Of all the beloved “retro” game genres, few benefit more from rose-tinted nostalgia than the side-scrolling beat-’em-up. In a typical early-’90s arcade, you’d see this genre everywhere, usually with familiar licensed characters, beautifully animated sprites, and waves of bad guys to pummel.
Decades later, however, these arcade classics can feel clunky and repetitive. After the pre-teen thrill of faking like Michelangelo or a mayor wears off, you’re left mashing a single attack button through an eternity of repetitive foes. We haven’t seen many modern games take up that throne, and the best exceptions are either RPG-like juggles (Castle Crashers) or combo-loaded 3D smorgasbords (Devil May Cry). For years, I’ve yearned for a modern beat-’em-up that splits the difference: simple and accessible to start, with layers of satisfying nuance to uncover the more I play.
Streets of Rage 4 is exactly that game. Everything that made the series stand out in the early ’90s returns as a selling point once again, and new ideas have been added in careful, tasteful fashion.
It’s also another example of Sega handing a classic series to Western retro-crazed developers, giving them the freedom to go nuts, and getting a great game as a result. We’ve seen this with mascots like Sonic and Wonder Boy, and, now, the biggest beat-’em-up from the Sega Genesis has been reborn.
Not the final fight, after all
For the uninitiated, Streets of Rage emerged in 1991 as a Genesis-exclusive beat-’em-up—one with Capcom’s Final Fight in its sights. Final Fight was particularly impressive, because it rocketed to popularity without any familiar cartoon characters or licenses involved. Instead, it combined meaty graphics and distinct fighting styles to deliver the best fight-with-friends arcade game before Street Fighter II showed up.
SoR was arguably a superior series for a few reasons: its mechanical tweaks, its greater variety in character selection, its solid boss fights, and its absolutely slamming soundtrack. SoR was that rare cartridge whose music composers got title-screen credit, and those men, Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima, are still revered as masters of the Genesis’ unique Yamaha sound chip.
But after three increasingly impressive SoR games came and went, the series faded away. It never got an awkward rebirth in 3D, and that remains the case with this year’s Streets of Rage 4. Developers Lizardcube and Guard Crush have opted not to imagine how the series might have looked on the Saturn or Dreamcast, instead adhering to a wholly 2D engine.
The results are short and sticky-sweet. A single SoR4 session, through 12 levels of combat and bosses, should take roughly two hours, whether played alone or with friends. But it has been wisely designed to hook you for about 10 hours of fresh gameplay—and more if you’re obsessed with maxing your scores out.
When you first boot the game, you get four combatants to pick from, and that cast largely resembles the foursome from 1992’s Streets of Rage 2. Axel and Blaze return as all-around options, while we get new characters to fill in the usual beat-’em-up slots for quick-and-light and slow-and-massive. Whoever you choose, the control scheme hews pretty closely to the original series—so much so, in fact, that you can toggle a solid three-button “legacy” mode. I prefer having additional buttons for a few functions, but if you want to plug in a USB-compatible retro gamepad, a few extra button combos do the trick.
Much of the control system repeats what worked on Sega Genesis. The basic “attack” button can unleash a multi-hit combo when mashed, and this effectively damages and knocks most enemies down. Pressing jump+attack at the same time strikes whatever’s behind you and can immediately interrupt other actions. You can also attack in mid-air to control a full screen of enemies, with multiple types of mid-air attacks based on what directions you press.
More from older games: tap forward twice to set up a “rush” attack, if not an outright dash. Walk into an enemy without punching them to grab them, at which point you can either land a few blows or toss them into their buddies for crowd damage. Hold down the attack button to charge a “strong” attack. Pick up objects like pipes and knives, then either wield them as melee weapons or throw them as attacks. And a “special” attack can be done at any time, at the potential cost of your health, and it comes in three flavors: standing still, pressing forward, or attacking from mid-air.
Special attacks get the first obvious update, because they now come with a clever risk-and-reward structure. Once your special attack is activated, it turns a small portion of your health bar from yellow to green, which you can reclaim by hitting other enemies after the special is over with. Roughly three to five successful hits will get your health back. Should you take a hit, whatever health portion is still green goes away. Your first point of order, then, is to get acquainted with each character’s three special attack options, feel out where they’re most effective to use, and strike when you see an easy opportunity to refill your meter. For instance, knock a pesky boss down with a special attack, then jump-kick your way to his wimpy minions to refill your health with easy hits.
SoR4 is also the first game in the series to support wall-bouncing combos. In older games, when you kicked a foe at the edge of the screen, they’d fly through and land outside the visible screen area. Now, they bounce against the screen’s edge and back toward you so you can keep punching or kicking them on their way to the ground (or execute a perfectly timed special attack to pop them back into the air).
Guard Crush, not Gaiden
This fact plays directly into SoR4‘s megaton difference: a combo meter, tied to a new scoring system. You’ve probably seen this kind of combo system in 3D brawlers like Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden, where you get a limited time window between attacks to maintain a combined hit count (which depletes and starts over if you take a hit). Get a higher combo, get more points. In SoR4‘s case, points aren’t just for high-score bragging rights; they also comprise the entirety of the game’s extra-lives system.
What’s more, your score and lives reset at the end of every level. You can’t bank lives from easier levels. Once you crank the difficulty beyond “normal,” which you’ll want to do for subsequent playthroughs, score management becomes fundamental to SoR4 survival.
The above combination of existing systems and mild touch-ups is a testament to the game’s combat designers at Guard Crush. Their only other retail release, the odd 2007 game Streets of Fury, is an admittedly nimble and clever refresh of the beat-’em-up genre, but it adds a few too many systems (particularly a Dark Souls-like stamina meter) to the genre. SoR4 sees Guard Crush peel away the extraneous stuff from the core control suite without diluting the game’s tactical potential.
The only extra control system added this time around is a new “star” attack. Sadly, this differs from the stars in Streets of Rage 3, which players could earn by racking up a score without dying. Star attacks are now mere collectibles found in corners of the level, and, while they’re screen-filling blasts of damage, their impact is pretty meager, since they are hard to chain into combos. But you won’t find many of these in a given level, anyway, so it’s just a nitpick, not a dealbreaker. (Choosing not to use them contributes to your end-of-level score, which I generally opt to do.)
Doesn’t look like a Flash cash-in, that’s for sure
Like most classic beat-’em-ups, SoR4 is seen from a sorta-top-down perspective, where you can move in eight directions but only attack directly left or right. Some of this new game’s characters can dash left or right, while a few unlockable characters can dash up and down, but mobility is generally hamstrung by default. I advise anyone used to faster 3D brawlers to start with the quick character Cherry. I did this, then found myself really appreciating the combo-dealing and crowd-clearing potential of the rest of the slow cast—not to mention the importance of these other fighters’ special attacks (so long as I minded their health bars.)
The hand-drawn results resemble Lizardcube’s reimagining of Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, and this game similarly emphasizes natural brush strokes and limited, drawn-by-hand frames of animation. The art team is clearly eager to avoid comparisons the to cheap computer-finished art styles in modern games, and it goes so far as to leave lines and brush strokes in loose or even seemingly unfinished condition—as if to emphasize the motion of kicks and punches. The result is charming, but it’s arguably weirder to see in action in a series as frantic as SoR, as opposed to the cutesy, endearing look of Wonder Boy.
That’s the only asterisk I can think of. Otherwise, Lizardcube has done an incredible job bringing SoR‘s pixellated legacy forward to a hand-drawn format—a daunting proposition, surely. It doesn’t hurt that Lizardcube shamelessly lifts from the source material, considering how cleanly the color balance from the original Genesis games held up this many decades later, but the team also deserves credit for a jaw-dropping 2D rendering engine. The lighting and reflection effects on display here are impressive stuff, somewhere between 2D titans like Rayman Legends and Ori and the Will of the Wisps. In one level, neon bounces off of puddles in a battlefield; in another, as you walk over moving subway cars, the bursts of light between each car glow on your character’s feet and undersides.
Between those technical chops and the handsome animated reimaginings of so many classic SoR characters (enemies and allies alike), Lizardcube has proven itself a surprising steward of SoR‘s visual legacy.
Okay, okay, but what about the music?
The most divisive part of the package will be the soundtrack. Simply put, Lizardcube has taken a decidedly different tack for this soundtrack than you might expect, at least if SoR games live firmly in an early ’90s part of your brain.
The original ’90s songs by Motohiro Kawashima and Yuzo Koshiro became fan favorites because they pulled off one helluva musical trifecta: they were forward-thinking, they were technologically complex, and they were melodically sound. The “wow” factor of these club-worthy bangers on a Sega Genesis cannot be overstated, but they were also clever compositions in terms of house and jungle music—emphasizing consistent, driving beats instead of relying on CD-quality instruments. And they were eminently hummable, with melodies that stuck to your ribs.
SoR4‘s soundtrack doesn’t try to recreate the series’ classic soundscape by any stretch, which, on first listen, is a turnoff. Beyond its modern swath of instruments and musical styles, complete with organic instruments like horns and electric guitars, many of SoR4‘s songs lack the beefy, screeching-and-farting synth lines that immediately became utter earworms in older games. After nearly two full playthroughs, I had this nagging sense that the background noise wasn’t doing the job.
And yet! I kept feeling this insane rush as I completed each playthrough with headphones on, and I had to wonder, maybe the music was working more subtly. So I converted the game’s encrypted music files to OGG format in order to examine them in isolation. That’s when I recognized what Lizardcube was doing: moving forward with its own imaginative approach to “forward-thinking” club music in a game. Sometimes, Lizardcube incorporates wholly different musical approaches than the original series, like the death-disco beats you’d find in Hotline Miami or the floaty-tempo, based-as-hell textures you might hear in a Lil B instrumental—albeit with a healthy amount of piano-driven melody throughout.
But I also recorded some of my playthroughs and listened to them so I could notice how the music morphed and changed shape as each level progressed. A drum track comes and goes here, or a melody transforms when a mini-boss approaches. Every 90 seconds in SoR4 sounds different, and it’s one of the more dynamic soundtracks I’ve ever heard. Think of the mildly morphing music of Banjo-Kazooie, then imagine that system being taken over by a DJ on pills who’s conducting a symphony of your punches and kicks.
I remembered the new soundtrack’s hooks less, but I felt the music more, and that played into my recurring “can’t wait to play this game again” sensation. I came to appreciate the shift in musical direction—since classic SoR games always felt one-foot-forward musically—but I am glad to see the game also includes a “retro soundtrack” toggle, should you land squarely in the “just play the hits” camp. (Also, I can say that there are a few classic-style, synths-climbing-everywhere bangers in here, and these include contributions from Kawashima-san and Koshiro-san.)
Bare Knuckle, but not bare minimum
I didn’t go into SoR4 expecting to type this many words. I figured it’d start and end with “a throwback beat-’em-up to share with one friend on the couch or three friends online.” And I’m still leaving details out, particularly about the hefty boss-battle variety or the way each classic enemy has been redesigned to be more readable yet also more deadly. Meaning: you’ll get clobbered but not thanks to annoying “gotcha” shenanigans of old.
I’ll leave it at this: I’m in love with my biggest gaming surprise so far in 2020. SoR4 is easy to share with friends and easy to get hooked on. Its levels are choreographed with tons of enemy types from across the series so that you don’t land in the usual “ugh, same enemies again” fatigue that even the Genesis originals suffer from. And, heck, Lizardcube and Guard Crush were kind enough to bring back the cheesy two-player “battle” mode—and it’s actually kind of legit, since it neatly implements the special attacks’ new risk-and-reward proposition. If you’re on board with the scant length and the game’s urging that you replay it a few times for maximum value, I heartily encourage you to spend 10 satisfying hours with this beat-’em-up rebirth.
Listing image by Dotemu