In this retrospective I will give an overview of the Streets of Rage series and why I think it’s back and better than ever. Largely overlooked by Sega in recent times, Streets of Rage has finally received a much needed sequel by an entirely new team. Unlike other titles like Monster Boy and Alex Kidd that were the same games with a new lick of paint – Streets of Rage 4 is a true sequel through and through. This is my perspective on the highs and lows of this series.
Not Your Average Beat ‘Em Up
The original Streets of Rage was incredible – a gritty side scrolling beat ‘em up with silly arcade elements. You could beat up some thugs, and when trouble hits, call in a police car to nuke the screen. I’m not sure how a police car could shoot a missile at a 45 degree angle and somehow hit an elevator on the building above, damaging everyone but the player character, but I don’t think it matters. It’s still undeniably fun to scrap your way from the streets to Mr. X’s headquarters. The original Streets of Rage does have dated graphics and the combat is undeniably unrefined and sluggish, regardless, this cartridge is still worth popping in today over competitors at the time like Golden Axe or Altered Beast.
Streets of Rage 2 is quite possibly the best sequel of all time and one of the best games ever released. It has bigger and higher quality sprites than before, and a larger moveset, in a more vibrant and detailed environment. The new Special Move system was innovative in its use of risk/reward and brought more variety to the gameplay. The new additions to the roster were more varied and accommodating to different play styles. Max was plodding but powerful and Skate was fast and scrappy. These were two new characters, at opposite ends of the spectrum, to the more balanced Blaze and Axel. It’s free flowing fun with a pumping soundtrack to punctuate the experience – this game is pretty much perfection. Incredibly, this immensely improved sequel was released in little under a year and a half after its predecessor.
A Tough Act To Follow
The third entry, Streets of Rage 3, was when the series hit a wall – it was less of an iterative sequel and more of a colossal downgrade with it’s hugely increased default difficulty setting, and a soundtrack that was experimental to the point of unlistenable. You were now unable to lift certain enemies and can be hurt for trying. Other new enemies could shoot you from across the screen (with a handgun). The biker enemies now had huge life bars rather than being taken out in one hit as previously. Some levels even had time limits and branching paths – these were not a good fit for the series.
The introduction of multiple endings was a great idea, that is until you realise the requirements to get a good one. I doubt many had the patience and skill to get an ending that didn’t see the city obliterated by bombs. Even unlocking a boxing kangaroo to play as could not save this game. It’s a shame to see such a disappointing entry. Once the Sega Saturn arrived, Sega tidied away the bulk of its franchises into a drawer and forgot about them. This series was no exception.
So what about Streets of Rage 4? Fighting Force, the abysmal PlayStation and Nintendo 64 game, could have become that next entry. Initially pitched as a potential fourth instalment, Sega made a rare correct decision and declined to take Core Design up on their offer. Remnants of this can be seen in the character designs of Hawk and Alana, who bear a striking resemblance series mainstays Axel and Blaze. If only the gameplay bore a resemblance to the quality of previous titles.
The Eventual Return to Greatness
On the horizon was a brand new game in the series by a different developer and with a radically different art style. Streets of Rage 4 was finally coming and, needless to say, I was apprehensive. Sega wasn’t making it (which was probably for the best – see Golden Axe Beast Rider for evidence of that). They could easily license the rights to a developer who could throw something shoddy together and slap the Streets of Rage logo on it. There hadn’t been a new Streets of Rage game in over 15 years and if it sucked Sega could just put it back in the drawer and lock it away this time. I’m glad they didn’t.
Within 30 seconds of finally playing the game any fears proved to be unfounded. Streets of Rage 4 delivers on all fronts, from the 12 gorgeously animated action packed stages to the two new playable characters. You have Floyd (a cross between Dr Zan and Max from previous games), and Cherry who takes up the teenage team member place of Skate – but replaces the rollerblades with a weaponised guitar. The feel of the game manages to match the previous ones. Character movement and moves have the same heft and weight as before; but with brand new and worthwhile gameplay mechanics that hugely enhance the game. That’s what the developers real nailed – retaining the feel of the original trilogy.
Changes to the Formula
Previous entries suffered from an old beat ‘em up issue where you’re waiting for the bad guys to return after they leave the field of view – now you can juggle them as they bounce off the side of the screen, reducing downtime to an absolute minimum. Enemies can pick up and throw weapons but you can actually catch them now. How Special Moves work has changed for the better. You risk a chunk of health as a bet against how well the Special Move sets you up to attack.
The newly introduced combo system tallies every strike you make, until you receive damage or enough time passes in between your attacks. More importantly, the higher your combo the more points you receive. This all plays into the game’s leaderboard and ranking system and massively improves the game’s replayability. You could feasibly reach a stage’s end with your combo intact from the first screen if you’re good enough. When you take into account the 6 difficulty modes, this vastly expands the skill ceiling; a skill ceiling we can help you aspire to reach. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the brilliant soundtrack, too.
Streets of Rage – Onwards and Upwards
The Mr . X Nightmare DLC is also worth discussing. It adds three new playable characters, including fan favourite boss Estel and Max who makes his playable return from Streets of Rage 2. The new Survival mode reinvigorates the whole package by adding a never ending wave of rounds against enemies with multiple new power ups and stage hazards. I have doubtless lost hours of my life to trying to reach a higher Round than previously. This is a game that you cannot put down even if you would like to.
I hope with the recent resurgence of the series I’ll get to take a more current look in the future. This is a series that should return a lot sooner this time and should have no need for a retrospective in future. Streets of Rage is back and better than ever, I don’t see Sega putting this one back in the drawer.