Thoughts on STREETS OF RAGE 4: a brighter future for beat ’em ups?

It’s not a secret that I was looking forward to STREETS OF RAGE 4 with some trepidation after its announcement in 2018. As a huge fan of the series since the first game, having dreamt up my own fantasy sequel(s) for the better part of the last 25 years, the announcement was of course a happy surprise. But on the flipside, between questionable artistic choices and my general lack of faith in reboots of old games, I felt there was a significant risk they’d screw things up.

After trying out a demo build at EGX 2019 I became significantly more optimistic. I did – and still do – have some misgivings about the artistic direction, but going hands-on with the game convinced me that the developers had the right idea where it truly matters: game mechanics, pacing, enemy design – ie “gameplay”.

Now, having had a few months to think about and digest the final game, let me give you my full Thoughts On STREETS OF RAGE 4.

I had mixed emotions going into the game. Although I was confident that the core gameplay would feel good, the bigger question to me was how the overall pacing and structure of the game would work. After all, this is the crucial point where I feel 90% (if not more) of modern beat ’em ups drop the ball. Having done my best to avoid spoilers before playing it, I was also uncertain of what to expect in terms of familiar levels, characters, or other elements from the old games. Not to mention, what about the music? Long story short, even with plenty of aspects being promising, there was still more than enough room for the game to disappoint.

While, yes, there are parts where I think the game truly does disappoint, they are ultimately overshadowed by everything the game does get right. And perhaps more importantly, while some of those disappointments sting a little less on repeated play, my appreciation for the positive aspects of the game only seems to grow stronger.

As previously mentioned, pacing and structure is something that just about every modern beat ’em up seems to screw up badly, but STREETS OF RAGE 4 deftly avoids this issue with one simple trick: doing things the exact same way every beat ’em up used to do them 25-30 years ago, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel. Most games in the genre released in the last 10 years or so seem obsessed with providing “value” by forcing the player through a 3-12 hour slog, adding clunky and grindy progression mechanics, having spongy enemies that each take 5 minutes to defeat – or more often than not, all of the above.

The closest STREETS OF RAGE 4 really gets to any of that is the fact that it has 12 Rounds as opposed to the 8 of the original games, but even as the longest game in the series, it still fits comfortably within that window of never getting tedious or inconvenient to play through in a single sitting. The only real concession the game makes to current video game conventions as far as structure goes is the “Story Mode”, letting players quit and resume the game between levels, and de-emphasising arcade concepts like score and lives.

Positioning the Story Mode as the default and de facto “main” mode is probably wise in terms of not alienating a wider, younger audience, but us old fogeys are probably all in agreement that the Arcade Mode is the “true” STREETS OF RAGE 4. Even if you disagree, the fact that the game can (and indeed, does) offer such a mode is good enough for me; it proves to me that the game is absolutely designed to be played through in one session – that it’s meant to reward player mastery of the game’s mechanics, and that a lot of thought went into the pacing and the overall player experience. These are all things that are crucial for arcade-style games, and that most modern beat ’em ups either fail miserably at, or don’t even attempt.

I don’t think STREETS OF RAGE 4 succeeds simply because it has 12 linear stages and lacks an RPG-style leveling system. That’s a great start to be sure, but it wouldn’t mean much without the stages or mechanics being well-designed.

Luckily, those things are both true! The core mechanics are perhaps the biggest success of the game. Building off a very strong foundation from STREETS OF RAGE 2, it feels instantly familiar to longtime fans, but there are a lot of minor and major tweaks and additions which all feel well thought out. Every single move in a character’s repertoire has a purpose, and with each character having more distinct move sets than ever, they feel genuinely diverse with their own strengths and weaknesses, and catering to different playstyles. As a big fan of BARE KNUCKLE 3 I was initially put off by the lack of universal running, and the overall sense that the game was built more from part 2 than part 3 (which feels superior of the two, IMO) – ultimately though the game feels like a clone of neither, but really its own thing.

It feels great to just do any of the characters’ moves, but that super-solid foundation is improved further by the context that surrounds it. Juggles are fun, and gives tons of room for creativity and player expression. The ability to recover the life drained by special moves also allows for far more aggressive use of these powerful attacks – and in doing so, the game rewards not just your ability to beat everyone up, but also doing so without getting beat up yourself. Or more accurately, not just throwing yourself into the fray completely thoughtlessly. The combo and scoring systems reinforces this concept even further, and ties it all together.

Hitting foes builds up the Combo meter, and the higher it builds up, the bigger the score bonus you get as the Combo timer expires. The catch is, getting touched even once breaks the combo, and you lose out on any bonus points. This creates a really interesting risk/reward management where you’ll want to maximise your combos, but be smart about when to “cash out” those bonus points by deliberately retreating to let the combo expire. Beginner players won’t really need to care, or even be aware of the system, but it adds a compelling secondary layer once you’ve gotten then hang of the basics. Managing your combos also becomes really important to maximising your score, which in turn is important for earning those sweet, sweet 1ups in Arcade Mode.

Level design is the second major component to the STREETS OF RAGE 4’s success. While the locations themselves aren’t necessarily as iconic, visually appealing or instantly memorable as the best levels in the original trilogy, the levels are generally very well-paced, and layouts and gimmicks make them mechanically distinct from one another. It gets difficult to talk about “level design” in a beat ’em up without talking about combat, since they rarely revolve around traversal (except maybe parts of DOUBLE DRAGON) – so maybe a more apt term would be “encounter design”.

Whatever you want to call it, a big reason SOR4 never feels repetitive or wears out its welcome, is that no two encounters truly feel the same. Each enemy type has a very distinct pattern and behaviour, and by pitting the player against different combinations of enemies – sometimes adding further twists in the form of weapons, hazards, etc – SOR4 creates a wide array of unique scenarios, each testing your skills and knowledge of the game in different ways. It has good “Orthogonal Unit Differentiation”, to borrow a term from Harvey Smith. Not to say SOR4 is unique among beat ’em ups in that sense – you can look to FINAL FIGHT, previous SOR games, or indeed most top-tier games in the genre for examples of it – but it still feels like a breath of fresh air compared to the countless mediocre brawlers with terrible enemy variety.

Enemies go down mercifully quickly, and you never have to take on too many waves before being allowed to advance – another seemingly self-evident virtue that countless beat ’em ups lack, new and old. Wailing on the same dude for minutes on end just doesn’t feel good; it gets tedious and only serves to make the player feel weak rather than a badass. Similarly, getting to dispatch of foes quickly and effortlessly feels satisfying, but that feeling gets strongly diminished if you have to repeat it too many times before that “GO” sign appears – even moreso if the screen you advance to is indistinguishable from the one you just left.

Many, many 90’s console beat ’em ups are very guilty of this, staggering enemy waves since the game can’t handle more than 2 enemies on-screen at once, and level background graphics repeating ad nauseum. You’d think modern beat ’em ups wouldn’t have to struggle so much these issues, but you’d be surprised! Either way, the developers at Guard Crush Games seem to have put a lot of effort into getting these details just right, and it pays off in spades.

If I have any complaints on these points, it would be that relative to each other, the length and challenge of each level feels a bit uneven. The first stage is one of the longest, and kind of feels like it has one more segment than it ought to. The third stage has a segment where the gimmick is that there’s no Z-axis movement – a tough and interesting challenge, but it feels misplaced so early in the game. The sixth stage is another long one, and it features the infamous Galsia and Donovan gauntlets. While admittedly funny, and kind of awesome, they provide a massive difficulty spike – which is then immediately followed up by what is probably the easiest boss fight in the entire game, the kind of underwhelming showdown with Shiva.

The boss fights, in fact, are a part of the game that I feel pretty torn about in general. Boss design in beat ’em ups can be tricky; like in most action games, the answer probably isn’t to have what’s essentially a regular enemy but with tons of health, but on the other hand, if the bosses get too wild in terms of gimmicks or breaking the established rules of the game, it can feel unfair and frustrating. Even in classic, well-regarded beat ’em ups, you tend to get a bit of both, and I can think of few games where the boss fights stand out as the highlight of the game (from a mechanical standpoint – aesthetics, presentation and set piece-wise, they often are).

So perhaps it’s not super surprising that the boss fights feels like one of the weaker aspects of STREETS OF RAGE 4. I do think they are decent, and I certainly applaud the effort put into making them more mechanically distinct than the bosses of the old games. Not all bosses are created equal – I think Nora is a good example of a fight with a fun gimmick; she can crack her whip to turn her otherwise meek underlings into a more dangerous threat than even herself – but many of them fall a little flat for me.

The previously mentioned Shiva is in no way egregious in terms of annoyance or frustration, but there really just isn’t that much to the fight. Diva is maybe my least favourite, though; I don’t like her design visually, her patterns force you into a very passive and defensive style of play, and worst of all you have to fight her not once but twice. DJ K-Washi is probably the most mechanically unique boss fight, in that his projectiles create a kind of obstacle course you have to get through to hurt him – but “unique” doesn’t count for much when it isn’t any fun.

One unifying aspect of all bosses in the game (as well as certain enemy types), is that they all use the new-to-the-series armour mechanic. Bosses spend anywhere from “a brief period post-wakeup” to “eternity” in armour, making them impervious to hitstun and able to hit you straight through your attacks. I don’t think armour as a mechanic can’t work, but boy can it get aggravating. Even if it is technically more generous to the player than straight-up invincibility frames, in that it lets you sneak in a tiny bit of extra damage as you get blown away, it definitely feels way more unfair.

Armour isn’t random, it is governed by its own set of rules, but even so, on a primal level I just think it feels wrong when you can tell that the game acknowledges your hit landing, but still rewards the hit to your opponent. Doubly so when the game does not do anything to convey to the player that the character in question is armoured until you hit them – by which point you may or may not already be screwed. You can certainly learn the timing windows for when certain enemies and bosses have armour, and adjust your strategy accordingly, but this issue still stands out to me. Not just because I find it kind of annoying, but also because the game otherwise does an excellent job of communicating those kinds of details.

Possibly my biggest disappointment with the boss fights however, is simply the lineup of boss characters itself. The STREETS OF RAGE series has a whole bunch of iconic bosses, many of whom made appearances in more than one game. While I understand and appreciate the need to include new original bosses, I think especially for such a long-awaited sequel, a certain degree of pandering is appropriate – and for me, SOR4 doesn’t quite hit the mark in this respect. It’s not strictly a numbers thing, moreso the sum total of three separate issues:

  • Specific bosses being absent (Abadede, Onihime/Yasha, Souther, Jet, etc)
  • Some of the new bosses being a bit shit (Diva, DJ K-Washi)
  • Several stages not having their own boss

I can only imagine it was a budget thing, but that last one still feels egregious in the face of numerous fan favourites being missing. The bosses of stages 1, 2, 4, and 11 get reused as bosses in later levels, and it’s impossible for me to go into those repeated boss fights without wishing they had unique bosses. Especially the Art Gallery stage where you fight two clones of Diva – surely this was supposed to have been Onihime & Yasha?

The characters they did choose to bring back for bosses, and how they were handled, is a bit of a head-scratcher too. Nora returning for the first time since the first game is exciting, but it feels a little odd to see her promoted to boss status when she was previously a regular mook. I first thought she’d return in later stages as a regular enemy, but nope – in fact the game doesn’t really do that at all. Barbon also returns, and… was anybody excited to see him back? The Barbon fight in SOR2 is iconic, but I feel that’s far more due to the set piece nature of the rainy back alley than Barbon himself. In SOR4 he doesn’t get nearly as cool an introduction, and the new art makes him look dorkier than ever to boot.

Max of course also returns, but as a boss rather than a playable character. I like this conceptually and from a story perspective, and visually speaking Lizardcube did a great job bringing him back in a way that feels familiar but with a fresh enough coat of paint. Still, Max ends up providing the blandest, most dull boss fight in the entire game. Even with infinite armour and spruced up versions of his SOR2 specials, he just doesn’t really feel imposing enough for a boss, even compared to Break from SOR3. I can think of at least one very simple explanation for this – Max’s theme music just sucks.

You really can’t overstate the importance of powerful music to build tension and create excitement for a game like a beat ’em up, and nowhere is that more important than in a boss fight. Aside from just generally being among the greatest video game soundtracks of all time, the previous SOR games all have in common that their boss themes were all absolute bangers. I don’t just mean that in the general sense of them being “good songs”, but specifically they’ve got this driving, pulse-pounding beat that creates a really action-packed atmosphere. It’s perfect!

Meanwhile, for the Max fight in SOR4, you get this nonsense. Zero energy, zero excitement – and it just completely drains the fight of any tension it might’ve had. In that particular fight, the issue is further exacerbated by the background featuring a crowd which is largely static and completely silent – a far cry from the Abadede fight in SOR2 for sure!

The low-key vibe of the music is, sadly, a recurring issue in STREETS OF RAGE 4. When the game was first announced, the first reaction from a lot of people was (understandably) “so, Yuzo Koshiro is doing the music, right?” – setting aside the general public’s criminal under-appreciation of his collaborator Motohiro Kawashima, it’s a very reasonable sentiment. The fantastic music is maybe the single thing STREETS OF RAGE is most known for, and as such it’s obviously an important aspect when bringing the series back.

When Dotemu eventually announced a lineup of musicians contributing to SOR4, it included not only Koshiro and Kawashima, but a whole cadre of Japanese video games music legends. Exciting stuff! Or so we thought. It was later revealed that they (and a few western contributors) would only provide a small handful of themes, while lead composing duties would fall on the mostly unknown Olivier Deriviere.

Learning this, I was not filled with confidence that SOR4’s music would deliver. For what it’s worth, I do think Deriviere largely did quite well with what was certainly an unenviable task – I think in the end the soundtrack does fail to deliver to the expected standards, albeit for different reasons and in different ways than I expected.

Naturally, one might expect Koshiro, Kawashima, Shimomura et al to be bringing out the bangers, while this French nobody would fill the rest of the game with the same kind of bland elevator music we heard in early trailers for the game. That’s definitely not the case! If anything, I think Deriviere is responsible for pretty much all of my favourite tracks (“An Exhibition” and the second half of “Rising Up” being the real standouts), while the guest composer songs are a real mixed bag.

On the whole, many of the tracks (boss themes and otherwise) just have this low-energy feel to them, and I can’t deny it drags down the experience somewhat. When the music is good, everything fits together perfectly and the game feels awesome – until you inevitably hit a screen transition and one of these downer jams kicks in and takes the whole room down with it. Never is this more obvious than when you defeat a boss – the previous three games all use the same wonderful, iconic, and dare I say perfect victory jingle. In STREETS OF RAGE 4, you get… this.

Even the kindly provided “Retro Music” option doesn’t help much – you get the original stage clear jingle, but the rest of the soundtrack is bizarrely put together, with a bunch of Game Gear tracks, and absolutely befuddling choices as to which track goes on which stage. Both options have their highlights, but neither is without major annoyances.

So at the end of the day, where does this all leave us? Bringing back a beloved game after a 25+ year absence in a way that satisfies fans is a tough job. Personally speaking, I’ve spent the last quarter century forming my own mental image of what “my” STREETS OF RAGE 4 would be like, so it’s unavoidable that parts of it won’t line up with my idea of what they “should” be. Taking that into consideration, I do think SOR4 is a remarkable success. The true test will of course be to see how we will look back on this game a decade from now, but as of now, I feel it’s very much a worthy sequel.

I haven’t touched on it in this article, but to summarize my thoughts on the game’s visuals, I think the game makes a major – and unneeded – stylistic departure from the old games, but that this new direction is executed very well. From a technical standpoint, everything is very well drawn and animated, I just don’t think it’s quite in line with the look and feel of the old games. Still, it’s plenty grounded in the original games to make it feel faithful, and it’s way, way less of a departure than we surely would’ve seen in any of the cancelled attempts to bring back SOR over the years.

Ultimately, the quibbles I have with roster choices, art style, or music are just that – quibbles. The game is mechanically not just “solid”, it makes a lot of very interesting tweaks to a proven formula to make the game truly feel like a sequel, and not just a rehash of SOR2 like I feared might happen. I’m not in love with all of the new characters, and I wish some of the unused concepts found in the “Extras” gallery had made it in, but Floyd, Cherry, and instant fan-favourite boss Estel are all wonderful addition to the STREETS OF RAGE universe.

Between well-designed core mechanics, a wide selection of diverse characters to explore those mechanics with, and a set of memorable and (mostly) well-paced levels to fight your way through, STREETS OF RAGE 4 is just a damn good beat ’em up.

What maybe excites me the most about SOR4 however, isn’t really much to do with the game itself, but what it might mean for the genre moving forward. By all accounts, the game seems to have been well received, and with a reasonable amount of hype behind it, I can only assume (or at the very least hope) that it’s done decently financially as well. Granted, I am going into this with a ton of confirmation bias – but what I like to think this means, is that STREETS OF RAGE 4 will be able to provide a template, an argument to convince publishers and executives, that there is a market for classically structured arcade-style beat ’em ups.

I will forever hold a grudge against CASTLE CRASHERS for essentially convincing a generation of players, developers and publishers that the way to make and market a beat ’em up in the 21st century is to make it a tedious slog with an 8-hour “campaign” and a “world map”. It was a novel approach, the one taken for a game that happened to be in the right place at the right time. CC was an early hit on Xbox Live Arcade, and for the last decade, it would seem that anything but the most hardcore indie beat ’em ups was destined to follow in its mold, in one way or another. I feel like the game could’ve done just as well without being so tedious, and had less of a negative influence on the genre that way, but who knows?

Maybe the success of CASTLE CRASHERS was to some degree predicated on it doing any of things I personally didn’t like about it, and certainly it is only a smaller piece in a larger puzzle, with the game industry and market changing drastically across the board. So even if it’s my imagination, it provides a convenient scapegoat for what I consider a very real issue, of beat ’em ups getting kinda side tracked, and stuck in something of an evolutionary dead end for a long time.

So my hope is that STREETS OF RAGE 4 can provide a kind of beacon of light showing that, yeah, you know what? You actually can make – and sell! – a beat ’em up that is simply built on the same foundation that made the genre compelling the first place, without adding a bunch of nonsense to dilute the experience.

Even if this only applies to existing properties with a bankable name, that still means we have the best odds in decades of receiving new versions of FINAL FIGHT, DOUBLE DRAGON, or GOLDEN AXE that are actually worth a damn. And maybe the next time we get a throwback beat ’em up based on a property like SCOTT PILGRIM, POWER RANGERS or TMNT, it’ll actually be a fun romp and not a soul-crushing grind.

For the first time in ages, the future of beat ’em ups looks bright – and that truly excites me. 🤘

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s