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.
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.
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.