Streets of Rage 4 is a retro-inspired side-scrolling beat 'em up that pays tribute to a very distinct era in video game history. It's been over 26 years since the release of Streets of Rage 3, and when it comes to the principles of game design, a lot has changed. The teams at Guard Crush, DotEmu, and Lizardcube set out to create a proper sequel that maintains the core ideas of Streets of Rage while simultaneously modernizing gameplay, artistic direction, and progression. After spending a significant amount of time brawling my way through the rough and tumble streets of Wood Oak City, I can confidently say the development teams succeeded in this mission.
Where did all the beat 'em ups go?
For those unfamiliar with the legacy of side-scrolling beat 'em ups, there was a period in the late '80s to early '90s where this was arguably the biggest and most popular genre in gaming. After getting its start in arcades, the home console craze eventually brought a flood of these games to systems like the SNES and Sega Genesis. Nearly every major franchise got its own release in this style, including Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, The Simpsons, and countless more.
Unfortunately, over-saturation and lack of innovation ultimately led to this sub-genre fading into obscurity shortly after the release of Streets of Rage 3. Despite modern titles like Castle Crashers and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World successfully adding modern conventions that drastically improved the overall experience while recapturing some of the nostalgic magic that made side-scrolling beat 'em ups so iconic, it could never come back into popularity.
That's why it was incredibly refreshing to see Streets of Rage 4 stand toe-to-toe with those fantastic brawlers. The latest entry in this series not only honors its predecessors but delivers the most satisfying Streets of Rage package to date. With a massive roster of characters, a substantial selection of game modes, and a newly added progression system, there is an enormous amount of content for fans and newcomers alike.
A Strong Comeback
Bottom line: Streets of Rage 4 delivers a powerful celebration of brawling nostalgia with a host of great modes and distinct characters.
- Beautiful hand-drawn art
- Simple, yet engaging combat
- A large roster of unique characters
- Additional modes add great value
- Battle mode is very gimmicky
- Online multiplayer is limited to 2 players
- Unlocking characters is on the grindy side
Let's get down to brass knuckle tacks regarding gameplay
As a long-time fan of the genre and someone who spent several hundred hours playing Streets of Rage 2 and Turtles in Time as a child, I'd be doing myself and this review a disservice if I didn't start by breaking down the most critical element of any side-scrolling beat 'em up: the gameplay. Streets of Rage 4 at first glance is very true to the classic feel of these games, for better or worse. Controls and combat immediately felt familiar. I started my first playthrough of the story mode as Alex, and it wasn't long before I was busting out some of his iconic combos from Streets of Rage 2 and 3.
Initially, this was incredibly satisfying, but I quickly began to worry that the simplicity of these systems would grow repetitive. Thankfully, there are some significant quality of life changes that kept combat feeling fresh and fun well into my fifth and sixth playthroughs.
Learning the subtleties of each enemy type and your own character is critical if you want to rack up a solid combo and boost your score.
One of my biggest complaints about games in this genre is the aggressive punishment applied for using your special abilities. Historically, the player would be taxed directly from their health pool to execute these flashy moves. Streets of Rage 4 introduces an engaging system that roots itself in this somewhat archaic idea but allows the player to regenerate health by attacking enemies without taking damage after performing a special ability. This creates an exhilarating loop of risk vs. reward for the player where each attack must be carefully calculated. One hit from an enemy can cost you a massive amount of health if you're careless.
More forgiving options for using special abilities lend itself perfectly to a genuinely addicting combo system that feels like something straight out of Devil May Cry. Learning the subtleties of each enemy type and your own character is critical if you want to rack up a solid combo and boost your score. Initially, I found this system fairly unimportant as I was making my way through my first few playthroughs. Once I understood the importance of scores when it comes to gaining lives and unlocking new content, I became obsessed with trying to keep that combo alive as long as possible. Playing with friends online (which is frustratingly limited to two players) or 4-player local coop is another excellent way to amplify the combo chaos.
A massive roster of characters to master and unlock
The core roster of characters starts off relatively small with a pool of four heroes to choose from, but playing through the story and additional modes allow you to unlock up to 17 playable characters, which is pretty impressive for a Streets of Rage game. While some of these other characters are simply retro throwbacks to Streets of Rage 1-3, each fighter has a distinct set of special moves and combos.
I didn't think I'd ever be making this comparison, but experimenting with the different characters of Streets of Rage 4 sort of felt like learning the ropes in Super Smash Bros. All characters sharing the same button commands makes every single one them is easy to pick up and play, but tricky to truly master.
Characters like Blaze and Cherry prioritize speed and acrobatic combos, while bulkier fighters like Alex and Floyd are slower but pack some serious damage with each hit. Early on, I gravitated towards the more agile characters, but fell in love with the Incredible Hulk-esque movesets of Floyd and Max the more I played the game. Every time I went back to replay a stage with a different character, I uncovered an exciting nuance about their moveset or special abilities. Regardless of your playstyle, there is bound to be someone in Streets of Rage 4 you connect with as a player.
What modes does Streets of Rage 4 include?
In addition to a stacked roster of playable characters, there is also a seriously commendable selection of game modes to choose from, including Story Mode, Arcade, Boss Rush, and Battle. Some of these modes provide more fun and replayability than others, but it was very refreshing to see so many options unlock after completing your first playthrough of the campaign.
Story Mode takes you through the core Streets of Rage 4 experience with beautiful hand-drawn comic book-styled characters and cutscenes. For players looking to get some context for the seemingly senseless violence and destruction that ensues during the 12 stages of the game, Story Mode offers just enough exposition to explain why you're throwing grenades inside of an art museum or fighting the police commissioner on top of a moving train. While you're given a set number of lives to complete a stage, and there are technically no continues, Story Mode allows you to retry a stage with modifiers to make the stage less challenging.
Speaking of maniacs, did I mention how insanely difficult Boss Rush Mode is yet?
Arcade Mode offers a more traditional and hardcore Streets of Rage experience. Instead of having a set number of lives to complete a stage, players now have a small number of them to complete the entire game. With no continues and no modifiers allowed, this mode significantly amps up the difficulty compared to Story Mode. With a host of challenges ranging from Easy to Maniac, Arcade Mode offers some serious replayability for the folks that want it. There is also a stage select option for players interested in locking down that high score for a specific stage.
Speaking of maniacs, did I mention how insanely difficult Boss Rush Mode is yet? In this gauntlet, which I can only imagine was made for true masochists, you are given a single life to fight every single boss in the game back to back. You can earn more lives and health items by defeating these bosses, but to make things even more interesting, random additional enemies are thrown in the mix to knife you in the back while you're trying to dispatch a boss. If you're looking for the ultimate challenge Streets of Rage 4 has to offer, this is it.
Battle is the one mode I can't confidently recommend to anyone. It feels more like a gimmick than an actual addition to the game, but if you've ever wanted to take an engine that wasn't made for 1v1 fighting and participate in 1v1 fights with other players, there's an option for that in Streets of Rage 4. After about two rounds of playing, I had no interest in ever coming back to it.
The final verdict
Streets of Rage 4 is a passionately crafted love letter to a nearly forgotten sub-genre of fighting games. With a slew of not so subtle references to historic franchises like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Tekken, and of course Streets of Rage 1-3, it's clear this game was made for fans by fans.
This retro throwback may not convert the uninitiated, but the attention to little details and character design bleeds authenticity and demands attention from side-scrolling beat 'em up enthusiasts. If you want some good old-fashioned nostalgia peppered with many welcomed modern improvements, this is pretty much the ultimate package.
Just like old times, only better
Modern design choices and engaging new mechanics greatly enhance the feel of this retro-inspired side-scrolling beat 'em up.
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