As a teenager growing up the ‘80s and frequenting arcades, I was there when fighting games hit it big. I’m not talking about the one-on-one quarter munchers that would take over the entire market after Street Fighter II’s massive success. Prior to that were the brawlers that let you and a buddy take on countless waves of enemies as you battled your way through backstreet alleys to rescue your kidnapped girlfriend. Such was the premise for Double Dragon, and from there countless knock-offs.
This massive fighting game trend soon caught on with the home console market. The problem was that the dominant system at the time, the NES, wasn’t as capable as its arcade big brothers. For that reason, the original Double Dragon was nerfed so that only one player could kick butt at a time. Its sequel, aptly named Double Dragon II: The Revenge, rectified this, but other concessions, such as short levels and only two opponents on the screen at once, were noticeable shortcomings.
A short time later I was absolutely enamored with Capcom’s latest arcade masterpiece: Final Fight. It was basically the same premise as the brawlers before it, but with hug sprites, amazing environments, and a somewhat lengthy (for its time) campaign that was designed to rob you of your allowance before you knew what hit you. Even with the move to the 16-bit Super NES the two player mode was sacrificed. So you can imagine that fans of these games in the arcade were no doubt let down by their home console ports.
Sega saw this as an opportunity to make a beat’em up game from the ground up for its Genesis, complete with two-player co-op. They named it Streets of Rage and it didn’t have an arcade game to live up to so they could exploit the Genesis’s strengths to create a truly special game. They hoped to outdo Final Fight – and many would agree they did just that. Plus, it gave Sega one more thing to throw in the face of would-be Super NES owners and another reason for gamers to opt for a Genesis instead. The 16-bit era isn’t called a war for nothing. The game spawned two sequels on the 16-bitter and from there fans have had to wait over 25 years for a new sequel. Luckily, that wait is now over!
Streets of Rage 4 is a love letter to the brawlers of yesteryear. The developers have gone all out to create a worthy sequel in a video game market that has pretty much moved on from the beat’em up genre. Thanks to the indie scene there has been somewhat of a resurgence and a fond nostalgia for these types of games has helped propel projects forward that would have otherwise been ignored. I know my inner circle of friends still periodically throw in games like Double Dragon II and have a good time, so there’s still a time and a place for this one, especially when it’s done so well.
Fans of the series will immediately recognize some of the roster of playable characters. From the outset you have the ability to play as one of the two iconic fighters: Axel Stone or Blaze Fielding. Just like prior games Axel is still as muscular as ever and is an all around good fighter to go with, albeit a bit chunkier and older than his prior appearances. Blaze isn’t quite as strong, but she more than makes up for it with her agility.
Two new faces comprise the rest of the beginning roster that you can choose from: Cherry Hunter and Floyd Iraia. If you’re familiar with the franchise, you’ll recognize Cherry’s last name. That’s because she’s Adam Hunter’s (playable in the original game) daughter and Eddie “Skate” Hunter’s (playable in parts 2 and 3) niece. She’s got mad skills with her electric guitar! Floyd studied under Dr. Zan (playable in part 3) and even has two robotic arms to inflict massive damage, but he’s super slow to move about the stages. No matter who you choose, you’ll have plenty of kick-ass moves at your disposal, but you’ll want to experiment with each to see which one(s) jive with your playing style. As you progress through the game and reach certain milestones you’ll unlock even more playable characters, which gives players reason to replay the scenario several times over.
One of the most iconic parts of the original series was its amazing soundtrack. It blended some truly unique beats that were simply stunning; especially on the Genesis sound chip. Master composer Yuzo Koshiro, as well as Motohiro Kawashima (of Streets of Rage 2 & 3 fame) returns for Streets of Rage 4 on several of the tracks and they are as sublime as ever. If you’re into kicking beats alongside kicking butts then you won’t be disappointed. Throughout the entire game I had a smile on my face as the soundtrack really propelled me forward through each level. Of course the Switch isn’t constrained by the chiptunes of the Genesis, and for the most part that’s a good thing. Maybe it’s just nostalgia, but I still think the gritty sound of the first two games still holds its own, and in some ways is slightly better – but that’s not to say the tunes aren’t excellent here as well.
Like any really good brawler, Streets of Rage 4 offers up co-op so you can take down the bad guys with your friends. There are several options in this regard, with four player co-op available locally and two player co-op online. No matter how many friends you have rolling in your crew, you’re bound to have a really great time. That’s thanks to the fantastic gameplay throughout. As you might expect, each character has a wide range of moves, from punches to kicks to jumps to specials. If you unleash a special attack you’ll use up some of your health bar, but if you can land more standard attacks immediately after you have the chance to refill a portion of your life bar! This creates an extra layer of strategy so you can unleash your fury at just the right moment and then follow up with smaller attacks to keep things going. You can also grab enemies by getting close to them, and then you can throw them into a gang of oncoming thugs to slow them all down. I especially love it when Floyd is close to two baddies he can lift each up in both arms and then smack their skulls together – so satisfying!
As is par for the course for these types of games, plenty of enemies will come at you with a wide variety of weapons. Things like knives and pipes can be wrestled away from the bad guys and then used against them. You have the option of melee attacks or throwing the item across the screen for a ranged hit. One of the bets parts of the game is that you can juggle enemies in the air and against the borders of the screen, racking up massive damage. In some instances you can even throw a projectile and then after it bounces off the enemy pick it up and use it again – recycling never felt so good!
You’ll come across all sorts of bad guys (and gals) as you progress through the game’s twelve stages. Each has their own style of attack and some are quick while others take a more steady approach. At first blush some of them put up quite a fight and even have difficult defenses to pierce. One thing to remember is that you can move up and down the screen, so if an enemy is about to unleash a special move or charge at you, simply pressing up or down will often allow you to avoid them entirely, which often opens them up for a counterattack. Most of the enemies and bosses have specific tells that you can watch out for to avoid taking too much damage. With five levels of difficulty to choose from at the start of the game, you shouldn’t have any trouble getting through the game on the easier settings. The game encourage multiple plays because of the way things unlock, so don’t be afraid to take on the easier mode first and then work your way up to more difficult ones.
In many senses the soundtrack is more of the same, which is a really good thing! The graphics have seen the biggest change over the original trilogy. Instead of sprites we have hand-drawn backgrounds and characters, giving it more of a comic book look. In fact, the art style is reminiscent of NES boxes and instruction books where the artists were trying to convey what the 8-bit graphics were supposed to represent. Seeing the game in development I wasn’t too thrilled with the look, but the end result is rather stunning. The amount of detail put into the various scenes is fantastic and several times I stopped moving forward just to just take in the atmosphere. The purists will no doubt wish the entire game was pixel art, and indeed there is a mode that can be turned on to facilitate this. It’s a fun diversion and I appreciate the work that must have gone into creating it, but overall I liked playing with the newer graphic style. Oh, and you can even toggle the classic music on as well! How cool is that?
If you have a soft spot for beat’em ups, then Streets of Rage 4 is a no-brainer. Although it doesn’t really reinvent the genre, it modernizes it while still paying respect to the original trilogy. This game nails the gameplay, gives us several visual and audio options, and plenty of difficulty selections to choose from. I haven’t had this much fun with a brawler in decades and the level of care and attention that went into this title shows throughout. Don’t miss out on what could be the revival of the decade!
- Graphics - 9/109/10
- Sound - 10/1010/10
- Gameplay - 9.5/109.5/10
- Lasting Appeal - 7.5/107.5/10
Final Thoughts: EXCELLENT
Gamers have overlooked the beat’em up genre for decades, but Streets of Rage 4 is here to knock some sense into them. It walks that fine line of providing just the right amount nostalgia while at the same time injecting new characters and gameplay to create a fantastic experience that should appeal to the teenagers of the ‘80s and today. Grab a friend and kick some butt. Don’t sleep on this one!