It’s easier to make something that has never been, then to improve on something that already exists. Especially when the source material is heralded as a classic, yet, that’s what Lizard Cube decided to attempt with Streets of Rage 4. It’s a game that takes two steps forward only to take one step back.
SOR 4 wouldn’t be much of a beat ‘em up if it weren’t fun to beat people up. On this front, the game is excellent. Each of the character plays differently, and stringing combos keeps the game fresh through multiple replays. Instead of mindlessly walking through a level, you need a bit of strategy. The game does an excellent job of introducing new characters and environmental traps to keep the game fresh. So the game is fun when you’re on the offensive, but when it’s time for defense, the game leans on old design philosophies that hinder the experience.
Back in the day, when they still had arcade machines, the classic beat ‘em ups were designed to be quarter eaters. The games were fun but never meant to be “fair.” It’s why every level boss was faster and stronger than anything you fought previously, and basic enemies would surround you for cheap hits. In those days, the heroes were also a step behind the enemy. Sadly, some of those design elements have made their way into SOR 4. Heroes don’t have legitimate ways to close the gap between enemies, block attacks, or even evade boss attacks. You can use the special attack for some defense, however there is a price. Special attacks cost health, and if you get hit before you get the correct amount of hits in, you stand to lose a massive amount of health. The lack of defensive maneuvers becomes a glaring omission later in the game when you encounter enemies that have unflinching attacks and others that throw projectiles. A dodge or block mechanic would have been a welcomed change.
The biggest criticism I have of the game deals with the soundtrack. The music is the heart and soul of Streets of Rage. It’s what made the game stand apart from the others. A blend of techno/house/and hip-hop, the original soundtracks are considered some of the best music in gaming history. Streets of Rage 4 decided to play it safe, with the music never taking the forefront. It’s never a full bombastic sound, nor is it entirely off base; it just exists. The easiest way to tell the difference is to play the game with the new music and then play a level with the retro soundtrack on.
Streets of Rage 4 is as fun as it is aggravating. Is it the Streets of Rage game I wanted? No, but considering I was never going to get another Streets of Rage, I’m happy to have it. I wish Lizard Cube would have taken a page from Square-Enix with the Final Fantasy VII Remake. Update the combat system to keep up with the times, finding a way to blend the new and the old. But until that game comes, I’ll continue mashing buttons with the retro music on.