As far as I'm concerned, Streets of Rage 2 is the best brawler ever made. It rises above its contemporaries with great pacing, really strong controls, and memorable bosses. It also has a phenomenal soundtrack.
In that respect, Streets of Rage 4 has a tall order ahead of it. When I first heard that DotEmu, the company responsible for the Wonder Boy remaster among others, was making a proper sequel to Streets of Rage, I cheered. Then I saw the trailer and frowned, because it didn't seem to quite capture the grittiness of the original games. Then I played it, and realized that it would be just fine.
Bright and cartoon aesthetic aside, Streets of Rage 4 is a faithful translation of the classic beat 'em up. There are the punch combos, the jump kick, and the super attack, which costs a bit of your health bar. Many of the classic enemies return as well, including Big Ben, Electra, and of course, Y Signal.
But there are differences as well. A big one is that enemies can't wander off the screen. If they enter the field of play, they're trapped there. This has the effect of making the battles feel more crowded, chaotic and interesting.
I was also struck by the depth of the mechanics. As I played along with a DotEmu developer as Axel, we talked about some of the nuances of the combat. When I told them that I often rely on jump kicks to keep my safe and mobile, they oberved that while it was a useful means of crowd control, its low damage made it an inefficient way of dealing large numbers of enemies. Touche.
Throws are likewise another important part of the Streets of Rage experience, which you accomplish by attacking while pushing forward. It's a risky away to attack your foes, but very rewarding. Not only are they capable of doing really solid area of effect damage, they provide frames of invincibility, making them essential when the larger and more powerful mobs show up later in the game.
Perhaps the biggest update is to the super mechanic. While you'll still lose health, you can gain some of it back with a clean, uninterrupted melee combo. This is to mitigate the feeling of making a mistake when you trigger a super attack and lose health.
Seeing all this gives me hope that the classic brawler can be rehabilitated a bit in the eyes of the public. We've had many good sidescrolling beat 'em ups over the years, but games like Scott Pilgrim and Castle Crashers have tended to rely on light RPG mechanics to convey a feeling of depth. The overall impression that the beat 'em up genre is an outdated relic of the arcade era remains very much in force.
At their best, though, beat 'em ups can be a fun, cathartic couch co-op experience that demand a certain level of experience. Streets of Rage 2 is perhaps the best expression of that, remaining eminently replayable even after all these years. It's a deeper genre than many suppose, though it hasn't been given the opportunity to express that enough over the years.
Streets of Rage 4 is still pretty early. The version I played at PAX West used the Streets of Rage 2 soundtrack as a fill-in for the final version (which I was fine with, to be honest), and Blaze's moveset was incomplete. But what I played filled me with hope that the brawler genre can be redeemed a little bit in the eyes of the general public.
As for the art style, I guess we'll have to see.
Streets of Rage 4 is coming to PC and console at a later date. No word on a Switch release, but come on, it has to happen, right? Expect it in 2019.