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A love letter is only ever an echo, a ripple, of something more, something tangible. And so it goes with tributes, be they to a person, a piece of art, a product or whatever. Streets of Rage 4 is both a love letter and a tribute to the three classic side-scrolling beat 'em ups before it, quintessential cornerstones of any SEGA Mega Drive collection. And yet it, too, is real - a game out of time, shorn of its era, but as compelling and addictive in the 21st century as its predecessors were in the 1990s.
Streets of Rage 4, on the surface, is the Streets of Rage games you played before (be that at the time on the original hardware, or on countless releases since) given a gorgeous reskin. The characters and levels alike feel like they've peeled themselves from the pages of a comic book and slipped inside a video game. Even when stages are at their most relatively muted - like underground passageways and riding atop trains - everything pops with exquisite detail.
Animations are chunky and robust - not exactly liquid, but almost designed with restricted frames in mind, so as to better emphasise the crunches, the slams, the fists in the faces. Because while this looks like a cartoon, don't let that appearance fool you. Streets of Rage 4 is a bruising, brutal game where knives are thrust, iron bars swung with purpose and molotov cocktails tossed liberally, turning the pristine polished floors of an art gallery into a flaming death trap.
The game looks the part, then - but fans of the older Streets of Rage games will want to know if it sounds legit, too? Music was a massive part of the 16-bit trilogy - especially for Streets of Rage 2, for which composers Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima crafted an odyssey of pulsating house and propulsive techno that still bangs today. And for those who need their beats, I've good news: Streets of Rage 4's original soundtrack is blessed by a cavalcade of electronic cuts that perfectly complement the tracks of the past, without ever feeling like soulless copies.
Much of the material comes from Frenchman Olivier Deriviere, whose past credits on games like Vampyr, Remember Me (such an overlooked game, do check it out) and A Plague Tale: Innocence highlight his ability to flit between styles with a very enviable elegance. His contributions on Streets of Rage 4 feel thick and bassy, less rattly and skittery than the '90s OSTs - and when they really kick in, such as on the game's sixth stage of 12 (set initially on the streets of Chinatown, and then inside a particularly punishing dojo), you'll be torn between focusing on kicking ass and getting up to shake it.
What's more, both Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima contribute immediately recognisable (but new) tracks for Streets of Rage 4, too - alongside a handful of others, including more-contemporary electronic musicians Das Mörtal and Scattle - which brings this game full circle, back around to the original of 1991. This 21st century instalment also features the three playable characters from that first game - visibly older, if not necessarily wiser - in new, beautifully realised forms; but you need to play through a handful of stages in the story mode before one of them, Adam Hunter, is unlocked.
Before that, the selection is comprised of four varied heroes: Axel Stone and Blaze Fielding, who were present and correct from the outset of the three previous games, alongside Adam's daughter Cherry Hunter and Floyd Iraia, an apprentice of Streets of Rage 3 character Dr Zan who, like his mentor, has bionic arms. The more you play, the more extra characters you unlock, starting with the Adam, Axel and Blaze of the original Streets of Rage, then onto the second game, and then the third.
Of the newbies, Floyd is this game's Max, a hulking brute who moves painfully slow but hits incredibly hard. He's not my guy, just as Max never was, but some old-school Streets of Rage players will feel right at home. Cherry on the other hand is the equivalent of Skate (her uncle, in the games' world), a speedy and light option who'll leap atop enemy shoulders to hammer away on their skulls, and bring her guitar crashing down as a climax to speedy combos. Axel and Blaze? They're Axel and Blaze, to a tee.
Only, there's more to them than first meets the eye - and to Streets of Rage 4's combat, as a whole. In the older games, using special moves - like Axel's flaming Dragon Wing punch, or Blaze's short-range fireball-like Kikou Shou - would deplete the character in question's health, so their use was always in careful moderation. In Streets of Rage 4, these moves still drain your hit points, your life bar - but in a style akin to Bloodborne, you can regain that spent health by continuing your attack, refilling the bar to the point it was before you triggered the move.
Get hit by an enemy and the energy's lost; but deploy specials as part of combos, where you're confident of landing blows afterwards, and they can be used with far greater freedom than ever before. And you're advised to use them, too, as Streets of Rage 4 piles on enemies like its predecessors never did. Certain parts of the game - such as a three-room sequence in the sixth level - effectively trap you with countless opponents (with weapons, too) who can very quickly gang up and utterly decimate your stock of lives. If you stick to just regular moves and each character's double-tap Blitz attacks, carried over from SoR2 and 3, rather than chucking in specials, you will wind up defeated.
Initially, these areas feel cheap, like the game's developers at Dotemu, Lizardcube (who were behind 2017's exceptional Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap remake) and Guard Crush Games are increasing difficulty through upping the number of grunts, rather than designing new enemies to test your abilities. But after getting battered a few times - and the boss that follows said pile-on sequence, Shiva, seeming a cakewalk in comparison - it clicks. The devs are demanding that you use their new combat mechanics, as designed. Put the past behind you, player, and embrace the new. Because without it, you're never gonna crush the Y Syndicate terrorising the city's streets.
The big bads of Streets of Rage 4 are a pair of twins whose father, Mr X, Axel and Blaze (and friends) finally put down for good at the end of Streets of Rage 3. Naturally, they're a little peeved at that, and are out for revenge - and while the story isn't really a selling point of these games, the siblings' method of ruling their metropolis of choice is pretty amusing. I won't detail it fully here, but given this series' connection with music, it's a fun touch that fans of everything Streets of Rage will get a chuckle out of.
There's a slew of other easter eggs to be seen in this game's levels, too - enemy names and likenesses are one thing, but who's that keeping bar at the end of level five? And how do they even serve drinks properly wearing boxing gloves? Music from Streets of Rage and SoR2 can be selected in the menu at any time during gameplay, with the selections pretty much suiting the stages in question - the third level, on a cargo ship, will play SoR2's 'The Ship', while the opening level, set on the streets, naturally goes for the same game's iconic 'Go Straight'.
Outside of the main story mode of the game sit an array of alternative options. While story mode starts you on each stage with a set number of lives, arcade mode's approach is more old-school - play on normal difficulty and you'll be given five to get through the entire game with. Battle mode pits player versus player across a selection of eight environments, and like the story mode it can also be played online. I've not personally had time to check out Streets of Rage 4's online play, but even if it were riddled with problems, it wouldn't detract from what is a spectacular single-player or same-sofa (up to four-player) co-op rampage down memory lane - albeit a romp blessed by awesome new aesthetics.
Streets of Rage 4 is a fantastic addition to its series - and rather like Sonic Mania before it, it highlights how passing the creative baton to independent developers who genuinely love the source material can breathe amazing new life into a gaming giant's enduring franchises. Which is to say: SEGA, come on, give someone young and hungry the reins to Golden Axe and Outrun, yeah?
It's not without niggles, and it definitely suffers from more difficulty spikes than the older games (which certainly weren't without them) - a handful of playthroughs later and I still feel that one of the hardest bosses in the whole game is the one at the end of the second level. But it comprehensively achieves more than what some people might have it pegged as: just a love letter, a tribute to games so legendary that any modern developer would be a fool to touch them.
Credit, then, to the team behind Streets of Rage 4 for not just having the confidence to revisit a series so ingrained in (older) gamer psyches around the world as an undisputed masterpiece of its genre, but for having the talent to realise an end result that not only stands shoulder to shoulder with the best those 90s titles, but in many ways puts them in its shadow.
It can't be overstated that this is an experience that won't be as rich, as rewarding, as exciting to younger players as it will be to those who were raised on the Mega Drive. But for anyone with fond memories of this genre at its peak, on home consoles and in arcades throughout the 1990s, it's unlikely you'll play a better game of its kind than Streets of Rage 4 in 2020.
Streets of Rage 4 is released for PlayStation 4 (version tested), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC on April 30th. A PlayStation 4 code for the game was provided by the publishers, Dotemu, for this coverage. A full guide to GAMINGbible's scores can be found here.
Featured Image Credit: Dotemu
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