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Hands-On: Streets of Rage 4

Genre: Beat-‘Em-Up Developer: Lizardcube/Dotemu/Guard Crush Games Publisher: Guard Crush Games Players: 1-4 Released: April 30, 2020

In the midst of a global pandemic, with riots raging in the inner city, the sons of a rich oligarch control the powers to be. Widespread chaos strikes fear into the hearts of ordinary people, trapped by a cycle of gang violence and mistreatment by the police. Does this sound too close to real life for you? Thankfully, I’m not talking politics, but rather the storyline of the brand new Streets of Rage 4 the first new game in the lauded series from Sega, released on April 30. 19 years after the release of the first game, we are given a treat of a brand-new game with hand-drawn animation, tight controls, and classic characters, developed by LizardCube and published by DotEmu.

But first, a little history regarding the series. Sega came up with the idea for Streets of Rage in 1991 because they needed a competitor to Capcom’s arcade classic Final Fight. What started off as a knockoff became a modestly successful beat-em-up with memorable music by now-famed composed Yuzo Koshiro. Koshiro would talk about his time working on Streets of Rage series in this interview with Red Bull. In the famed sequel, Koshiro would also enlist Motohiro Kawashima to compose the music for the sequel and history would soon be made. Streets of Rage 2 features tight controls, expressive sprites, wonderful graphics, endlessly replayable gameplay, and the most memorable chiptune tracks of all-time. Streets of Rage 2 would put Sega over top dog Nintendo for a brief moment. But after a lackluster third entry with bizarre experimental music, the series was abandoned by Sega, and fans were left clamoring for decades for a return of the once-great series.

Streets of Rage 4 was in development for the Dreamcast at one point, but was cancelled and turned into the forgettable game Fighting Force. In the mid-2000s, some dedicated fans started a development group called BomberGames that went so far as to make their own fan game, Streets of Rage Remake. This whetted appetites of fans who wished to have a new game, by combining all of the best of the original three games, with multiple paths to take in each level, new characters, and remixes from up-and-coming video game musicians. Sadly, the project was quickly hit with a Cease and Desist order from SEGA, and ended after its final release, version five.

Then, according to a recent AMA with the game’s developers, DotEmu pitched to Sega the idea of Streets of Rage 4 on a whim. The game was first given a tiny teaser trailer in 2018, and fans didn’t know what to expect. Axel and Blaze were back… but would the game be 2D? Was the famed Yuzo Koshiro going to be doing the music that we all knew and loved?

Back to the Streets

After a 19-year wait, I think it’s safe to say that Streets of Rage lives up to most of the lofty expectations that fans had for it. The game’s plot is about as thin as it was in the ‘90s, but we never played this series for the gripping story. Streets of Rage 4 features the return of Axel, Blaze, Adam (not playable since the first game), his daughter Cherry, and newcomer heavy cyborg Floyd fighting crime in the unnamed city plagued by crime and grime. This cast of characters takes on Mr. and Ms. Y, the creatively-named fraternal twin children of original antagonist Mr. X. There’s still-screen cut scenes, and beautiful level design that is reminiscent of the original series, with some callbacks to original artwork in the storefronts. The only thing lacking here is the lack of a true ending cutscene, with scenes instead laid over the credits. I’m unsure if this was a stylistic choice by designers or if the developers ran out of time, but it feels a little lacking once you finish this great game.

The gameplay is the number one thing to be lauded here. The characters feel fluid and tight, with unbelievably responsible controls. The mechanics have been fine-tuned to feel like an even better version of the gameplay from Streets of Rage 2, with a variety of weapons (that break after repeated use) and special moves that are the same as you remember (Yes, Axel still says “Grand Upper!”) but are a bit more usable this time around. Each character’s “defensive” special move has been tweaked to allow a player to regain the health he would normally lose from using it by hitting enemies in rapid succession, lending itself to the development of a Street Fighter-esque combo system. If he doesn’t get hit, he regains his health. This a very neat feature that shows a depth in the gameplay that still feels like the original. It requires someone playing through the game to approach the enemies in a different way than simply mashing the A-button over and over again. While the run feature from Streets of Rage 3 is reserved only for Cherry in Streets of Rage 4, the pacing of the game has been considerably increased to not feel quite as slow progression-wise as past entries in the series. No more waiting for an off-screen enemy to crawl back on-screen before advancing in the level. The additional features of a new super-powered star attack (which seems inspired by a similar feature in Streets of Rage 2 for the Game Gear) the ability to juggle enemies on the edge of the screen, and the combo system gives what feels like infinite replayability to Streets of Rage 4. The game is still as difficult as the originals were, a good  thing in my eyes. Developers state that the game was programmed initially on Hard mode, but they haven’t left you to fend for yourself in the unnamed city. A feature allows you to obtain extra star points and lives at a cost of obtaining less points when you finish the level.

Still Raging

But these points aren’t just for bragging rights, Streets of Rage 4 uses these points to fondly remember its roots. The more points you collect, the more characters you unlock to play with. Every single character from Streets of Rage 1 and 2, as well as Axel, Blaze, Dr. Zan, Shiva, and Skate from Streets of Rage 3 return in their original sprite forms, gameplay quirks among each version included. The developers admitted to playing Streets of Rage Remake for inspiration, and it shows here in a big way. On top of that, in a few select levels, picking up a taser and hitting an arcade machine transports you to a classic boss fight from Streets of Rage 2. This is a real treat that makes me wish there were more of these in the game, as I’d love a full Streets of Rage 2 remake with the Streets of Rage 4 engine.

The graphics also look fantastic. Reminiscent of the hand-drawn effects in the similar reboot Double Dragon Neon are also seen here, but in an even more fantastic way. The characters are incredibly detailed, and everything looks fluid, but the game doesn’t fall into the trap of not feeling like its predecessors despite having something a little bit better than sprite graphics. The only complaint I have is that the blown-up sprites from the retro characters seem a bit out of place in Streets of Rage 4. They deserved a redraw more than a simple import, and look clunky compared to the well-detailed environments and enemies. There are a few CRT filters that mask the look of the retro characters, but they don’t really quite capture the look of playing on an old TV enough for me to keep it on during a playthrough.

The biggest, and only real letdown is the music. Despite being hyped up as a return to form for the series with a list of names that includes original composers Koshiro and Kawashima, as well as Olivier Deriviere, XL Middleton, Keiji Yamagishi, Harumi Fujita, and Scattle, Streets of Rage 4 does not live up to the reputation of its predecessors in the music department. Deriviere does most of the heavy-lifting here on the soundtrack, and it’s a mixed bag. A few tracks are definitely worthy of the game’s predecessor, including “They’re Back” (first level, composed by Koshiro), “Funky HQ” (second level, composed by Deriviere), “An Exhibition” (composed by Deriviere), and the end credit theme. Unfortunately, a lot of the tracks seem to have a very generic feel to them, similar to Skrillex or the Chainsmokers, or whatever EDM artist is hot. Few memorable melodies are found in this soundtrack. Compared to other throwback games, such as Jake Kaufman’s excellent work on Double Dragon Neon, or Tee Lopes’ memorable Sonic Mania tracks. Incidentally, Lopes is contributing a bonus track to the game’s physical soundtrack, but it feels too little, too late to salvage me wanting to listen to this soundtrack from beginning to end.

But fear not, the developers haven’t forgotten the fans love of the classic tunes from the first two games. The retro soundtracks from the first two games have been included and can be turned on by the player at any time. The day is saved… right? Not quite. The retro tracks are assigned in a haphazard manner to the stages in Streets of Rage 4, with the tunes not matching up the stage environments. For example, you hear the Streets of Rage 2 boss music in the beginning of the prison level, not at the boss. And Mr. X’s theme is heard at the level one boss, a strikingly out-of-place assignment that makes you wonder how much of a fan the person who assigned this music to was of the original games. These errors, alongside leaving out classic Genesis Streets of Rage tracks, like “Violent Breathing” on the elevator level, felt like a real gut punch to longtime fans of the series. This is nothing that a mod by a devoted fan can’t fix in the future though, and I’m sure someone will allow for a jukebox feature that lets fans looking for the first Streets of Rage’s music to be included in the levels they think fit a little bit better.

A Worthy Fight

Overall, Streets of Rage 4 is a worthy successor to the series. The gameplay is fantastic, and graphics are great. While the music is a little bit of a letdown, it shouldn’t stop you from playing this game right away. The tightened controls and characters from past and future games allows this to be a worthy successor to Streets of Rage Remake, while offering something new than a rehash for longtime fans of the series. Because of the well-received launch, DotEmu and Lizardcube have announced that DLC will be released for the game after not being previously planned. Until then, Streets of Rage 4 should be at the top of your must-play list.

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SCORE (out of 5):

 

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