Streets of Rage 4: a Less Enthusiastic Review

It’s no secret that I wasn’t particularly fond of Sonic Mania. Having replayed it more recently, I still stand by my view. Sonic Mania was a game which had a complete mastery of the character at the mechanical level, but didn’t seem to understand why any of those mechanics worked in tandem. When it acted as a beautified facsimile of past Sonic games it was perfect. When it strayed from their exact formula it floundered.

 Still, Sonic Mania did show that old skool gameplay with beautiful modern artwork could potentially be a winning combination. I was still quite excited when it was announced that Sega had finally commissioned a Streets of Rage 4. Who wouldn’t be?

First up, we should consider that the challenges facing Streets of Rage 4 were of a different magnitude to those facing Christian Whitehead and the Sonic crew. The potential for a 2d sonic game with modern graphics was one that had been apparent to everyone who played 2011’s Sonic Generations. Streets of Rage 4, however, has had a much more troubled genesis (hyuk hyuk:) Though up until now the series had officially ended with the credit roll at the end of Streets of Rage 3, this wasn’t supposed to be the case. When Core Design approached Sega with a plan to continue the series with the 32-bit fighter that eventually became Fighting Force, Sega explained they had their own plans for continuing the series on the Saturn. Though these plans didn’t come to fruition on the Saturn, Sega managed to get as far as  a Streets of Rage 4 techn demo on the Dreamcast (though the project was ultimately cancelled.) After that, a remake almost appeared on the 360 and PS3, but once again failed to  make it prototyping. Streets of Rage 4 is a game a lot of people have wanted to make happen, but up to now no one has been sure of the best way to do it.

The Streets of Rage 4 that might have been (Credit: Unseen64)

Enter Lizard Cube, Dot Emu and the other one: a trio of developers who’ve stepped up to make Streets of Rage 4 a reality. I’m not here to go through in the style of a traditional review (we all have the lowdown on Streets of Rage – and if you don’t you should probably start with one of the classic games – They’re available for download on your PC/games console/phone/fax machine/microwave,) instead I’m giving my thoughts on what works and what doesn’t, in as non-spoilery way as possible.

Ok, so first up. What works? Well, to their credit the basic combat engine IS Streets of Rage. Walking up to a goon with Axel, punching him in the face a couple of times and then throwing him over the ex policeman’s shoulder feels just like it did on the megadrive – which I’m sure is absolutely no mean feat. More amazingly still, they actually managed to improve on it: Streets of Rage 4 includes a really cool fighting game-style combo and air-juggling systems. On top of this the enemies can no longer hide behind the invisible walls that block the players progress: if you throw an enemy into them they’ll simply bounce back towards the player, reader to take more punishment.

This guys’s shield has to be broken before he’ll take damage (even from behind.) Its a mechanic that feels technically inferior to many found in the original games.

The game is about the right length. Rather than add in a ton of filler, the core game is an experience that the player can thump their way through in a couple of hours. Replayability comes mostly from an unlockable layer of fan-service that’s ladled on with all the subtlety of wrestler Max’s move set: regardless of how you feel about the new character designs, they’re banking that you’ll want to replay through the game as the original pixel Axel/Adam/Blaze. They’re probably correct too.

Next up, here’s the things I’m on the fence about. Personally I wasn’t a fan of the art style when the game was announced, and remain so having played through the entire game. I’m a tremendous fan of Lizard Cube’s style art style on its own (their Wonderboy remake is an absolute joy to behold) but  i’m not sure it really works with Streets of Rage, which always seemed to be trying for something less overtly cartoony. Though Streets of Rage, as a series, doesn’t have a great deal of consistency, you just need to look at the cover art to see how far Streets of Rage 4 stands out –  and not in a good way. With that said, the artwork IS very accomplished: the backgrounds are beautifully detailed and all of the protagonists look like they mean business. The look is technically accomplished but stylistically questionable.

Sadly another thing i’m on the fence about is the music. Unsurprisingly, the tracks that stand out are the ones written by series veterans Motohiro Kawashima and Yuzo Koshiro. Though stylistically the tracks written by newbie Oliver Deriviere fit in well and have a perfect early nineties house feel about them, they’re largely completely forgettable. Having played through with the specific intention of writing a review, all i can tell you about the music for the opening level is that is has some cool organ stabs. The rest of the track (and the soundtrack itself) has just kind of slipped my mind. If it were any other game simply having a well executed stylistically-appropriate soundtrack would be more than enough. But this is a Streets of Rage game and a game that touts its ‘god-tier’ (URRRGGGHHHH) soundtrack in its marketing materials. Good enough isn’t going to do. Though its noteworthy you can swap the new soundtrack for music from previous Streets of Rage games, these are just the original megadrive chiptunes, which don’t really fit the updated visuals. It’s a shame they didn’t include a remix option – i’m sure there isn’t a videogame musician out there who’d have turned down the opportunity to remix some of the original master pieces.

Pixel Axel is a lot of fun (even if he doesn’t match the artwork)

Finally, here are the things that, for me at least, don’t work at all. For a start they’ve gratuitously messed with the game’s structure – for reasons that are completely beyond me. In the original games, the player started off with a fixed array of lives and continues and had to husband them from Round 1 up to the finale. With the ability to pickup/earn extra lives along the way, this added an interesting degree of strategy: If you knew you were going to struggle with Streets of Rage boat level, you could try and earn more lives in the opening stages. In Streets of Rage 4, every level is its own entity: the score starts always starts at 0 and the player always begins with three lives – with no continues. I don’t like this for a couple of reasons: for one every level really does feel compartmentalised. It might sound silly but seeing the score reset to zero each time detracts from a feeling of progress. I feel like i’m playing a collection of levels rather than a story. More importantly, this change makes some of the levels simply too hard. The developers seem to have thought so too – if you’re having trouble you can choose from a number of score dividing-assists,’ but these are a solution to a problem that wouldn’t exist if they’d stuck to  the original structure.

Another issue is star moves – ultra powerful moves that require the player to pick up collectible stars. An obvious nod to the artillery-specials featured in the original Streets of Rage, their inclusion here feels a bit pointless. Considering the amount of work the developers have presumably done balancing their (lovely) revised special move system (where health lost performing special moves can be bought back by inflicting damage with regular moves), they a feel a bit like a delicious fried egg that someone’s randomly plopped on top of a creamy rice pudding – they’re nice on their own but don’t really go together.

Though when it comes to audio we tend to focus on the music of Streets of Rage, I would argue the overall sound design is just as important to the overall experience. Streets of Rage wouldn’t be Streets of Rage without those satisfying punches, individual pipe thwacks or explosions that somehow seemed to be about 5 times as loud as your TV’s volume level. Unfortunately while the music in Streets of Rage 4 is passable The sound effect design feels largely phones-in. This is particularly obvious when the player unlocks the classic Axel and we’re treated to his gloriously low-resolution “Aaa-AH” once again.

If only the bat sounded as good as it looked…

However, far and away the game’s biggest stumbling block – the one that sours the entire package for me – is enemy and level design. For their part, the levels are massively inconsistent. It feels a bit like there was one designer who felt that the perfect Streets of Rage level is about two screens long and contains 15 chickens, and another who feels that the perfect level is about 15 screens long and only contains 2 chickens. It would have been nice if, at some point, these two designers would have talked to each other about their respective designs.

The inconsistency in the level design isn’t helped by the new bad guys. The graphic designs might be nice enough, but when it comes to moves the developers are almost a one trick pony: the main move of most of each of the new characters generally involves zooming from one side of the screen to the other, dealing the player an immense amount of damage once they get there. If that wasn’t bad enough, the developers have messed with some of the fundamental design principles that made Streets of Rage a better game than its contemporaries. In particular, one of the best things about the original Streets of Rage games was the way that even the almighty boss characters didn’t have any greater attack priority than a normal bad guy: fake Freddy Krueger might be performing his super-duper attack slide, but if you punched him in the back he was going to take damage.

Streets of Rage 4 messes with this. A lot of characters have moves that seem to take precedence over the player. A number of characters – including the bosses- now have charged moves that the player can’t stop even if the player inflicts damage upon them. Speaking of bosses, these are now all longer multi stage affairs, with the bosses generally receiving both enhancements to their special moves and additional minions mid-bout. This might be a great way to bump up the difficulty, but for me these come at the expense of some of what made the original games so fun to play.

On top of making things harder, some of the new designs just seem to be a bit broken. One new character in particular is armed with one of the new pickups – a bottle of toxic sludge that hurts players and enemies alike. On my play through, these characters managed to break  these bottles them in such a way that they managed to murder all of their comrades before they commited suicide themselves. It’s a shame the stage didn’t have a kettle for Adam to make himself a cup of tea with while he waited for them to finish.

Overall then I found Streets of Rage 4 a frustrating experience. In many ways i found it similar to Sonic Mania. As with Mania, the original team have done a fantastic of both recreating AND improving on the original fighting mechanics (I stress again the combo and juggling systems feel like a perfect and overwhelmingly natural extension of the original engine.) However this understanding of the game at a nuts’and’bolts level is marred by a lack of understanding of how these systems combine with the overall design of the game. In Mania’s case, it felt like the designers lacked an understanding of how the original stages flowed and how the level designs prompted players with subtle clues to alert them to danger. In Streets of Rage 4 the designers have gratuitously altered the underlying structure and have implemented the kind of unfair enemy mechanics that were popular in contemporary arcade beat em ups, but which the original Streets of Rage team deliberately eschewed.

Taken together, i think they demonstrate how genuinely difficult it is to create a fitting modern sequel to these classic games. While modern developers seem able to replicate the underlying nuts and bolts, I personally believe that our approach and understanding of game design has moved too far for us to truly understand some of the nuances of classic game design.