Streets of Rage 4 Review: The Beatdown Simulator
The original Streets of Rage was a standard bearer for beat ‘em ups. After becoming a breakout hit on the Sega Genesis in 1991, the title received two sequels within the span of a few years… then the series went dormant. Streets of Rage 4 resurrects the beloved beat ‘em up franchise after 26 years, and it does so in grand fashion. This is more than just a sequel. It’s more than just a revival. Streets of Rage 4 not only brings the series into the modern era — it sets a new bar for the entire beat ‘em up genre.
There’s Rage in These Streets
Streets of Rage 4 feels retro in all the right ways, starting with the story. There’s trouble afoot in Wood Oak City — an underground criminal organization is doing underground-criminal-organization things, and you have to stop them. That’s all the setup you need to get going. The game presents its story with cool comic book scenes that do a great job of illustrating the action and the story surrounding it. Axel and Blaze from the original games return as playable characters. They’re joined by newcomers Floyd and Cherry, the latter of which is the daughter of Adam from the first Streets of Rage. If you’re an Adam fan, fret not, because he can be unlocked along with a few other characters including a pixelated version of Axel. Yup. While the voice acting is limited, each character has a few voice samples. The voices, along with the unique animations and character designs, give these characters their own unique personalities. They’re minor details, but they help each of the game’s protagonists stand out. Axel, for example, sports a bandanna and a whole lotta denim, while Cherry rocks a guitar on her back (which comes into play when she attacks).
Beat ‘Em Up! Beat ‘Em All Up!
The gameplay foundations of Streets of Rage 4 are simple: beat up all the enemies. The game features intuitive mechanics that are easy to grasp within minutes of starting the game, but there are some nuances. You can dish out hard-hitting combos, jumping attacks, and grapple attacks. Grappling an enemy allows you to perform a few different moves depending on whether you’re in front or behind said bad guy. You can also corner bad guys and juggle them around a bit, which is always satisfying. New to Streets of Rage 4 are character-specific special attacks like Cherry’s guitar smash. These attacks are great for crowd control if you’re overwhelmed by gangs of thugs, but they deplete your health meter a bit. Successful normal attacks following your special attack refill your health, but if you’re hit, you’ll stop recovering. This adds a new dynamic to the fast-paced action, and it makes using these special moves a strategic affair. By no means should you spam these special moves — because again, they drain your health — but there may be certain instances where you need to use them. In addition to special attacks, characters also have super moves that deal major damage. These can only be performed if you have stars. You start out with a single star, but you can find more along the way, usually tucked away in barrels or crates. Super moves do big area-of-effect damage and serve to both clear large areas of baddies and deal out major damage. I usually tried saving these for those moments when bosses called for backup, but during especially frantic fights, I had no choice but to use a special attack.
These supers replace the old AOE attack where you’d call for backup and have the screen filled with rockets to clear out enemies. Some folks may miss that move, but I much prefer the new supers because it’s cool to see each character’s unique attack. Adam, for example, will bring down a flaming fist, while his daughter will slide across the screen on her knees and play a hard riff on her guitar and yell out, “Yooowww!” Also, don’t worry too much if you’re an old school fan, because the unlockable pixelated characters retain the old AOE super. Each of the game’s 12 stages features an end-level boss. These encounters make for some of the game’s best battles. They’re tough — even on the normal difficulty setting, you’re in store for a challenge — but they’re a lot of fun. Like an old school brawler, you’ll want to really pay attention to the way the bosses move. Typically, they’ll flicker or twitch before performing a devastating attack, so you’ll have to be mindful of this while also trying to perform combo attacks of your own. It wouldn’t be enough if Streets of Rage 4 was just a complete rehash of the original games. What makes this fourth entry so spectacular is that it properly blends the old school charm and action gameplay of a ‘90s arcade beat ‘em up with tight controls and smooth character movements. This is one of those games that just feels good to play. Character animations are fluid and attacks are super-responsive. Every single enemy encounter is an absolute blast thanks to just how rock solid the mechanics are.
Don’t Enter the Mean Streets Alone
This wouldn’t be a proper arcade beat ‘em up without co-op play, and Streets of Rage 4 offers a good number of local and online multiplayer options. Up to four players can team up to clean up Wood Oak City in the game’s Story mode. There’s also Arcade, which is basically a permadeath version of Story mode — while it doesn’t offer anything new in terms of content, it’s a good challenge worth checking out for arcade enthusiasts who want to play through the game in one sitting. Story mode will take you about four to five hours to play through, but there are plenty of reasons to return to Streets of Rage 4. The normal difficulty setting provides a decent challenge, but the higher difficulties are definitely enticing to check out. After beating the game in local co-op, I immediately started a second playthrough on the hard difficulty setting by myself. Thankfully, Streets of Rage 4 is a blast to play alone or with some co-op comrades. If you’d rather take the fight to your buddies, there’s also a Battle mode. You can select from a few in-game areas to duke it out in. While this mode may not have the longevity of Story or Arcade, it’s still fun to mess around within its own right. Above all else, the main reason you’re likely revisit Streets of Rage 4 is on account of just how much fun it is to play. The level of care and attention that has gone into reviving this franchise is on par with what Nintendo does every time it develops a Mario, Zelda, or Donkey Kong game for a new console. I revisited the original Streets of Rage after playing Streets of Rage 4, and while that game is still a classic and still holds up really well, I’d argue that Streets of Rage 4 tops it on every conceivable level.
A Retro-Modern Dream
The visuals of Streets of Rage 4 are a perfect blend of old school and new. The game features a hand-drawn look that works really well. I get that some old school fans may miss the old pixel graphics, but as someone who enjoyed the 16-bit style of the original trilogy, I was very impressed with the colorful comic book visuals of Streets of Rage 4. Heroes, villains, and levels all look like they’ve been ripped out of the pages of a rad action comic book. The same can be said about the game’s music, which features a variety of catchy tracks that span different genres. Electronic dance themes in one area lead to reggae tracks in another. Not to mention that there are some nostalgic tunes that sound super-arcade-y. All the music, though, from the very first level to the very last, is fantastic and a lot of fun to listen to while you pummel criminals. Straight-up, the soundtrack is phenomenal. It makes sense that the music is so good, because the list of composers for Streets of Rage 4 reads like a supergroup. Composers for the original games Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima return to the series. Joining them are Yoko Shimomura (Super Mario RPG, Street Fighter 2, Kingdom Hearts), Hideki Naganuma (Jet Set Radio, Jet Set Radio Future, Super Monkey Ball), and Keiji Yamagishi (Ninja Gaiden, Tecmo Bowl). Just listening to the music in the game, you can hear that the soundtrack comes from an absolute all-star list of composers.
Retro-Loving Developer Dream Team
It’s not just the composers of Streets of Rage 4 that had a clear grasp of how to marry old school and new school. The team of developers that worked on the project is clearly made up of fans of the series and old school games in general. Publisher DotEmu took on double-duty, assisting with development along with Lizardcube. The two studios previously released 2017’s Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, a new-retro success in its own right. Joining these two teams was Streets of Fury developer Guard Crush Games. Speaking of which, Streets of Rage 4 utilizes a modified version of the engine that powered the hilarious and enjoyable Streets of Fury. The engine works incredibly well here and clearly contributes to the smoothness of the game.
They Don’t Make ‘Em Like This Anymore
Streets of Rage 4 could’ve been a simple cash-in of a beloved franchise. It could’ve been a decent revival of a long-dormant beat ‘em up franchise. Or it could’ve been a major letdown. What it turned out to be, though, is a wonderful resurrection of the Streets of Rage series and arguably the best game in the series. By blending the familiar feel of the original games with tight, refined controls and gameplay, this latest entry delivers an exhilarating, impressive, and, above all else, massively entertaining experience. This is a must-play for diehard fans of the series, casual fans, and newcomers alike. Bring a friend or play alone — either way, you’ll have an awesome time with this perfect brawler. Streets of Rage 4 is easily one of the best games of 2020, but it’s even more than that — Streets of Rage 4 is one of the greatest beat ‘em ups of all time.