Video games get sequels all the time, but it rarely happens more than two decades after the original trilogy concluded — and it’s even rarer when that sequel is as faithful as Streets of Rage 4. The just-launched beat ‘em up comes 26 years after Streets of Rage 3 graced the Sega Genesis, and, in many ways, the experience is the same. You still wander the streets, listening to kickass Yuzo Koshiro tracks, while pummeling street punks and bad cops. But Streets of Rage 4 also manages to modernize the experience in key ways — through both its design and visuals — to make it feel unmistakably modern. This is still authentic Streets of Rage, but in a way that works for 2020.
The new game takes place a decade after Streets of Rage 3 and features a number of returning characters alongside new fighters. Axel is back, this time bulkier and with a gnarly beard, while Adam Hunter returns to fight alongside his guitar-wielding daughter Cherry. The story once again mostly involves cleaning up the streets, which are overrun by shady police and far-reaching crime syndicates.
The core gameplay is identical to past games. Streets of Rage 4 is a 2D side-scrolling beat ‘em up, where your main job is to continue moving to the right while punching everything that gets in your way. It’s simple yet extremely satisfying. You can knock out bad guys and steal their weapons, like pipes and knives, and break mailboxes to get health-filling apples and roast turkeys. Each character has basic attacks along with two kinds of special moves: one that drains your health and another, more powerful blow that requires relatively rare stars that you pick up along the way.
There are a few things that make Streets of Rage 4 feel much more dynamic than what I remember from the originals. One is the characters themselves. They each have completely different playstyles, suiting different types of players. After spending hours with the game, I’ve learned that I’m terrible with slow-moving brutes like Axel or newcomer Floyd (who has extremely cool cybernetic arms). But I had a lot more success with faster, nimbler brawlers like Cherry. Each of the five fighters has their own distinct feel, and it’s a lot of fun to play around with tactics to see what works best for you.
The most impressive thing to me, though, is the encounter design. Streets of Rage is a pretty simple game: you walk down the street and punch bad guys. But the latest entry makes things much more interesting by constantly changing things up with new scenarios. For instance, early on, you’re imprisoned and have to break out. That means fighting not only guards but also prisoners. To make things even more interesting, those two sides will often fight each other, resulting in quite a bit of chaos, especially since you’ll also have to deal with taser-wielding cops and guards with riot shields. Levels like these take an otherwise straightforward premise and continually inject it with new ideas.
Streets of Rage 4 also has a very welcoming approach to difficulty. Many classic games can be unforgiving, and in some ways, that’s part of the appeal. But the latest Streets of Rage gets around this in a smart way. Outside of multiple difficulty options, the game also lets you customize the experience in finer detail. You can choose to have more lives or more super-power stars, and doing so will lower your high score, but it doesn’t impact the experience in any other way. This means hardcore players can still enjoy a tough game, while everyone else can find ways to avoid getting overly frustrated.
It also should be noted that Streets of Rage 4 absolutely nails the series’s trademark ‘90s aesthetic. It swaps out pixels for smoother, hand-drawn art that lends a comic book feel, but the tone and style remain intact. It’s somehow rough and gritty but also bright and colorful. Really, the only drawback is that some of the enemies and main characters are a similar color, so it can be tough to see who you’re controlling in the midst of big brawls. But these scenarios are rare. Oh, and the soundtrack is as excellent as ever. It’s the kind of thing you’ll probably want to listen to even when you’re not playing.
I’m not sure I’ve ever played anything quite like Streets of Rage 4. There are lots of modern games that attempt to feel retro or remakes that update classics. But this is something different: a sequel that maintains the tone of a classic without missing a beat, yet doesn’t feel dated at all. It may look different, but it turns out, fighting street punks never goes out of style.
Streets of Rage 4 is available now on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch.