If you know what a Mega Drive is, chances are you’ll have heard of Streets of Rage. The scrolling beat ‘em up series directed by Noriyoshi Ohba was as synonymous with Sega’s console as jittery hedgehogs and environmentally astute dolphins. Alongside Final Fight it’s often held up as being amongst the best of the fisticuff-centric genre.
Thanks to Sega having ignored the series for the last twenty-five years, it’s no surprise that everyone’s response to the announcement of a fourth instalment was to meet it with incredulity. This is the stuff of wet 16-bit dreams, and with the joint development of the game being handled by DotEmu and Guard Crush Games – the teams behind Windjammers 2, Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, and fan favourite brawler Streets of Fury – there’s actually plenty of reasons to be very excited about what they might create.
Catching up with a relaxed and chatty Cyrille Imbert, the CEO of DotEmu and lead developer of Streets of Rage 4, it seemed apparent that he’s not too phased by the pressures of working on such an iconic series; “It’s a lot of pressure of course, but honestly I wasn’t expecting that much response. I was amazed, and pleasantly surprised! We are very confident in our skills, in the way we work, and in our passion as well. We understand what the fans want because we are fans ourselves.”
Throughout our chat, his passion for this new project was obvious, and it seems as though he’s not the only member of the team for whom this is a dream project. “Thanks to the success of Wonder Boy,” he told us, “I really wanted to continue working on Sega licenses. There’s so many that I love, and Streets of Rage was one of the first ones that I thought could be the next step. So I started to talk about it with Ben Fiquet who was the artist from Wonder Boy from Lizardcube and he’s a huge fan as well. He was like, ‘What really?! You’re going to do that? I want to work on it as well!’”
Anyone that’s seen the gorgeous remake of Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap will have a sense of where Fiquet’s art direction is going with Streets of Rage 4. The announcement trailer showcases a vibrant, hand-drawn cartoon aesthetic that pays homage to the look of the original games while bringing the series bang up to date and Cyrille was obviously blown away by it when he first saw it; “When Ben started to show me the design he did already I was like ‘Wow, that’s it! We need to do that!’”
While DotEmu are clearly experienced with freshening up classic experiences, they’ve looked to another team to ensure that the beat em up mechanics are absolutely spot on, and luckily Cyrille knew a perfect fit; “My designer, Jordi Asensio, used to work for a company called Guard Crush who specialised in beat ’em ups, so we’ve got Ben from Lizardcube for the awesome art and we got Guard Crush for the programming. The experience they have from Streets of Fury, which is a very good beat ‘em up, makes them a very good match.”
Perhaps one of the strangest things about Streets of Rage’s lengthy hiatus, and one of the key things that Cyrille spoke about was why nobody had managed to truly replicate the success of scrolling beat em ups in the twenty five years since the last game. Despite that fact he seemed pretty assured, saying, “It’s very difficult; it’s a complicated genre. A lot of things are happening on the screen, so the flow is very important, and it needs to be fun the whole way through, so it needs to be diverse. That’s why we chose to work with Guard Crush.” He continued, “They’ve been doing this for the past ten years, gathering feedback from the community and always improving their engine, so they have a very clear idea of what people will want from a modern beat em up.”
It’s possible of course that we’re all guilty of wearing the rosiest of tinted glasses when it comes to Streets of Rage, but it’s arguably one of the few 16-bit era experiences that genuinely does still stand up. That doesn’t mean that you’d want it exactly that way if it released next week, and the team seem well aware of that with Cyrille saying, ”It’s got to be the perfect balance between what you would expect from a game from a series like this, and what we would expect from a new member in that series… It has to feel like Streets of Rage.”
He continued, “We need to keep what’s the best from the originals, and that could be anything from gameplay to story to different aspects of the games, but we need to keep what makes the game great, and modify or improve those that were not so great, or just OK. There is a legacy, we’re not just erasing that.
“The gameplay, the rhythm, the flow, the fighting mechanics, they were already good but now we can do so much more. We have a lot of good ideas, for example in Streets of Rage 2 when you use your super it burns up some of your life, whereas now it still burns your life but you can regain it if you do a perfect combo.”
Besides the challenge of getting multiple fists to feel just right against multiple faces, the music of Streets of Rage was almost as important to the experience, with Yuzo Koshiro’s progressive soundtrack still having a unique sound even today. Cyrille knows that they need to get Streets of Rage 4’s just right; “The soundtrack is a part of the Streets of Rage legacy, so that’s something that’s very important to us. We have many ideas, we’re talking to a lot of people, and while we can’t say much now, it’s one of our main concerns. We want people to play the game, hear the music and say ‘Wow!’ We want to have something that feels modern, but that has this spirit, this legacy as well.”
It’s little surprise at this point that Cyrille was being cagey about various elements of the game – “We don’t want to ruin the surprise!” – but it seemed clear that besides Axel and Blaze we’re going to see more of the characters from the first three games. It’ll be interesting to see whether multiplayer will extend beyond just two players as well, especially when Guard Crush’s Streets of Fury supports four player co-op, but when so much of our conversation was about this development being a balancing act between modernity and nostalgia, perhaps they’ll look to keep things simple.
Finishing up, I asked if there was a reason for Axel and Blaze’s return to action, and what we could expect from the narrative, with Cyrille replying “We don’t want to change everything. What makes Streets of Rage charming is that the story is very simple, straightforward; it’s bad-ass ex-cops beating the crime organisation of the city. That won’t change much! There will be some twists, there’ll be some different ways of telling the story to players, some modern ways of doing it. It will be the same, but different!”
While some of the more vocal fans have expressed concerns about the art style from far behind the safety of their own keyboards, the fact that we’re getting a new Streets of Rage game is obvious cause for celebration. Cyrille and the teams at DotEmu and Guard Crush Games seem like a perfect fit, and there’s every chance that 2019 could be the year that scrolling beat ’em ups truly return.