There is a moment in Gareth Evan’s hyper violent martial arts odyssey, The Raid 2, where Iko Uwais’s Rama is flanked on all sides. The only means to get to safety involves his fists, so he bloodies his knuckles through wave after wave of bad guys. It is a tight moment of cinematic combat that is as well choreographed as it is constraphobic.
Streets of Rage 4 is the closest I’ve ever felt to the feeling invoked through that scene, and it is the video game that I did not know I needed right now. It is also my first foray into the beat-’em-up genre and, well, I should not have been sleeping on these “move left-to-right” fighters for most of my life.
With life under quarantine, I have found it harder and harder to focus on games with demanding, centralized narratives. I’ve started and stopped several since the shelter-in-place order went into effect where I live, and it led me to believe that maybe I am just burnt out on games right now. Well, yes and no. I am burnt out on everything. Every wire in my mind is mangled, frayed, and sparking with anxiety, anger and fear. We are living through a pandemic—almost everything feels like a monumental task at this point. I stopped playing games for a few weeks, and for whatever reason, my brain can easily commit to and get through endless movies and books these days.
So, I did what any true cinephile does. I immediately sought out the film with the best punches and kicks in modern cinema—The Raid 2. Having seen it more than a few times, I am still in awe of how marvelous it is on almost every fundamental filmmaking level. Craft and storytelling walk in tandem here, and despite the core idea of The Raid 2 being “punch, punch, kick”, there is depth. It opens up the world created by the first film and throws the protagonist into an undercover crime fever dream of violence and betrayal. After finishing the movie one night, I racked my brain thinking about what hand-to-hand combat games could make me feel the way The Raid 2 makes me feel—giddy and stressed. I came up blank, but I did see that Streets of Rage 4 had just come out and was getting relatively unanimous praise. So, I threw caution (and some money) into the wind and bought it. Turns out, I like beat ‘em ups and, uh, Streets of Rage 4 feels like The Raid 2.
Streets of Rage 4 understands the pure digital catharsis of throwing fists and nothing more. One only moves forward and the only way to do so is to punch your way through wave after wave of various enemies. Like The Raid 2, most of these encounters take place in tight areas where the player finds themself easily surrounded, and the only way out is through punches, kicks, and WWE-style bodyslams.
The simplicity of player-input in Streets of Rage 4 lends itself to the feeling of action cinema. There is a story, sure, but it serves only as a means to get the player from encounter to encounter, each one tougher and more heightened than the last. When a work knows what it is and only aspires to be the best at what it is, then lean, assured games like Streets of Rage 4 are what come out. Its simplicity is deceptive, but at the end of the day—like a good action movie—we are here for it for the spectacle of violence. Distanced and cartoonish, the violence doesn’t challenge our notion of what violence is and it does not linger. But it does not have to, it is just mindless fun. Yes, there are tactics and subtle ways to go about engaging with Streets of Rage 4, it gets very hard, but it is also an experience where you walk left-to-right only hitting a few buttons to punch, kick, and jump your way across Wood Oak City. There is a history to the city and its characters. A lineage of violence shows itself in every cutscene, but none of it really and truly matters. We are just here for the setpieces and the punches, and well, the setpieces and punches are very good.
The action cinema nature of Streets of Rage 4 exists in its encounter design and how the game knows exactly what it is. Action cinema can be many things and have compelling things to say, but sometimes a simple point a-to-b action movie is good enough. Streets of Rage 4 is good enough. And the setpieces feel like cinema. The claustrophobic nature and overwhelming odds in every encounter lends itself to a cinematic lens because the fluidity of the violence ebbs and flows between wide and tight spaces. Being a 2D brawler, one might read it as a constant wide shot where the action is always kept in frame, and that is when action cinema is at its best. There is a sewer fight in Streets of Rage 4, that takes place in a tight corridor, for example, that brings to mind the famous hallway sequence from Oldboy.
Unlike cinema, Streets of Rage 4 requires your direct input at each and every moment. For me, video games can often be overwhelming, and when my anxiety is high or I find myself in a depressive episode, the last thing I want to do is sit down and play one. In times like that I turn to books and cinema because my mind just works that way, I guess. Thus, during this time in quarantine I’ve found it increasingly difficult to focus on video games; especially story-centric ones. But Streets of Rage 4 works for me right now. Its knowing simplicity, linearity, and bite-sized repetitive nature just speaks to me. It never asks me to commit too much of myself, only enough to get through a level, and doing so is always rewarding. The catharsis found in its heavy-feeling, cartoonish violence just works. Sometimes during this time where I am literally not in control of some of the worst things happening in my personal life, it feels good to just virtually punch things. It is a release.
Streets of Rage 4 only asks that you keep punching, keep moving, keep resisting, and to never give in. For me, that is enough—at least it is, for now.