It took twenty-five years, but Streets of Rage 4 finally delivered a cracking sequel to Sega's beloved pugilism series, no small feat given just how many gamers hold the franchise in enormously high regard.
Nintendo Life caught up with the teams at DotEmu, Guard Crush Games and Lizardcube for a little chat. Of rage.
Nintendo Life: Fans had been waiting for a Streets of Rage sequel for over a quarter of a century and after several false starts in previous generations, this year's Streets of Rage 4 finally delivered. How did this project finally get on track?
Cyrille Imbert (DotEmu CEO and executive producer): In the '90s, I was definitely a Sega kid, so my first handheld console was a Game Gear. And when I got that console for Christmas, the first game I managed to get was Streets of Rage. I have very vivid memories of how rebellious I thought this game was and how crazy I was about it.
I told him “For the next project, I would love to try something crazy and do a sequel of Streets of Rage”. At that point he smiled
In 2017, after the success of Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, I was thinking about working on another SEGA franchise. One night in Paris I was talking with Ben Fiquet, the founder and art director of Lizardcube, the amazing studio behind Dragon's Trap. I told him “For the next project, I would love to try something crazy and do a sequel of Streets of Rage”. At that point he smiled and said, “that sounds like an interesting idea”, then pulled out his phone from his pocket and showed me those beautiful artworks of Axel, Blaze and other iconic characters of the series. This was definitely a sign!
We started to work together on a pitch and I flew directly to Tokyo to meet with SEGA’s team and give it a shot. A couple of months later, we had the final approval and the dream became reality. With that reality came pressure, but so much joy and excitement as well.
Nintendo Life: What was the content of that initial pitch?
Jordi Asensio (Game designer, DotEmu): It was not that elaborate, just a couple of pieces of artwork from Ben Fiquet along with the clear intent to make a true sequel, not just a remake. Also, we stated that we didn’t want to follow any modern gameplay trends; we wanted to stay true to Streets of Rage’s DNA and deliver a classic beat ‘em up experience.
Nintendo Life: Streets of Rage 4 definitely succeeds on that front, but there's also a real feeling of progression. Was there a sense of freedom about how this project was approached or was it tightly overseen by Sega?
Imbert: We had complete creative freedom on the project. SEGA gave us feedback regularly and fortunately, we were always on the same page.
Nintendo Life: What was the "mission statement" for this game? Was there a particular guiding philosophy throughout development?
Beausoleil "bo" Samson-Guillemette (Graphics & tools programmer, Guard Crush Games): For this project, one principle that we held very dear was keeping the iteration time as low as possible. That’s part of why we chose (programming language) C#, because it compiles super fast. Our editor also saves all your changes on disk all the time, so that if it crashes you can relaunch it right away and get back exactly where you were. It also detects every change you made externally and updates the files accordingly. You press “save” in Photoshop and it updates in the game. It’s also why the tools are integrated directly with the game, and there’s no “play/edit” modes, you’re playing the game all the time, with other windows around to edit what you’re playing. We quickly added buttons to slow time down, completely pause the game, or advance step by step. It was very useful to edit hitboxes, but also to tweak AI, collisions and tons of other stuff.
Cyrille Lagarigue (Main programmer, Guard Crush Games): On the gameplay side, basically we wanted to please the fans of the originals, and if possible bring new players to the franchise. So not going too far from the original formula, but still making it more accessible and deep at the same time.
Nintendo Life: Unlike many games of its genre, Streets of Rage 4 feels brilliantly paced; what is the process behind plotting out a side-scrolling beat-'em-up?
We wanted the players to care about their positioning, to use all their moves, and to learn enemy patterns
Asensio: We gave a lot of freedom to the player in term of moves, but we deliberately removed the run and roll features from Streets of Rage 3 from the main characters to make them each feel very different to play. For instance, you can choose the pace you want by selecting the wildly agile Cherry or the powerful but slow Floyd. We also tried to not overwhelm the screen with enemies (five enemies maximum on easy/normal/hard difficulties) so every encounter matters and is memorable. That way you can play the level again and learn how to get better. We tried to have the player’s brain always “on”.
Nintendo Life: The game does seem to get demanding more quickly than its predecessors.
Lagarigue: It was important for us to make the game accessible to as many players as possible. It’s why we put in an easy mode, and why we make you restart at the beginning of a stage when you run out of lives instead of at the beginning of the game, like in previous Streets of Rages. That said, for a beat-'em-up to be interesting, it has to be challenging, or else it’s just a matter of pressing forward and mashing the attack button! We wanted the players to care about their positioning, to use all their moves, and to learn enemy patterns. If you die, you lose less than 10 minutes of progression, and you can learn from your mistakes, so we thought it was a nice way to improve and keep motivated.
Nintendo Life: Outside of the Streets of Rage series, were there any other titles that the team were influenced by?
Lagarigue: At Guard Crush Games, we have always been influenced a lot by Guardian Heroes (Sega Saturn). Its blend of beat-'em-up and fighting game design, branching story paths, and RPG elements convinced us of all the potential side-scrolling beat-'em-ups could have. For Streets of Rage, apart from beat-'em-ups, we were influenced by From Software games, for certain mechanics and how they handle surprises in level design. We were also influenced by design trends in recent indie games like Cuphead.
Nintendo Life: How was it decided which playable characters to include this time around?
Ben Fiquet (Lizardcube CEO, art director): Axel and Blaze, as the iconic duo, were obviously making it back. But we felt – and I think a lot of fans would agree – that the return of Adam was long overdue. Despite being playable in only the first game, he is a major character.
Cherry and Floyd draw their necessity through the gameplay possibility they bring, like the long-range grappling of Floyd’s arms. Since the story is set 10 years from the events of Streets of Rage 3, I couldn’t picture a grown-up Skate coming back with his rollers. Cherry fills the gap as the fast character, but she’s also more aerial. I wanted to give her a gimmick that would set her apart, and I love the grunge feeling coming from a character with a guitar. There was some pushback from the team, but I was pretty adamant about her fighting with a guitar.
Nintendo Life: Far be it from us to sow the seeds of unrest, but were there any other aspects of Streets 4 that inspired that sort of internal debate?
Fiquet: Well, this is inherent to every creative endeavour, especially in this context of three companies working together. Of course there were other internal debates, but not that many to be honest. Everyone had their own speciality, and we were ultimately working together to bring forth the best game we could.
Nintendo Life: Unlockable characters are handled in a very accessible way; what kind of balancing went into this system, and how was it decided which characters would be the "secret" ones?
Asensio: The original pixellated characters were obvious secret characters. We tried to have fun with them and let loose with the balancing, as they are not part of the leaderboards. The unlockable order is just chronological, so you can progress through original Streets of Rage gameplay from 1 to 3 as a mini-history lesson.
We are super happy to see the hype around Estel. She’s a great character and actually inspired by a real french cop
Nintendo Life: We've seen a lot of players lamenting the lack of a playable Estel – that's testament to a character that people really love. Are there any plans for upcoming DLC that you can share, new characters or otherwise?
Imbert: There’s no DLC planned for now, but we’d definitely love to add content to the game if possible. We have many ideas in mind, so stay tuned. We are super happy to see the hype around Estel. She’s a great character and actually inspired by a real french cop!
Fiquet: Yeah, it happened in the summer of 2017. As I walked back to my building, three cops were trying to guess the door code. As I offered my help, I noticed their leader was a strong female officer (which inspired Estel) so I ask what they were coming for. With a grin on her face, she looked at me and said: “We’re here to arrest a guy.” And even though her two male colleagues were ripped, you could tell she was in charge.
Nintendo Life: What were your major inspirations for the look of Streets of Rage 4?
Fiquet: Inspirations are multiple, ranging from video games, comics or iconic over the top '80s movies. It’s difficult to pinpoint specific things; it’s a cumulative dose of influences throughout the years. But one thing in particular is that I wanted to have beautiful animation like you see in Street Fighter III or Garou: Mark of the Wolves.
Nintendo Life: How is the balance achieved between fluid animation and smooth gameplay – how do you avoid "over-animating" the characters?
Fiquet: It’s important to have a snappy response when playing. We made sure that if something was over-animated like a punch taking too long, we would speed up the animation where needed. Also if one of your punches connects, the transition to the next part of the combo is instantaneous.
Nintendo Life: Was the team under any pressure to deliver a sprite-based game along the lines of Sonic Mania? Was this an approach that was ever considered?
Fiquet: Pixel art was never considered, to be honest. It’s not Lizardcube’s strength and we wanted to bring the license forward. With all the hand-drawn art and animation, I think it can reach people outside of the pre-existing fanbase.
Nintendo Life: We couldn't help but notice the "where are my pixels?" graffiti on the window of the arcade...
Fiquet: This little easter egg was put here as a joke because of some hardcore long-time fans shouting really loudly when we revealed the game for the first time. Even if it saddens me that we couldn’t provide the game every Streets of Rage fan wanted, I hope they managed to become comfortable with the look and enjoy their experience.
Nintendo Life: Of course, there are the secret boss battles found by using a tazer on the Bare Knuckle cabinets found throughout the game.
Fiquet: There always have been fun secrets throughout the series. When we knew we could implement the original sprites, we thought it could be a very fun easter egg to have you battle the original bosses as well. I think it also shows some respect to the originals with that little nod.
Nintendo Life: We've got to talk about that soundtrack. While it turned out great, we were disappointed to hear that Hideki Naganuma had to step away from the project due to a schedule clash.
Imbert: Yes, that was really unfortunate, as he is a super talented composer with beats that could have been a great fit for certain parts of the game. We are still in contact, so who knows what the future holds...
We decided early on to divide the work so that the guest composers would do the boss fight themes while I would focus on the music throughout each stage
Nintendo Life: Could you explain the process and challenges of bringing together such an eclectic soundtrack from so many veteran composers and maintaining such a consistent feel?
Olivier Derivière (Main composer): We decided early on to divide the work so that the guest composers would do the boss fight themes while I would focus on the music throughout each stage. This was one of the best decisions we made because each boss has its own personality captured by each guest. It makes the fight unique and therefore memorable, while the level's music is more of a solid and cohesive progression.
Nintendo Life: The "dynamic" music is a wonderful touch.
Derivière: I am happy you’ve noticed it. I am very keen on interactive music. At first, the team wanted to follow what had been done on the previous games which is basically background music playing and looping on a level. I understood that the beat-'em-up genre was very arcade centric and didn’t need a high level of music interactivity. However, a few weeks into the process of composing, I realized how interesting it would be if the music would follow the events of the game – not like a film score, but rather as a song structure. In the end, the way I’ve made the songs was very related to the level design for each moment to be a segment of the song.
Nintendo Life: The original three Streets of Rage games have distinctly different soundtracks – how was it decided which motifs and styles to bring back, which to build on, and which to discard?
Derivière: It was decided that my music shouldn’t relate too much with the previous games because Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima, the original composers, are part of the Streets of Rage 4 composers roster. I wanted to respect the legacy and I’ve followed their vision of using club music; not only from the ’90s but the last 25 years as well. The biggest challenge was to make them sound cohesive, so I twisted each genre to make what I would call "the sound of Streets of Rage 4".
Nintendo Life: How would you define "the sound of Streets of Rage 4"?
Derivière: I think the best way to describe it is “past music with a heavily digital approach.” Digital means that everything is created or processed by a computer. There are two reasons I took this approach. First, I wanted the sound to be very edgy and to feel modern although I’ve used sounds from the past, like 8 bit or 16 bit, to digitally post-process them and give them this extra punch. Second, the plot in the game is about the Y twins taking over the city with the help of robots. The soundtrack includes a lot of robotic elements coupled with the cold synth that capture this intention. In the end, I think the blend between the different genres and the digital colours of the music create a unique soundscape that, I hope, will stick to Streets of Rage 4.
Nintendo Life: You also mentioned the original game's club music legacy – were there any particular artists or genres that inspired elements of the SOR4 soundtrack?
Derivière: Yes! I can start with Dr Dre ("The Streets"), RZA and the Wu-Tang Clan ("Call The Cops"), Skrillex ("The Storm Boat"), Survivors and Justice ("Ghost Fair"), Daft Punk ("The Undergrounds"), AC/DC ("On Fire"), Aphex Twin ("Aphex Train") and many more... I also added so many little easter eggs all along like Samurai Showdown and Segata Sanshiro ("Do Joe") or Kraftwerk ("Lift the Ground").
Nintendo Life: Was there anything significant in production that didn't make the cut and that you can share with our readers?
Samson-Guillemette: We cut some initial ideas for stages. One was a hub where you could do the different rooms out of order. There were some specific things in there with inverted gravity and other stuff. There was also a motorcycle level, just like the one they cut from SOR3. It didn’t go very far before we decided they wouldn’t reach the level of quality we were aiming for. It was a hard decision at the time, but a good one. There’s a reason they cut it in SOR3: it’s too different from the rest of the game to have the same depth, to be as fun. Not counting the amount of work for the specific animations.
Nintendo Life: Do you have your eye on any other classic Sega franchises? Is there another series you'd like to see the SoR4 team take a run at?
Imbert: There are many of them, of course. I think Shinobi or Golden Axe would truly deserve a good sequel.