Some legends suffer a fate worse than death; they burn bright, only to become forgotten. The world of gaming moves on, as ever, leaving the cleanup for the last to leave. It’s hard to believe how dominant a genre the arcade beat ‘em up once was. Think MOBOs, only out in public and gobbling quarters even faster than laundromats (fact check: true!). How can franchises and characters that entertained, inspired, and thrilled so many just…vanish?
Double Dragon? Final Fight? Golden Axe? Cadillacs and Dinosaurs? Even The Simpsons and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles represented like champs. Few developers helped dominate the scene quite like Sega, which made their promise of “bringing the arcade home” to their 16-bit Sega Genesis more necessary than ever.
The newly-released Super Nintendo shipped with a great-looking, albeit crippled version of Capcom’s arcade smash Final Fight. Sega’s answer to prove their 16-bitter was no slouch was to release the original Streets of Rage, an urban clone of their own Golden Axe that was wholly an original game you could only find in Sega land. While graphically inferior to Capcom’s offering, it featured better more characters, 2-player gameplay, and, of course, that fabulously crunchy soundtrack by Yuzo Koshiro, which absolutely killed.
A year later Sega would astonish fans even further with Streets of Rage 2, a vastly superior sequel that not only took the franchise to new heights, but the genre itself. Everything was bigger, badder, better… a 16-bit intergeneration hallmark that proved there was life yet in Sega’s aging hardware. Unfortunately, it was destined to “compete” with another Capcom hit – this time one the fading arcade brawler couldn’t counter: Street Fighter II and the dominance of the fighting game.
As great as Streets of Rage 2 was (and remains) the franchise wasn’t long for this world. Despite a decent follow-up with 1994’s Streets of Rage 3, it was obvious the party was over – for both the arcade beat ‘em up and, sadly, Sega’s prominence as a console hardware leader. Like so many of their greatest and most memorable franchises, Streets of Rage would go dormant, content to live on only in countless re-releases and cash-grabs.
But in 2020 we received just that in the form of Streets of Rage 4, a new game in the series that wasn’t developed by Sega, but a trio of developers gifted in the art of remaking older hits. With an astonishing 26 year gap between sequels, nobody would ever accuse Sega of rushing these out… which turned out for the best. More on why this matters later.
When we spoke with lead artist and producer Ben Fiquet about his Monster Boy remake he didn’t reveal the real monster he was working on, which means we (the journalists and fans) had the opportunity to go in fresh. While reviewing the base game it was obvious even our own Cory Galliher didn’t – or couldn’t – see the significance of the game’s existence, and I don’t blame him. He never experienced the games during their original 16-bit releases, having firmly been on the Nintendo side of the Great 16-Bit Revolution.
That and Sega’s piss-poor handling of them made finding the games on new platforms virtually impossible, if not impossible, as even official emulated versions were often of poor quality. It’s a wonder the series managed to attract any new fans during its quarter-century hibernation as it’s hard to get excited over nostalgia that isn’t your own.
For me, Streets of Rage 4, despite its issues, ended up being my most-played game of 2020 – a much-needed blast of nostalgia in a year we all desperately needed to escape from. While I’m not the biggest fan of the larger emphasis on projectiles and unblockable baddie attacks, there’s no denying the sheer euphoria of playing a new Streets of Rage game that got the fundamentals right. And by fundamentals I mean expertly executed combos and a killer soundtrack.
Before you knew it, I’d lost hours and hours thrashing baddies, busting out combos, unlocking more of the game’s secrets. The more I unlocked, the more I wanted to play, and eventually I’d unlocked it all. Having access to the original SoR sprites (and their sound effects) was catnip to my brawler-deprived self, and I only wanted more. What a joy it was to have new adventures with some old friends I hadn’t seen in decades. Was it a nostalgia trip? You bet, one I’d happily take again.
Turns out the game was a monster hit, selling millions and leaving other fans wanting more. The game’s first update has arrived with the Mr. X Nightmare DLC, an upgrade that feels modest at first but quickly reveals itself to add substantially to the base game with new characters, tons of new and enhanced moves, hilarious weapons, combos and a host of other quality-of-life improvements that make an already great game even better.
While the DLC touts three “new” characters, they’re actually recycled from the game’s original story mode and fully playable from the start. Among them are top cop Estel Aguirre as well as series favorites Max Thunder and Shiva. Estel gets an upgrade from her boss-only appearance in the core game – her special move to call in backup (a nice nod to the original SoR game) intact and as crowd-clearing as ever.
Having the updated Max playable from the start means you won’t have to unlock his SoR2 pixel counterpart anymore (though you still totally want to). Shiva’s made appearances before, but finally getting to control him was a blast. Of the three Shiva will likely be the most popular as he’s also the quickest and most fun to control; he’s basically the Guy (from Final Fight) of this series. Just be careful if you pick him, however, because he doesn’t use weapons (including the fish).
And before you ask… sadly, no, the newly illustrated Roo the Kangaroo still isn’t playable. He’s still tending bar. There’s bunches of new weapons scattered throughout to pick up and employ, including umbrellas, lightsabers, plants, and even a swordfish. Yes, you can deal your deathblows with weaponized fish now. Yes, there’s more than one fish.
For many, the biggest edition will be the new Survival Mode, where Dr. Zan, the senior fighter / scientist with robot arms, has emulated Mr. X’s brain in a computer, allowing our heroes to test their mettle against endless attacks in a never-ending simulation where pretty much any and everything in the Streets of Rage universe can (and will) attack relentlessly and forever. It’s kind of awesome really.
Here, you can choose between developer sanctioned matches (which periodically change) or engage in vastly more fun randomized matches where arenas, baddies, music, and even visual filters mix ‘n match to create entirely new (and increasingly difficult) challenges that never end. Even when things get chaotic and the screen is overflowing with baddies, weapons, obstacles, explosions, etc. It’s still a blast and never boring.
The real magic of Survival Mode is that earned combos and new moves can be taken outside the simulation, meaning the more you play (and survive), the more you unlock, making the base game even better with customized movesets that keeps things fresh. For many, Survival Mode will be the best part of the Streets of Rage 4 experience as it almost perfectly encapsulates the “core” experience while promising to bring so much to the base game.
While none ever quite reach the synthetic highs as Koshiro’s major hits, what’s here is infinitely better than the low-key disappointment of SoR3 – and much more exciting than most modern gaming soundtracks. The selection is an eclectic blend of genres and styles, sometimes all at once, that pays respect to the original games yet manages to sound totally fresh and relevant.
More than anything, the developers have remembered how crucial music is to this series, often masterfully using it to transition scene to scene, guiding the action sometimes beat-for-beat (literally), and most of the new tracks here do that legacy justice. It all feels so dynamic and exactly right.
Koshiro returns and contributes a few new tracks, as do Motohiro Kawashima (SoR), Yoko Shimomura (SF2, Kingdom Hearts), and several others. The real star is Olivier Deriviere, taking the mantle from Koshiro and delivering most of the game’s best new tracks (is there a more thrilling two-parter than “Rising Up”?) that pay homage to both Koshiro’s original style and the Genesis’ YM2612 workhorse sound chip. Some may feel his style sounds a bit too…French? A little too much dub? Sacré bleu… this is good stuff, enjoy it.
For this DLC master remixer Tee Lopes (Sonic Mania) adds new music to the bonus modes and there’s even tracks from the Game Gear version in the mix, making an already incredible OST even more OMG awesome.
My only real complaint is the barebones way the game’s stunning soundtrack is handled. There’s still no way to listen to individual tracks or to mix ‘n match tunes while playing (ala the “Retro” option that swaps out the modern soundtrack for the excellent SoR2 OST on some levels), and the only way to view specific track data is by scrolling through the credits.
In a game with an absurd level of detail to other areas, especially the visuals, and with such a high pedigree of musicians crafting these tunes it’s a shame a few more customization options weren’t in the mix (pun intended).
At its core, Streets of Rage 4 is really little more than a legally sanctioned version of the fan-driven M.U.G.E.N experience we’ve seen with more traditional fighting games on the emulator scene. Most of the people involved in its creation were not the original developers, artists, or musicians, but fans who grew up playing and loving the original games. While there have been unofficial remakes of the series before, that Sega would allow this to exist is a good indicator they realize they are no longer the best stewards of their own legacy, and to let others take the mantle.
Heck, it took three different companies (Dotemu, Lizardcube, and Guard Crush Games) to get it done. We’ve seen this happen with Sonic Mania, Wonder Boy, Alex Kidd, and now Streets of Rage. This is exciting, as there’s a continent of superb content just waiting to be rediscovered and remind us exactly why Sega (the brand) is as beloved as they are, despite spending the better part of the last two decades wrecking their reputation.
Shinobi? Golden Axe? Space Harrier? Heck, I’ll take Outrun at this point. Sega is way more than just Sonic the Hedgehog and it’s about time we saw these treasures unearthed.
The base Streets of Rage 4 game already had a ridiculous amount of content to play with, and the Mr. X Nightmare DLC only adds more, more, more! The only question is whether that content is for you. While clearly a product of love between its trio of developers and fans, all of whom seem to love the game more than its parent company ever did, there’s still no getting around the fact this is the gaming equivalent of fan-fiction, albeit pretty great fan-fiction. Creatively, it doesn’t move the franchise forward, but it might tug at your heartstrings…before it beats them to a pulp. Good times.