Streets of Rage is one of the first games I remember playing on my Mega Drive back in the early 90s. It became one of my favourite fighting series, helping to define that era of gaming for me. The prospect of another sequel never really came to mind until the announcement of Streets of Rage 4, leaving me with mixed feelings. Joy at one of my favourite franchises was coming back, certainly, but also the worry that it wouldn’t feel the same or that it just wouldn’t be a good game.
Well, Streets of Rage 4 isn’t a good game… it’s a great game and a pretty much perfect entry in the Streets of Rage franchise.
Set 10 years after the events of Streets of Rage 3, returning series stalwarts Axel, Blaze, and Adam are a bit older and wiser, but their creaking bones need some help. Enter new fighters Cherry and Floyd, who bring their own styles to the line up of fighters. Cherry has speed on her side to quickly move from one part of the screen to other while also dealing decent damage. Floyd, on the other hand, is a bit slower but more than makes up for it with sheer strength due to having metal arms. Each fighter has their own strengths and weaknesses, meaning different playstyles are required for each, and it is likely you will favour some over others.
The beat ’em up gameplay is as good as ever. Better than ever, even. It’s still the series and genre’s traditional style of moving around the scenes, identifying incoming dangers and moving onto the right planes to dish out strings of attacks, grappling throws, and specials. Special attacks (which can now be launched in mid-air) draw from your health pool, but you can now recoup what you spend by landing regular hits, keeping you on the front foot in fights. Meanwhile the bombastic, heavy-hitting Star moves will be treasured pickups to find and unleash at the right moment.
The main campaign has a dozen levels to brawl through. There are throwbacks to original games, including the City Streets and the Headquarters, but Streets of Rage 4 carves out its own identity through other locations such as a gallery and the police precinct. Each mission introduces a new kind of enemy or an upgraded version of previous encounters which keeps things fresh right until the final fight.
The difficulty gets progressively harder and you will no doubt see the Game Over screen quite a few times – a big jump in difficulty from stage 9 onwards will frustrate even seasoned players – but there are ways to alleviate the pain. That includes activating assists to give extra lives and special move stars, though this comes at a cost to your score. Level scores are important not just for ranking, but also as contributions to your lifetime score. It is through the lifetime score increasing that you will unlock additional characters from the original three games, including their classic move sets and specials.
Outside of the story campaign there are also Arcade, Boss Rush, and Battle modes. As you’d expect, Arcade gives you one shot to get through the full Streets of Rage 4’s campaign, chucking you back to the title screen if you lose all your lives, and Boss Rush has you facing off against all the bosses from the campaign one after another. The returning Battle Mode puts a competitive spin on things, letting you face off against your friends to decide who’s best.
The visual design of Streets of Rage 4 can’t really get any better. The graphics have been brought up to the standards of current 2D titles, but still manage to retain what made Streets of Rage stick in so many people’s minds. The character models and environments all look great, there’s a lot of colour, and the colour coding of enemies makes you aware of which threats to really keep any eye on when they start swarming. The environments all stand out and have their own identity. Some areas showcase the more run-down areas of the city while others show areas that are a bit more well to do. If you prefer, you can fiddle with the look of the game by applying retro and CRT filters, while the retro characters appear in all their pixellated glory.
Just as important as the gameplay and the visuals is the music, and the Streets of Rage 4 soundtrack is great. When a song first comes up and doesn’t go where you’re expecting, it can throw you off for a second before it loops right back into a memorable tune. My personal highlights include the music from stages two and nine. Straddling the new game and retro homage divide once again, you can also head into the menu and fire up the retro soundtrack instead.