ups we've played in a long time.