What happened to the days of button-mashing and hack-and-slashing your way through goblins, gang members, foot soldiers, robots, and whatever odd creature you wanted to punch the hell out of? Side-scrolling beat ’em ups were all the rage in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and besides ports, an occasional remaster, and a rare indie ode to the genre, nearly all of its breed have died out. No more Altered Beast, Gauntlet, Turtles in Time, or Golden Axe, and even when we did get a shot at a new Double Dragon in 2017, it fell flat. But the EDM-backed king of beat ’em ups, Streets of Rage, is making a grand return Thursday with Streets of Rage 4, and our hope for the genre returns with it.
It has been 26 years since the release of Streets of Rage 3 on the Sega Genesis, and finally we get to revisit Axel, Blaze, and the other ‘8os sci-fi movie punk heroes tasked with cleaning up the crime-ridden streets (yes, the ones full of rage) of Wood Oak City. The sequel comes from Dotemu, Lizard Cube, and Guard Crush Games, three indie studios that anyone with a place in their heart for retro video games should keep their eye on. Dotemu in particular has now made sequels to some pretty obscure, cult-classic retro titles, including a remake of the 1994 NeoGeo game Windjammers (with a sequel planned for Switch later this year), and a continuation of the 1986 Sega arcade classic Wonder Boy, with Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap. These folks are doing work recreating titles from a golden age of gaming, but none thus far have been as widespread and well known as Streets of Rage.
Streets of Rage 4 is a golden homage to what made beat ’em ups great, while still taking its own twists. The art style is gorgeous, and the sprite movements and animations hit that balance to make you feel like you’re back in a Genesis-era game, while playing so cleanly as to bring new life into the series. The soundtrack listens like a spruced up version of the ’90s club-inspired beats from original composers Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima; the 2020 musical charge was led by Olivier Derivière, though the two legendary composers apparently had quite a hand in the sequel’s sound.
But the glowing part of this title, as it should be, is the combat—hell, it is a beat ’em up. That’s where Streets of Rage 4 really comes to life. The new combat is absolutely as addictive as ever. There’s a rhythm to all of the combos, matched with the sound effects, and with its responsive controls, you can balance enemy hordes in whole new ways. While beat ’em ups are repetitive and button-mashy by nature, Streets of Rage 4 brings some interesting mechanics and timing into that, allowing you to use special moves at the cost of your health, or allowing you to divvy up combos faster and more smoothly for seamless movements. The game feels like a natural progression for the series.
Streets of Rage was one of the series I grew up playing, as you probably did too. It always had co-op action that was a little deeper than other beat ’em ups on the market, and its combat was more interesting and rhythmic, all tied together by the iconic music backing. I can’t say I wasn’t skeptical about a sequel, especially with the fumble on Double Dragon (albeit from another studio), but Dotemu showed how remarkably talented it is at adapting retro games for the current decade. So personally, I’m over the moon to play this beat ’em up once again, now with updated visuals, expanded combat, and most importantly in this age when it’s not exactly easy to have playdates with childhood friends, online co-op.
Now, we just need more retro series to get picked up by indie studios for sequels. Streets of Rage, Windjammers, Wonder Boy, and Sonic Mania are all glowing examples of games that expanded on the strong nostalgia factor while introducing fresh gameplay to those beloved IPs. I would pay you any amount of money to see another Gauntlet Dark Legacy or Altered Beast in the next few years.
Until then, Streets of Rage 4 hacks, slashes, punches, and stabs its way onto Steam, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch on April 30. (Limited Run Games has physical copies of regular, classic, and collector’s editions.) If you’re in need of a bop to distract yourself right now—and let’s be honest, you probably are—this is a damn good place to get it.