PAX West 2019 Preview: Solving All My Problems With Violence in Streets of Rage 4

Streets of Rage 4 feels like a lost Saturn title. It's got an instantly nostalgic feel, but is the sheer thrill of busting an '80s punk rocker across the face with a pipe enough to carry a game in 2019? ...well, yeah, it is. Stupid question, really.

Streets of Rage 4 feels like… well, pretty much exactly what it is. A French studio teamed up with a French-Canadian studio to make a stylish, faithful sequel to one of the great idle franchises in video game history, with a soundtrack by the original composer and a few equally legendary collaborators.

In a lot of ways, this feels like a fan project, the same way Sonic Mania did. Streets of Rage 4 isn’t an attempt to “update the series for a new generation,” or any other kind of random cash grab off an old license. It’s an arcade-style beat-‘em-up from stem to stern, with most of the old tricks, gimmicks, and conventions firmly in place. It felt familiar, and I felt and comfortable with it from the moment I picked it up, just as if it hasn’t been 25 years since the last Streets of Rage game.

Streets of Rage 4 is a collaboration between three studios. Lizardcube (the recent remake of Wonder Boy 3), in Paris, is handling the art direction, while Montreal’s Guard Crush Games (Streets of Fury) is handling the programming and Paris’s Dotemu is providing design work. The latter is also publishing the game.

I will say that the visuals are the biggest change. SoR4 in motion looks like the animated version of a European comic adaptation of the series. It's as if someone threw a giant sack of money at the guy who draws Yoko Tsuno to have him illustrate those old Sega licensed comics that ran in the U.K. in the ‘90s.

SoR4 is supposed to be set 10 years after the events of Streets of Rage 3, but Blaze Fielding hasn’t aged a day, Axel Stone looks like he joined a grunge band, the nameless city they’re in is still mostly populated by garish ‘80s gang members and the occasional dominatrix, and many of the backgrounds are rich with that ‘80s New York style of urban rot that all the old arcade beat-‘em-ups got out of movies like Death Wish and Cobra. It almost feels like a period piece.

Streets of Rage 4 has a soundtrack composed by series veteran Yuzo Koshiro, as well as Hideki Naganuma (Jet Set Radio, Sonic Rush, the last couple of Smash Brothers games), Yoko Shimomura (Final Fight, Street Fighter II, Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy XV), and Keiji Yamagishi (Ninja Gaiden, Tecmo Bowl, The Messenger). If you’re the sort of person who sits around listening to 16-bit chiptunes for fun, you should probably plan on ordering the SoR4 OST now. This is basically a supergroup for the 16-bit era.

I got a chance to play Streets of Rage 4 at this year’s Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, at publisher Dotemu’s booth on the sixth floor of the convention center. They just handed me a controller and let me and a friend pummel our way through the game’s sixth stage.

The first thing I noticed, playing co-op, is that friendly fire is on by default, and according to a nearby Dotemu producer, cannot be turned off. Your worst enemy in Streets of Rage 4 is the person you’re playing with. The game was generous with its power-ups, so I was able to regain life by punching apples, hamburgers, and entire cooked chickens out of oil drums, but I wouldn’t have taken half as much damage if I wasn’t catching stray hands from Player 2.

I ended up playing as the newest character, Cherry Hunter, who’s the daughter of Adam from the original Streets of Rage. (Since Skate from SoR3 was Adam’s little brother, I guess the cross-city beatdown tour is now officially a Hunter family tradition.) Cherry felt like she was in the same mid-range zone as Axel always was, not too slow and doing decent damage, with the ability to bust out her guitar for an explosive chord that cleared the area around her.

One thing that did change in SoR4 from past games is that your special attacks still cost you small amounts of life, but it isn’t a permanent loss. Any life you spend on specials will regenerate a tick at a time as long as you don’t take any additional damage. The idea, according to Dotemu’s producers, is to make your special moves a risk vs. reward issue, rather than an emergency measure. As long as you can stay out of danger, you can freely incorporate your specials into your offense, which is great for clearing out sudden crowds of enemies.

That’s just one way in which SoR4 is a little kinder than the older games ever were. I remember complaining back in the day about a few other franchise revivals  like Contra  that kept a lot of the bad habits from the quarter-muncher days despite not being on an arcade cabinet anymore. Streets of Rage 4, though, at least in the stage from the PAX demo, doesn’t do that. You don’t have to memorize its patterns to avoid sudden cheap hits or deaths, the way that old ‘90s arcade games would in order to suck more change out of your pockets. It’s got a smoother, more intuitive difficulty curve.

Watching other people play SoR4, I did notice that I’d missed a few things. There are apparently a lot of secret moves and special attacks hidden in each character’s moveslist, the same way there were in Streets of Rage 3. There’s also at least one character that hasn’t been revealed yet, to go by the game’s key art. (I kind of hope it’s Busujima from Zombie Revenge, since this is suddenly the year for unexpected crossovers.)

I do wonder how Streets of Rage 4 will play if you didn’t grow up on arcade beat-‘em-ups. There’s a lot it improves about the original series the animation, the general difficulty curve, some of the basic mechanics but in a lot of ways, it’s trading heavily on nostalgia. The retrogaming guys I know are already hype for SoR4  Sega fans have been asking for a new Streets of Rage game since the Saturn was a thing but it’s enough of a throwback product that I wonder how well it’ll do with a brand-new audience.

Then again, it’s not a subtle genre. There are half a dozen guys over there with intact teeth, and your job is to go fix that. That will always have a timeless appeal.

For more coverage from PAX West 2019, be sure to head over to our PAX West 2019 hub

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Published Sep. 11th 2019

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