Everybody has a favorite old game series that they'd like to see make a comeback, but modernizing a long-dormant franchise requires a deft touch. Not only do you have to please the old fans--who see their longtime favorites through rose-tinted nostalgia goggles--but you also have to find a way to make the game appealing to a newer audience. Fortunately for longtime Sega and beat-'em-up fans, Streets of Rage 4 adeptly walks the tightrope of classic and modern appeal while busting some heads in the process.
Taking place a decade after the third game (which released 26 years ago), Streets of Rage 4 reunites Axel and Blaze to unmask an evil plot devised by the children of series uber-antagonist Mr. X. Joining them are two new fighters: Cherry, a hard-rockin' young woman with deft moves and (literal) killer guitar riffs, and Floyd, a cybernetically-enhanced hulk who might not have speed or high jumps, but definitely has a myriad of ways to get his giant metal fists up in somebody's business. As the story unfolds, you meet characters old and new, sometimes in surprising places... but don't expect much from the plot, as it exists simply to take you to new and exciting locales where you pound a rogue's gallery of enemies into the pavement.
And there is a good amount of pavement-pounding to be had. The 12 stages in Streets of Rage 4 offer a lot of variety in scenery, obstacles, and enemies. While the clean, sharp lines of the new art are very different from the low-res, gritty pixel look fans have come to love, the HD hand-drawn characters and backgrounds look spectacular, and are packed with fun details and little Easter eggs that'll take you by surprise. The stages are fairly typical beat-'em-up settings--a dive bar, some sewers, back alleys, Chinatown--but the animations of crowds, steam, critters, and machines make these archetypal stages feel fresh and exciting. Equally excellent is the soundtrack, a techno/dance-inspired collection of hot beats from Eastern and Western game music composers, including veteran Streets of Rage alumni Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima.
Of course, good visuals and music are nothing without the gameplay to back it up, and SoR4 delivers on that quite well. The controls are easy to pick up and, once you're a bit more familiar with them, are lots of fun to experiment with, as punches, power moves, and special skills can be chained together for slick-looking, satisfying combos. Each character has a different specialty: Blaze does some wild acrobatics that can juggle foes in the air, while Floyd uses his huge cyber-arms to grapple enemies with across-the-screen throws and two-person head-smashes.
Like in most beat-'em-ups, Streets of Rage 4 will put you in situations where you are outmatched by a large horde of enemies. In grand genre tradition, you have access to special moves that can help clear crowds and grant temporary invincibility at the cost of a bit of your health bar--but, in a clever twist, Streets of Rage 4 actually lets you earn that spent health back by comboing enemies without getting hit. (If you do get hit, that spent life is gone, so make sure you use your skills wisely!) Each character also gets use of "star" moves that, when activated, causes massive damage to everything in its path. These are very limited and can be replenished with special items found in the levels, so they're still best saved for critical moments.
Difficulty-wise, Streets of Rage 4 puts up a formidable fight. There are multiple difficulty levels to chew on for players. However, if you're still struggling, you can get extra health and lives --at the cost of earned points used for unlocks and ranking. It’s rather annoying, however, that SoR4's difficulty isn't a linear curve. Some stages are significantly shorter than others, and there are several points where things become a lot messier out of nowhere as strong opponents and hazards spawn in inconvenient places. The boss fights are particularly uneven--you might be fighting an opponent with a fairly easy pattern on one stage, then get absolutely demolished by the end boss of the next. The very frequent on a "super armor" mechanic (where enemies can be damaged but not stunned or knocked down) for a lot of the boss fights is also frustrating, as it often feels like an unfair way for boss characters to have an extreme advantage over you.
Of course, you can always bring along a buddy (or two… or three) to cause some extra damage. Even with the addition of more enemies onscreen in multiplayer, you'll likely find that having some extra hands and feet to fight alongside makes tough areas a lot easier. Local multiplayer supports up to four teammates, but if you're stuck at home, you can still team up online for two-player games.
An average start-to-finish playthrough runs around two hours--though, depending on how frequently you game over, it could take a fair bit more time to see the ending. It's pretty lengthy for an arcade-style linear beat-em-up, but still very short if you're the type to simply play through a game once. There's some replay incentive, though: Earning points while playing will unlock new modes, extras in the gallery, and retro variants of characters from previous games. Using these new characters and jacking up your difficulty level will both give you more potential points and increase the challenge. At times, it does feel like some of the extras weren't given as much care as the main game.. The "retro soundtrack" is just old Genesis and Game Gear Streets of Rage tracks put in the game's levels seemingly at random, and certain unlockable characters have a tremendous advantage in damage-dealing--so much so that they can make some of SoR4's hardest areas almost trivial.
All in all, though, Streets of Rage 4 is an admirable comeback for this long-dormant series. It looks great, sounds great, and plays very well. Even if the experience is relatively short, it's the sort of game you and your buddies can easily enjoy playing and re-playing. If you're craving some classic brawling action with a modern edge, these rage-filled streets are calling your name.