For a brief period in the late 80s and early 90s, the side-scrolling brawler captured the imagination - and the coinage - of gamers everywhere. Standing shoulder to shoulder around an arcade cabinet taking down waves of enemies as you gradually work your way to the end of the game was a wonderful experience, but Sega's Streets of Rage not only brought this experience home, it took it to the next level. And now it's back, better than ever. In fact, Streets of Rage 4 is nothing short of a masterpiece.
The golden age of brawlers kicked off with a wave of games spearheaded by Double Dragon, a coop-based side-scrolling beat 'em up that triggered a deluge of competing titles from a range of publishers. Capcom asserted its dominance here with the epic Final Fight - and its subsequent port to Super Famicom in late 1990 served as a powerful opening salvo in the 16-bit console war. Despite enjoying success with Golden Axe, Sega needed something darker, grittier and more 'urban'. It needed a Final Fight killer and Streets of Rage was its answer.
Released just six months after the Super Famicom conversion of Final Fight hit the market, Streets of Rage boasted simultaneous two-player action, with crunching combat backed by a killer soundtrack. It was a strong effort, but it was with Streets of Rage 2 and its sequel that Sega amped up the action, refining a winning formula and fully delivering on what I consider to be the three key pillars of brawler design.
Firstly, there's the sense of impact, the feeling of connecting your attack with a foe. A great brawler features instant button response coupled with carefully crafted frames of animation and a proper stutter - the shaking when an enemy takes a hit. It's a delicate balance of collision detection, animation and camera movement. The base attack is an action you will be performing over and over again so if it doesn't feel just right, the game will fall flat.
Secondly, there's the music - this may seem to occupy space outside of the core gameplay but all of the Streets of Rage games demonstrated that it's actually central to the experience. The music sets the tone and pace of the combat and builds excitement around the actions you're performing. Without great music, the brawler simply isn't everything it could be. Finally, there are the visuals - brawlers are inherently repetitive but the quality of the sprites, backgrounds and animation help in creating something memorable, tying into the overall feel of the game.
The original Streets of Rage gets much of this right and offers two player cooperative play, unlike Final Fight on Super NES, but still feels like an early effort in some respects. Sprites are small, the frame-rate is only 30fps - which is uncommon on the platform - and the move set is limited, but crucially, the core elements are there. Impact works, the soundtrack defines the pace of the game while the sound effects are tremendous. Finally, the pixel art is simply gorgeous.
It was undoubtedly a good game, but there was room to improve. Importantly though, the developers had cut their teeth and 18 months later, Streets of Rage 2 delivered what I'd rank as one of the greatest sequels of all-time, radically improving on the original in every respect. We got larger sprites, more animation, more enemies, larger stages, more moves and an even better soundtrack. The first pillar is locked in - the basic actions in Streets of Rage 2 feel perfect, the new sprites are more detailed and better proportioned and each frame of animation is spot on. Even the most basic punch feels so good, but the developer went much further, adding in special moves unique to each character.
The overall flow of the game is greatly improved with more variation in level design and stages that move more than just left to right. The second pillar of quality is also reached with ease - the soundtrack stands as one of the best on the system with additional variety and super high-quality beats, with Yuzo Koshiro returning to demonstrate what's possible with Sega's 16-bit hardware. Lastly, there's the presentation, which is perhaps the greatest improvement of all. Sprites are much larger and more detailed, the frame-rate is increased to 60fps, there are more layers of parallax scrolling and backgrounds are much more complex. It's a game that demonstrates an expert use of colour to produce a gritty yet beautiful world.
Streets of Rage 2 set the standard for what a brawler could be but its sequel proved somewhat more divisive, owing to some unexpected issues. Streets of Rage 3 is notorious for localisation changes made when bringing the game to the West. This includes changing sprite colours, censoring certain enemies and characters and cranking up the difficulty, among other things. The Western version is less enjoyable to play overall as a result. The soundtrack is another controversial element, with a hit and miss quality to the range of music. This was an experimental phase for Yuzo Koshiro: Streets of Rage 3 made use of software that enabled randomly-generated numbers in each register of a frequency modulation oscillator, allowing for unique sound generation during track creation. The results were not to everyone's taste, but I can respect what they achieved.
Despite the shift in music and censorship in the West, what's left is still a very enjoyable brawler. In fact, in some ways, it's the best of the three. For example the special system was rethought - when the meter reaches 'OK', you can unleashed a powerful attack without losing health. If you use it again before that meter fills back up, though, you lose health just like the second game. Beyond this, every character can now run and dodge by using a double-tap motion on the d-pad. It's really great stuff, but regardless, Sega would produce no more SOR games... until now.
Streets of Rage 4 is nothing short of a revelation. Developed as a collaboration between DotEmu, Guard Crush Games and Lizardcube, the new title is designed and executed as a direct follow-up to the original trilogy as opposed to a reboot. In creating the game, the team wanted to retain what made the series special while expanding in areas that make sense. The idea is to deliver a 2D brawler that relies on hand-drawn animation with a level of fluidity on par with something like Street Fighter 3, meaning bespoke frames rather than tweened 'Flash-like' animation. While the style breaks away from the pixel art design of the original games, it still relies on traditional key frames carefully designed to communicate each action - and I think it looks great.
Once you pick up the controller, it's immediately evident that the core combat loop is beautifully crafted. In that sense, the game delivers on our first pillar of brawler design by ensuring that even your basic actions are satisfying. The development team spent time studying the original games frame by frame to ensure that every hit, stutter and shake properly replicates the feel of the Mega Drive classics. What I love about the design is how so much is done with these core mechanics; the combo system is now more nuanced allowing for deeper combat without sacrificing accessibility.
The new special system takes a page from Bloodborne. Triggering a special uses a small amount of life but if you manage to land additional hits after the special, you fill that chunk of life back up. Take a hit though, and you lose it. I especially love the way levels evolve to include different types of foes with unique AI behaviour and skills. The dojo battle in Chinatown, for instance, simply adds more weapons to the mix while introducing more and more enemies over time. It's done in such a way that, by the end, it feels as if you've fought through a Hong Kong action movie.
So how was this all achieved? Earlier in the week, I had a chance to talk directly with the developers and found the process fascinating. Streets of Rage 4 was created using the in-house Guard Crush Engine which allows for smooth 60fps 2D action across multiple platforms. The game is designed with a target of 1080p but owing to the nature of the game, the output resolution has little impact on what you see - the artwork is clean and crisp on all platforms tested. In that sense, it's rather reminiscent of Cuphead, which looks much the same no matter what resolution it's rendered at (within reason!).
As well as nailing the 'feel' of a good brawler, the developers also spent a lot of time getting the enemy AI to present a tough but fair challenge. In fact, I think this is one of the key secrets behind Streets of Rage: the team studied the behaviours found in the original games and worked to implement something similar in the new sequel. Each type of enemy has their own unique behaviours and they're constantly working out how to attack. In other brawlers, such as Final Fight, this isn't quite this refined - enemies typically just move in a straight line towards the player rather than actively circling and moving around the arena.
Visually, each level is built from a large chunk of carefully placed art data, along with parallax layers that move independently. The play area is drawn using a fixed perspective designed to add depth but just like the originals, character sprites move in two dimensions visually - there is no scaling here, which I think is the right move. When each level is loaded, the required art data is fetched and prepared for use. With the data loaded, the game requires roughly 2GB of memory, though the PC version has the option to use uncompressed art data which should increase that. The level art is pieced together in the editor to create a long, seamless background rather than relying on a tiling system with reused chunks. During actual gameplay, however, a culling system is used around the viewing window, only drawing artwork as needed.
The levels themselves are then enhanced by the ambient layer - this includes lights, shadows, reflections and more. This is one of my favourite elements: each light is dynamic and a unique system was developed to allow the lights to play off the sprites creating the illusion of rim lighting. Not only that, lights interact with particles, adding further to the sense of consistency in each scene. Characters are also lit appropriately within the environment and textures can also be projected onto them too, better grounding the characters into the overall presentation. Then there are the reflections: first you have your primary rendering pass rendered back to front, which is then repeated and flipped. This render target then serves as the reflection which is made semi-transparent, filtered and manipulated to simulate natural distortions. For objects with an underside, such as a table, a separate sprite is created and inserted into the reflection to ensure consistency.
Lastly on the ambient layer, shadows are utilised to further anchor objects within the world. These shadows are designed to simulate contact hardening - appearing sharper at the point of origin and becoming more diffuse as it moves away from this point. With all of these elements combined, it becomes clear that there's more going on in this game than you may imagine - and personally, I think it works extremely well. The animation is so fluid and the amount of detail poured into every scene is impressive.
There are some additional fun options to play with in the menu too, including two pixel modes. The first shifts the camera slightly so that pixels lineup properly to allow an even grid pattern, producing an interesting look. There's also a CRT filter, which applies blurring and a scanline filter. It looks okay, but it's not my favourite implementation of this particular effect. Generally speaking, I think the default look is the best way to play. Further options are included for the user to play with, but these are entirely for tuning the game to your preferences - I didn't see any changes in performance. Speaking of which, prior to release, I had access to the PS4 and PC versions of the game. The Switch codes weren't available and I didn't get the chance to test out Xbox One - which is available from day one on Game Pass. On PS4 and PS4 Pro, however, the frame-rate is perfect. The game runs at 60fps without any hiccups or dips. It's completely stable.
Technologically, there's a fascinating story here, but really it's all about the three pillars I mentioned earlier and in these respects, Streets of Rage 4 is nigh-on perfect. Combat isn't just 'as good' as the original, it's better, with far more fluidity in play and more flexibility in delivering devastating combos. The soundtrack is amazing too: the main composer on the project is Olivier Deriviere, who does an excellent job, but additional composers were brought in to score various other tracks including the killer combination of Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima, Das Mörtal and Scattle, who both worked on Hotline Miami as well as other exceptional composers from game music history. With this many composers, it's amazing how well it all gels together.
There've been a number of games this generation that successfully revitalise and modernise some of the true 16-bit classics. Three essential titles in particular spring to mind: Sonic Mania, Mega Man 11 and finally, Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom. Streets of Rage 4 rightfully takes its place alongside these brilliant retro-modern games. It's not easy to pick apart a gaming classic then build a brand new sequel that honours the originals while still feeling fresh and new, but that's exactly what each of these remarkable titles manages to deliver. In my view, Streets of Rage 4 is a masterpiece and it's easily one of my favourite games of the year. Put simply, it must be played.