Thoughts on Streets of Rage 4’s art

A couple of months back, seemingly out of nowhere, DotEmu announced they were bringing out STREETS OF RAGE 4 – the first new STREETS OF RAGE game in 24 years (and counting)! Like many people out there I am hugely fond of the original SOR series, and am largely positive, excited even, for this new game. But given that I am a long-time fan, you bet I’ve got some Thoughts on SOR4.

First off, it should of course be noted that this is early days still. My impressions are all based on the small handful of trailers and screenshots that have been released, and considering the game doesn’t even have an official release date yet, I think it’s fair to say that we are pretty far away from the full picture. Still, based on what DotEmu & co have chosen to show of the game, I think there’s a number of things worth commenting on.

Although SOR4 will (presumably) be the first STREETS OF RAGE game to actually hit the market since 1994, it’s far from the first attempt at bringing the series back. SOR developers Ancient themselves put together concept art as well as mockups for a 3D incarnation back in the 90’s, but this original SOR4 was infamously axed by a SEGA exec unfamiliar with the SOR brand.

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Ancient’s SOR4 unfortunately never saw the light of day.

In the 2000’s, a couple of external developers were set to pitch SEGA on their ideas for a new STREETS OF RAGE game, taking slightly different approaches. GRIN was working on a pitch for a seemingly mostly faithful remake of SOR2, using 3D graphics, aiming for a PSN/XBLA release. This pitch however never made it further than an early prototype state before GRIN folded due to the financial trouble brought on by a series of high-profile flops in 2009.

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Early test footage of GRIN’s SOR2 remake

 

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Ruffian’s vision for Jack, as seen in their pitch video. Yikes!

Next up was Ruffian Games; their pitch seemingly aimed to drag SOR kicking and screaming into the 21st century – complete with a grim atmosphere, excessive light bloom, and fairly embarrassing character design. This version seems to exist only in the form of a basic prototype used to put together a pitch video for SEGA. I am not entirely clear on the series of events but seeing as the game never came into being, and Ruffian are still around, I can only assume SEGA simply turned down the pitch. Frankly, I can see why.

So this brings us to 2018, and DotEmu/LizardCube/Guard Crush Games’ new STREETS OF RAGE 4. With the baggage of these previous attempts to revive the series, it’s hard not to be at least initially positive about the approach taken. It’s 2018, so it’s OK to release 2D games again, and the mid-90’s are far enough in the past to have retro appeal, I suppose, so the result is something much closer to the original games. Fine by me!

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LizardCube’s vision of SOR looks a little different – but instantly recognisable as SOR, at least

Overall, I think LizardCube’s artwork looks gorgeous! The characters have plenty of personality, and the animations have really strong poses. The backgrounds are detailed, but subdued enough to make the characters really stand out, for easily readable action. There is no doubt that these artists have excellent technical chops! Yet, there are a few things that kinda bug me about SOR4’s art.

Although I do find the artwork pretty, I can’t shake the feeling that it just doesn’t… fit. LizardCube’s art has a lighthearted, cartoony feel that perfectly captured the atmosphere and tone of WONDER BOY: THE DRAGON’S TRAP, making them a perfect fit to remake that game. STREETS OF RAGE however, always had a certain grime and grunge to its look (albeit a very “early 90’s” grime, feeling pretty quaint to our harrowed 2019 eyes), yet SOR4’s bright cartoon graphics gives it an almost squeaky clean feel. I feel like this is exacerbated further by how some of the animations and character designs seem designed to highlight comical aspects that weren’t necessarily there in the original art.

Character design is a can of worm all in itself. It’s a mixed bag – Blaze looks AWESOME (though if we’re being honest, her underwear should totally be a different colour from her skirt, right?), but I’m not really feeling Dad-Axel… the denim jacket I can live with (even if contributes to his weirdly wide frame), but I just don’t get the flannel shirt. Points for keeping it 90’s, though, I guess. So far Axel and Blaze are the only characters to get a significant visual overhaul, so I’m curious to see what future player characters (whoever they may be) will turn out.

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The returning enemies we’ve seen so far – Galsia, Nora, Signal, Bongo and Eagle – are all dressed more or less exactly like in the original games. Galsia’s look has changed slightly, but not really any more than it did over the course of the original trilogy. What otherwise unites these characters seem to be that aforementioned comical aspect – Bongo in particular, but even the other seem to look a little goofy when beat up. Not that I’m demanding graphic, gruesome violence or anything – far from it – but the player characters seem like they get to just look cool, whereas the enemies are to some degree played for laughs. I dunno, maybe this impression will change once we get to see more of the game, but for now there’s just something that irks me about it, just a little bit.

The other irksome thing, not strictly related to character design, but tangentially related, is that we have yet to see anyone (or anything) hailing from SOR3. Characters seem largely based on their SOR2 incarnations, hands-on reports mention placeholder SOR2 music and sound effects, and describe the gameplay as basically SOR2 with the addition of juggle combos. This concerns me not just because I would like to see Garnet, Slum, Gold and the SOR3 versions of Yasha & Onihime in the game – but because it would be playing into the utterly pervasive (but incorrect) narrative that SOR3 is a Bad Game and not worth acknowledging.

SOR3 was badly mishandled when released in the west back in the day, making nonsensical edits to the plot, and tweaking the difficulty to the point of making the game a tedious slog – and I for one am sure that this contributed a lot to the game’s poor reputation (Motohiro Kawashima’s divise soundtrack might not have helped either – but for the record I love it). In reality the third game made massive improvements to controls and playability, expanded on movesets, reinstated the team-up attacks and multiple endings missing from SOR2, and even managed to weave storytelling and cutscenes into the game in a pretty cool way. Ultimately I just hope that SOR4 will feel like a true sequel and a true Part 4, paying homage to all three of its predecessors, and not just a remake of SOR2.

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The first in-game look at the mysterious Snake Lady teased in the announce trailer

Late December 2018 saw the release of a few new screenshots for fans to dissect. I’m not going to go too deeply into reckless speculation mode, but there’s one thing I’d like to comment on: this new… enemy? boss? Let’s call her “Snake Lady” for now, I guess. Between the cinematic announce trailer and the few snippets of gameplay released since, she is the one brand new character design we’ve seen so far. While I’m glad the game isn’t a pure rehash in terms of characters and character designs, I’m not necessarily over the moon with this first of LizardCube’s addition to the SOR character roster.

My thoughts on Snake Lady’s look largely echo my general sentiments about the art and art style; technically very well executed, but it doesn’t really feel STREETS OF RAGE. Her posture gives her a strong, easily-readable silhouette, she has a well-balanced colour scheme, even her idle stance communicates personality… I could go on listing objectively positive things – hell, maybe even going so far as to say that I like her design? Sorta? But at the end of the day, the way she is dressed just feels out of place. While those high-waisted mom jeans might be “retro” in some sense, to me they still read as way more contemporary fashion than mid-90’s. Her look overall just doesn’t quite feel like something you’d see in the old games, which ultimately is what I’d be looking for in a game like SOR4, even with a snazzy new art style.

Ultimately, these thoughts are little more than a first kneejerk reaction. I am greatly looking forward to seeing more about STREETS OF RAGE 4 – not to mention getting my hands on it, of course! – and it’ll be very interesting to see going forward whether my worst fears will be realised, or if these early skeptical reactions will seem silly in hindsight. With Guard Crush Games in charge of the gameplay, and with a more-than-solid template to build from, I do have faith that it’ll play well – but hey, once we’re able to put that aspect under closer scrutiny I’m sure I’ll have some Thoughts on that too. All around I’m looking forward to having some more educated opinions on SOR4, but for now, I guess all we can do is continue to enjoy the drip feed of occasional new info and screenshots.

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