Video games have largely abandoned the humble beat-'em-up, a sub-genre superseded many times by faster, more thrilling action titles. Getting Streets of Rage 4 at this point feels a bit like your estranged but fondly remembered uncle showing up on your doorstep 26 years later with a beard and a redder face. It's great to see you, Uncle Streets of Rage, but where do you fit into our lives in 2020?
Clearly developed with affection for the old games, this fourth iteration is a well-judged balance of old and new. Firing up the story, you'll see that familiar opening crawl and immediately feel at home. Though the presentation is vibrant and modern, there are lots of nods to the trilogy that came before, from familiar locations to character cameos. There're plenty of references to be found, and fans will love picking the game apart to find them.
Despite the frequent glances at the past, the game looks nothing like previous titles. It's like a comic book come to life — stark black outlines and pop art colours are the order of the day, and combined with slick animation and rock solid performance, it looks fantastic. There's an argument to be made that it's too different to its predecessors, but we appreciate the bold change. It might not echo the same grimy atmosphere of the Genesis beat-'em-ups, but it establishes a new style that's more befitting of a modern landscape.
Meanwhile, brawling is exactly as you expect. Marching to the right and pummelling all who stand in your way, you'll instantly be transported back to the nineties. There aren't many evolutions on the gameplay; you now recover health lost from using a special by keeping up the offensive, provided you aren't hit in the interim, and a combo counter encourages you to keep your streak going. Aside from that, you can more or less equate how it plays to Streets of Rage 2. It's old-fashioned, but it's satisfying to play, and the core cast of characters all feel distinct and are lots of fun to use.
However, there are one or two frustrations. Sometimes it can be hard to judge if you're lined up with opponents. Also, with limited defensive options, enemies can easily interrupt your attacks, and you can't always cancel out of animations. And weirdly, there are occasional spots which baddies can get to that you can't. Those Galsia chaps that run at you with a knife seem to find a plane at the very front of the stage that you just can't access, for instance. Ultimately, though, the tools at your disposal are enough to deal with the onslaught, and it's very hard to not enjoy yourself.
That is, until you remember the repetitive nature of beat-'em-ups. You'll be hammering Square a lot through the crime-addled streets of Wood Oak City, and there's only so many times you can repeat stages before fatigue sets in. There's absolutely fun to be had here, but with little depth and a short run time, it's not going to last you forever.
The game's 12 stages are at least imaginative and memorable. There are some familiar environments, but each level offers up some great set-pieces and hazards that give them all a unique feel. The difficulty curve through the story is generally good, but there are some inconsistencies; levels probably shouldn't be harder than the boss at the end.
Obviously, you can play co-op locally or online, which instantly ups the fun factor. Online is restricted to two players, but couch crimefighters can go up to four, which can be chaotic but is certainly something new for the series. An Arcade mode challenges you to beat the entire story with no continues, while Boss Rush mode pits you against all the top adversaries one after the other. Finally, Battle mode returns for some competitive one-on-one fights, which is a neat alternative to the main event. All these extra modes do alleviate the repetition to an extent, and it's nice to have these tougher challenges as an option.
Additionally, a lifetime score bar accumulates all the points you earn, and at certain thresholds you'll unlock retro characters. There are 12 pixelated vigilantes to collect, bringing most of the original trilogy's playable roster into the new game. They've been updated to fit into this newfangled engine, and play just as you remember them. We're not big fans of the jarring clash between the 16-bit sprites and the slick new art style, but it's a fun inclusion all the same. Retro music is available from the start, and can be enabled at any time. If you're nostalgic for the old soundtracks, you'll be pleased to know you can pop them on in place of the contemporary tracks.
We'd give the new tunes a chance, though. The collaborative effort on the soundtrack means a varied sound but quality is somewhat inconsistent. Still, there are some excellent tracks to discover, and we love the dynamic shifts the audio makes as you progress through a level. Like the rest of SOR4, the soundtrack riffs on the past but is determined to bring things into the 21st century.
Streets of Rage 4 makes a valiant attempt to drag the old-school franchise into the modern age. We've ended up with a beautiful beat-'em-up that's perhaps a little too loyal to the original games, but is ultimately a blast to play, especially with others. The appeal might wear off after a little while due to repetitive gameplay, but it's a huge amount of fun while it lasts.