Review: Streets of Rage 4

A very Sega cover

The original Streets of Rage games are a prime example of how Sega of Japan mishandled the Mega Drive in the Western markets. The three original games were never really popular in Japan or in Asian markets in general, but they were hits in American and in Europe. The whole thing about Streets of Rage series being cool at the time, hitting the rights spots with the popular culture phenomena in especially in the America with influences taken from the then-current music scenes across the pond made these games stand out, though the third game’s music splits opinions harshly due to its experimental nature. Sega was extremely good with this for a short period of time in the late 1980s and early 1990s as numerous of their projects managed to capitalise what was way cool. Sonic the Hedgehog is without a doubt their shining example of this, blending polygonal visuals that were popular in advertisement at the time with a great soundtrack, with emphasize on environmental themes that were around to a point and mixing them all in a blender to produce the most attitude ladden mascot to that point. Streets of Rage harkens a bit further back to the 1980s than Sonic, with the movie Streets of Fire being a heavy influence thematically. Other contemporary games, like Final Fight, were a massive influnce, with Street Fighter II being played at the developer Ancient Corp.’s offices and having a great impact on Streets of Rage 2. If the second game was evolution of what made the first game a success, introducing more moves and wider variety of enemies, the third game took that and gave more emphasize to the stages themselves. Branching paths became a more common thing, further moves were introduced, and for better or worse, the game’s story got more emphasize with cutscenes and dialogue. Unlockable playable characters made their first entry in the series.

 

However, the fourth game didn’t materialise for some two decades. 1994 was the deathknell of the Mega Drive, advent of Sega Saturn, Darkstalkers saw a release in the arcades among other things. Streets of Rage 3 didn’t even scratch the top ten most sold games for that year. Despite the third game attempting to push everything the second game layed down, in most terms it was a commercial failure. The beat-em-up as a genre was moving out from its golden days with Konami and Capcom still making some of the best entries, leaving Streets of Rage behind both in terms of game play, design and visuals. The fourth game in the series was attempted few times around, one of which ended up as the PlayStation/N64 game Fighting Force, or Metal Fist in Japan. One of Sega’s attempts turned into Dynamite Deka series, which was used as the basis for the Die Hard license. Ancient had been working on a Streets of Rage 4 for the Dreamcast as well, but supposedly, execs at Sega of America closed it down very early in development. Nevertheless, the DNA of Streets of Rage was carried over various directions. Ultimately, these kind of 3D action games would end up as being similar to Devil May Cry, which are a far cry from the first Final Fight and Streets of Rage.

 

The reason I wanted to include this whole bit is to show that despite all fans and fanfare the two original games got, the third game was a miss despite it taking the series further. The genre moved onwards with other games and Streets of Rage was mostly used a launchpoint. Fans have been making their own games based on the IP, and all things considered, Streets of Rage had become a dead franchise. That was until 2018, when DotEmu announced they’re working on a new entry with Lizardcube and Guard Crush Games.

The initial trailer split opinions, some liking the new style while other hating it. It showed nothing too much on the play outside few seconds, but the later DotEmu would release more footage as the game’s release was closing in. However, from the very first on, it was rather apparent that the game wouldn’t push forwards what the franchise had been back in 1994. That’s probably the whole review in a nutshell.

A revival like this can be don in two ways. First is to stick to the guns and not change much, or anything, about the formula and roll with that. You won’t disappoint anyone and you know you’re catering to the core fans who just wanted a new entry no matter what. This is effectively what Capcom did with Mega Man 9 and 10, and Nintendo with the New Super Mario Bros. line. This kind of catering to nostalgia first and foremost works few times around, but it can’t be milked. The other option would be to take core essence and see how far you can push it. With two decades and then between the SoR3 and 4, it would be rather easy to see what sort of design innovations the beat-em-up, or action games in general, have made during that period and how they could be implemented. Both are very different routes, and DotEmu and co. ultimately decided to stick with the core guns of the franchise and not deviate.

Good amount of research into the characters was apparently done

When it comes to SoR4‘s play, it’s as pure action as you can get. It’s methodical and orthodox and even fights against players who want to blitz. Timing is everything in these games, alongside positioning. The wide variety of enemies use different tactics to get away from the player, with some having moves that allow the to traverse across the screen or move in the air the way the player can’t. If you’ve ever plaued, or even watched footage of a beat-em-up, you already know what to expect from the play. However, the player is ultimately limited in their actions, even if the new control scheme does dedicate a button for picking up items and such. There is no running or dashing, nor there is a dedicated button or combination for sure certain grab and throw. You can only punch and jump, and grab when you’re close up. In terms of play and controls, there’s nothing pushing the Streets of Rage forwards. At the same time, once the slow pace clicks to you few stages in, the game becomes a bit more open. You can’t really device your own ways of approaching and playing it, however, as the design doesn’t provide the tools for that.

This approach has cost the game’s design some points. While many of the normal enemies are fine tuned, some of them exhibit unnaturally large amount of invincibility frames in their moves, something the player is lacking. Benefits are given to the enemies to the point of game feeling annoying rather than hard or challenging. There’s no point trying to counter moves, when you can almost break the game by grabbing and throwing things around. This is further examplified with the bosses, as they gain similar Star moves the player has access to, but with the difference they can use them in a pattern willy nilly without thinking about their life being drained or such. Some of the bosses are just lacklustre, like the helmetted DJ that feels like an unnecessary thoraway just to have a boss in there, while others give a satisfyingly levelled challenge with their own twist, like with Shiva.

Outside Shiva’s bullshit-bunshin, the fight’s really on the even grounds

The game is also rather long, longer than it really needed to be for a beat-em-up. This is further emphazised but that slower paced game design mentioned earlier. Cutting one or two stages out and make it an even ten, or even just nine stages with multiple paths would’ve made the game more interesting on revisits, but in one sit-through Streets of Rage 4 begins to slog and overstays its welcome rather hard. However, the game has embraced modern sensibilities in that you are able to continue with the stage you left off with a save file, with 1 Coin challenge being offered in form of Arcade Mode.

In tersm of visual design, the game is top notch. It looks great with all the lighting effects and colours being used in proper manners. It looks like a French cartoon with heavy Japanese influences thrown here and there. In this the game is rather contemporary, slightly revolting against how the original games tried to level with realistic look. The way the visuals have been realised and executed is probaby the best part of the game, testifying how 2D is still the best way to realise the age-old dream of games looking like cartoons on telly. Animation work is terrific and nothing to be scoffed at, characters are easy to tell apart and while stage designs and environments can be lacklustre, they still come through strongly simply because how well they’re visually made. Despite all this, the edge in the visusal style is rather rounded and maybe even dull. The Y Twin, the end bosses, don’t really jump out in their design, and the fact that they utilise a giant robot during the end battle is uninspired at best.

On the music side, you have what we could call classic SoR tunes. It fits and doesn’t intrude on the player’s nerves. Some tunes stand out more than others, so overall a well done soundtrack that’s not too uncommon nowadays.

The story doesn’t matter. While I fully expected some scenes to be voiced, I found myself more annoyed by the cutscenes more than anything. The difference in visual style becomes drastically evident during these, which also emphasize how it ultimately doesn’t fit. Within the series narrative, it’s almost like the the early 1990s never moved onward, yet we see contemporary factors dropped here and there. Perhaps fully embracing that early 2000s aesthetic would’ve been a better option rather than create this sort of fetishised hybrid of 1980s/early 1990s nostalgia through rose coloured goggles.

This game sounds, looks and plays like a standard Streets of Rage 4 fare. We’ve played this three times before. If this game has been released in the 1990s, it would’ve scored low. Now, far removed from its setting, it stands out as a classical example of well made and polished game, but a game that offers nothing special on its own. Expecting this game to deliver anything else than that will be met with gross disappointment. It’s a game that does get the franchise, it fully embraces what it is, but at the same time, it makes itself rather hard to recommend if you’re already familiar with the series, or the genre overall. If SoR5 will be a thing down the line, it can’t surf on nostalgia and has to find its way to create its own indentity and expand on already-explored play of the franchise, or go bust. I can’t fault what the game was designed to be, as that’s extremely well realised. It’s just that design was already out of date twenty years ago.

I have no title and I want to talk about TMNT III The Manhattan Project in relation to Streets of Rage 4

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project is one of the best, if not the best example, of a well-made beat ’em up, or belt scrolling action game. Dare I say, and even argue, that it is superior to the game that got more money and more attention that was in development at the same time, Turtles in Time. This is an opinion against the grain though, as the fourth game (or third if you’re Japanese) is considered to be at the top. Why then would I argue for TMNTIII to be the superior title? Mostly because the game offers more.

Absolutely terrific cover that barely represents the game, as the artist had given no clue of the contents outside floating Manhattan

TMNTIII was built for the NES from the grounds up, it had no arcade original counterpart to be compared to. This is the opposite of TMNTII: The Arcade Game and Turtles in Time. It’s a title that takes what was in the previous game and goes to

town with it all, expanding and exploring all the little intricacies the previous had and how to improve upon them. Most things play wise were left untouched but polished up, and each Turtle gained their own unique Special move. On top of that, something simple as throwing an enemy was added and surprisingly makes approaching enemies in certain situations a whole lot different. Turtles in Time would have the horsepower under it to make things more cinematic for sure, but its throwing mechanism, despite being full of flurry and flash, is not as satisfying. TMNTIII uses it in a very tactical manner, and though the end result is something that is common with most other games in the genre, the fact that it is instantly in your command like normal attacking makes it a far more viable option rather than needing to first grab the enemy and then throw. The reason I make such a big thing about straightforward throwing is that all the other things are like that; there is an honest directness to TMNTIII that is somehow lacking in the other games in the series.

The game is also stupidly long. While officially TMNTIII has eight levels, there are sub-sections that in some games could be their own levels. These levels also get longer at points, making the game a challenge and then some to beat in one proper sitting. You have a variety of Konami codes under your belt to change the difficulty and amount of Lives the players have, as well as the usual Stage Select and such. Even on Normal difficulty, the game provides a tough nut to crack, but this shows the last thing the game holds over to this day; its abrilliant design. All the stages feel their own entity with their own stage hazards. From falling advertising panels in the Miami Beach to the broken sections of the Brooklyn Bridge, none of the stages turn into muck. There’s only one gimmick stage, or half a stage, where the Turtles have to surf to a submarine. All these are supported by an equally well-designed cadre of enemies that, at their base, don’t have anything special over the player. There are few enemies that can chuck spears and the like, yet these weapon using Foot soldiers are well balanced for the player to approach. Beat-em-ups sometimes introduce enemies that aim to keep distance from the player only to execute an attack that can cover most of the screen, if not all of it. With no real long-range weaponry, the player can’t really do much to counter outside stepping to the side. TMNTIII has balanced this perfectly by allowing players to counter most of these longer-range attacks in a manner or another. Best of all, the game has no gimmicks to rely on, no one kind of play mechanic that defines its existence and separates from the rest of its kind. All this makes an extremely balanced experience that gets overshadowed for being the third (second) game in the series at a time when Turtles in Time was already in the horizon, and never saw release in the PAL region. It’s just such a damn fine piece of gaming. Not only that, as one of the late NES/Famicom games, everything it does is at full blast, from the terrific soundtrack to impressive visuals. I have to admit that when I think of NES, this is one of the games that come to mind and what the system is. Oh, woe is me whenever I venture into the earlier days of the Famicom library.

For a B-Team of developers, named Kuu Neru Asobu (Eat Sleep Play), with less budget to turn out a massive game with high polish and quality like this, only to be pushed aside in favour of the original classic, The Arcade Game, and supplanted by its flashier younger brother when the 16-bit consoles were taking to the market, TMNTIII fell between the cracks. Sadly, the team wasn’t utilised much more outside this one title and The Lone Ranger, with the team unofficially still being around to make other licensed games like Batman and Zen: The Intergalactic Ninja. That’s a goddamn travesty, as TMNTIII went largely untested before going out due to shorter development time, which really shows the skill and talent the team had.

Why the hell am I singing high praises for TMNTIII here like it just gave me a blowjob and served me ice cream? Because I have been playing Streets of Rage 4 and I am being eclectic about the game. While playing the game I expect to be able to do something and then I remember that this is Streets of Rage, it doesn’t allow me to do so. It’s been twenty years since the pinnacle of the beat-em-up games, and yet I’m feeling like I’m playing a throwback game that hasn’t even tried to evolve outside graphics and cutscenes. The game feels like I’m playing the old SoR titles all over again without any improvements and not in a good way. As things are, I can take any entry in SoR and change between them. We can argue that’s not the case with the first game, but let’s not quibble too much about. Being able to pick up three out of four games and have the exact same overall game being played in front of you with mostly graphical differences could be called consistent game series design, but I’d call it not even trying to go outside the box and push things forward. The people who worked on Streets of Rage 4 understand how methodical the series play is, what the series is all about, what are its 50s and 80s rock fantasy influences while trying to update things a bit here and there, but ultimately they don’t try to push things forwards. Then again, they never intended to so. They wanted a bonafide a Streets of Rage experience and they replicated it perfectly and now their game has no personality of its own. Streets of Rage 2 is still the best entry in the series with the most iconic music. This isn’t the review of the game (that’s for Sunday) but rather me venting out personal frustrations so I can get back to the game and not allow my expectations of a better Streets of Rage game influence what the game is.

The whole rant how food TMNTIII is should reflect my personal philosophy about game sequels; they don’t need to try to do anything wildly different per se but aim to perfect everything possible all the while introducing all these little things that can be grown out into something new and special later own. Look at Final Fantasy and how its evolution has gone from a mere Dragon Quest clone to whatever fuck it wants to be, spinning off to the SaGa series and whatnot. Then look at how the Golden Days of Super Mario Bros. changed the games’ play from entry to entry, making classics after classics, then began to slouch around and produce bottom mud with the New SMB sub-series. You can’t just stay put and do nothing new. You’re going to be replaced with the competition that takes the same base idea and improves on it. You can only coaster on name recognition and nostalgia only so many times, and if others have done the same already, you’re out of luck. Customers get burned out from being introduced the same shit over and over again. I guess what I’m saying is that the game industry needs to find ways to evolve their games’ design and play at a constant pace to ultimately make all the older games obsolete.

Sega’s Mania effect

So after couple of decades of failed starts, concepts thrown around and DMCA’d fan titles, Streets of Rage 4 is a thing that’s coming out. Finally, might I add. Sega and Streets of Rage fans, rejoice.

 

I have to say, these redesigns are pretty damn nice

There are three companies involved with the game, outside Sega as the licensee; Lizardcube, who were in charge of the recent Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap; Guard Crush Games who have a history with beat-em-ups (or belt-scrolling action games if you’re Japanese) like Streets of Fury; Dotemu, who function as a publisher. Lizardcube is in charge of graphics, while Guard Crush Games handles the programming, though Dotemu has the handle on game design. This is pretty nice package, as Lizardcube has a pretty nice, French comics style that fits so many of these older titles’ revival, and Guard Crush Games seems to have a handle on programming just fine. Y’know, the hardest part of making a game.

I’m probably going to make a comparative post regarding the character designs, because both Axel and Blaze got a real nice new lick of paint.

There is exactly two things this game needs to do in order to be accepted by long time fans and be at least a relative hit with the general audience; faithfully replicate the Streets of Rage formula, and expand on it. This is effectively what Sonic Mania did, and it has been hailed as the best Sonic the Hedhehog game to date, which isn’t too hard to accept.

Which raises the question; did Sonic Mania‘s success kick this title off the ground? Both it and the new Wonder Boy were well received and raised new interest in certain section of older titles. Both of them function as data to further the idea putting the money and effort to realise a Streets of Rage title in its proper 2D mould rather than take the Final Fight route with Streetwise. After all, game genres don’t just die because new technology makes new genres possible with extra dimensions or additional gimmicks like VR. Despite how 90’s marketing wants you to believe, 2D hasn’t gone anywhere at any point. Sure, you the newfangled thing always gets pushed, but you can’t deny the customers the things they want. Just look at how well 2D Mario sells over 3D titles. That’s another dead horse I need to stop kicking.

All this data of revival games doing at least decently well is most probable reason Streets of Rage 4 got greenlit. Add Mega Man 11‘s upcoming release to the mix and we’re entering an interesting era, where old franchises are getting new releases in more budget range, but with none of the lacking elements. Hopefully more companies realise this; you don’t need AAA budget to make great damn games. Pretty much all of these classic franchises could be revived and developed at a fraction of the cost with modern tools. Easier to make profits. The only real problem is to deliver a wanted product, which didn’t really happen with the New SMB series after the first few entries. Once a franchise is revived, it needs to move forwards. Mega Man 10 failed in this term by simply being same thing again. We now have three Mega Man 2 games and that’s two too much.

Sega of course wouldn’t develop this themselves. They don’t care about the IP. Sega hasn’t given two shits about Streets of Rage since the mid-90’s, when they essentially gave the middle finger to the Western consumers. Eternal Champions used to be a big thing, but then Sega just neutered it. You can’t treat Japanese, American and European markets the same. Hell, you have to treat Europe as multiple market zones if you want to do it right. This was clear how Sega’s tactics with the Genesis in the US region only kicked off after the US branch pushed through their tactics of including a game with the console and marketing Sonic the Hedgehog their own way. If most of the data is to be believed, Sonic‘s been the most popular in the US. Sadly, Sega of Japan’s management killed all the motion their American and European sections had going on, effectively beginning their own downfall from grace. Westerners do classic Sega better than Sega themselves.

Streets of Rage 4 probably won’t be as large a success as Sonic Mania. If the game gets a physical release afterwards its initial digital showcase, we can deem it successful enough. If it gets a physical release from the very beginning, even if it was a Limited Run title, then the developers and publisher have boatloads of trust towards their targeted consumers. There are enough Sega fans that would purchase this title in an instant.

While Sonic Mania was clearly an international title, a game that didn’t have any specific region in mind, the same can’t be said about Streets of Rage 4. Both Guard Crush Games and Lizardcube are European companies, and that flavours oozes through in a very positive manner. Hell, even Dotemu is based on France. I hope they shower more than the average French. However, that probably will rub some people off, as Streets of Rage originally had a very American atmosphere to it, especially considering it was inspired partially by Streets of Fire. Hell, Blaze’s design is essentially Ellen Aim with more streetwise to her. The bits about Sega not giving a damn about the IP still stands, and their actions towards Western markets have been changing only during the last years. The Yakuza franchise is a good line to follow modern Sega in this. English dubbing usually drives sales, but there are titles where this isn’t case. Yakuza dropped this in favour of cheaper releases and simply because the fans didn’t like it. Despite Sega censoring and removing elements from some of the games, the audience kept growing. Despite this, none of the spin-offs outside the zombie romp got localised. Now that the Western audience has grown far greater, Sega’s taken the series’ position in the market into notion with better releases, and now is even considering publishing further remasters and spin-offs in the Overseas regions. Sega of Japan is slowly but surely taking a notion of Western markets.

If we’re going to go down this path, it’s relatively easy to see Sega considering the wants and needs of the Western markets to some extent. The IPs they’ve been giving up and ignoring still have a strong consumer base with nothing to fill that niche. A high quality title here and there goes long way in making profits and keeping your fans happy. I would say Altered Beast and Golden Axe could be next on the list of revivals, but seeing how terrible their last titles were, there’d be a lot of work to fix those damages in the eyes of Sega themselves.