Streets of Rage occupies a special place in my heart. This is not because I grew up in a Sega Genesis household back in the 90’s when owning more than one console from the same generation was reserved for the privileged, nor because SoR is *the* game that comes to mind when one thinks about beat ’em ups, nor because of Yuzo Koshiro’s legendary OSTs. Nay, I attribute the strength of my fandom to a very practical reason: Streets of Rage 3 is the first video game I ever purchased with my own money.
Placing SoR3 on layaway at Kmart, I would gradually liberate it from its retail prison. My $4/week allowance combined with $10 from cutting the grass every fourteen days made for a six-week wait for a $60 cartridge (this is when I learned about Alabama’s 9% sales tax). Even though SoR2 is the most popular game, along with the reasons I have stated thus far, I believe that the addition of running, rolling, a special attack gauge, and multiple endings makes SoR3 an overall better package, even if its OST is a step backward.
I am far from the only SoR fan who has grown into adulthood, longing for an heir to this beloved franchise. After finishing up Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, the French developers at Lizardcube and their publisher Dotemu approached Sega to fulfill the dreams of all parties involved: produce a modern Streets of Rage sequel. Local developer Guard Crush Games, with their experience developing the beat ’em up Streets of Fury EX, would complete the developer triumvirate responsible for bringing modern SoR into fruition.
Violence: The premise of beat ’em ups like Streets of Rage 4 is to punch people in the face—a lot. The violence here is as PG as the OG TMNT (1990) movie; after all, they both contain weapons like katana blades, naginata, sai, and baseball bats. Nobody even bleeds, unlike in Mother Russia.
Drugs and Alcohol: A special character makes a cameo appearance in a bar, but nobody drinks.
Sexuality: There is no option for Floyd to put a shirt on. Unlike the nipples of Drax the Destroyer in Guardians of the Galaxy, Floyd’s are not sensitive, and are animated to bounce freely as he breathes.
While not nearly achieving Bayonetta levels, Blaze’s sex appeal has been turned up a notch; practically every character walks with their chest poked out, but she struts. She is not alone in her swagger; several boss-like characters walk with plenty of attitude. In contrast, Cherry is remarkably modest.
An entire boss battle takes place in a BDSM room. Spanking devices, a gimp hat, handcuffs, a spiked wall and a pillory decorate this room. Fans of SoR3 might recognize Ash’s picture on the wall. Compared to all of this, the boss with a whip is tame.
Inspirational Content: Playing through SoR4 with my wife, who is normally just watching me play, has encouraged me to seek out more co-op games when I normally instant-ignore them on Steam. SoR4 is a fantastic bonding experience.
The premise of Streets of Rage 4 is so simple, I may as well rip it straight from the introduction:
Ten years have passed since the fall of Mr. X and his Syndicate. The city has been at peace…until now
A new crime empire has arisen, corrupting everything good in the city. It is rumored to be led by Mr. X’s own children: the Y Twins
Former detectives Axel Stone and Blaze Fielding join forces with their old friend’s daughter, Cherry Hunter, along with Floyd Iraia, an apprentice of the brilliant Dr. Zan.
Together these four vigilantes stand against the Y Syndicate on the…
STREETS OF RAGE
True to form, SoR4 does not aim for a GOTY-caliber story. It provides just enough of an excuse to punch lots and lots of people in the face repeatedly. What other motivation does one need to play a SoR game?
Since I began writing on video games professionally, I have never been ashamed to genuflect myself in admiration of hand-drawn animation. It has been a woefully long time since I have been able to bask in awe before some vivacious visuals. Lizardcube, the team responsible for SoR4‘s graphics, has knocked it completely out of the park in this department. From Axel’s idle stance to Adam’s walking animation to Blaze’s star super attack to Cherry’s running knee, this game is an absolute optical orga—I mean, it is blissfully beautiful.
Especially gorgeous are the stages and backgrounds. Even typically drab areas like sewers or sterile warehouses maintain an atypical allure. If the traditionally boring environments arouse excitement, then the fights in a dojo decorated with martial weapons will dazzle, and the inevitable boss fight with Shiva under the cherry blossom tree will amaze. Strobe lights shine on character sprites, fog emanates from exhaustion pipes on rooftops, and pools of water reflect backgrounds even as the camera pans. Lizardcube and Guard Crush were even able to animate the stage 1 car crash that was planned in SoR2, but did not happen. SoR4 has no business looking this good!
Lizardcube has also given enemies 21st-century makeovers. Common foes like Donovan, Signal, and Galsia may not have the movesets of the playable characters, yet there were times when I would delay punching them in the face just to witness how the developers reimagimorned them with new animations. Some enemies even received complete makeovers; the traditional biker enemy type sporting tiger-print outfits have been gender-swapped for middle-aged (or, at least heavy-set) women. My wife and I affectionately call them “aunties” because their mohawks, leather jackets, high heeled boots, and tiger-print pants are outfits my wife’s aunties would wear (lol).
Though I have already admitted that SoR2 is more popular than SoR3, I am puzzled as to why Guard Crush, the team largely responsible for the gameplay, retained some mechanics while discarding others. For example, special attacks split the difference between the two SoR games; instead of a gauge permitting players to use specials without penalty, using a special attack temporarily drains health that can be restored by punching enemies in the face. Players are free to use as many consecutive specials as they please, though this is not recommended, because taking damage before restoring health makes the damage from special usage permanent!
The universal, temporary health drain for specials makes sense, but several of the individualized features make some characters more fun, and more effective, to play than others. All characters can run in SoR3, but here, that feature is exclusive to Cherry (Adam does have a dash that players can spam to simulate running). Characters can also roll vertically to mitigate damage in SoR3, but that, too, is missing here. Mobility is king, especially on higher difficulties like Mania, where enemies are coded literally to run circles around players while looking for an opening. This makes playing a character like Floyd, who is sometimes too slow to hit anything, frustrating because SoR4 is a game where speed is greater than power. While it is hilarious to walk around with a badguy in Floyd’s hand in order to grab another and smash them together, he still does not provide the satisfaction of the half-healthbar-draining atomic bomb Max rear throws accompanied with that “crash” sound effect, or Dr. Zan straight up spiking fat boys when the rest of the cast gets squished when they attempt a throw (except Blaze’s forward grab). In SoR4, everyone can throw fat boys, making Floyd less notable.
While I am on the topic of negatives, as the “retro” promotion video above indicates, the developers have included every playable character from throughout the entire SoR franchise, with the exception of Roo the kangaroo. The classic, ultra-pixelated sprites appear to be relatively untouched from their Sega Genesis incarnations, and against the modern, splendid backgrounds, they are uninspiring, when SoR4 is otherwise an eyegasm.
Yet there is a good reason why these retro characters are present, and it is not limited to nostalgic impulses. Yes, the elephant in the room—a certain unofficial yet nevertheless sanctioned Streets of Rage Remake that took eight years to develop—may have influenced the decision to include thirteen retro characters, including three Axels, three Blazes, and two Skates. Then again, players might desire more than the base four options to stomp through SoR4‘s twelve stages over and over. Perhaps these additional selections allow players to settle the argument as to which version of Blaze is the best gal in battle mode. Or maybe four friends want to be silly while testing the game’s local four-player co-op (while maintaining proper social distancing during COVID-19, of course) and roll a team of quad-Axels. Well, first, players might have to grind through the one-continue, no-save arcade mode or boss rush mode to accumulate the necessary total score points to unlock everything.
I think gamers will be motivated to play through SoR4‘s story, arcade, and boss rush modes multiple times for those unlockables. The game’s freshly-designed combo system reminds me of action games like Wonderful 101, and power users will want to maximize their offense, experimenting as they farm points. Others will want to revere the artwork, because the still screenshots I have included here do not do justice to the environmental animations.
Of course—and to some, most importantly—replays will be necessary to experience the painstakingly-arranged OST. Though Olivier Derivière is the lead composer, the development team shook the dust off the legendary SoR composer Yuzo Koshiro, and recruited a host of guest music producers to generate an OST that I cannot wait to purchase after it drops on Bandcamp. (Give it to me NAO!!!) Seriously, where is the BGM selection in the options menu?
I managed to play through SoR4 completely blind. Once it was announced, I avoided all coverage so that I would not give in to hype, and could be as objective as possible. Well, it turns out that this game has enamored me just as previous games in the series have, making me burst at the seams with joy not from nostalgia alone, but at the fact that Lizardcube, Guard Crush, and Dotemu managed to pull this off!
The art and music alone already make SoR4 a great game, but those who take a look at the video that I recorded with my wife, who is typically a backseat or vicarious gamer, will see that the moment-to-moment gameplay is indescribably fun. I thought I would never say this about any game ever, but bring on that DLC to play modern Shiva!
Review copy generously provided by Tinsley PR.
The Bottom Line
Streets of Rage is back, baby!