Much like Golden Axe, Streets of Rage strikes a nostalgic chord for anyone who remembers co-op multiplayer in the 90s. Between its hugely influential electronic soundtrack and the hyper silliness of names like Axel Stone and Blaze Fielding, it’s a series which has become revered over time as a high-point of the beat ‘em up genre and the Sega Genesis console.
With over 25 years since its predecessor, Streets of Rage 4 acts as both a sequel and a quasi-reboot. While beat ‘em ups haven’t entirely disappeared, as River City Girls and the excellent Ape Out prove, the genre hasn’t moved far beyond smaller, throwback experiences.
Streets of Rage 4 doesn’t exactly change this either but it’s an accomplished and lovingly-crafted celebration of the genre’s history. Everything you remember about the franchise is intact, the roast chicken health pick-ups, that irritating enemy who barrels at you with a knife outstretched, and the AI’s tendency to flank behind you for cheeky punts to the temple.
It’s a testament to series pinnacle Streets of Rage 2 how little has changed, although new minor gameplay mechanics and a stunning visual overhaul make this package more inviting and accessible.
A key change is how super moves are handled in Streets of Rage 4. Along with your standard attacks, each character has super moves which now cost you health to execute. Health lost using these moves can be regained if you follow-up with standard attacks without getting hit, rewarding tactically aggressive play.
It adds another layer of consideration to what is a mechanically simple game, with the key to many boss encounters about knowing when to strike and follow-up with punishing blows between their frantic attack patterns.
The game is also incredibly flexible when it comes to difficulty. The story mode, which spans 12 stages total, has five difficulty options ranging from Easy to Mania. If you die, you’ll be given the option to jump back in with numerous assist buffs; offering additional lives and stars for extra powerful attacks at the expense of a cut to your stage score. It accommodates both high score chasers and those who simply want to burn through levels, while encouraging players to keep coming back through unlockable characters tied to overall score milestones.
It makes the package more robust than it initially appears. You only have Story mode accessible from the outset, which once completed unlocks other modes. There’s the customary Boss Rush and Arcade, which challenges you to beat all the levels in one sprint without dying.
Battle also returns where you can face human players in a competitive brawl - supporting two players online or up to four players locally. It isn’t as compelling as drop-kicking goons with a co-op partner but it’s a welcome addition for comical face-offs nonetheless.
There’s stacks of fan service too ranging from original character sprites (complete with the police rocket launcher super move), adjustable graphic options, and the return of OG chiselled meathead Adam Hunter.
You can also switch to the original game’s soundtrack, although the new score from Olivier Deriviere and series composer Yuzo Koshiro is equally brilliant - with a mix of pulsating electronics capturing exactly how you’d want Streets of Rage to sound in 2020.
With everything Streets of Rage 4 gets right, there’s a nagging sense developers Dotemu, Lizardcube and Guard Crush Games could have pushed further. Story levels are punctuated with comic book-style panels which fit the aesthetic but underwhelm in selling the personalities of bosses and fighters. Levels similarly, while consistently great in offering new hazards and enemy types, never go beyond what you’d expect from a traditional beat ‘em up experience.
A lack of evolution isn’t a huge gripe though when a game recaptures and remixes its past with such stylish success. Streets of Rage 4 is an excellent return from a franchise previously trapped in time, which will hopefully catapult the joys of beat ‘em ups to a whole new audience.
Streets of Rage 4 releases 30th April on PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One and PC.