I’ve mentioned this time and time again, but it bears repeating due to its relevance today: I was a SEGA kid. In the very distant 90s, when I was growing up, my friends mostly had Nintendo systems (as well as Famiclones, common in Paraguay). While they were busy playing their Marios and Tetrises, I was experiencing Blast Processing on the Next Level. Sonic 3D Blast, a much hated game, was my first love. It all followed from there: proper Mortal Kombat ports, bloody arcade classics… and Streets of Rage.
It´s been over 20 years since I’ve played a new SOR game, and I still remember the feeling. I remember it well, even, because Streets of Rage 4 has just released on the Nintendo Switch, and it is every bit a SOR game as any other in the franchise: fun, fast, hectic, with an amazing soundtrack, and all that makes a Streets of Rage game deserving of its moniker.
If you´re unfamiliar with SOR, it´s a legendary beat’em up franchise from the 90s. You go from left to right, kicking ass and performing sick moves. Streets of Rage took everything good about games like Double Dragon and, in typical SEGA fashion, turned it up to 11. It was incredible to have that kind of experience at home, considering only a couple of years prior, we were wasting all of our lunch money in arguably inferior games at the arcades. But after 3 successful entries (SoR 3 being somewhat controversial at the time), the franchise went dormant. Many other developers have since taken up the mantle – successfully, even -, but fans of the genre, and of the original games (like me), have long since dreamed of returning to the Streets.
It´s 2020 now, and I´m in my mid-30s. However, I feel no less love for SoR than I did in the 90s. If anything, it´s grown exponentially, as my understanding of game development has increased as I’ve grown older. And if my wife thinks I´m ageing gracefully, it is nothing to how Streets of Rage looks now.
Nearly three decades on, Streets of Rage 4 takes everything we loved about the original, and made it better.
The graphics, which were an iconic 90´s shade of pixel goodness, have morphed into hand-drawn, illustrated greatness. this was a masterful move, as it embraces the games´ heritage while understanding our current gaming climate. There´s definite pixel art fatigue in gamers today, so the decision to go with the other great art style of the 90s (made famous by games like Street Fighter III and Marvel Vs. Capcom, to name but two) is sure to pay off in the short term. In the long term, we have the benefit of hindsight, and while Tekken 3 looks like I made its graphics on an Android phone while drunk, hand-drawn 2D games have aged much more gracefully. It could be the nostalgia talking, but I honestly feel like Streets of Rage 4 could be remembered as one of the most beautiful games in recent years.
The music, an equally iconic aspect of SoR, is incredible in this fourth entry. Streets of Rage 3 was a bit controversial in its music, as it ditched the more established tunes of the past, in favor of more experimental soundscapes. While I love SoR3´s soundtrack, it´s a wise move to move past it and go back to tried-and-true thumping tunes. And that´s what we´ve got, in spades. The musician roster for SoR4 reads like a who´s who of video game composers, both young and… experienced. It´s varied, full of energy, and an amazing experience, even when listened to outside of the context of the game.
In terms of characters, there are new faces and some returning ones, too. You also get some very cool unlockables,, so the selection is sure to have something to please everyone. In terms of their art, characters look as good as they ever have. Returning characters show their age, an new ones look and feel like they belong in the game.
Environments and enemies are a mixture of old and new, also, and you´ll see some familiar faces for sure. To me, as much as I love the protagonists, it´s the enemies and environments that make SoR games so much fun. SoR4 doesn´t disappoint, and increases environmental interaction to previously uncharted territory. Crashing cars, exploding phonebooths, breakable water coolers, it´s all here, and it´s glorious. Returning enemies have been adapted to the new art style, and new enemies have been gifted with cool abilities that make them feel unique, fun but again, part of the franchise.
The main story mode is on the short side (despite its difficulty ramping up quite early on, particularly for newcomers), but there´s tons of more content besides, including online multiplayer and the return of a classic game mode from eras past.
Streets of Rage 4 wears its arcade heritage proudly, and is accessible to newcomers and enjoyable for veterans equally. Testament to this is last night´s session, in which I was playing with my sister-in-law, who´s 10 years younger than me and has no experience with SoR or beat-em-ups. She picked up the controller and within seconds, was kicking ass in the streets. SoR4 is so accessible to newcomers, in fact, that she got futher into the game than I did. I´d like to think that it´s because I was chivalrous and went around beating people up, but perhaps the truth is less flattering to my ego.
I´ve thought long and hard about negatives I could write about, but the truth is, I can´t think of any worth mentioning. I won´t nitpick a great game just so that I can balance the spreadsheet.
Streets of Rage 4 is, by any measure I can think of, a perfect game. It is worthy of its heritage, a fine addition to the franchise, a great point of entry for newcomers, and a blast for veterans. The game looks beautiful, runs great, and sounds amazing. I will leave it at that, then, because I believe that, by this point, you get the picture.
And also, because I want to go back to playing it. So, see you on the streets! And beware the syndicate.