BeatEm Ups have been a staple in gaming for decades and it’s one of my favourite genres. The 80’s and 90’s saw BeatEm Ups become hot commodities with Double Dragon being the first must play. I have fond memories of putting many hours into titles such as Final Fight, X-men Arcade, The Simpsons, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker Arcade and the numerous Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle classics. But it was Sega’s arcade exclusive and probably best Beat’em Up Spider-man: The Video Game that held top spot for me. Sega would never port this title to consoles but they would create their own BeatEm series that took the Sega Megadrive by force, the cooperative Streets of Rage!
Streets of Rage would release in 1991, featuring three protagonists, Axel Stone, Blaze Fielding and Adam Hunter. These three ex cops were tasked with taking down the crime syndicate and boss, Mr X. The full story of taking down Mr X would span across a trilogy of games, with Adam being the only character omitted to supporting roles for the following two games. Streets of Rage 2 and 3 would add new characters along with franchise stalwarts Axel and Blaze, who would battle through to take down Mr X each time. For each title, the series would make slight changes and overall it would be praised by the media and adored by BeatEm Up enthusiasts.
Twenty six years later, new developers Dotemu, Lizardcube and Guard Crush Games take on the daunting job of building on this highly successful franchise, while trying to keep it faithful to the original trilogy and having its own identify. In this department the game already gets perfect marks, as it is a joy to look at, listen to and most importantly play. Streets of Rage 4 has not just continued in the series footsteps but it has exceeded all expectations in said faithfulness and originality. This is the best BeatEm Up to date!
As soon as the title screen drops, veteran players will notice the love of the franchise put into this sequel. Everything just screams SEGA classic but dialled up to ten. With only Story Mode and Battle Mode (a Player v Player one on one mode) available at first, the player must enter the story to unlock other modes. As soon as the player takes the dive into the Story Mode, it begins with the traditional scroll of the story, recapping 10 years that has passed since Streets of Rage 3.
The story is campy, like a Saturday morning cartoon but while Mr X isn’t back, his spawn are. He twins, known as the Y twins have followed in their father’s footsteps, creating the Syndicate and planning to take over Wood Oak City. The not very in-depth story works well, with the Y twins creating a brain washing device that pits not only the Syndicate goons (assumingly on the pay roll) against the players, but also the cities police and past playable allies. The story continues throughout the game with slick comic like animations that do not last long but keep the ride at top speed.
Following is the character selection screen and to begin with there are only 4 characters for selection. Axel and Blaze return, with new characters Cherry Hunter (Adam Hunter’s daughter) and Floyd Iraia. The stats for Axel and Blaze have not changed over the years. Axel bringing mid-tier ratings across the board for Power, Technique, Speed, Jump and Stamina, with his Power being slightly higher and Jump lower. Blaze comes with a little more flare through higher Technique and lower Stamina. Overall both these characters are easy for any newcomers to pick up and play with, while veterans will feel right at home. It is the two new characters where the game really mixes things up and makes character selection feel fresh. Cherry, while being the weakest character in the entire series, is also faster and can jump higher than other characters. Cherry has the ability to weave in and out of combat, landing blows and avoiding attacks. The downside being that she has to land more attacks to take down enemies and brings a lower than average Stamina level to the battle. Floyd is an apprentice of Zen from Streets of Rage 3 and is a monster. Not just in size but with his Power output as well, utilising his robotic augmented arms similar to Jax from the Mortal Kombat series. Though what Floyd produces in Power and Technique he loses greatly in Speed and Jump. This making him a huge target and making it difficult to avoid certain attacks. Even with his size, his stamina is only average and not that of past powerful characters Max and mentor Zen. Floyd maybe the go to character off the bat for some as he is easy to pick up, but he is also hard to master.
There are also a number of unlockable characters. The first being Adam Hunter, who is unlocked a third of the way through the campaign. Adam, whom has been my favourite character since 1991, is the overall strongest and easiest to use character. The overall stat points for each character sit on a total of 14 or 15, while Adam is the only one with 16 stat points. Making Adam an all rounder who also brings higher power and technique stats to the battle. All character’s stats can be found in the extras, along with galleries that are fairly in-depth and show what could have been or included in the game. There are 11 more unlockable characters; most of these are the original versions of Axel, Blaze and Adam from past games. There are also original versions of playable characters Skate (Adam’s younger brother), Max, Shiva and Zen. All these are unlocked by playing the game and the players built up score through completing levels. Unlocking all characters will take approximately 4 to 5 story run throughs, depending in the difficulty, combo ability and if you need assistance of extra lives per level. This also adds to the longevity of the game with each play through being between 2 to 3 hours.
As the player jumps into the first stage, fans will notice the very similar look but with lush hand drawn character models and backdrop. The characters are faithful but now have the detail that the 16-bit era could not supply. The art style is bang on the money, with Axel’s signature biceps bulging from his shirt, Blaze’s red skirt and headband on point and the brilliant look of Cherry’s guitar (also weapon) through to Floyd’s tattoo’s on his chest and the detail of his mechanical arms. Returning enemies have also had a makeover, looking gorgeous, and like the heroes, there are also a number of new thugs and bosses to pound. Backdrops have a lot of life to them, with either civilians getting on with their lives or the Syndicate in battles with police. Also making these new visuals pop is the animation that flows seamlessly. At times there are a large amount of characters on screen and battles get hectic and even online with a friend, there was no sign of slow down and fights continued to roll into each other. The quality of the animation only gives a greater focus on the gameplay.
Gameplay is solid, very solid. While moving left to right on most stages, players beat down on goons very similar to past games while adding new features, such as trying to maintain combos for high scores or recovering your life after a special move. The controls consist of an attack button for strikes used to create combos and when mixed with the jump button, the player performs a satisfying back attack to counter flanking enemies. The attack button can also be held down for a heavy attack, needing to be utilised on some enemies to break their guard or knock over endless drops. A jump and pick up button are also present. The pick up button can be used to catch thrown weapons whilst in midair or even better, used when a weapon rebounds off the enemy after you have thrown them. It is so satisfying, throwing a weapon, catching it and repeating the process, but beware as some enemies will catch these thrown weapons and use them back on the player. Finally, the special button which is used for offensive and defensive purposes. Each character has different special moves and using these will drain a bit of the players health. Unlike other games that do this, the drained portion of the life bar turns green and the player can earn it back by landing blows and combos on enemies. Although, if the player gets hit, they will lose their precious life gambled. It is a great risk versus reward system that is needed for higher difficulty levels and once characters are mastered and enemies’ patterns learnt, it creates a marvellous way to create destruction.
The final new addition to the move set is the special Star move that takes massive damage off all enemies in its path. Our heroes start off with one Star move per level but more can be found through smashable boxes, phone booths, cars and arcade machines. These Stars can be used at any time but are best saved for bosses, unless a real need arises before you get there. Speaking of arcade machines, hit one with a police taser and see what happens, it’s such a fans delight and great Easter egg. Other pick-ups are:
- Health, represented by the traditional apples and chicken (or turkey) and these heath item icons can be changed in the options menu that is a nice little touch
- Wads of cash for points that help in earning extra lives and
- Weapons including fan favourites like the trusty pipe, along with a number of new ones like the mace which was a favourite of mine.
The multiple enemies are another star of the show, while already mentioning the returning and new ones, players must learn each enemies specific attacks, strengths and weaknesses. Like any good BeatEm Up, new enemies are introduced as the player progresses and as the player moves through the stages numerous enemies of multiple types will attack the player at once. This forcing the player to learn attack patterns and when and what attacks work best. The same can be said for mid and end of level bosses, who mix up their types of attacks once or twice per fight. The player will meet some bosses multiple times but with other previous bosses, making it double the trouble. Some gamers may see this as lazy, but for me, it works fine and follows the games roots.
While the game has the looks and gameplay down pat, rounding off the treble is the soundtrack. While a number of composers worked on this game, it is fantastic to see series veterans Yuzo Koshrio and Motohiro Kawashima return. The beats are energetic, techno induced tunes that fit flawlessly and after a few play throughs they will stick with you. While maybe not the best in series, they are certainly up there.
Even though the game is only 2 to 3 hours in length, there is much more to do for the $38 price tag. As mentioned, the game has co-op online for two players and offline for up to four. Unfortunately, due to social distancing laws the four player mode is yet to be tested. Apart from unlocking characters to vary the gameplay, new modes are unlocked after story completion. Arcade Mode that will test players, allowing only one credit to run through the whole game and Boss Rush, which has the players taking on just bosses one after the other. Like the Story mode, these modes can be done in co-op and have five difficulties to choose from.
For the parents out there, the hand drawn art does make it look all flash and for the younger audience, but it is a BeatEm Up and I would not suggest children under 12 playing this title due to its violence and adult tone. The game can be paused at anytime for those needing to stop and get away.
The Streets of Rage series was one of those trilogies that have had three very good titles and this is rare. Now after a 26-year hiatus and new developers, there was a bit of a concern on how the fourth game would turn out. This game hits the high notes in every single aspect at being faithful to franchise but it absolutely knocks it out of the park when adding new elements. As a long time BeatEm Up aficionado I cannot name a single game in its genre that is this close to perfection. The streets are back, the rage is real and there is only one score I can give this amazing follow up, full marks, ten from ten.
+ The smooth gameplay with great special system
+ That blistering soundtrack
+ The hand drawn visual, great back drops with mint animation
+ The BEST BeatEm Up on the market
– We better not have to wait even close to another 26 years for number 5
Score – 10/10
Streets of Rage 4 is available on PS4, Nintendo Switch, PC and Xbox at various prices on their respective stores. It is also available on Xbox Game Pass.