One of my earliest memories around video games involve a CRT TV, my uncle, and a Sega Genesis. I remember it so vividly that it might as well have happened five years ago, instead of twenty. The picture is crystal clear: the two of us sitting on the floor, probably a bit too close to the screen for our own’s sake, each holding that flat controller. We are fighting against punks in Streets of Rage, the music pumping from the speakers as the colorful sprites illuminate the otherwise pitch dark room.
Dozen of hours passed by. I remember the first urban, neon-light infused streets as much as the tranquility of the ship towards the end of the game until this day. We stopped playing co-op games together over the years, but I did stick to the series in one way or another. I played the sequels, even if they didn’t grab me that much, and I sunk way too much time into Streets of Rage Remake.
My brother was always intrigued about the visuals and the soundtrack, and over time he became my co-op partner. We both were in awe once the Streets of Rage 4 reveal trailer was shown to the world, and patiently waited for it all these years (he’s been playing the original on Nintendo 3DS in the meantime, which I know sounds weird but seems like an uncanny match for handheld).
As soon as the game finished installing, I wasn’t really planning on beating it in one sitting, but rather try the first few levels before starting my daily routine. Needless to say, my brother and I didn’t even think of stopping until we saw the ending credits. I felt right at home, reliving those old memories by seeing enemies I’ve recognized for years in an incredible new art style, along with the protagonists showing their age. The punks look as great as ever, and getting into fistfights with them also feels familiar, but everything has been iterated just the necessary amount to lure me once more into the action.
It’s still a beat ’em up at heart, of course, and probably one of the most polished examples in recent memory. Each punch, grab, and kick is animated from knuckle to toe with immense care. Repeating the same actions over and over, as the genre’s nature demands, never stops giving the same satisfaction as the first time around. Cornering a small group of enemies so your attacks land on all of them simultaneously or throwing them out of an elevator’s window is never a monotonous action. It’s an inventive, fast-paced rhythm that only stops when you stand still, becoming a second nature after the first few battles.
Streets of Rage 4 presents a plethora of both big and small adjustments to the combat as well, which all intertwine with themselves in harmony. If you keep hitting enemies after using your strong attacks you will recover the lost health, Bloodborne style, for as long as you either refill the missing HP or get hit again. Enemies don’t (usually) disappear off the screen anymore, and in fixed scenarios such as boss battles, those invisible walls on each side can be used to bounce off enemies as long as you maintain the combo.
Yes, combos now hold a starring role. It’s easier to chain attacks this time around, as both enemies, combat details, and level design encourage you to experiment around and don’t let that momentum go. Returning characters Axel and Blaze can feel a bit out of the loop of this modern era influence at times, presenting themselves as rather slower picks with only a handful of attacks and a modest combo potential. Cherry and Floyd, on the other hand, really showcase the work it has been done to revitalize the combat. They’re complete opposites, too, which in turn makes them a great pair in co-op or to join alongside the original cast.
Cherry punches fast and kicks ass even faster. Along with the default move set by default, she’s able to sprint, chain attacks using an electric guitar, and even mount on the shoulders of enemies to either keep punching them or throw them to the other side of the screen with her legs. All of these actions can happen in just a matter of seconds, and she quickly became my personal favorite. Floyd, on the other hand, is the slowest of the bunch, but the most interesting to explore. His robotic arms allows him to use a grapple to bring enemies closer to his position, and even pick two of them up simultaneously and make them hit with each other as if they were toys. You can feel the weight in every punch, the result being reflected on the damage he causes. He’s great, and definitely a character that seems perfect for single player. Oh, and he’s usually able to grab enemies with ease if you approach them from the sidelines, which has made for hilarious moments in which I was able to just launch everyone out of a window as long as I timed my movements correctly.
Enemies present some variation as well, though the game definitely leans on rather classic designs, which I think was a fair tradition to keep. The new rascals also respect their past lineage almost as a tribute, and they never feel out of place. When in doubt, you can always just throw a baseball bat at them, but encounters always felt fair and challenging. There’s a focus on a couple more elemental based attacks now, featuring acid, fire, and electricity, along with some bombs containing said elements that can be used from both parties. And alongside another packed cast of weapons to grab from the floor (along with food that can be swapped by vegetarian and vegan options), everything is just right into place.
In a sense, Streets of Rage 4 is the perfect follow up for the series. It picks up right where Streets of Rage 3 left, not only story wise, but also in terms of the era surrounding it. This is a technological advancement in every sense, of course, but the generation leap is not as abrupt as many modern takes on retro titles. The developers understood the room for improvement, but didn’t scale their iterations outside the comfort zone. This might sound like a disappointment in case you were expecting a radical leap instead, but I don’t think the genre demands it either. After all, it’s in simplicity and care in the combat loop that the genre presented years ago where beat ’em ups really thrive. Elevate this just a bit higher, and you get Streets of Rage 4.
Beating the game can take around 2 hours at the most, which can increase or decrease depending on your chosen difficulty. There’s unlockables tied to your overall high score, both local and online co-op modes, an arcade of sorts option where you only get one life, and PVP. It might not seem as the game that I would usually want to replay, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it every now and then for weeks now.
I saw the end credits with my brother first, but I was already playing it again with a friend online the day after. I’ve taken part of both short and campaing-long sessions ever since, just reaching out to pals casually and asking if they were up to kicking up some buddies with me during the weekend. It’s the perfect game for this. You can just unwind and talk about anything as long as you keep button mashing, following the tradition that conversations are usually interrupted during boss fights, either to curse or to shout “okay, now” to try and chain the new special attacks. But in my experience, co-op is great even if you’re not into voice chat. Just prepare to jump on site repeatedly over a chicken or bag of money until your teammate either grabs them or begins jumping as well, signaling a “oh no thank you, please take it” gesture.
The experience doesn’t overstay its welcome, and I’m glad for it. Regardless of whether or not we’ll see DLCs in the future, I’m just happy to go back to the game without any big strings attached. I know what to expect from my visits already, but that’s the charm. Returning to the game as if your PC or console were a home arcade machine. It only takes two controllers and low light across the room to replicate that feeling, after all, but you can now take this overseas without moving an inch (even though you’ll experience a bit of input lag).
It’s not a completely new experience, but I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much if it were. Streets of Rage 4 pays respect to its predecessors while building new grounds. I fell in love with the art style instantly, but I was more curious on whether or not the soundtrack would be able to live up to expectation. Along with my recurrent thoughts of wanting to go back to the game due to its combat innovations, the soundtrack is part of my daily playlists now. It’s punchy, energetic, and doesn’t conform with just one genre, mixing all sorts of instruments and rhythms across all 12 levels. Give me a couple more replays, and I can sense these songs will stay with me as the originals did for the foreseeable future.
As I see the new introductory cutscene, honoring the slow fade through the night time city from the original, I realize that the series didn’t go anywhere during the past few years. Instead, it waited for the right moment to strike back. And it sure as hell knew how to.