For those who owned a Sega Mega Drive in the 90s, chances are your fondest memories were not of a speedy blue hedgehog but battering thugs with a mate on neon-soaked streets.
Scrolling beat-em-ups were all the rage back then and Streets of Rage was the king. But the series has stayed dormant since, with shortburst arcade thrills seemingly a thing of the past. It’s then taken a collaboration between like-minded fans and indie developers, all hailing from France no less, to give the Sega series its long-awaited revival.
The results are unashamedly old-school, as each punch and kick hits me right in the nostalgic feels, while still being able to bring the series forward to the present day.
What’s immediately striking in Streets of Rage 4 is its new hand-drawn art style. It’s a bold choice but the comic book visuals vibrantly express the spirit of the original pixel art. Setting the story 10 years after the last game also allows for character redesign, such as Axel’s new beard and belly, as well as introducing new blood like Cherry, daughter of original member Adam, who’s only gotten more ripped with age.
Most importantly, it plays precisely like a good old-fashioned beat-em-up with just a few modern tweaks to keep things fresh. As well as picking up all manner of weapons, you’ll have to watch out for occasional environmental hazards, though health used up on special attacks can also be regained by attacking, but it all enhances rather than messes with the formula. You can even play using ‘legacy controls’, executing all your moves with just three buttons - if you can plug in a Mega Drive controller it’d be perfect.
With 12 levels set across inspired and dynamic locations, it’s the largest entry yet. You’ll still easily beat it in a couple hours but playing it well, especially taking advantage of the new combo system, is another matter if you want to hit a high ranking.
It’s the beat
It’s impossible to talk about Streets of Rage without mentioning the soundtrack - even the simple but effective plot revolves around music, while the agile Cherry’s weapon of choice also happens to be an electric guitar. To nail the sound of the streets, Streets of Rage 4 hasn’t just recruited the series’ original composer Yuzo Koshiro but also drafted in collaborators from other renowned arcade beat-em-ups of yesteryear like Street Fighter II and Final Fight, and the results do not disappoint.
In a word, it totally bangs.
There’s other genre influences in there, as well as more modern trends, but overall it doesn’t sound out of place in a club. If purists disagree, they have the fantastic option to replace it with the retro soundtrack right from the get go. Considering how influential the original music was for many underground techno producers, the classic synth beats have not aged one bit.
There’s even more options to satisfy both nostalgic and modern audiences. Perhaps the most delightful feature is the ability to change the food you pick up as health from the classic apple and roast chicken to a whole menu variety of other choices, including some veggie-friendly ones.
Old-school of hard knocks
Additional modes unlock once you complete the story, including an arcade mode that lets you play the whole thing in one sitting, as well as a boss rush and battle mode. These are all welcome extras, though I would have liked the option to use multiple credits in arcade mode instead of just being given one credit before it’s game over.
While Streets of Rage 4 is fun and challenging enough for repeat plays, there’s another great incentive as the lifetime score you accrue unlocks every single character and variant from past games - in all their pixelated glory. Having the old visuals with the new might seem jarring, especially as the characters from the first game have a much more basic move set but it’s terrific fanservice. If anything, it lets you really appreciate just how much the characters have evolved over the years.
This is also the first time in the series you can have up to four players brawling on screen for multiplayer mayhem. The downside is this is limited to local multiplayer, so current circumstances means not many people will get to make use of this. At least you can still play online with another person, either through invites or random matchmaking
Streets of Rage 4 verdict
In the same way Sonic Mania was a new classic-style Sonic game fans had been craving for years, Streets of Rage 4 delivers a KO of an old-school arcade brawler that’s easy to pick up but with plenty of challenge and reward to keep you coming back.
The new story, overhauled visuals and a few modern tweaks ensures it’s a sequel but nonetheless one that’s firmly rooted in and celebratory of its history.