The Streets of Rage series isn’t just one of the granddaddies of the beat ‘em up genre, but a corner stone of retro gaming. An impressive feat for a game that started in the 90s on the Sega Genesis.
The last mainline game was in 1994, and since then the series has been silent outside of cameos and other studios being heavily inspired by them. Now, Dotemu, Lizardcube, and Guard Crush Games step into Sega’s shoes.
Streets of Rage 4
Developer: Lizardcube, Guard Crush Games, Dotemu
Platform: Windows PC (Reviewed), Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Release Date: April 30th
Players: 1-4 (Online Multiplayer)
10 years after kingpin Mr. X was defeated, the peace has been shattered by his children. The new Y Syndicate has quickly gained an iron grip on the city, and even the police force. Since police will never help you, you can only trust your fists. Old faces on both sides are now out of retirement, fighting along side new ones.
The plot is more than serviceable for the gameplay, which is certainly a throwback to older titles. Rather than compete directly with River City Girls or Fight’N Rage with new mechanics and features, Streets of Rage 4 mostly goes back to the basics.
Endlessly pummeling will only get you so far, and later stages demand learning the various tricks and abilities of your foes, and your own characters. It’s easy to forget a short hop on the spot can help avoid some attacks, not to mention getting caught in one-dimensional thinking and moving away from attacks instead of up or down.
A jump-kick will get you in close to most foes, standing next to a foe who isn’t punching you lets you grab them, you have inputs to attack behind you quickly, and you can catch thrown weapons mid-air after they bounced off the guy you just hurled it at. This is old school, and it’s great.
Each character’s combo launches enemies in a slightly different way, which can be used to knock them into hazards or chained into other moves. Some also have skills others do not (such as cyborg Floyd being able to pick up two enemies at once and slam them together), and each has specials and star moves that execute differently.
Whether a special is activated defensively, offensively, or in the air, it costs a little health. This health can be recovered as you pummel foes (even if they are guarding), but if so much as a slither remains to be healed, the next attack will cause that health to be lost (along with the normal damage being dealt).
Specials tend to work best on groups of enemies, but newer players may feel cautious using them. Some enemies can hurl themselves across the screen at an impressive click, usually connecting just before or after the special. Nonetheless, players are further incentivized to not get hit thanks to numerous system.
You get points for every punch that deals damage, which also builds up a combo counter. Build it high enough, and you’ll get a glut of bonus points. Get attacked before the combo counter “cools down,” and you lose the bonus. Since gaining points is the only way you can net extra lives, it perfectly encourages players to “git gud”.
Players can sacrifice their high scores with how the game handles retries. When starting over again, players can choose to start with extra lives and stars (which only a few are hidden in levels, and can be spent on powerful moves).
In exchange, they lose a huge chunk of their points. Since points go towards a lifetime progress bar, unlocking retro characters, it is yet another step encouraging mastery over the game.
You can’t choose this when you begin a stage (with Easy, Normal, and Hard difficulties changing how many, and what kinds of enemies appear), and only when you are beaten. It is a minor inconvenience, as you still get to scout out as much of the stage as you can.
Over time, you gradually learn how to achieve greater heights, what characters suit your play-style best, and where the next roast chicken is to fully heal (or whatever other food stuff you choose from the options menu). Once it all clicks, it’s like you never left; even if this is your first Streets of Rage title.
That being said, there is a surprising dip in challenge around the 3/4 mark, before the challenge ramps back up again for the finale. Maybe I got lucky, or I abused open pits to my advantage, but it did come as a surprise. That aside, the challenge overall does gradually increase.
Newbies may also have rare moments of their attacks not connecting, thanks to being a few pixels too high or low on the 2.5D plane. Though, much like the rest of the game, you learn and improve. Beating the story (which unlocks arcade mode), is just the beginning.
The game uses a pseudo-comic book style, with gorgeous hand-drawn sprites and backgrounds. Animations are fluid, and nothing is ever lost in the chaos. The designs themselves are also fantastic, showing a character’s personality in spades and incorporating some light sci-fi elements where appropriate.
There are even smaller details, such as characters in backgrounds or small cans that roll along the ground when you walk into them. While the cut-scenes in story mode utilize still images with a few moving pieces, it doesn’t detract from how much love went into the designs for old and new characters.
This also passes over to the game’s soundtrack. It mixes urban genres of music, with more synth-based genres from the early 90s and that gamers are sure to be used to. The only real earworm melody is the boss theme for the Y Twins, but every track fits perfectly in pace.
The strong soundtrack is then elevated by being slightly dynamic. Tracks will change not just when entering a new part of the stage, but also when certain mini-bosses spawn, or a boss unleashes their special attack. It keeps the tension high, and reinforces that the next enemy, section, or attack demands your attention.
Sound effects across the board are spot-on. Aside from some deliberately retro SFX; punches, kicks, and metal pipes all strike with satisfaction. The little voice acting there is (though devoid from cutscenes) is also well cast, fitting classic characters who have had few prominent speaking roles.
The retro additions may seem to stick out at first- accurate sprites and music both being delightfully jagged and square- but they soon meld into the rest of the game. If you’re a fan of the series, you’ll get far more bang out of who you unlock or where a classic track appears, compared to someone new.
They don’t make them like they used to, except Streets of Rage 4. Those hoping to play it to completion only once need not apply, as the real meat is achieving higher scores, higher difficulties, and higher mastery. Throw in co-op and versus modes for online and local, and a fair entry price, you have a party.
If you’re looking for something that elevates the genre, you may be left wanting. Though going back to basics, and doing it very well, is sure to be a delight. It’s a classic American hamburger. Streets of Rage 4 looks great, will kick your ass, and you get more out of it the more you put in.
Streets of Rage 4 was reviewed on Windows PC using a review copy provided by Dotemu. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.