I, like a vast number of my games writing peers, spent my childhood played the absolute hell out of the Streets of Rage series. A set of glorious, incredible-sounding scrolling beat ‘em ups that only bettered themselves with each beefier sequel, they still remain, thanks in some small part to the genre’s stagnation, amongst the most iconic, important, and playable games of their type.
Dotemu know how to bring the classics back, and they’re seemingly making a nice living doing so. 2017’s Monster Boy in Wonderland showed that there was plenty of stomach for bringing a beloved title back to life with a modern paint job, and now, with the similarly-flavoured duo of Windjammers 2 and Streets of Rage 4, they’re getting to flex their rippling creative muscles for just a few reps more.
Streets of Rage 4 just feels right. At this point you’d be hard pressed to distinguish any fundamental difference between the way that it plays over its predecessors, but then I genuinely think that’s the point. Our EGX hands on gave us access to three characters, Axel, Blaze and newcomer Cherry Hunter, and unleashed them on the grimy city streets. You amble from left to right, punching, kicking and setting fire to street punks and punkettes in equal measure, and still they keep coming.
It all looks incredible. Retaining the identity of the originals while updating it with high definition sprites isn’t as a simple task as you might think, but it’s one that Dotemu have taken to with gusto. An aging Axel, rocking a cut-off denim jacket and blonde beard, is heavier set and certainly less lithe than he once was, but he moves and fights with practiced ease.
Specials are still tied to simple inputs or single button presses, and just as before the most powerful ones come at a cost to the player’s health. You still aim to jump in or come at enemies on a diagonal, slotting yourself in to the fray before they have time to reply with their own punch, knee or stab of a knife. It’s a reliable dance, and you won’t have forgotten the steps.
One of the simplest visual touches, but one that had everyone talking, was the simple fact that larger enemies are now visibly tougher to throw, with the player characters struggling and slowing under their weight. Dotemu have aimed for refinement over revolution, and on this evidence they’re exhibiting a mastery over the form.
Some of that will be due to the participation of Guard Crush Games, creators of indie spiritual successor Streets of Fury, and it’ll be interesting to see how much further they can help to push the series that they were once so enamoured with. Streets of Fury boasted a huge roster of playable characters, an expanded move list and four player co-op, and while we’re certainly getting multiplayer options for Streets of Rage 4, it’ll be interesting to see if there’s the character depth to allow that much variation.
Do we just want more Streets of Rage though? Dotemu seem to be building the game specifically with that in mind, but part of me hopes that there are more surprises to come. You have to wonder what they could be, as anything too wild is going to be met by dismay within a community that clearly values the old ways. Unlockable skill trees, improving moves or RPG-style levelling up would likely all work here, but for some they could just as likely diminish the game’s achievements as improve upon them.
It’s something we haven’t seen mind you. My worry would be though that without that sense of progression it’s simply going to be more of the same, and vibrant art over the top of elderly mechanics does not guarantee success or quality. The thin gameplay of the classic beat ‘em up is part of the reason for the genre’s self-imposed hibernation and while Streets of Rage 4 scratches an itch that nobody else is reaching for, it could bring a short-lived sense of relief.
That’s not to take away from what Streets of Rage 4 is. A classic beat ‘em up in a modern skin might just be the simple, brain-massaging fun we need right now, and it’s legitimately as close to the originals as it’s possible to be. The Mega Drive Classic’s inclusion of Streets of Rage II has placed the series firmly back in the modern consciousness – well, mine at least – and with Dotemu, Lizardcube and Guard Crush at the helm you can be certain that at the very least Streets of Rage 4 will be a gorgeous, retro-infused electro-pop smackdown of the highest order.