As much as I like to boast that I’m not a nostalgic person, there have been a string of video games coming out this year that seem to evoke a very specific era of my childhood. And while I’m not going to fall over myself to to sing the praises of one of the bigger games I played growing up, I’m still kind of in awe of the fact that we got another Streets of Rage game after over 25 years.
The biggest thing I’ve noticed after playing Streets of Rage 4, is that it’s not shy about the fact that it’s as much of a homage to the franchise and the genre as it is a sequel to it. Developed by French studios Dotemu and Lizardcube, this was another game, much like another classic 16-bit Sega franchise, that Sega needed to be convinced to actually come back to by fans.
While the details behind this project coming about haven’t been quite as transparent as the genesis of Sonic Mania was, I have to imagine that many of the team working on Streets of Rage 4 had to have been fans based on many of the decisions made in the creation of this game. It’s either that or it’s one the most effective pieces laboratory grown nostalgia bait that I’ve ever seen.
At its core, Streets of Rage 4 is a true sequel to the games that came before, building on those old game’s design ethos and gameplay, while also adding a couple new twists and modern design sensibilities. The basics of the combat are still there, based on the small combos, grabs, back attacks and the special attacks introduced from SoR2 onward that drain health, but the big change here comes in those attacks feeling more like risk/reward choices than panic buttons.
Using a special now only drains the illusion of health, keeping the bar there in green. Meaning that, if you’re good then you can hit enemies to restore that tributed health. It adds an extra element of skill to those who want to play the game at the absolute highest level. There are also a ton of other little tweaks that might not get noticed by everyone. Like the fact that enemies now bounce off the sides of the screen instead of just going off the side of it, meaning you can keep your combos for longer.
There is a lot of inspiration in here taken from modern day fighting game sensibilities. Now, I’m no video game historian, and I can’t tell you how much cross pollination between the fighting game genre and beat ’em ups there has always been (I’m guessing a lot more than I expect), but even I’m seeing it now in the makeup of this game and how combat can play out.
It’s a matter of walking that fine line between making the game feel modern and playable by modern audience’s standards, while also feeling as close to those original Mega Drive games as possible. And that comes as a double edged sword. As you play more and more of the game, you gain access to quite a sizeable roster of characters to pick from. When you load the game for the first time though, you only have access to the main four for this game.
So, in my case I’d obviously pick the game’s Ryu in the new bearded and homeless looking Axel Stone, and by far he’s the character that surfaces the most lacking aspects of the combat in this game. Thanks to this being a nostalgia piece, the game can’t change too much when it comes to combat, so when it comes to the more iconic characters of the series, this hamstringing can bite and bite the experience on the whole.
Playing as Axel, and to a lesser extent Blaze, can feel slow, laborious and sometimes unfair. As you get deeper into the game, more and more enemy types get introduced, all with their own unique quirks that force you to deal with them in a very particular way. There is a such a variety of them in fact that they oftentimes feel like they have a broader move pool than the player does.
Just off the top of my head, there is one lady enemy who does a jumping dropkick, and as certain characters it is nigh impossible to avoid it. This is where a lack of any real defensive option for the player really makes the game feel like it didn’t modernise itself enough in some ways. A block, a dodge roll, a counterattack mechanic. Any of them would make certain encounters less frustrating, and these are all abilities certain enemy types will display themselves.
These issues can be elevated somewhat when you dive into the multiplayer or try out the other characters. Adam returns as an unlockable character, and he does have a dash that makes avoiding certain enemies much easier. Then there’s Cherry, Adam’s daughter and a character who plays very similarly to Skate from the previous two games, being fast and the most manoeuvrable character by far.
And then there’s Floyd, a character who seems like a combination of Max’s size and strength from SoR2 and Dr. Zan from SoR3, what with his metal arms and electric powers. He’s cool in that he can still move when grabbing characters and even pick up a second guy whilst doing it, slamming them both together.
It’s when you get into these new characters and start playing with all of the unlockable characters from the previous game, all in their chunky sprited glory that the small issues with the game become less pressing.
The game itself is pretty short and sweet, if anything it could have stood to be a little shorter. 12 stages and a story that ends up being inconsequential to the beat of just beating your way through a bunch of inner city locations before getting to a Golden Axe looking location. Where there is a ton of work done is in the music, the background references and the returning characters as bosses.
The developers even managed to get a hold of Yuzo Koshiro towards the tail end of development to produce some tracks for the soundtrack. Although, you can ignore all of that as there’s an option for a classic soundtrack right from the beginning, which acts like a best of for all the music from the first three games in the genre.
You pretty much know exactly what you’re getting into if you remember anything about the 16-bit era games that encompassed the series before now. Streets of Rage 4 does everything in its power to make you think back fondly on those older games while also adding a new modern sensibilities to the mix. Could there have been a few more modern things added in? absolutely, but I can’t really begrudge the developers for making this love letter to a series that has been nothing but a memory for the past quarter century.
Like those older games, it’s going to be a good game to go back to and knock off a few stages when I’ve got a half hour spare, and if we’re lucky, the developers might give the game a little more love in the future and give us all the more reason to go back to it.