Between 1991 and 1994, Sega released the first three Streets of Rage games. These side-scrolling beat-’em-ups followed a team of ex-vigilante cops on their mission to take down a shadowy crime syndicate and save their city. Regarded as classics of the 16-bit era, can Streets of Rage 4 replicate the magic twenty-six years later—and resurrect not only the long-dormant franchise, but an entire video game genre?
You play as a team of four vigilante heroes in Streets of Rage 4, including two series’ veterans and two newcomers. Progressive electro-rock guitarist Cherry Hunter and mechanically-armed stone mason Floyd Iraia join ex-cops Axel Stone and Blaze Fielding, the two veterans of the game. You battle across Wood Oak City in pursuit of the mysterious Y Syndicate, a criminal empire that plans to brainwash the city’s citizens using mind-controlling music. You’ll have to face off against a diverse cast of enemies, old and new, as the story progresses. In addition, you’ll run into some old friends along the way.
The story is told with on-screen text and graphic novel-style cutscenes between levels. It creates a fun, fitting, and fast-paced style reminiscent of the early 1990s. Fans of the original series, of 16-bit era games, and gamers who enjoy an over-the-top, comic book style narrative will find an enjoyable but predictable story on offer here. The predictability isn’t a huge problem in a game of this retro beat-em-up style though; for most players, the story will probably be very much secondary to gameplay.
Streets of Rage 4 is an old-school arcade-style side-scrolling beat-em-up that can be played in single-player mode, two-player co-operative mode online, or up to four players locally. You’ll pick up a range of health, weapon, and special attack items as you punch, kick, and throw your way through the game’s twelve story levels, fighting a boss at the end of each one.
There’s a wide variety of enemies to face along the way with different attack patterns, weapons, and they all have different levels of resistance before their sprites fall down dead and flicker off the screen. As the game progresses, players come into contact with new, more difficult varieties of the same apparent enemy. These will generally be the same sprite with the same attack pattern but sport a new color scheme, deal more damage with their attacks, or have a higher resistance to your attacks. Generally, the enemy variety is welcome.
The game’s combat is simple to pick up but has a surprising amount of depth as you improve and become more familiar with the system. At their disposal, players have standard, heavy, dash, and throw attacks, and a special attack which uses up a small amount of health (which regenerates if the player can avoid taking damage after using it). Each character also has a unique Star Attack, a high damage attack which uses up collectible stars. Standard, heavy and special attacks can be combo’d together to deal out heavy damage. One of the game’s many cool stylistic touches is the smaller enemy life bar which flashes up underneath the players main life bar, allowing you to see your foe’s name and watch their life force ebb away as you smash their face in.
The game’s combat system is easy to pick up and intuitive, making it satisfying. Moments like the initial “GO” prompt or the satisfaction of seeing the last enemy fly off the character’s fist will have your adrenaline pumping.
At the beginning of Streets of Rage 4, players have four characters available to them (Axel Stone, Blaze Fielding, Cherry Hunter, and Floyd Iraia). As the player progresses with the game, an additional five playable characters and six alternate retro versions of characters can be unlocked. The characters all have different move sets and animations fitting their unique personalities. All tastes are catered to, from slow, lumbering powerhouses dishing out huge damage to faster, responsive fighters who rely on a higher number of weaker strikes. There are also more balanced characters sitting in between the two extremes. The unlockable retro characters offer a nice callback to the original Streets of Rage trilogy, and longtime fans will delight in seeing Axel, Blaze and company’s original star attacks gloriously recreated. The game’s character information screen in the “Extras” section of the main menu provides an easy visual representation of each characters relative strengths and weaknesses for any players interested or struggling to pick a main.
At the end of each of the game’s 12 stages, the player must fight and defeat an end-of-level boss to progress. The bosses’ large purple life bar appears in the middle of the screen and the battle begins. To defeat them, players must learn the mighty guardians’ move patterns, their weaknesses, and then exploit them. Surviving boss battles require you to time your moves, jump out of their way, and attempt to use “star attacks” when possible. Star attacks are needed as bosses fight harder and move quicker as they inch closer to the end of their life bar. Fortunately, the game is generous in health and star attack refills in the form of item drops during these boss fights, and generally, these battles are fun, fair, and offer a rewarding level of challenge.
All of Streets of Rage 4’s game modes — Story, Arcade, Boss Rush, Stage Select and Battle — can be played by up to four players locally or two player online. Extra players simply jump in at the beginning of a game or even in between levels. In all of the modes, players can play in co-op mode, and once-tricky sections of Wood Oak City become a breeze. Online play is through the Switch’s online service and games can be set up quickly and easily. The game also takes advantage of the Switch’s underused, invite-a-friend feature, making it a breeze to set up a game.
Streets of Rage 4 is a fun, fast-paced fighting experience, so intuitive, tight controls are super important. Fortunately, the game delivers highly in this area, and controls well with a single Joy-Con, dual Joy-Cons, or the Switch Pro Controller. The control scheme and move list are both explained well in the fighting tips section of the pause menu.
The only slight frustrations sometimes happen with the throw attacks, which can be tough to pull off when you mean to, but also seem to happen randomly when you don’t. At times, it can prove a little difficult to line characters up with enemies vertically on the screen and occasionally players are left flailing punches harmlessly above an enemy’s head. These are minor gripes though, and for the vast majority of the time, the game controls very well.
The game features five difficulty settings for its story and arcade modes: easy, normal, hard, hardest, and the game’s most challenging “mania” setting (described in-game as “not even remotely fair”). The settings adjust the number of lives the player starts each story stage with, the number of enemies you will face in each stage and how much damage each enemy will take, along with the frequency of healing item drops.
Worth mentioning along with this is the way the game smoothly ramps up the challenge as players progress through the levels with new, more difficult variants of enemies and an expanding range of environmental hazards, such as toxic waste, exploding barrels, and holes and ledges to plunge off.
Between its five difficulty settings and the two main game modes, Streets of Rage offers a highly customizable level of challenge, which should satisfy players of all levels. Most would find a run-through story mode on easy or normal straightforward while more advanced players will enjoy the frenetic pummeling the game will give you on its higher settings.
Amount of Content/Game Modes
Streets of Rage 4 features a wide range of different game modes, although the majority of these will need to be unlocked with a successful completion of story mode. These modes are: Story, Stage Select, Arcade, Boss Rush, and Battle.
In Story mode, the game saves and effectively restarts at the end of each of its 12 stages. Your lives and star attacks are returned to you and you are given the option to select a different character –- another nice touch allowing players to see all the games characters move sets and fighting styles in the same play-through. In the unlockable and more challenging arcade mode, players are limited to one set of lives (how many is dependent on difficulty setting) and saves are unavailable, meaning the game must be completed in one sitting.
Stage selection allows players to instantly jump in to replay any stage they have completed in story mode, but they can only play up to the difficulty setting they’ve completed the particular level on. Boss rush mode allows players to have a run at all of the game’s bosses one after the other, a particular tough challenge as the game doesn’t return lost lives after each stage like in story mode.
Battle is the game’s player vs. player mode, which turns the game into a fighting game in the vein of Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat. This game mode is limited in comparison to a dedicated player vs. player fighting game, but it’s great fun for a quick blast with a friend or online opponent.
In addition to its 12 story levels and multiple game modes, Streets of Rage 4 features a total of 17 unlockable characters and character variants and 4 unlockable art galleries, giving players a nice look at how the game’s hand-drawn graphics came together). These unlockables are linked to the players total, all-time score across all game modes and will keep completionists and committed players coming back again and again.
At its heart Streets of Rage 4 is a relatively short, simple game and story mode can be played through in about three hours. However, with all of the difficulty settings, game mode options, and unlockable characters, to truly see everything the game has to offer and master its combat will take players over twenty hours (according to the wonderful howlongtobeat.com).
Streets of Rage 4 uses a hand-drawn cartoon cell-shaded graphic style, which looks fantastic and suits the game down to the ground. The game cleverly combines muted colors for dirty cityscape and stage backgrounds with highlighted details, special attack animations, character designs, and enemies with vibrant neons and bold colors.
The graphics are also highly customizable. For players who prefer a more pixel art/retro style, a range of filters and detail/overlay options are available from the pause menu, as well as unlockable pixel art style character models from the previous games in the series. The game looks great on a nice TV or in handheld mode (the pixel art style and retro filters look especially good on the Switch’s screen).
Developers Dotemu, Lizard Cube and Guard Crush really nailed the feel and presentation of Streets of Rage 4. The game captures the style and essence of the original series and then catapults it into 2020 with just the right level of modern improvements and updates to make it fun and fresh. From the game’s colorful intro animation right through to the epic final boss fight, the series’ 80’s dystopian future setting and grimy neon art style is respected and lovingly recreated.
This attention to detail extends beyond the game itself, even the games’ standard edition physical release comes with a key chain and mini artbook. These may be taken as small touches, perhaps, but this game is full of fun, player-friendly small touches.
The games high energy electronic soundtrack fits the mood perfectly, bopping along nicely as you punch and kick your way through the stages and bosses. Like the games graphics, the sound can be customized for a more retro experience. All the games tracks have 16-bit style alternate versions which can be selected at any time from the pause menu.
Streets of Rage 4’s main story takes roughly three hours to play through, so replay value is important here. Thankfully, with additional unlockable game modes, characters, art galleries, and difficulty settings, along with the switchable retro graphic and sound options, replay value here is high. The game is also good for both longer and shorter play sessions. It’s equally suited for a marathon as it is for jumping in for a frantic 15-minute blast. The game’s all time high score count — which unlocks playable characters — will involve a serious investment of time and multiple playthroughs if players wish to unlock all 17 characters and variants.
Worth reiterating once again is just how much fun a couch or online co-op game Streets of Rage 4 is. Throwing a Joy-Con to a friend and taking on Wood Oak City together is a truly magnificent experience, and one can lose hours squabbling over healing items and score bonuses, “accidentally” pummeling each other’s characters and taking on the game’s levels and bosses this way.
Streets of Rage 4 has been loving and carefully crafted by its team of development studios. It fully delivers an updated and modernized, side-scrolling 2D beat-’em-up and will be a fun and rewarding experience for fans of the series and first-time players alike. A little button mashing is good for the soul every now and then, so give Streets of Rage 4 a go.
Final Rating: 9/10.