I have a true adoration for the classic side scrolling fighting game genre, much of my formative gaming years were spent dropping pocket money in the arcade machines of Double Dragon, Bad Dudes, Golden Axe and TMNT Arcade. There was the challenge of having only a single or couple of credits in order to try and beat the game and it was a thrill to either fail or succeed. My absolute favourite side scrolling fighter was Final Fight, it was gritty and had amazing characters to choose from and set the benchmark for all other games I would play going forward. For home consoles, the closet that came to giving me that Final Fight feeling was Streets of Rage on the SEGA MEGA Drive, with the last instalment Streets of Rage 3 releasing in 1994. Since then nothing has really stepped up to the mark for me, until now as finally a new sequel in Streets of Rage 4 is bringing this classic series punching and kicking into 2020 and believe me, it has been a long 26 year wait to pick up where I left the series!
The moment I watched the reveal trailer for Streets of Rage 4 my heart rate rose, the early gameplay looked authentic rather than a cheap remaster and the modern refresh to the visuals now all hand drawn cell shaded art just popped right out the screen at me. Could this really be a true successor to a series that won my heart almost three decades ago. I have to admit I was cautiously optimistic but having been burned in recent years by many pretenders to the throne, I needed to actually play this to know if it actually delivered the true Streets of Rage experience.
Which I am happy to say it most certainly does as the very moment you fire up the game, there is a wave of nostalgia for anyone who remember or even played the original series on the MEGA Drive or in the more recent SEGA MEGA Drive Collection releases in which the classic games were bundled in. The music is the first thig that hit and I sat at the main menu for some time just taking in this modern take on the classic 90s style gaming music that helped make this series stand out from all others back in the day. The soundtrack to this game is quite simply phenomenal and compliments the action incredibly well as you play through the 12 Stages that make up the main story campaign. It has all the vibes of the original series and 90s console gaming and just feels so very SEGA at times, which owners of the MEGA Drive will understand.
Streets of Rage 4 picks up the story a full ten years after the events of Streets of Rage 3. With ‘The Syndicate’ crime organisation and its leader Mr X finally defeated, heroes Axel Stone and Blaze Fielding have moved on from the Police force with Axel retreating to a life of training and meditation whilst Blaze is now a music and dance instructor. However Blaze begins to suspect that a new Syndicate has risen to threaten the city and that this new crime organisation is being run by the Twin children of Mr X. Blaze reaches out to Axel and Adam Hunter and where Axel immediate comes to help, Adam Hunter now a Special Forces officer is unable to come but instead sends his own daughter Cherry to help them. The new trio of heroes is joined by another new character in Floyd Iraia, who following a work accident lost his arms but had them replaced with cybernetic ones built by old ally Dr Zan.
The blend of classic Streets of Rage mechanics and new elements added by doing a more modern version is close to flawless with both complimenting each other like a good wine with great food. You can really tell that the developers of the combined Lizardcube and Guard Crush Games are true fans of the original series because so much of how this game is put together just breathes so much of what made the original series so iconic. There is an intricacy to the elements kept, the elements refined and the new elements added to the cocktail of brilliance that is Streets of Rage 4 and this is immediate in its impact from the moment you pick a character and find yourself in Stage 1 of the story.
I love how the game uses the original sound effects from the series and having the very first thing you do in the game is to walk up to a trashcan and destroy it with a punch to reveal a bag of money, a high wave of nostalgia hit you. Seconds later the first enemy street thugs approach you and with a flurry of pressing Square (PS4) or X (Xbox One) your punches are flying and the sound effects of the hit impacts just made me instantly smile and I was back in 1994 on my MEGA Drive once again. It took very little time for me to be completely immersed in this world as the classic gameplay of being able to battle enemies to the left and right of my character still remains as fluid as it was, one of aspects that made this series stand out for me back in the day. The surprise came when I discovered I could actually juggle enemies, continuing the combo should they be knocked against the side of the screen or an environmental object. This enables the ability to build very high combo streaks increasing the score you collect from them which can be ended should you be hit yourself.
The traditional Special Moves have returned, these use up a portion of your health bar but now they can be repeated and chained to devastating effect with the new feature that once you trigger a special move, the amount of health it used from your health bar now turns green allowing the next few hits on enemies to replenish it whilst taking a hit will prevent this. This is a great way of being able to factor in the use of special moves with the ability to gain some of the used health back rather than relying on the finding of apples or full chickens to replenish your health bar, which are generously placed throughout the stage by breaking things like trashcans or furniture. Money bags and cases can be used to boost your score with extra lives rewarded for hitting a score target on the stage. You start with 2 extra lives and should you use them all up and fail, it is game over and you will need to replay the stage.
Mercifully the game will offer you an assist should you fail such as having more lives at the lost of having your final score obliterated at the end of the stage, devious but it is a way of helping players complete the Story campaign especially if playing it solo as I felt the game is designed to expect two players at the least, which is possible thanks to online multiplayer or up to four players in local sofa co-op. Playing through solo and even on Normal difficulty, this game offers a great challenge especially in the later stages. Boss fights are still cheesy with some of their attacks being unavoidable for some playable characters I found but the very old school “trial and error” style of learning their attacks and their patterns still gives you that level of satisfaction when you finally defeat them.
Enemies have also been given a bit of a refresh and not just in their appearance. Different enemy types will have different attacks with some of the later ones even being able to counter your own attacks or use of weapons. Stage 2 for example is set in a Police Precinct where corrupt cops clearly on the new Syndicate’s payroll will attack you but they will also target the standard thug enemies which was both a help in battling the stage but also quite funny. Environmental hazards can still harm the players but also enemies as well and some of the stages will even have secrets that will offer help should you trigger them so keep an eye out for the obvious and not so obvious stage environments. Weapons are still a huge part of the gameplay with the standard daggers and metal pipes now joined by throwable weapons like grenades, fire/acid/electric bombs and melee weapons in baseball bats and police truncheons. A lovely touch came in the form when I discovered that you can catch anything thrown at you in order to throw it back and a badass move of throwing a weapon like a metal pipe, have it bounce off the enemy you hit, catch it and then use it to whack another enemy. Pure satisfaction!
Which is pretty much what my experience with Streets of Rage 4 has been, hugely satisfying. By not throwing out the old but instead embracing everything that made the original games so loved by fans but refining them and adding new elements to the gameplay that compliment and actually enhances them even further just makes this a real joy to play, especially with friends or by hosting and joining other player games which the new online feature allows. It is a shame that online co-op is limited to only two players though as it would be a blast to go full 4 player co-op especially in the current limited real-world restrictions in place at time of game launch. But the game offers additional online modes as well such as Battle Mode, an arena style mode where players can either versus one another or team up to fight each other in eight arena environments.
Stand out mode for me is the classic Arcade mode where you are given a single “Credit” in order to complete the game in one go, a true challenge even for an old school side scrolling beat em up fan like me. Boss Rush mode allows you to take on the Story stage end bosses in a gauntlet style one life attempt. I really appreciated these additional modes to a Story mode that already has a tonne of replayability thanks to having four starting characters to choose from as well as more which are unlocked through playing the story such as unlocking Adam Hunter. Having unlockable characters especially the classic fighters of the original games (which I will not reveal here so they can be a surprise) is a great incentive to keep playing and trying out different combinations of heroes to use.
I am really loving my time with Streets of Rage 4 which shows that going old school is not always a bad thing when it comes to bringing back classic game series from old generations of console gaming. It feels fresh and nostalgia driven all at the same time and for me personally, scratched an itch for a style of gaming from days long ago I never really knew I missed as much as I subconsciously had. Even when the most difficult of bosses forced me to retry using one of the assists, it was still fun to get back into the fight. I am looking forward to grabbing friends to play this online with and to test our metal on the higher difficulty levels as well as trying out the other fighters in the game.
Streets of Rage 4 is not only a celebration of one of the most iconic MEGA Drive (or Genesis if you are from the US) gaming series ever but it manages to successfully bring it smack up to date for a 2020 gaming experience. Enjoy the visuals, bop your head to one of the coolest game soundtracks you will hear this year and get to punching and kicking butt in a new ‘old school’ way on your console!