Streets of Rage 4 Review

May 12, 2020
Also on: PC, Xbox One, Switch
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The side-scrolling beat-em-up has to be one of the most revered and nostalgic genres in gaming history. My own history with it predates the original Streets of Rage, because I’m horribly, horribly old. 

I remember Kung Fu Master on the Amstrad CPC 464, back in 1984, which had an extra layer of excitement for me over most players, whereby the game would go through the entire loading process (on tape rather than disk, so we’re talking about five to ten minutes here) only to crash at least ninety percent of the time. Yet I would still reset the machine and try again, because who doesn’t want to slowly walk from one side of the screen to the other delivering kicks of justice to the fastest snakes that ever lived, that emerge from jars falling from the ceiling. I mean, that’s the stuff dreams are made of. I actually remember the loading screen more than the game because of all the crashes, but I do remember that once a baddy is heading towards you, you just kick like crazy and wait for him to walk into you. If fights were like that, I might even be a tough guy in real life.

In the following years we got Renegade, Double Dragon, then my own personal favourite, Target Renegade, and only then did we get to the Streets of Rage games, coming out on the Sega Mega Drive, Master System and Game Gear. Three games came out in the space of four years, and now, a mere twenty-six years later, comes the fourth instalment.

Blaze’s Beyonce tribute act pulled in a small but violent audience.

It’s a dangerous thing for players to revisit the games they used to love if they haven’t been updated, and dangerous for developers if they have been. I’ve revisited many favourite games of my youth, and generally played about twenty seconds before turning it off, keen not to ruin such a cherished memory any more. 

What used to be fast and frenetic gets revealed nowadays as being dull and plodding, and nearly always immensely repetitive. But if the makers mess with the system the fans remember then they will meet with a hellish fury that would make scorned women everywhere quail. 

While these games shaped us, we have moved on, and while we hark back to those days quite rightly as being a hotbed of creativity that led to the games we have now, we often credit them with better gameplay than proves to be the case given the test of time.

However, nostalgia is a huge thing, and companies are willing to risk the wrath of fans in the hope of tapping that nostalgia dollar. They assume they will have a ready-made audience in the loyal fanbase that has tied their own youthful enthusiasm into the games they used to play when every summer was surely ever-sunny and they always got their favourite pudding for tea, if they can only crack that secret formula. 

A lot of the old adventure games have been very successfully updated, such as the Monkey Island series, and this is probably because they had fun and inventive puzzles, rather than repetitive attack moves. The writing was inventive, and good writing will never age. Updating those graphics makes a lot of sense, as the game often still feels fresh. 

The beat ‘em up genre, though, feels a riskier proposition, because fighting games have evolved so much and the sluggish left-to-right pressing attack buttons continuously is a lot harder to update in any meaningful way, especially if any big changes to the gameplay will meet with full on nostalgic gamer rage.

Dotemu’s attempt, then, is laced with danger as real as that faced by Axel Stone, Blaze Fielding and newcomers Cherry (Adam’s daughter) and sort-of-cyborg, Floyd Iraia, and the question is, how did they fare? I picked the game up to play with my ten-year-old son to find out.

Blaze outlasted her competitors with sheer stamina to take the breakdancing prize.

Surprisingly well, is the answer.

The graphics are updated but still recognisably retro, and are actually very pleasing to this nostalgic eye. They actually look like we wish the old ones did, if that makes sense.  The fighting maintains its retro quality of left to right with copious button mashing, but also manages to introduce nuances into the combat without detracting from the smash-it-and-see style that this game design was based on.  A surprising amount of varied attacks are available to the player, while it never feels overcomplicated. Your character responds quickly and efficiently to your attack instructions, so while the screen fills with baddies that might have had the old eight and sixteen bit systems chundering, it never feels confused or too much. They have also managed to bring in moments that will bring tears of joy to the long-standing fans, which it would be wrong to spoil here.

Some interesting fighting ideas emerge which build on previous entries in the series. For instance, while you can do special attacks that cost some of your own health (as in SOR 2), here you can regain it by performing a range of normal attacks immediately after. Mess that up and the health is gone for good. A combat system that at first feels like repeated button pressing ends up becoming more judicious use of learned and well-timed combinations. Care must be taken, because you can hit each other, so a level of teamwork is definitely required, which adds to the fun. A variety of weapons (knives, broken bottles, tasers, bats, pool cues, etc) and on-screen scenery can be used to help, which adds to the feeling that if you’re clever, you will gain an advantage, which certainly gives the game more of an edge than just button mashing.

The tried and tested need to memorise attack patterns of enemies is present and correct, but while some are good and well paced, some feel unforgivably hard, crossing the line into being frustrating. Another downside is how slowly your characters move. While you can walk sluggishly around the screen, you can never run, and when an explosion is imminent, it can feel like you’re guiding your gran across the road rather than controlling a trained and deadly warrior in order to decimate almost limitless opposition due to his or her insane fighting skills.

Only Freddie Mercury can carry off combining sweatpants with shoes.

The twelve stages of the game feel as different as this sort of game can do, and will surely please fans of the original. They might argue that it’s too short, but I’m not sure that’s the case. I think that it would be more of a crime for this game to outstay its welcome and have the later levels feel some kind of chore. This sort of arcade experience should always be completable in two or three hours, and the game delivers that. There are other modes too, a Boss Rush mode, and player vs player, where you can resolve the tension built up by those accidental-hitting-each-other moments from the main game like true warriors should, but they won’t hold your attention for long.

There could end up being more content to come, either by more sequels or DLC, given the reception this game deserves, and it’s testament to the way the developers have risen to a near impossible challenge that I’m sure those would be a success too. My kid loves this, and he doesn’t have our nostalgia to guide him. At the end of the day, given good controls and crisp fast game mechanics, kids of this generation like this genre too, and that’s a fitting testament to a good game done well. 

A score here feels pretty meaningless, as fans will buy it regardless and new gamers may feel confused by the over the top love showered on it by people revisiting one of the biggest gaming experiences of their youth. However, the developers have catered to both groups about as well as anyone could, and the middle-of-the-road price ensures nobody trying it out will feel ripped off. 

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As this sort of game always did, it remains a fairly pointless one-player experience that comes alive when playing with a friend or two. For nostalgic fans of the genre, it will serve up a treat, albeit one that doesn’t last all that long.
David Braga

A tired and befuddled writer in his mid-forties who, having had his gaming gene surgically removed in his early twenties, is now returning to the gaming world due to the enthusiasm of his games-mad son. He is finding the scenery much changed and very confusing, though with much quicker loading times.