Still raging 26 years later, Streets of Rage 4 is a faithful revival of the classic arcade beat-’em-ups. Move from left to right, punch enemies, destroy objects for points, health, and weapon pickups, punch a few more enemies, and repeat. It’s simple and unadventurous, and while it expands modestly on combat with a few new skills to master, Streets of Rage 4 definitely prioritises nostalgia over any kind of big modern reinvention.
The plot is wafer-thin and predictably corny, but it’s beautifully presented in a comic book panel style. Mr and Ms Y, the twin offspring of series’ villain Mr X, are the big bads this time and their evil scheme is to control the city by “corrupting everything good” while looking like a couple of sub-par Scott Pilgrim villains. It’s all very silly, but in a knowing, not-taking itself-too-seriously kinda way, and it just about pulls it off.
It’s 10 years since the events of Streets of Rage 3 and series regulars, Axel Stone and Blaze Fielding, return to fight crime again despite likely being “too old for this shit.” To balance out the familiar with something different is the addition of two brand-new characters, Cherry Hunter (the daughter of series stalwart, Adam Hunter) and a cybernetic armed, absolute unit called Floyd Iraia.
Just like in the old games, each character has a special move that does a lot more damage at the cost of taking a chunk out of your own health bar. However, an added risk-reward twist for Streets of Rage 4 is that any lost health can potentially be earnt back if you string a combo of standard attacks together on top of it. Any break in this combo results in the health being lost permanently. On my first playthrough, which took between two and three hours, I found myself avoiding special moves due to their risky nature. However, as I got the hang of combos I started using them semi-regularly in situations where I felt confident I could earn that precious health back. It’s a simple but interesting minigame, and perhaps the most important addition into progressing the Streets of Rage formula as a whole.
A stronger weapon in your arsenal are Star Moves. Every character’s is slightly different – Axel’s, for instance, is a flaming rising uppercut, while Cherry’s is a Pete Townshend-inspired guitar powerslide – but triggering them will do a huge amount of damage to any Y Syndicate members unlucky enough to be in your path. At the start of every level you’re given one charge, but more can be collected during your travels and they’re almost always best reserved for bosses where you’ll need it the most. Using them while fighting the regular goons often feels unnecessary as most situations are manageable, but they’re still a fun spectacle with Floyd’s screen dominating uni beam being a visual treat.
Another enjoyable addition to combat is the inclusion of the weapon catch maneuver. Throw any weapon at an enemy and, if it makes contact, it’ll bounce back, giving you a split-second to catch it and keep whacking away with it. Like Gears of War’s active reload timed-button-press mechanic, there’s a rhythm required to master it, but once you’ve do it’s supremely rewarding.
However, for every moment of feeling like a deadly ninja, there are moments that are simply unfair due to factors completely out of your control. There’s one section where getting hit with a grenade bounces you into the path of another explosion, with no way to dodge or escape. I lost half my health as a result and this inability to prevent it from happening was very frustrating.
Of the four starting characters, the returning duo of Axel and Blaze immediately felt familiar and fit right in place in a ’90s side-scrolling beat-’em up, but they do feel a little generic at this point. They’re both well-rounded fighters who don’t necessarily excel in any ability, but work best as an introductory character for new players and a recognisable sight for veterans. By contrast, Floyd and Cherry couldn’t be further apart, and their movesets are by far the most exciting and fun to play.
Cherry Hunter – despite carrying a guitar on her back – can move at a significant speed, which is (literally) a nice change of pace to the other characters, and that made her my preferred choice in my first playthrough. Her ability to sprint and weave through attacks feels more in line with what I expected a modern Streets of Rage would play like, which is also why I was initially disappointed with how sluggish the other characters felt in comparison. Floyd, for instance, is by far the slowest character, but I soon appreciated that what he lacks in speed is compensated for with strength. His ability to toss enemies around like rag dolls eventually won me over and had me experimenting with different playstyles.
Within the constraints of the restricted nature of side-scrolling beat ’em-ups, Streets of Rage 4 at least makes an attempt to spice up the level design. Levels like Skytrain and Airplane add little bits of variety (like high-speed train signs flying at you during combat, for example) to keep the environments fresh.
Weapons are no longer restricted to hand-to-hand combat either: we get giant wrecking balls, chandeliers, and plenty of destructible scenery playing its part in the violence. There’s even a level of tactics to using some of these, especially the wrecking balls. Timing your activation just right can result in dealing an extremely satisfying level of damage. There’s also a 2D sequence that conjures up memories of the hammer hallway scene from 2003’s South Korean classic film, Oldboy, where mastery of the weapon catch can make you feel unstoppable.
Every change of pace really adds to the enjoyment of Street of Rage 4, so much so it’s disappointing there isn’t even more variety throughout to ensure combat is fresh from beginning to end of its short run. As it is, they’re all-too-brief moments of joy; returning to the more traditional levels is sometimes a drag.
The music sets the tone and definitely feels on-brand with the iconic beats of the series. Although I’d have to say that in the era of game soundtracks like Hotline Miami and the recent Final Fantasy 7 Remake, they don’t quite hit the same sort of ‘I can’t get this track out of my brain’ status, or even its predecessors.
All 12 levels predictably end in a boss fight and, for the most part, there’s a good balance of variety and difficulty throughout. Most are smartly designed with often-challenging attack patterns you’ll need to learn, but disappointingly there are repeated enemies in later levels with arbitrary difficulty spikes like, “Here’s two of them now!” In general though, the enemies are a good mix of old and new with neither feeling out of place, despite the 26-year age gap.
I played through the first time alone, but that’s only half the fun. Less, even. The two-player online co-op really shines though with the intensity and chaos increased. It also made me fully appreciate the potential character combos and the satisfaction of perfectly executing a tandem move such as Floyd throwing an enemy into Cherry’s rushing flying knee. If you’re looking for longevity, two-player co-op is where it’s at. (Streets of Rage 4 also has local four-player co-op but, due to the current isolation circumstances, I was unable to try it out.)
Beyond the campaign and its five difficulty levels (Mania is exactly what it sounds like!) there’s a tough boss rush mode, Arcade (which is basically the story campaign but with a consistent life count), and a PVP battle mode to mess around with. But that’s it. And frankly, the story mode is better than any of these options, so if you’re playing alone there’s little replayability on offer.
One thing Streets of Rage 4 does offer, however, is the wealth of nostalgic choices, such as the retro Streets of Rage 1 and 2 soundtracks and old CRT filters. It takes a little grinding to unlock, but there’s also a lifetime point system that gives access to faithfully recreated playable characters (and a modern version of Adam who unlocks during the story) from previous entries in the series. They aren’t just skins either – these characters have their own move sets, animations, and sound effects.
Despite their sprites contrasting against the lush, cartoon-like world of Streets of Rage 4, these retro characters fit nicely into the combat loop and help reinforce how the latest instalment reignites that passion for the series through nostalgia. In fact, they’re so accurately recreated that, annoyingly, the characters from Streets of Rage 1 don’t even have special moves and must solely rely on their basic, “Call the cops for an airstrike” star moves. As a result they feel at odds with the new risk-reward system and it pretty much renders them unusable on the harder difficulties. In a way, this feels like a metaphor for the entire game: instead of taking bolder steps to modernise the formula, Streets of Rage 4 sticks rigidly to the past, for little more than nostalgia’s sake.