Glorious artwork and a fan's eye for detail combine for a sequel that manages to best its forebears.
If you ask me what it is that made Sega's games really sing when they were in their 90s pomp, I'd settle on just one thing. It's the swagger, that cocky self-assuredness backed up with an impeccable sense of style. Any doubt that Streets of Rage began life as a Final Fight clone is soon erased if you look at the similarity between the two leading men, but could Cody Travers ever match the sheer attitude of Axel Stone as he piled through neon-slicked streets full of hoodlums in step to Yuzo Koshiro's searing techno beats?
There might have been better Sega games in the 90s, but there's no better 90s Sega games than the Mega Drive's Streets of Rage trilogy. From the soundtrack to the set-up to the styles that characters wear - this is stonewashed denim through and through - Streets of Rage and its two sequels embody so much of the 90s spirit, something backed up by the fact that this is a series that never saw beyond the decade.
Until now, that is, but Streets of Rage 4 is more than a belated sequel. Like Sonic Mania before it, this is a fan-made game that's at once a faithful and fully-endorsed follow-up to a Sega classic as well as a little more besides. And as with Sonic Mania before it, Streets of Rage 4 proves that, sometimes, the fans really do know best.
These are some seriously qualified fans, mind. Lizardcube is on hand to help with the visual side, bringing a style and approach you'll find familiar from its previous - and quite remarkable - touch-up job on Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap. This is, like Wonder Boy, a traditional 2D experience served up with exquisite hand-drawn artwork, and for any early misgivings about how well-suited the approach would be to the scuzzier world of Streets of Rage, I can say that it most definitely works.
An optional 'retro' filter places Streets of Rage 4 more closely in line with its forebears, and when viewed this way it's clear the aesthetic of the originals has been nailed, filthy streets and all. It's as if Streets of Rage got a follow-up in the late-90s on Capcom's CPS3, with screen-filling sprites and gloriously detailed backdrops that are up there with the sublime Street Fighter 3. Really, though, it's a shame not to experience Streets of Rage 4's artwork in its full unfiltered glory.
It's where you'll get to see artist Ben Fiquet's work at its best, and where you can appreciate a take that's sympathetic to the originals while having its own spark. See how Axel Stone has piled on a few pounds of middle-aged bulk, or how Adam Hunter has been revived and redesigned for his first outing since the very first game, or how even lowly grunts like the Signals with their bright mohawks and hunched shoulders are not only perfectly preserved but lovingly updated. Which is to say nothing of the locations that are revisited, the characters that are returned to, the countless cameos and... Well, I think it's best you uncover a lot of this yourself.
It's worth pointing out that Streets of Rage 4 isn't an exercise in hollow nostalgia. As divisive as the new artstyle proved at first look, it also suggested that Streets of Rage 4 isn't afraid to forge its own path, and really it's that willingness to push the old formula into new territory that makes this project sing. On a surface level, you've got two new characters joining stalwarts Axel and Blaze in the opening line-up, with Floyd an analogue of old heavies such as Max with a little bit of Streets of Rage 3's Zan thrown in with his bionic powers, while Cherry is a straight-up replacement for the nimble, combo-friendly Skate.
Except Cherry is better than Skate ever was, partly because - and apologies if you think this is sacrilege - Streets of Rage 4 is simply a better game than its predecessors. Everything feels just as you remember it - the hit-pauses are the same, your favourite attacks are in the right place and pack just as big a punch as they ever did - but they've been polished up and and built thoughtfully outwards.
Combos are extended, in glorious excess in Cherry's case as she bounces between enemies before grinding out a crunchy power chord on her guitar for wider area-of-effect move to buy some more space for the next run of attacks. Specials eat into your lifebar, as they did before, but now you can win back that health by keeping up the aggression, Bloodborne-style, while enemies can now be juggled and bounced off walls. And good god the sheer amount of attitude that's been squeezed into the frame as she goes in for an aerial punch, and the resulting cruuuuuuuunnnncchhh. It feels as good as any beat 'em-up ever has.
For all that you've got to thank Guard Crush Games who've dealt with the nuts and bolts of Streets of Rage 4, and who proved their credentials in the genre with Streets of Fury, a grotesque but gripping spin on the beat 'em-up that cropped up on Xbox Live Indie Games before it was polished for a PC release. There's a reverence for the source material, and with that a deep understanding of where there was room for improvement. It's small, subtle things such as how enemies no longer disappear off-screen when they're in play, or how when things get busy you never lose sight of where you are and where the threat is coming from next.
There's imagination and flair in the stage designs and set-pieces too - skirmishes on airborne freighter planes that occasionally drop a few thousand feet and render you weightless, fights on building sites where you can set wrecking balls in motion and have them wipe out entire mobs and plenty more besides. It is, by the genre's nature, a short game - there are some 12 levels that can be seen through in a couple of hours - but it's bolstered by online co-op and battle modes and plenty of secrets to uncover. And, quite honestly, Streets of Rage 4 feels so good that a single playthrough is far from enough.
It's a brand of action that's eminently readable, and perhaps the very best thing isn't just how it picks up the baton from a series that's been abandoned for too long - Streets of Rage 4 does such an effective job it recontextualizes those original games and makes it that much easier to understand what it is that makes them so special.
For too long I used to think the beat 'em-up genre died a death all those years ago for good reason, and that this was a brand of game best left alone in the 90s. With its improvements, embellishments and above all reverence for the originals, Streets of Rage 4 makes me realise the error of my ways as it reframes the beat 'em-up as the forefather of the action genre that lives on today in the likes of Bayonetta and Devil May Cry - games born from the same mentality, and with that same swagger. Streets of Rage 4 has all that and then some. This is more than a mere revival of a once-loved series. Streets of Rage 4 is quite simply the best of the bunch.