Eight years ago, I ended my review of Double Dragon Neon with this line “Now I’m just holding thumbs for a Streets of Rage remake, and I implore you – make it awesome!”. It seems that the gods of gaming heard my pleas and saw fit to grant my wish because Streets of Rage 4 is here, after an agonising wait, and it is indeed awesome.
As the “4” in the title implies, this is a continuation of the story from the end of 1994’s Streets of Rage 3. Not that the story in Streets of Rage was ever noteworthy, being little more than basic justification for a crew of heroes to walk across a dingy city beating the snot out of armies of thugs. It’s been ten peaceful years since the crime lord Mr. X was defeated, but now a new syndicate has arisen, headed by Mr. X’s children, the Y Twins, who have a dastardly new plans to take over Wood Oak City.
To combat the threat, old heroes Blaze Fielding and Axel Stone team up with musician Cherry Hunter, daughter of Adam from Streets of Rage 1, and Floyd Iraia, the beefy, cybernetically enhanced apprentice of Dr. Zan from Streets of Rage 3. Cherry is gorgeously animated and fun to play, being more akin in style to Skate from Streets of Rage 2 and 3 than her dad. She might not deal much damage with her punches and kicks, but she’s fast and pretty good for combos. Floyd is the polar opposite. He’s the slow, grapple-oriented character and dishes out more damage than the rest of the crew. He also has the unique ability to grapple two opponents at once and them smash them together like a rage-filled cymbal monkey.
The returning characters are awesome too. Axel now looks like someone’s shaggy, jobless old uncle, but he still packs a mighty punch with his balance of speed and power. Blaze is as stylish as ever, and favours speed slightly more than power, giving her more combo potential. You also unlock Adam after beating level 4, not a huge secret, and he’s way cooler than he was in the original game, with a very sharp, fast, martial-artsy fighting style which can produce some impressive aerial combos.
In gameplay terms, Streets of Rage 4 is almost identical to the classic arcade games. The new features are very subtle, but they make all the difference. The standout addition has to be the inclusion of juggle combos and I honestly can’t believe how naturally it fits into the established flow of the game – so much that I started doing them without even seeing a tutorial. Not that you need a tutorial for a game this simple. The are only four buttons – attack, jump, special, and pick up. By approaching enemies and hammering the attack button, your character will perform a short combo and if you manage to approach an enemy without getting hit you’ll grapple them, giving you various options depending on who you’re playing. Blaze and Axel can pummel and throw or suplex grappled foes; Cherry can jump onto their shoulders and pummel their heads or slam them into the ground with her guitar; Floyd can smack two enemies together as I mentioned above; and Adam has the unique ability to toss grappled enemies into the air to capitalise on his aerial juggling capabilities.
Each character also has a multi-hitting Blitz attack, accessed by double-tapping forward and pressing the attack button, which is useful for herding and smacking groups of enemies. There’s also the traditional super attacks which consume a bit of the player’s life bar, but now players can regain that bit of spent health by landing enough hits without getting hit themselves. When you’re low on health, you’ll want to destroy some barrels, crates, arcade machines and other inanimate objects to find health items, score items and weapons. The weapons are quite damaging, but break after a few uses and include things like knives, bats, tasers, pool balls, boomerangs, and swords. A new feature is the ability to catch a thrown weapon, whether it was thrown at you by an enemy, or bouncing off the head of an enemy you threw it at, which is always amusing. If you’re desperate, each character also has a unique Star Move, which you can only execute after collecting star tokens in the levels – basically it’s a huge, damaging super attack useful for taking out lots of enemies at once or dealing chunks of damage to bosses.
Just as with the classic games, the main challenge is in moving your character to avoid damage, then going in for attacks or grapples once you’ve bunched the enemies up enough to take them out efficiently. The bosses are mostly pretty good this time around, having their own unique attack patterns and quirks – although there is a bit of BS in there too. They’ll often flash white for a moment, for example, making them invincible, and you’d better not try to attack them in that state. I’m never a fan of arbitrary invincibility on enemies in any game, as it feels like cheap design, especially on bosses with copious health and damage output, but once I got used to it I could put up with it.
There’s online co-op for two players, which I tried for a few stages with my buddy in the UK. We laughed as we occasionally smacked each other and air-juggled Shiva’s candy-ass back and forth like we were playing badminton. There’s also couch co-op for up to four players – which, if it was meant to be a selling point, makes the release date of the game very unfortunate. Not that I’d be able to get four friends over at the same time even under normal circumstances.
All characters, especially the protagonists and the bosses are beautifully designed and animated, and the stages are works of comic art with nice ink-like linework and cross-hatching for a more gritty feel. The 2D effect with multiple-coloured light sources is also very cool and the music is a nice combination of remixes and homages to classic tunes and head-bobbing, toe-tapping new material – way better than the ear-fuckingly awful discordant trance trash from Streets of Rage 3. The sound effects are also satisfyingly meaty and complement the brutal animation nicely.
The only thing I could possibly wish for is a couple more new fighting mechanics, just for variety – but that’s not to say I’m not immensely happy with the game as it is. It’s a finely-tuned, mindless beat-’em-up with a rudimentary story, great art and groovy music. Just what it should be.
The streets outside aren't full of much currently, but in this game they're full of thugs in need of a knuckle sandwich. And Rage. A great comeback for a classic title with subtle new features that add to the experience naturally without changing anything iconic.
Great animation, cool 2D lighting effects and detailed backgrounds
The new subtle new features, such as juggle combos, are great additions to the formula
The new characters are great, and the returning characters still kick enough ass to be attractive
The invincible moments for bosses mean you can never really dominate with skill
Players used to more complex melee combat games might find the mechanics a bit simple
Hopefully people will still be interested in the four-player couch co-op post-pandemic
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