I fear that the significance of Streets of Rage 4 will be lost on most folks, so I need to do some table-setting before I tell you about this lovingly made sequel I’ve waited 26 years to play.
I grew up in an alternate dimension in which Sega made the best video games, and kids who preferred Nintendo were chumps. Congratulations — and also, my deepest sympathies — if you grew up in the same dimension. (You probably did, if you’re reading this review.)
It was a good dimension, for a while. Right?
Other kids had crap like Super Mario World and Super Metroid, games that pathetically called themselves “super” to make up for their obvious creative shortcomings. But we Sega kids had the good stuff. We had games with personality and grit: Sonic, sure, but also Mutant League Football, General Chaos, and ToeJam & Earl. Tetris had nothing on Columns. And don’t even get me started on the superiority of our dimension’s versions of Mortal Kombat and Aladdin. They had blood and knives!
But the crown jewel of the Sega kingdom was the Streets of Rage trilogy, a trio of beat-’em-ups that blended Lethal Weapon, RoboCop, Escape from New York, and Police Story into a thick smoothie of 16-bit violence. My Nintendo friends coveted the sweaty, grown-up aesthetic along with the techno soundtrack, which made them feel how cool teenagers must feel while doing whatever it is that cool teenagers do. This was clearly a game for people who could land kickflips and smoke cigarettes.
When the neighborhood kids gathered to play in my parents’ living room, 10-year-old me figured Streets of Rage would become the biggest franchise of all time. I believed we’d have dozens of sequels and spinoffs by 2020, when we’d all give our children cool names like Gearbot or DJ Rollerblade.
Then, in 1995, the failure of the Sega Saturn destroyed my dream of Sega’s video game supremacy, and that dimension of reality collapsed. I found myself marooned in a world in which Nintendo and Sony ruled all. I was struck by the fear that I might never play another good Sonic game again, much less enjoy a proper, new Streets of Rage game.
Those of you raised on Nintendo and Sony need to know what that era of gaming was like to understand how embarrassingly important a game like Streets of Rage 4 is to folks like me. This is our Final Fantasy 7 Remake, or Resident Evil 3.
I regret to inform you that I’m very serious about those comparisons.
Streets of Rage 4 keeps the dream alive
No game can live up to those kinds of expectations, or pressure, but the developers of Street of Rage 4 have taken an earnest shot. I love their little game, warts and all.
If you played the original Streets of Rage titles, good news: Streets of Rage 4 is a lot more Streets of Rage. If you’re unfamiliar with the series, allow me to explain.
You pick a fighter from a collection of brawlers with unique stats. Some are fast but deal light damage, like the guitar-wielding teen Cherry. Some are slow but deliver punches with the concussive impact of a sledgehammer, like the cybernetically enhanced Floyd Iraia. Series stalwarts Axel and Blaze are playable from the start, and provide balanced combat options, while other Streets of Rage characters, including retro-styled 16-bit fighters in all their pixelated glory, can be unlocked as you collect experience points and progress through the campaign.
The combat has been improved a bit from the 16-bit era, but this is still a game in which you’ll spend most of the time bashing the same attack button, occasionally tapping the jump button to evade an attack, dealing a special move that can cost some of your own life, or unleashing a limited ultra move that slaughters any weak enemies standing in its way. There’s no button to guard yourself from attacks, so a good defense is moving up and down the screen to avoid getting kicked in the throat, while conserving health power-ups for the moment your health bar is nearly (but not fully!) depleted.
Some enemies require a little bit more strategy than others. Kickboxers block attacks, so you must grapple them — accomplished by literally walking into them. Endgame minibosses have Punch-Out!!-style tells, cueing you to move out of the way or rush in with an uppercut to the jaw. The final boss fight is hilariously complex and annoyingly difficult, designed like a classic arcade boss meant to fleece you out of every quarter in your pocket. But most enemies are little more than punching bags with knives taped to their side.
The game takes skill, in other words, but it’s light on strategy. You can play alone, but c’mon, you deserve better. Like Final Fight or Castle Crashers, this is an experience that comes to life when you play with your friends, using the somewhat mindless action on the screen as an excuse to hang out and talk.
Streets of Rage 4 isn’t a competitive mental acuity test, nor should it be. This is a game for basements that stink of soda and stale chips; it’s built for distracted players who need something to do with their hands while they gab with friends on Discord.
The game includes a handful of modes that don’t unlock until you complete the campaign, but that campaign remains the heart and soul of the game. There’s the self-explanatory Stage Select option, and Arcade Mode challenges you to complete the entire game with a single credit. Boss Rush pits your single life against a gauntlet of bosses. You don’t have to complete the game to unlock Battle Mode, in which you can fight your friends, but this isn’t Street Fighter. I tried this option once, and I doubt I will ever return.
Tucked deeper in the menus is a gallery containing concept art. The pile of images shows how the team mapped out the flow of the stages, and how the heroes and enemies evolved from the original Streets of Rage designs to their modern form. It’s a novelty, but one I’m glad the developers included.
I feel like I’m discussing the fries and the drink when most folks just want to know if this is a good burger or not. The campaign is a delight. The stages flow smoothly. You get a short dash through a police station, and a long trek through a mysterious island. For fans of the series, there’s a bar fight, a giant glass elevator, and enough neon to melt your eyeballs.
And though the combat is simple, it’s an absolute pleasure. Hits land with a satisfying crack, each punch and kick growing the combo counter. With a friend, you’ll find yourself volleying enemies like shuttlecocks in a game of human badminton. A beat-’em-up’s appeal is largely in its feel, and this game feels incredible.
Streets of Rage 4 is everything I could have wanted from a true Streets of Rage sequel. I’m satiated.
But Streets of Rage, as a series, is a time capsule from a different, simpler era. While it’s blunt and repetitive, it also manifests a relaxing social space with ease. Call it video games as loitering. The music is as good as it’s ever been in the series. The stages and characters are beautiful, reimagining the original trilogy’s ’90s locales and punk-inspired band of baddies in a way that stands up to those games without looking cheap or dated. The action itself is so simple that you can get lost in a conversation about, well, anything as you play.
I played with Polygon managing editor Chelsea Stark, and we spent most of the campaign talking about my obsession with spotting her boyfriend in the background of every important Zoom call, like some sort of cryptozoological being, and the grotesque statue of Cloud Strife that came with the Final Fantasy 7 Remake special edition and has consumed too much space in her apartment. We talked about my son, and how he’s become addicted to watching Disney’s Robin Hood, and how I’m terrible at keeping my office clean.
In hindsight, we never talked about the quarantine or the general state of suck that has defined the past few months. We weren’t in 2020, or even this universe. For a moment, Streets of Rage 4 transported us to another time and place, where Sonic was king and Mario was a slowpoke wannabe, and there wasn’t a problem in the world.
What a profound relief.
Streets of Rage 4 will be released April 30 on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. The game was reviewed using a download code provided by Dotemu. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.
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