It's been almost 26 years since the last Streets of Rage game, and the beat 'em up genre has gradually been swallowed up by the sands of time. It's back on the rise now though, with the likes of River City Girls and The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa bringing side-scrolling punching action back into vogue. The time seems ripe to get back to the streets.
Streets of Rage 4 is a short, concentrated hit of classic beat 'em up action. Enemies walk in from either side of the screen, and my sole mission is to lay into them with combo after combo while steadily advancing through the level. Despite a seemingly sparse offering, it's hard to imagine what more a Streets of Rage fan could want from a new entry, decades removed from the series' glory days. This collaboration between DotEmu, Lizardcube, Guard Crush Games, and a veritable host of musical talent, is a strong re-entrance. Streets of Rage 4 plays like an old brawler, but one that's learned some new tricks.
The story mode, the fulcrum of Streets of Rage 4, centers on the return of some old faces and the introduction of new ones as they rage across the city. 10 years have passed since the fall of Mr. X and the Syndicate, and veterans Axel and Blaze are joined by Adam Hunter's daughter Cherry and Floyd Iraia, an apprentice of Dr. Zan, in their hunt of the new crime empire that's been sweeping over the city.
If none of those names mean much to you, that's fine. The story is ultimately just a means to transition characters from one locale to the next, and outside a few great moments (often featuring cameos) they're pretty easy to gloss over. The comic-style interstitials aren't necessarily bad; they're just about as deep as any beat 'em up story usually dives.
The draw of the campaign is the progression itself. Despite only 12 stages that shouldn't take more than a couple hours to beat altogether, each one is incredibly detailed and most have their own unique mechanic. One stage takes place in the sewers, forcing players to contend with toxic sewage and malfunctioning exhaust valves. Another takes place on a train, occasionally providing a short warning before a sign zips across the screen, decking anyone who doesn't jump. Stages have their own style too, taking place in different locations and at various times of the day, creating different looks due to lighting changes and visual effects.
The stage art blends extremely well with the hand-drawn style of the characters, which despite abandoning the pixel art of old still retains an incredible amount of flair and expression. Adam Hunter's redesign is a major glow-up for the Streets of Rage veteran, and newcomers like Cherry have tons of visual flair, like her signature guitar. The developers also added a number of additional visual effects to the character sprites; walking in and out of shadows in a police station changed the lighting angles on my fighter. Fireballs and special attacks look amazing, and every punch and back-kick is readable and smooth.
Fighting in Streets of Rage 4 is pretty simple: one attack button, jumps, and grabs being the basic foundation against various enemy types. "Star" moves help clear out screens when things get too hectic, while Special attacks are the big risk-reward mechanic. Specials cost health to use, but that spent vitality can be recovered by attacking enemies without getting hit. It asks the question: Is it worth throwing out several specials in a row, or better to play it safe? Alongside the new juggling mechanics, which lets players get extra hits by ricocheting their foes' body off walls, obstacles, and even each other's hits, it all tallies up to a combat system that is simple to understand and engrossing to master.
Each fighter has their own distinct style: Axel's still a stoic jack-of-all-trades; Blaze is fast and acrobatic; Cherry combines speed with oddball combo attacks, bouncing off enemies and slamming her guitar into the ground; fellow newcomer Floyd Iraia is a grappler that sits somewhere between Haggar and Bane, able to grab two enemies at once and slam them into each other. Adam Hunter rounds things out as the unlockable fifth fighter, at least in the current generation, with his signature back-kick and a really fun short-dash. I spent a good deal of one campaign run playing as Adam just to see all the variations and ways I could extend combos or respond to different situations. Then, when I switched to Cherry Hunter for a new run, everything was fresh.
The character roster is bolstered by the inclusion of unlockable "retro" fighters, which are essentially the original lineups of old Streets of Rage games, including brawlers like Shiva and Skate Hunter. They all play like their respective games and even have moves reminiscent of their original appearances, like calling in a cop car to launch a mortar at enemies.
Streets of Rage 4 is really good about not just creating a lot of enemy types, but doling them out gradually over each stage. Each enemy type and variants are introduced over the course of the game, presenting scenarios that encourage players to consider different situational counters. By the final stage, I could decipher the screen at a glance and quickly map out my best course of action. Since there's no block button, I'd usually go for the big area-of-effect fighters first, handling the more manageable enemies one at a time using all the ground I'd gained. Oftentimes, quickly eliminating key enemies versus letting them hang out was the difference between a full health bar and a struggle to the next chicken dinner.
The difficulty of Streets of Rage 4 is a major part of its appeal. Normal mode, especially in solo play, felt tough without ever feeling impossible. Adding a few players to the mix eases up on that a bit, as it gets naturally easier to clear enemies with more fists. Difficulty is also one of the few things that provides a reason to come back to Streets of Rage 4 after the credits roll.
Outside the story campaign, there are a few options, most unlocked by beating the campaign once. Boss Rush is a self-explanatory gauntlet of the campaign's bosses, though it takes place in one arena and gradually drops in additional enemies and pick-ups to keep things interesting. Alongside a Stage Select mode to replay specific stages, there's also an Arcade mode, which is basically an exercise in seeing how far you could get in one theoretical "quarter" in the machine. Battle Mode is the one non-campaign related mode, and it's a frankly barebones multiplayer that seems more gimmicky than anything else. It might be fun to hop in and beat up pals a few times, but Streets of Rage 4 isn't Street Fighter; it's easy to notice that its systems are built for PvE, not PvP.
But while the lack of additional modes or content outside replaying story beats is a bit disappointing, it really allows the stages of Streets of Rage 4 to shine. It's a tight run that will likely only take a couple of hours to beat, but those minutes fly by. Where other beat 'em ups have veered into the realm of RPGs, building larger and larger worlds and deep progression systems, Streets of Rage 4 is clearly focused on honing the basics. It wants to deliver the best 12-stage beat 'em up it can, and for the most part, Streets of Rage 4 nails it.
One major draw for Streets of Rage 4, aside from the game itself, is the soundtrack. Large portions were composed by Olivier Deriviere, but Streets of Rage 4 also has work from longtime series composers Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima, as well as a litany of additional composers. It is, frankly, a soundtrack of bangers. I frequently found myself pausing just to listen, marvelling at little touches like stereo effects or the music changing as I moved through different areas. There's also an option to use the excellent tracks from previous games, but honestly, I've been rocking all the new tunes.
Streets of Rage 4 feels like a celebration of a genre that's getting a second wind. It speaks volumes that literally minutes after beating it the first time, I booted it back up and turned the difficulty up higher, aching to see how far this game could push me. When I got to the miniboss of the first stage and two of them dropped down instead of one, I audibly laughed. It might have seemed excessive, but I knew it was doable. And when I eventually overcame those two skull-masked robotic jerks, it felt intensely rewarding. It didn't unlock a new character or special outfit, but it meant I was getting that much better.
Amid the resurgence of classic beat 'em ups, Streets of Rage 4 pays loving homage to its roots while carving out its own future. Smart mechanical updates and a fitting new style, backed by another incredible soundtrack, all combine to make a short but sweet beat 'em up experience. While I wish there was more to keep me hooked in the long run, Streets of Rage 4 seems like a game I'll be revisiting years from now.
Streets of Rage 4 is a small, concentrated hit of beat 'em up excellence. While its length and lack of extra modes might make this offering seem slim, it makes up for it with brilliant fighting, effusive style, and another solid set of tunes. If beat 'em up games are seeing a revival, Streets of Rage 4 is leading the charge.