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Iconic brawler hits the streets again after 26 years

The hand drawn and high resolution comic-style art is a massive departure but looks incredible, with technical tricks including water reflections taking the presentation to the next level just like parallax scrolling and other pixel techniques did back in the day.

Light sources from neon signs to stained glass windows also interact with the fighters to stunning effect.

Everything from the collection of locations to the available weaponry has been greatly expanded in Streets of Rage 4.

Everything from the collection of locations to the available weaponry has been greatly expanded in Streets of Rage 4.

Meanwhile the soundtrack — including contributions from the original games’ composers — brings contemporary instrumentation to new tracks in a familiar blend of experimental electronica, dirty funk and thumping dance beats. Level themes shift dynamically like a DJ set as you progress while each boss gets is own signature track — created variously by established game composers and underground dance artists — creating a modern vibe while also leaving no question this is a Streets of Rage game.

All five main characters utilise the old school mix of jumps, strikes and special attacks, meaning you can pick up any of them and start cracking skulls immediately. But each also has enough hidden depth — from unique abilities like dashing to the specifics of each combo — to make mastering them a long and gratifying process. And then there are brand new combat wrinkles to consider, like a guard-blocking strong attack or the ability to catch weapons in mid air (whether thrown at you or bouncing off a goon’s face).

The three characters from the original Streets of Rage return, a little older but just as lethal.

The three characters from the original Streets of Rage return, a little older but just as lethal.

I love how the three originals have been subtly aged (the game takes place 10 years after the previous entry) while maintaining much of their original aesthetics. Adam is still slick as hell, Blaze still looks like a nightclub badass and Axel’s still the idealistic vigilante, just with some extra weight and a beard.

Modern animation and an expanded toolset give these crime fighters much more personality than before, but they still feel authentic, and even play mostly how they used to with their grapples and suplexes. Meanwhile newcomers Floyd and Cherry represent the new generation and play a bit less traditionally. While she’s small and agile, sprinting toward and latching onto enemies to slap them around and launch to the next victim, he’s slow, hits hard and automatically picks up anyone dumb enough to get too close.

Present day is a weird place and the game reflects that with a much more diverse range of locales — from an art gallery to a private island between the series staple city streets and boats — and a twist on the “crime syndicate” storyline that has you fighting cops and rich kids as well as street lowlifes.

Though many familiar thugs return and it’s a joy to see them rendered in such detail, it’s equally enjoyable coming to grips with brand new baddies and bosses. Meanwhile levels are filled with gimmicks that add new twists on the formula, including enemy factions that fight each other.

The police aren't necessarily your friends, but they'll usually beat up a punk if given the chance.

The police aren’t necessarily your friends, but they’ll usually beat up a punk if given the chance.

Though this is a licensed sequel that’s been created largely without Sega’s involvement. But it’s clear French studio Lizardcube (responsible for the art), Canadian developers Guard Crush and publisher Dotemu all have a deep understanding of the series. Frequent humorous references to the originals add actual depth and surprising twists rather than being there merely for giggles, while all the refinements and additions fit naturally in the game without diminishing what makes the series great.

For example using special moves still saps your health, but you can earn it back by dishing damage without being hit which feels less punishing. The main “story” mode is also a lot easier to get through thanks to its modern structure, but there’s also arcade mode for die-hards and a battle mode for goofing with friends.

Unlockable retro characters are a lot of fun, even if they don't really blend in.

Unlockable retro characters are a lot of fun, even if they don’t really blend in.

Retro fans can utilise 12 unlockable characters from previous games which look, play and sound exactly like they did on Mega Drive. Their blocky forms certainly stick out amongst the high resolution modern art, but it works somehow. Similarly you can choose an alternate soundtrack that matches each in-game scene with an old-school tune from the series’ 8- and 16-bit history, and I loved playing through with the nostalgic beats.

Streets of Rage 4 is the rare retro revival that respects and celebrates the originals while also having something of its own to say. The visuals, sounds and mechanics of course aren’t as envelope-pushing in 2020 as the originals were in the early ’90s, but the balance between embracing nostalgia and reformulating the brawler for the current decade is struck wonderfully.

Streets of Rage 4 is out today for PlayStation 4 (reviewed), PC, Switch and Xbox One.

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