Streets of Rage. How uncanny for a game to carry that name in the first half of 2020! Even more so considering that this sequel had fans waiting for something like 30 years to materialize.
Of course, anyone remembering Streets of Rage (SoR) will inevitably refer to Streets of Rage 2. The first one was a draft, at best, and the third one was a cheaply-made sequel following the pinnacle that the second represents.
When you play video games for a long enough part of your life, you end up realizing that not everything new is better, not every game pushes genres forward.
There are genres where the best games remain, to this very day, in the past. Symphony of the Night is still the master of the Castlevania series. The peak of 2D Mario games were probably on the NES and SNES. The most exciting Sonic episode would be the second one on the Genesis/Megadrive. You may have a different opinion, but there’s a pattern that we can all agree with: popular genres mean increasing revenues, growing revenues bring competition, competition brings new ideas, and new ideas push games to surpass themselves iteration after iteration. But when genres fall out touch with the public, the trend reverses: less investment, less innovation, and newer titles are lesser titles more often than not.
This is especially relevant in the case of the “brawler” genre, to which Streets of Rage belongs. Brawlers are simple to grasp. You control a character (usually a vigilante) and your pass-time is to kick and punch people in the face for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Something we can all identify with.
Technically, the genre relies on side scrolling (left to right, 2D), and enemies coming at you from different directions, but always outnumbering you. But no worries, you are not a regular vigilante a la Kick-Ass who gets beat up in the gutter every now and then. No, you typically can punch your way through hordes of enemies with one hand while texting your friends with the other.
As games back in the eighties’ and nineties’ had limited memory, enemy sprites would be recycled from beginning to end, with a couple of new bad guys making their appearance as you enter new levels for added variety. Sprinkle some end-of-level bosses for good measure, and that’s approximately the recipe for Double Dragon, Final Fight, Golden Axe, Sengoku and the Streets of Rage series.
At the time, brawlers were big business. Final Fight from Capcom had tremendous success in the arcades, and the fact that the SNES had a very decent port as a launch title was a very big deal! It was not a perfect port (some slow-down were visible in busy scenes), but there was nothing like it on 16 bits consoles at the time. Absolutely impressive.
Of course Sega had to react, and show that the Megadrive could deliver punches and kicks on demand too. Thus, Streets of Rage was born – a.k.a. Bare Knuckles in Japan.
The original Streets of Rage was a Double Dragon clone – technically very far from Final Fight, yet fun to play:
Streets of Rage 2 was such a massive step forward in every department, it almost looked like it was running on a next generation system in comparison.
The second episode was arguably a much better brawler than Final Fight itself. Technically on par, but the art, the soundtrack, the variety of the levels and enemies made it a clearly superior game. Sega had a new hit under their belt, once again.
And just as they came, brawlers disappeared almost in a blink of an eye. Soon Street Fighter 2 made the 1:1 fighter the next big genre, and clones across multiple systems would take over, and the brawler genre would fall into oblivion faster than you can say “Shoryuken.”
In a matter of years, the final straw came with the popularity of 3D games. This did not sit too well with brawlers - showing multiple 2D sprites on screen is easy, but in 3D the polygon count becomes very costly. That was enough to make them fall in a dark abyss from where they would not return. In the meanwhile, one-on-one fighters made the move to 3D starting with very basic graphics (Virtua Fighter) to better ones (Tekken, Soul Blade) and managed to survive and prosper. That is how we will probably end up with Tekken 25 at some point and Soul Calibur 18 while Streets of Rage’s 4th episode is only now upon us.
Why this long introduction? Well, most gamers born in the PlayStation era have never been exposed to brawlers in their lifetime. They have therefore no reference to judge them.
So, my friends, if you are below a certain age, you cannot really grasp what Streets of Rage 4 represents.
I say this as Streets of Rage 4 is a mixed bag. There are things I love about it, but it is lacking in places where it should have ventured further.
The action and mechanics are very consistent with the rules of the genre. You could pick up Streets of Rage 4 right after finishing Streets of Rage 2, and feel at home. That’s good. They managed to replicate very closely what you expect from the genre. I had no doubt that LizardCube and DotEmu, known for their preference for faithfulness, would succeed in making a good clone. Don’t reinvent the wheel when you already have a formula that works.
Graphically, I can’t deny it’s really beautiful and well-made. They departed from backgrounds built from sprite tiles to backgrounds that are completely hand-drawn, filled with tons of details, and colored with shaders using dynamic light sources. This is a good way to show what 2D games could have become if they were made for modern systems.
But I am not a fan of the style. Everything looks hand-drawn, somewhat cartoonish, and a little too clean. I really liked what Lizardcube (the developers behind Streets of Rage) did for WonderBoy, because it was a good fit for the universe. Here, I will admit I do not find it as relevant. The 2D art would have benefited from going into a different direction, slightly more crude, more violent-looking. More crisp lines, and probably a darker atmosphere when it comes to contrast, tones and colors.
Despite having virtually no memory limitation in 2020, the game still plays on the typical trope of sprite re-use. You will encounter identical enemies hundreds of times from beginning to end. I am pretty sure that with modern technology it would have been trivial to ensure enemies have slightly different features (hair color, hair style, clothes) to go beyond what the genre could not do before.
Worse, maybe a good half or more of the enemies are re-designed versions of the bad guys from older episodes – of course, they have been completely re-drawn, but it’s hard to hide the fact that it feels somewhat familiar… and I can’t believe they copy-pasted one of the worst animations from a certain bad guy (Galsia) holding a knife from Streets of Rage 2. In this animation, he holds his knife like his dick (it looks exactly like that) and runs towards you. That was already ridiculous back in 1991, you can’t get much worse in 2020. Especially in the middle of revamped animations for all characters.
Nostalgia does not mean you can’t improve on the past.
One of the key differences I noticed with SoR4 was that levels have become very short in walking distance. SoR2 made you walk at least 10-15 minutes per level. You had to fight your way longer to get to the end-of-level boss. SoR4 takes a very different approach, with shorter levels but longer boss fights. It’s a choice - but SoR2 felt more like a journey, while SoR4 has become a stroll.
Boss fights also suffer from balancing issues. Most of them are ridiculously easy to beat (you can deal with them on the first try), others are way too hard at the very same difficulty level. It becomes frustrating when the only thing preventing you from moving forward is a boss that’s basically cheating: too fast, too strong, and with moves that can’t be blocked.
I will concede that making good boss fights is hard. Most games do it poorly, regardless of the genre, and sadly Streets of Rage 4 is not very good in that area either: bosses are not even impressive to begin with, they lack charisma and posture.
The level design is a little disappointing as well. It tends to be unimaginative (directly copying what was done before down to the way the levels scroll!) or falling into tediousness (the sewers making you wait for fumes to stop, how annoying). There’s some nice touches here and there (a car coming from the foreground and hitting enemies suddenly out of the blue) but such additions are a litle too rare to make a difference.
But there’s one thing that will forever make Streets of Rage 2 a better game than its fourth incarnation.
To this day, I can remember and hum most of the original soundtrack of every single level of Streets of Rage 2. It had a great mix of music. House, Jazz, Electro… the first fight against the barman is pure joy, almost movie-like. It starts with the sound of pouring rain, and as you enter the back alley, the music lets you know you fell into a trap:
I have completed two run-throughs of SoR4 and I cannot even remember one memorable tune from the whole thing. None!
They apparently went back and hired the same guy (Yuzo Koshiro) who did the music on SoR2. He’s not responsible for the whole music of the game - they hired 2-3 other composers for other levels.
This is problematic at two levels.
- You just can’t take your favorite pop star from the 80s, ask them 30 years later to come back on the scene with a new album and expect it to be just as good as they were. It’s been tried. And the painful conclusion is that most of them can’t make good music anymore. I don’t know enough about the original composer to make a final judgment about that, but what he ended up producing for SoR4 is sub-par. He either did not care, or his taste of music changed dramatically over time.
- I am not entirely sure it is a very good idea to hire different folks to make piece of music for a single game. Just like graphical works need ONE art director, the soundtrack works best when it’s not a soup prepared by 5 different cooks.
So what to make of Streets of Rage 4?
First, I want to compliment the developers on making a true 2D game with proper graphics and not “fake pixel art” garbage we see too often these days – the work they put in to make it a modern alternative to “all 3D” is admirable, while I am not sure it completely fits with my image of the series.
However, I feel they played it a little too safe. Sticking to old sprites, ancient level design, and carefully avoiding to make any major departure. It’s conservative where it did not have to be.
If the brawler genre were to survive, SoR4 needed be something else than a HD remake. It had to feel like a huge punch in your face – “this is how you do brawlers with 2020 technology!” It needed to be fresh like Final Fight was fresh when it came out. Something that would inspire new generations. A statement.
As a longtime fan of the genre, I might as well give my 2 cents on how brawlers could evolve: more destructible environments (hit a guy against a piece of furniture and break it), more interactive elements (objects from the scene to be used as weapons), and more elaborate combos, or skills that you can unlock as you progress. Sometimes a game becomes deeper just because you integrate in it elements from other genres (Metroid + Castlevania = Symphony of the Night). We need experiments to go on.
This is where Nintendo has a lot to teach us. They keep religiously to their IPs (another Mario game?!?) but they constantly try to re-invent how you experience their games. You cannot really blame them for not trying to do something different, improved, or innovative gameplay-wise: transforming the Mario platformer genre into a RPG on Nintendo 64. Then making a Paper Mario series that’s a mix of RPG and tactics and visuals derived from origami. And when you least expected it, Super Mario Galaxy took you back to platformers with a spin, using mini-planets instead of flat 3D.
They are just damn good at it.
If SoR4 is able to convince enough fans from the past, and find new followers among younger audiences, a sequel may prove possible. If this happens, I really wish they could take the opportunity to explore new frontiers with the series.
Despite my criticism, I ended up enjoying Streets of Rage 4 for two reasons.
First, it’s a decent game in its own right - fighting your way through is as satisfying as it used to be. It works precisely where it needs to perform, like a good tool.
But that was not the end of it.
When all was said and done, it led me back to Streets of Rage 2.
And this is when I realized the truth I once knew. “For no one - no one in this world can you trust. Not men, not women, not beasts… This, you can trust.”