The Rhythm of Violence
Life moves at a breakneck pace, one that only picks up speed as the years go by. While we all have memories, most events are ephemeral, fading into the haze of thousands of similar moments that blend together into what becomes your collective experience. The memories that stand out from this backdrop usually do so for one reason or another. Perhaps it was a significant milestone of your life, or a particular good or bad moment. Sometimes it’s a unique event that doesn’t have to share real estate with hundreds of similar memories. And sometimes it’s just a series of events that define an era of your life. These are particularly common in our childhood, where sights, sounds, tastes and smells can instantly transport you back to a time when everything was new and magical.
Streets of Rage 4 was a vehicle for me to have that experience. it took me back to the 90’s, that magical Shangri-La of Aladdin’s Castle Arcade visits, after school co-op gaming with friends, and the best Saturday Morning Cartoons (Fight me, 80’s babies). At the same time, it also serves as a clever evolution of the formula both mechanically and thematically. The end result is a game packing in innovations to satisfy while being mindful of expectations of it’s fans.
It’s a game that sends you on a violence-fuelled adventure under a Neon Skyline, thrashing to the beat of the music with your favorite character and testing your beat-em-up metal. Best of all, it allows you to do this with a friend, enabling couch co-op for that buddy cop experience in video game form. And by the time it’s all over, makes me ask why this genre, like the 90’s era in general, ever went out of style.
Back to those Mean Streets
Like many kids growing up in that era, I was immersed in the console war between SEGA and Nintendo, and was fortunate to have ready access to both. While this turned out to be a double-edged sword in that I was always considered a wishy-washy fence-sitter by the kids on the playground (I wasn’t, BTW, SNES all the way), it also gave the ability to see the strengths and weaknesses of both libraries. And while both libraries has their share of excellent Beat-em-up games, I will always see Streets of Rage 2 has the Holy Grail of the genre. The game just felt so good, boasting one of the best soundtracks of the era alongside frantic and fast-paced action.
Nostalgia was also a factor, as Streets of Rage 2 was at my grandparents house, one of a variety of games available for me and my cousins to try out during family get togethers. As a lad with little to no disposable income in a time where games could cost upwards of 70 dollars ($138.00 in todays currency), there was no way to have all the games, and so these visits to family and friends was like stepping into a variety of other worlds not available at home. Jurassic Park, Chiki Chiki Boys, and the original Sonic were all there to play, but the one we popped in more often than not was Streets of Rage 2.
So the day it was announced that there was going to be another game, a long-forgotten sequel of one of a long-neglected genre’s best games, I knew that I would have to get it day one. Limited Run games had a physical for $34.99, which I purchased, and when it arrived, I popped it in and gave it a test run, along with a multiplayer session or three with my cousin. Two things stood out to me. First, how bad I was at these games. Also, how good it felt to be able to have this experience again over decade later. And while it was a game I continued to come back to casually, I knew that it was time to put it through it’s paces and examine why everyone loves bashing and smashing their ways through these vibrant yet gritty streets.
I tossed on my denim jacket, tightened my bandana, and stepped back into the 90s…
4 takes place a decade after the closing moments of 3, with Mr. X defeated for good and his kids stepping up to run the new syndicate in his absence. Upon hearing this, Axel and Blaze jump into action. They aren’t alone; tagging along is Cherry, the daughter of series regular Adam, and Floyd, a big lug with Cyborg Arms. Together they set out to clean up the crime in Wood Oak City one last time. It is a guided experience that sets you on a path, and then places a variety of people, items and hazards in front of you to let the fun commence across 12 levels.
The stages are riffs on action movie staples, full of wonderful Easter eggs for film buffs and series fans. You will get your 007 on while fighting atop a moving train, do your best Oldboy impersonation through a narrow alley while facing a line of single-file enemies, and fight your way up a tower full of enemies in a dramatic Game of Death. The layouts provide myriad opportunities for mayhem, allowing you to use weapons fabricated or otherwise to pummel you opponents, strategically use hazards like venting pipes and downed power lines to lay traps, or knock enemies into exploding barrels and pits, as long as you take care not to wander into them yourself.
Or maybe you’re just looking to pound them to a bloody pulp? The game gives each of the characters ample tools to accomplish this. From Axel and Blaze’s balanced offense to Cherry’s rapid strikes or Floyd’s ponderous but powerful blows, there is a style for every player. There is also an option to clinch if you walk into the enemy, allowing for throws and beatdowns. Each character also has a strong forward attack, and power attacks that cost some of your health in order to execute them. It is also worth noting that the game rewards aggression and timing of these moves, as you can regain lost life by hitting the enemy uninterrupted. Just remember that if you get hit, you lose all health expended from your power attacks. Finally, each character has a Super move they can unleash if they have a star available, devastating everyone near you and knocking them all down, giving some much needed breathing space.
With both new and returning baddies ready to rumble, variety isn’t a problem. You have your fodder enemies that exist to run into your fist if they don’t have a weapon. You also have combatants like the dropkick girls and the bomb throwers that will hold their own and often have unique attacks that can put some serous damage on you if you’re careless. Then there are the miniboss-class enemies like Big Ben and Goro variants that can be incredibly frustrating to deal with. Thankfully there are foodstuffs to recover health and cash collectibles to give points that can score you extra lives and continues. All these elements come together to give a tense and challenging experience that enables the player to smash their foes in a variety of satisfying ways.
Finally, there are the bosses. Streets of Rage 4 has some incredibly fun boss encounters and boasts a mixture of returning favorites and new baddies. Escalation is also done well, with bosses gaining difficulty and complexity over time. These encounters are a lot of fun, and expect to spend carefully hoarded lives and Super Moves on these monsters. The final Boss in particular is a hell of a slog, and I have still yet to complete it on higher difficulties. My personal favorite takes place in the Chinatown level, which should be noted is also my favorite stage in the game, where an old friend gives you a fast-paced and honorable duel you won’t soon forget.
Streets of Rage 4 includes several ways to calibrate your experience to your skill level. On Easy, you have more lives available to clear a level. Enemies are also slower, less aggressive, and come at you in fewer numbers than on higher difficulties. There are also modifiers that and be set up to impact things such as more stars for special attacks or giving more lives at the cost of negative score modifiers. Overall I found the normal difficulty with no modifiers to be a challenging experience single-player, while Hard was better for 2-player mode. I’m not a sadist so my experience with higher difficulties is limited.
While my understanding is that there has been some controversy over the art style used, I personally love it and think that it oozes 90’s personality. Stages are vibrant, colorful, and soaked in Neon, and there is so much character to the stages. The main fighters have all aged, and the character design fits this as well. Strong outlines give things an almost Comix Zone Vibe, and considering that’s another of my favorite beat-em-ups, that’s not a bad thing. Animation is fluid with no noticeable lag or hiccups despite the large amount of chaotic rancor going on in any given screenshot.
Musically the game shines. While I will always personally prefer Streets of Rage 3, this has a great evolution of the style of that game, giving you the same techno beats with a little added soul and slow jazz elements that just gives everything so much more character. Wood Oak City has aged and changed with the times, and the soundtrack reflects a city buckling under the tyranny of time. I also love that the story manages to work the soundtrack into it’s progression, as the Big Bad’s plan to use music to brainwash the city into becoming violent thugs, providing a brilliant metacommentary on the players themselves rocking out to these tunes while beating the hell out of everything they see. A neat touch that I really appreciate.
Once you have completed the game, there is more stuff to do. There are a ton of characters to unlock from past games as you build your lifetime score by playing. They have Sprite graphics, which is awesome, and while many of them are variants of available characters from the prequels, they are different enough in function to be worth a try. There are also some secret levels hidden within the stages, an while I won’t spoil how to unlock them, look carefully at your environments for things that may be out of place in the 2020’s. And while I am personally not a fan of this Hamster Gaming of making the player unlock things like character skins, theres enough there to satisfy at the inception and it’s not like you wouldn’t come back if they weren’t there at all, so it’s all good.
Hard to Kill
When I searched for prices on Streets of Rage 4, Physical Copies are going for 25 bucks. For what you are getting, that’s a steal. That’s because Streets of Rage 4 might have transported me back to the best times of my childhood more absolutely than any other game I have played that year. It’s not just because its from a long-dormant genre that I loved in the 90’s. It’s not just the iconic music styles. That’s part of it, but not the whole story. This game transports me back to a time when the best part of the week was coming home from school on Friday knowing you were going to Grandma’s house to some quality time with your cousin, It brings me to a time when even the minor stresses of a kid going to school vanish in a haze of techno music and laughter from family that, while gone or distant, still exists in the vaults of my memory.
Streets of Rage 4 is a terrific experience that Guard Crush Games and Lizard Cube should be proud of. My understanding is that many 16 Bit franchises, particularly SEGA is going through something of a Renaissance. With Sonic Mania sitting on my shelf, I can only hope this quality outsourcing to developers that are genuine fans of the properties continues. With a well-structured campaign, options for couch co-op, and some of the best beat-em-up gameplay available, there’s no reason not to get back in touch with your inner 90’s and give these mean streets a walk.