If Technõs Japan’s Double Dragon had laid the foundation and Capcom’s Final Fight successfully built upon them, then SEGA’s very own 1991 sequel Streets of Rage 2 could certainly be regarded as the pinnacle of old school beat ’em ups. The game’s reputation often speaks for itself and is commonly the blueprint of inspiration for the nostalgic indie developer desperate to chase a high that once satisfied the memories of the early ’90s gamer.
However, back in the Mega Drive days, it could also be regarded as the underdog, especially when compared to the far more powerful coin-op cabinets crafted by the likes of Konami and Capcom. These were the giants who were once believed to have virtually mastered the genre back in the days when the powerhouse arcades were in full swing, and console gaming was trying its best to run around in daddy’s shoes.
Yet, console gaming quickly began to adapt, and what made Streets of Rage 2 particularly stand out from the crowd besides its 16-bit larger than life sprites, simple yet effective gameplay and fantastic music, was the fact that it learned how to finally keep up with the Joneses without needing to worry about rinsing your coin. Instead, it was happy enough with the admission fee of the recommended retail price alone, which allowed the breathing space to solely focus on gameplay and replayability. It finally made multiplayer beat ’em ups on console fun and practical, with adjustable difficulties to make players feel like they were finally achieving something that usually seemed near-impossible in the arcades unless you were rich.
Now skip a quarter of a century into a world where there’s more demand for complex mechanics and PlatinumGames-style long chain combos. In comparison, the simple roots of the genre can seem rather basic and repetitive to the modern gamer. Yet, in spite of all this, Streets of Rage 4 somehow cleverly manages to recapture that lightning in a bottle and proves that the simpler times of gaming can still be one hell of a ride.
This massively belated sequel manages to perfectly translate an old school concept to stand tall in the modern-day. The move list for each fighter is short and diverse yet basic to pull off and generally mould themselves around the signatures of the original cast of characters. There’s no real attempt to expand the combat much further than a single attack button, jump, back attack and the classic health-draining special move. Instead, Streets of Rage 4 finetunes such traditional gameplay traits to keep it all familiar, yet still incredibly satisfying.
Take Axel Stone, the mascot of the series, for example. Redrawn to look more stocky, conditioned and weather-beaten compared to his former self. His slow confident walk and basic attacks mirror those of old, combined with his famous flaming Grand-Upper now with added animated finesse. The heavyweight new arrival Floyd Iraia borrows the same button inputs and churns himself into a body-slinging powerhouse. Then there’s Cherry Hunter, daughter of returning original Streets of Rage veteran Adam Hunter. This youngest new addition is a small yet nimble rushdown character who isn’t afraid of putting a dent or two in her guitar. And we must not forget the acrobatic prowess of Blaze Fielding, the lifelong femme-fatale of the series who can throw her limbs as hard as she can throw her opponents into the dirt.
It isn’t all copy and paste, though. Normal attacks can now be charged up for a beefier alternative, and the lost health spent on signature specials can be reclaimed by force as long as you don’t receive any damage in the process. There is also a brand new powerful attack that can be performed at the cost of collectable star crests, with the choice to simply save them up like Tesco Clubcard points to increase that all-important end-of-level high score. Or, if you want, you can always throw that star attack into a pot and mix it together with normals and signature specials to unleash a score-clocking concoction of flurry and flames – a necessary yet risky investment with a payoff that’s worthwhile when nailed successfully in a boss fight.
With a tad of experience and experimentation, there’s far more beneath the hood than simply spamming that attack button over and over again. Enemies can be bounced off solid structures when thrown, with extended air juggling properties to secure a satisfying beatdown when tallying up those extra combo hits. Picking up a steel pipe and launching it into the enemy to then catch it on the rebound is a subtle yet nice little touch, especially when it happens to be your partner who nabs it in mid-air to swing in for the home run. Add that to studying enemy attack habits and utilising environmental props and you will soon be busting around like an action movie badass in no time.
While there are plenty of offensive options to play with, Streets of Rage 4 stays traditionally stubborn when it comes down to defence. There is no universal block or evade action to rely upon and instead, you’re forced to adapt to the limitations or benefits of each character’s movement. This was something I did feel quite wary of when I first picked up the controller. However, once I got to handle the variety of the roster I soon found myself adjusting quite differently to the gameplay depending on my choice, and actually found it all the more interesting as a result. It made me think more about the enemy pattern and how to overcome overwhelming situations. Knowing when to shimmy or commit to a combo without taking a foot or knife to the back added a layer of strategy that comes across almost old fashioned but surprisingly fresh at the same time.
One thing I did fall in love with was the animation and art direction in this incredibly long-awaited sequel. Lizardcube – the talent behind the visuals of Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap – has truly drafted something rather remarkable here. Every character and enemy is filled with vibrancy and personality, all blending beautifully well with the wonderfully penned variety of environments. The lighting effects are incredible and the parallax scrolling of the background travels along with the confidence and grace of a peacock. The high flow of frames for each fighter is wonderfully fluid and never felt odd or out of place when navigated with either the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller, Joy-Con or arcade stick. The experience is so transfixing that it begs to be countlessly replayed, as every inch of the game could easily be a shot, framed and hung on a wall.
While you don’t need to have ever played any of the previous entries to appreciate Streets of Rage 4, there are tons of little nods and easter eggs sewn in throughout that will make the long-time fan smile. From hidden nostalgic boss fights, cool cameos from across the original trilogy and classic selectable fighters that can be unlocked by reaching lifetime score landmarks. The attention to detail and research has clearly gone into this sequel shows that the development combination of Guard Crush Games, Dotemu and Lizardcube are not here to mess about.
The game doesn’t lack in modes or extra features, either. The nonsensical short-scripted story mode continues 10 years after the previous game and will have you beating your way through twelve stages with an allocated amount of lives. The Arcade Mode will go all poor-man-old-school on your arse to test how far you can get across each difficulty without any continues. Whereas the tacked-on VS mode returns to pit playable characters against one another across the series, while a challenging Boss Rush mode will test the patience of a saint. There’s even a welcome art gallery proudly showing off plenty of pre-production sketches, background and character designs. Furthermore, you can nod away at Streets of Rage 2’s classic soundtrack as an alternative to the game’s already outstanding soundtrack.
The icing on the cake is how good the multiplayer capabilities are and how well Streets of Rage 4 enforces them. Locally, up to four players can bully the crime syndicates of Wood Oak City, whereas diving online will limit you to only a second player. The online has been consistently strong in my experience and always a bonus to throw down with a silent stranger who gels well as a team under a decent connection. It also happens to use the Nintendo Switch’s dedicated invite system, which is a feature that I think even Nintendo themselves have seemed to have completely forgotten about.
Streets of Rage 4 is like taking an old favourite toy to an antique repair shop only for it to come back working far better than it ever did before. The new lick of paint does the series justice, and the decision to stick to its guns and stay so close to its roots demonstrates a true understanding of the classic beat ’em up genre. I can’t deny I had a promising feeling in my jollies that I would enjoy Streets of Rage 4 before going into it. However, what I never anticipated for a second was that a side-scrolling beat ’em up based on a seemingly long-dead franchise would rise from the grave and become my personal favourite game of the year so far.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Dotemu