Streets of Rage 4 does a lot right. Take its sublime combat system, making casuals feel like martial art masters and giving fighting fans high-level techniques to sink their teeth into. Or its soundtrack, all head-bopping tracks and catchy beats that drive the on-screen action and prove as pleasurable a listen when sampled in isolation. Instantly iconic new characters. Hand-drawn visuals that pop off the screen.
Streets of Rage 4 could have got a lot wrong. Attempting to rebuild the magic of the original, forever-celebrated side-scrolling beat ‘em up trilogy felt like a fool’s errand. Thank then the trio of studios who decided to tackle this unlikeliest of revivals – Dotemu, Lizardcube, Guard Crush Games – for doing their homework.
They researched design documents. Examined the formula. Talked to creators, fans. Weighed up what needed modernising, what needed to be left untouched. The result of this three year long, meticulous splice of old and new beautifully recaptures the spirit of those classics. But crucially it does not feel like a relic of a bygone era.
A great example: the reconfiguring of characters’ special attacks. Previously these powerful moves could tear chunks out of enemy energy bars, but at a price: the loss of some of your own health. In Streets of Rage 4, lost health is banked, potentially recoverable… if you keep on the offensive and don’t get hit. A small tweak, but it changes the gameplay rhythm for the better, making those moves high-risk but high-reward.
And even if you want to keep your combat options basic, the game is a blast to play. Every punch and kick thrown has a satisfying weight, thanks to impressive audio and a corresponding timed jolt from the Dualshock 4 controller. You can bash away at enemies, toss in the occasional throw, the odd jumping kick and still come out of a session feeling like a badass.
Yet the game subtly entices you to try out more complex attacks. Because even a rudimentary idea of how combos work leads to some flashy sequences. Each showy display perks your curiosity, teases you learn more. To experiment.
I’m usually quietly intense during my gaming sessions. Yet I actually whooped in glee at one combo string I pulled off with Adam Hunter that caused a handful of baddies to fly across the screen and rebound off a wall. Whistled in appreciation as I discovered how you could hop across a line of enemies with a flurry of aerial attacks while playing Cherry Hunter. Laughed at my own audacity in successfully ploughing through a crowd of foes as the tank-like Floyd Iraia.
The diversity of the fighting roster offers a pleasing range of styles to learn your way round. An unasked-for improvement over the originals: in campaign, you can switch fighters between stages. I had my favourites in previous entries and stuck to them. Yet with a cast this good, I found myself continually rotating through the character select screen.
The originals presented you with compelling backdrops and scenarios as you battled your way across the city. This sequel easily matches those and adds its own unique spins. Sign boards need leapt over as you clash atop a moving train. A fight through a luxurious and heavily-guarded plane keeps being interrupted as you go into freefall. A Chinatown battle wears its action movie inspirations proudly as you take on ever-increasing hordes in a dojo. Each of the 12 stages has a memorable moment that makes it worth revisiting.
But it’s maybe the scalability of Streets of Rage 4 that I like best. Thanks to the bite-sized nature of those stages and multitude of modes – which include online and offline co-op and competitive options –sessions can be as short or as long as you want them to be. I’ve blasted through a single stage during a coffee break, yet also lost an evening attempting to get as far through the game as I can on a single credit in Arcade.
As I said at the beginning, it’s a game that caters for genre enthusiasts and the curious, a familiarity of design that makes it accessible to most with gameplay that continually rewards you, irrespective of your skill level. Which makes it, for me, the perfect game to enjoy with friends. While current circumstances prevent me from enjoying the chaos of four-player local co-op, come the day I can welcome the world back through my front door, it will be for this game that controllers will be passed around and my sound system’s volume cranked up for.