Released: April 2020
Developer: Dotemu/Lizardcube/Guard Crush Games
Also Available For: Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4
Back in the good old days of the mid-nineties, one of the most prominent genres in arcades was the sidescrolling beat-‘em-up. Simple, mind-numbing arcade action, these titles demanded little more from players than to hold right and mash buttons to take down waves of generic enemies and eat away at your hard-earned pocket money. Beat-‘em-ups were also quite prominent on home consoles; however, while these were mostly ports of arcade titles such as Final Fight (Capcom, 1989) or licensed titles such as Alien vs Predator (Jorudan, 1993) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time (Konami, 1992), SEGA developed their own exclusive series of beat-‘em-up titles for their consoles and it was called Bare Knuckle Streets of Rage (SEGA, 1991 to 1994).
The Streets of Rage trilogy was, functionally, a rip-off of the Final Fight series; players controlled a group of ex-cops and street wise vigilantes who patrolled the mean streets and defeated the many various henchmen of the Syndicate and its figurehead, Mr. X. The brainchild of Noriyoshi Ohba and Yuzo Koshiro, the Streets of Rage trilogy has subsequently been ported and re-released to other consoles through compilations and digital only services but has been largely absent from SEGA’s library for the better part of twenty-five years! The game’s characters didn’t even appear in SEGA’s crossover racing titles, for God’s sake! Streets of Rage 4 changed that, however. Developed by the same team who resurrected Wonder Boy from the depths of obscurity, the game boasts nearly a thousand different frames of animation for each of its characters, all of whom have been redesigned to resemble a comic book come to life. The return of Streets of Rage was a highly anticipated event for me, largely thanks to my love for the series, genre, and SEGA properties in general; for too long, SEGA have allowed their original properties to stagnate in obscurity and I can only hope that the overly positive reception of Streets of Rage 4 prompts them to dust off some of their other franchises and bring them back into prominence.
Ten years after defeating Mr. X and his criminal Syndicate in Streets of Rage 3 (SEGA, 1994), Wood Oak City falls under the control Mr. X’s children, the Y Twins, who use hypnotic sound waves to brainwash its citizens and only one team of ex-cop vigilantes are tough enough to stop their nefarious plans!
Streets of Rage 4 is a sidescrolling beat-‘em-up that controls almost exactly as its predecessors; when taking on the game’s story campaign, you have four characters to select and unlock more as you progress through the story and earn Lifetime Points. Initially, your choices are limited to series staples Axel Stone and Blaze Fielding and newcomers Cherry Hunter and Floyd Iraia, Essentially, each character controls the same: X executes a fast attack that becomes a mini combo the more you mash it, Y unleashes a special attack at the cost of some health (though you can replenish your health by attacking enemies after unleashing this attack), A jumps (and you can jump attack), and you can attack enemies who try to flank you from behind by tapping the shoulder buttons. Get close to an enemy and you’ll grab them, which allows you to deal a grapple attack for massive damage or toss them at enemies as a ranged attack, which is always super satisfying. You can also pick up weapons, health, and other items with B and press Y and B together to unleash a screen-clearing special move if you have enough Stars.
However, your character choice does affect gameplay quite a bit; Axel, for example, is an all-rounder but Blaze is much faster in her attacks and Floyd is the slower, more powerful of the four main characters. One thing you’ll immediately notice, and probably by annoyed by, is the lack of a dash function for a lot of the characters; the ability to dash is reserved for the likes of Cherry and the returning Adam Hunter, but every character can perform a rushing attack by tapping forwards twice and then hitting X. As you attack enemies, you’ll begin a combo chain; the longer you can maintain your combo without being hit, the higher your score will be. Thanks to the ability to attack enemies from behind, maintaining a good combo has never been easier (though I still find myself relying on the old jump attack approach) and raking up a high score is imperative to earning all of the game’s Achievements, receiving the higher ranks, and unlocking additional characters as your points are accumulated over time specifically to this end.
Streets of Rage 4 has multiple difficulty settings to choose from; if you pick “Easy”, you’ll start with more lives and enemies will be much less aggressive but, when you select harder difficulties, you’ll have less lives and have to contend with tougher enemies. As you make your way through the game’s missions, you can break open various crates or destroy objects in the environment to uncover food and cash; food replenishes your health and cash adds to your score. When you reach 10,000 points, you’ll earn an extra life but, if you lose all of your lives, you can retry the stage with some Assists, which grant you additional lives and Stars, to help you clear difficult stages.
Graphics and Sound:
Streets of Rage 4 is rendered with a fantastic comic book-like aesthetic; characters are large and full of life, sporting lots of little animations that add to their charm and personality. The game contains twelve stages, each one either lovingly recreated from the original games or heavily inspired by the first three games and other common beat-‘em-up tropes (yes, there is an elevator stage here; two, in fact!) You’ll begin on the mean streets of Wood Oak City and progress through a prison, the sewers, a pier, a biker bar, a dojo, and even battle on the roof of a train and in an airplane all before you reach Y Island, the game’s final stage, which naturally contains an elaborate castle.
Stages are full of little details, elements, cameos, and intractable elements; you can break open doors, smash apart parts of the environment, and toss enemies into damaging hazards in almost every single one of the game’s stages and each stage is generally broken up into distinct areas to help keep things interesting. The Skytrain stage is the exception to this as you spend the entirety of the stage on top of the titular train, battling waves of enemies and jumping over obstacles as they speed at you.
The game’s story is told through simple, partially animated comic book panels; there’s no voice acting to worry about here and all of the game’s cutscenes can be skipped but they are brief and appealing enough to sit through when you do feel like taking in the game’s simple, but effective, story. The game’s soundtrack, composed by Olivier Deriviere and other notable composers is suitably fitting, featuring a mixture of rock and techno, among others, to give each stage a rhythm and a theme. Even better, the game features the option to switch to a retro soundtrack that features music and sound effects from the first two Streets of Rage games, which is perfect when playing as the unlockable 16-bit style characters.
Enemies and Bosses:
As a mindless beat-‘em-up, Streets of Rage 4 features a number of enemies that get progressively harder as you advance through the game’s stages; enemies are recycled throughout the game, taking on different colour palettes and slightly tweaked attacks as you can, but are generally assorted enough to keep things interesting. You start off taking out generic, denim-clad street thugs like Galsia (who sometimes charge at you with knives and stabbing weapons) and Y. Signal (who sometimes charge at you with a slide tackle) but soon encounter Donovan (a skinhead who has an annoying tendency to uppercut you out of the air), Raven (a Muay Thai martial artists who leaps at you with knees and kicks), and the lackadaisical Francis (who always has his hands in his pockets but flies at you with whirlwind-like kicks) and their many rainbow-coloured variants.
You’ll also take on charging biker girls, emo chicks who lob grenades, toxic sludge, and other items at you, and more rotund enemies like Big Ben who breathe fire or belly flop on to you. Some of the game’s more annoying enemies include Goro (not, not that Goro), a martial artist who can reduce your health to nothing by parrying your attacks and bashing you across the screen, suit-wearing bodyguard types who shoot at you with pistols, the whip-wielding girls, and the Goddamn cops! Cops can actually assist you in stages as they’ll attack your enemies, which is helpful, but they have a tendency to grab you so others can hit you and one particular variant loves to rush you and hit you with a taser which is extremely aggravating. You’ll also fight with riot cops who must have their energy shields broken before you can actually damage them, which can be tricky as you can’t rack up a combo of attacks at they can easily swat you away with their batons.
The game’s bosses are just as varied and interesting and each one has multiple attacks, phases, and issues to watch out for; like some enemies, bosses often have several invincibility frames and nigh-unavoidable rushing attacks and combos so it’s best to keep your distance, bring a weapon if you can, and make good, strategic use of any health items. The first boss you’ll encounter, Diva, isn’t too difficult as long as you get away when she’s charging her primary attack as it has a lot of range. Later on, you’ll have to fight two similarly-themed variants of Diva at the same time, which can be extremely annoying and difficult as, unlike other enemies and bosses, they don’t appear to be susceptible to their partner’s attacks. In this battle, I found it best to eliminate the flame-wielding Riha first as her attacks do more immediate damage.
Stage two really ramps up the difficulty though as not only does it introduce those damnable taser-wielding cops, it also has you battling the Police Commissioner himself. The Commissioner dashes across the screen and charges up a brutal combo and grab attack that can deal heavy damage and he’s just as annoying when he is brought in as support for another of the game’s bosses, Estel, in the Skytrain stage. You’ll battle Estel twice throughout the course of the game and she’s no pushover either as she attacks with bicycle-like kicks, calls in air support, and tosses grenades at you; the key is to attack and then jump away to avoid her attacks and throw her grenades right back at her and try to avoid the Commissioner in the Skytrain fight as the stage will be complete as soon as Estel goes down.
You’ll also battle Shiva, a boss from the original games, who likes to teleport around the stage and conjure shadow versions of himself, a particularly annoying martial artist at the biker bar, and even a brainwashed version of series protagonist Max Thunder. This latter battle can be particularly gruelling thanks to Max’s invincibility frames, dangerous wrestling moves, and the fact that he doesn’t really get stunned by your attacks. DJ K-Washi can also be a trying boss battle as you must not only avoid his many and varied projectiles and goons but also break through his protective shield before you can whittle down his health bar.
The game’s primary antagonists, the Y Twins, are fought multiple times; you’ll face Mr. Y in the Airplane stage (where he attacks with an Uzi (similar to his father), a bazooka, and grenades) and Ms. Y (who attacks with a rapier-like sword) on Y Island. Of the two individual fights, Mr. Y is easily the more troublesome thanks to his ranged attacks but, once you defeat Ms. Y, you’ll then have to face both bosses at the same time. Once you whittle one of them down to about half of their health bar, they’ll leap into a massive spider-like mech and try to crush you while their sibling continues to press the attack. In this final battle, I find it easier to take out Mr. Y first as his bullets are much harder to avoid; take him down to half health and then attack the mech as and when you can but be sure to also attack the remaining Y twin as, if you deplete the health of the sibling in the mech to nothing, the remaining twin will jump in the mech so it’s much easier to take the remaining sibling out of the equation so you can concentrate on disposing of the mech.
Power-Ups and Bonuses:
The only real power-up you can find in Streets of Rage 4 is the odd Star hidden throughout the game’s stages; otherwise, you’ll mostly be picking up cash for points, health, or a number of weapons throughout the course of the game. These weapons are finite, meaning they will break or disappear after a few hits, but are great for wiping out groups of enemies or throwing as a ranged attack. These weapons range from things such as knives and baseball bats to sledgehammers, swords, and even a razor-sharp boomerang. Often, enemies will be wielding these weapons and can pick them up to use them against you, as well, but you can catch weapons that are thrown at you with a well-timed press of the B button and using an enemy’s weapons against them is imperative to surviving against some of the game’s tougher enemies.
Additionally, there are various intractable parts of the environment that you can use to your advantage; you can attack a massive wrecking ball to take out enemies, cause barrels to explode, and toss enemies down pits or cause them to walk into toxic fumes or exposed electrical wires. As helpful as all of these elements are, however, these environmental hazards can also damage you as well so it’s best to keep your distance.
Streets of Rage 4 features a number of Achievements for you to earn; you’ll get these for clearing the Story mode as each of the available characters, completing modes on different difficulty settings, and for performing certain actions (such as killing three enemies with one explosive barrel or causing a chandelier to kill an enemy). When you first play Streets of Rage 4, your gameplay options are surprisingly limited; you can only choose to play Story or Battle mode and must unlock the Stage Select and Boss Rush mode by clearing the Arcade mode once. I actually like this; so often these days, games come with everything either automatically available or hidden behind downloadable content so it’s nice to actually unlock modes and characters through good, old-fashioned gameplay. Earn enough points across each of the game’s modes and you’ll unlock 16-bit versions of the game’s characters who look and play exactly as they did in the original videogames (sadly, Roo is not playable this time around, though).
There are also a lot of options available to you in Streets of Rage 4, ranging from the usual (difficulty selection, brightness and volume customisation and the like) and the unique as you can customise how health-restoring food appears onscreen and switch to the retro soundtrack if you wish. If you explore your environments well enough (or, more specifically, attack arcade machines with a taser), you’ll also find some hidden levels ripped straight from the original Streets of Rage trilogy that pit you against a classic boss character from the first three games and net you some bonus points. If you bought the physical version of the game, as I did, you also get a nifty little artbook and a keyring, which is a nice touch, and Streets of Rage 4 can also be played with friends; the game allows couch co-op for up to four players but online play is limited to just two. However, you need to keep a safe distance when playing with a friend in co-op as you can damage each other in true old school beat-‘em-up fashion, necessitating the need to pick to an area or section of the screen and stick to it.
Streets of Rage 4 is a fantastic love letter to everything that was so great about sidescrolling beat-‘em-ups. The genre has sadly fallen out of favour in recent years and I really don’t know why; it’s simple, fast-paced, arcade-style fun that is easy to pick up and play and waste a few fun-filled hours on. Arguably, Streets of Rage has never looked or played better; the game’s cartoony aesthetic, multiple nods and cameos and call-backs to the original games, and myriad of features make the game extremely accessible and fun to play. Some of the enemies and bosses can be annoying and cheap at times but, once you play through the game a few times, it’s easy to see their patterns and avoid their attacks. Hopefully, the release of Streets of Rage 4 will inspire SEGA to outsource some of their other franchises so we can see the same love, care, and attention afforded to this once long-dead series applied to other dormant SEGA franchises.
What are your thoughts on Streets of Rage 4? Do you feel it lives up to the legacy of its predecessors and old school, arcade-style, sidescrolling beat-‘em-ups? Which Streets of Rage game or character is your favourite? What SEGA property would you like to see get brought back in glorious HD on modern consoles? Whatever you think about Streets of Rage 4, or the series in general, drop a comment below.