Streets of Rage is something of a legendary franchise in SEGA’s portfolio. Three stellar (well, at least two stellar and one perfectly acceptable) entries on the SEGA Genesis/Mega Drive proved to not only “do what Nintendon’t” against Capcom’s Final Fight, but have gone down as seminal works in the belt-scrolling brawler (aka “beat ’em up”) genre, and whenever a compilation or series of SEGA’s 16-bit classics emerges, you can usually count on at least one of the entries being included.
But then, something strange happened. Streets of Rage 3 hit in 1994, and when the SEGA Saturn landed the following year… nothing. Throughout the rest of SEGA’s time as a hardware manufacturer, there were no further Streets of Rage titles, and this continued into their new life as a software-focused company. Sure, that third entry isn’t as well-regarded as its predecessors, but come on — SEGA franchises have bounced back from far worse. Just ask their mascot.
That isn’t to say there was a lack of interest or trying, however. Core Design attempted to fill the gap, but were rebuffed by SEGA on account of their own purported plans to continue the franchise. Core would go on to finish their version anyway, and it saw release as Fighting Force on the Sony PlayStation, Nintendo 64, Windows — everything except, ironically, the SEGA Saturn. Meanwhile, whatever plans SEGA had, they apparently never came to fruition.
With SEGA all but abandoning the beloved franchise, some fans attempted to fill the void in their stead with fan games, tributes, and spiritual successors. While SEGA has been quite generous in allowing fans to use their IP for fan projects with Sonic the Hedgehog (ultimately leading to not only definitive versions of some of the 16-bit classics, but Sonic Mania as well), those seeking to enshrine their love for Streets of Rage in the same way were not extended the same courtesy.
For whatever reason, it seemed SEGA was standing firm in keeping Streets of Rage in the past. But then, in 2018, it was announced that Streets of Rage 4 was coming, thanks to a combination of the folks who developed 2017’s remake of Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap, Dotemu and Lizardcube, as well as Guard Crush Games, who’d had experience with the genre by way of their own beat ’em up, Streets of Fury.
In truth, maybe SEGA’s decision not to continue the series for almost a quarter of a century was a good one. On more popular platforms, Fighting Force did well enough to warrant a sequel, but not one recognizable as anything related to Streets of Rage. Capcom tried to bring Final Fight into the then-contemporary world of 3D, and that resulted in Final Fight Streetwise.
With Streets of Rage 4, the series manages to progress into the modern age without losing sight of its roots.
Set a decade after the last entry in the series (something of a recurring theme in long-dormant SEGA franchises being revived and released this week), something strange is happening in the streets of Wood Oak City. The Syndicate seems to be up to no good once again, so Axel Stone and Blaze Fielding have reunited and teamed up with newcomers Cherry Hunter (guitarist daughter of Adam) and Floyd Iraia (a cybernetically-enhanced disciple of Dr. Zan) to get to the bottom of things and put a stop to it.
While these four are your starting lineup, you’ll unlock other playable characters either by progressing through the story or building your total lifetime point accumulation and reaching certain milestones. This leads to a total of 17 playable characters, though seven of those are various “retro” versions of Axel, Blaze, and Adam, each in all their original pixel art glory, and bringing their respective move sets from each entry in the Genesis trilogy with them. A further five of those unlockables are other playable characters from the 16-bit titles, though unfortunately, you can’t play as the modern counterparts to some of them, despite their presence in the game (or one particular boss I was really hoping would become playable).
As an aside, there don’t seem to be any alternate color schemes for any of the characters. This is kind of disappointing, as I really like the Streets of Rage 3 North American color schemes (particularly Blaze’s white outfit).
Also available in modern and classic varieties are the control options. If you think simpler is better, then you can go for the 3-button Legacy option, which just has buttons for Attack, Jump, and Special, with various combinations for other moves. Go with the modern option, however, and you’ll put many of those buttons on your controller to good use, with dedicated buttons for picking up and throwing items, back-attacks, and Star moves, which is my preferred option — the one-button back-attack can be a real game changer. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the Switch version (and possibly the other console versions?) won’t allow you to map anything to the triggers, which threw me off a little when trying back-attacks there.
Incidentally, if you’re looking to pick this up on Steam (the version reviewed here, thanks to the publisher providing a review code), know that the Retro-Bit 8-button wireless pad doesn’t seem to play too nicely with it. I had it working when I got it, but now it just goes bonkers in different ways on different games when I try to use it. In Streets of Rage 4‘s case, it holds Down on the Dpad until you press Up; then it does the same in the opposite direction. This doesn’t reflect on the game itself, just know that if that’s your only non-keyboard input method, you might want to look at a console version instead.
I don’t think I need to tell you about the graphics and sound here, as both are excellent. Surprisingly, the story is more prevalent here than in past entries as well, with over-the-top comic-style cutscenes taking place between each of the game’s 12 stages. It’s not exactly a Yakuza-quality narrative or anything, but it does go beyond what past entries featured. Not only does it give you more of the great art, but is also reflected in some interesting design decisions, as you’ll not only find yourself fighting street thugs, but also police officers, and what’s more, the two will fight each other as well. As such, you can let them work each other, or jump in if you don’t want them getting away with your points (gotta get those unlockables, after all).
(Spoiler warning ahead)
The one place the story fell flat for me was the ending. Spoiler: There really isn’t one. Beat the last boss, and roll credits. I guess there doesn’t really need to be a resolution at that point, but it would have been nice to get a little more of that excellent artwork. Well, you do, kind of — there are some sketches of the different characters doing things in the end credits that aren’t shown in the main menu version, but still.
(End of spoilers)
Some are going to say “no one cares about the story,” but right or wrong, the meat of the game is in its action, and let me tell you, it is juicy. You’ve got five different difficulty levels to choose from, ranging from Easy (“For those who love every part of beat ’em ups, except getting beat up”) to Mania (“This difficulty isn’t even remotely fair. Recommended for Streets of Rage maniacs only”), and the different characters provide some nice different feeling gameplay as well. Blaze is fast and agile, and who I spent my first run using (though you can change between stages), but toying around with Floyd afterwards has me excited to run through again — know those grab moves? He can grab one guy, carry him around until you grab another guy, and then smash the two together. I am seriously going to enjoy this.
It’s not exactly perfect, though, as there can be some slightly irritating or questionable design decisions here. Some weapons used by enemies will hurt the player and foes alike, while others — like a grenade — specifically have to be picked up and thrown by the player to affect enemies. Weird. Another is the foes who basically hold an attack of some kind in front of them and run at you diagonally, which the primarily horizontally-oriented players aren’t really designed to be able to counterattack or defend against.
You’ll be able to unlock some other modes beyond story here, as well. Stage Select lets you choose which stage you want to play, so long as you’ve completed it on the chosen difficulty, while Arcade mode challenges you to get through the entire game on one credit — with no saving. Then you’ve got the boss rush and a battle mode, in which you can pit two player characters (or two of the same) against one-another. Remember the versus modes in Golden Axe or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time? It’s basically like that, but with more variety in play styles and backgrounds.
There are other options you can toggle to your liking, especially on the PC version. One of my favorites is deciding what the icons representing your small and large health pick-ups look like. I switched from an apple and a roast chicken to a rice ball and what I think is a big helping of poutine. Nice.
While I think it could do with a few tweaks here and there (and maybe some future patches will help with that), I still came away from my Streets of Rage 4 play time quite pleased with what I’d experienced. It’s new yet familiar, in all the best ways — just the kind of thing you would hope for in a sequel. Perhaps only time will tell if this game was worth waiting over 25 years for, but right here and right now, I definitely think it’s worth the $25 (USD) they’re asking for.