Every so often you come across a game that drips passion for the medium's history; a game that's as much homage as it is sequel. Streets of Rage 4 is one of those games. It's a sequel that was never going to see the light of day. It's been 26 years in the making - and now it's finally here and scratching an itch I'd long since forgotten about. It's a digital time machine that moves smoothly enough to keep your rose-tinted glasses firmly in place.
As a videogame player who grew up in the 80's and 90's, side-scrolling beat 'em ups were a big part of my formative years. They would suck 10 pence pieces out of my pocket every time I stepped foot in an arcade, while Double Dragon and Final Fight swallowed up hours of my time on the NES and SNES respectively.
Streets of Rage was Sega's answer to the supremacy of those two games. It came into existence to plug a gap in their portfolio. At that time, Capcom were the premier producers of arcade beat 'em ups - but their close ties with Nintendo meant the best of their coin-op conversions ended up exclusive to Nintendo machines. Sega wanted a side-scrolling punching simulator for their Megadrive machine and eventually came to realise that in order to get one, they'd need to do it themselves - so Streets of Rage was born. The Megadrive had its answer to Final Fight... and my little brother and I had what would become one of our favourite co-op games.
So, how well does a game rooted in 90's gameplay conventions translate into the 2020's? 'Surprisingly well' seems to be the answer. From the moment you start it up, it's paying homage to the games that came before it with its music. The visuals, while brought up-to-date with some nice cel-shaded characters, still reference the 80's and 90's with their neon-soaked colour palette. You pick from one of four characters, and proceed to punch and kick your way through levels populated with baddies that, if you're as old as I am, you'll likely remember from the first time around. It runs at a buttery smooth framerate and the blows land with satisfying thuds - and then you hear a familiar sound effect from the early games and you're transported back in time immediately.
Make no mistake - this game looks and sounds far better than the ones that came before it, but it manages to still feel the same. At least at the beginning. As you progress through it, you begin to see that the move set for the original games is effectively the base level of the move set in this one. New bits and pieces have been added in, such as the star moves and the special moves. Weapons thrown at you can now be caught in mid air. Grabs can be shaken out of. The environment itself can be used as a weapon in some areas. The whole thing has been gently brought up to date by expanding on all the things that made the original game great instead of casting those features aside and replacing them wholesale with newer systems - and that's where the beauty of this game is really found. It's not the game you remember - but it really feels like it is. The games you remember probably aren't as good as you recall them being; but this is how you remember feeling when playing them. As you progress through the levels, many of them inspired in some way by the level design of the classic coin-ops of that era, you see how many little nods and touches there are to them. It's a digital love letter.
It has different modes (including an arena and a boss rush), but the one that I'm going to enjoy most is the straight campaign co-op. My brother mentioned on twitter that he was going to play it on his stream - and I just had to jump in and re-live the couch sessions of our childhood. You can hear just how much fun we had with it here (I'm the other voice on the stream) - and if that doesn't get across just how much fun this game is, then I don't know what will. If you're a player of a certain age... trust me. You're gonna love this.