Oak Wood City Has Never Looked So Good.

With what was known as a prodigy of 16-bit systems across the board, you couldn’t take two turns without running into a beat em’ up title back in the day. Timeless entries like Final Fight, Double Dragon, River City Ransom, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Golden Axe dominated the genre and brought the coin-op classics home for all to enjoy, and to save a few quarters in the long run. But one franchise that stayed near and dear to my young mid-90s heart was Streets of Rage. A powerhouse of electronic tunes and fast-paced justice by sheer force was a spectacle to behold. After three entries and disagreements between Sega and the original developers regarding future plans, Streets of Rage laid dormant in 1994.

Fast forward 26 years, and the bare knuckle brawlers of Oak Wood City are back with a vengeance in Streets of Rage 4. 10 years have passed since the demise of the criminal mastermind Mr. X. Oak Wood City relished in an atypical era of peace, unaware of what the underground had lurking within the shadows. Mr. X’s children had slowly risen to power within the city’s crime syndicate, and the Y Twins looked to rule over Oak Wood City with an iron fist. With rumblings of a brainwashing ploy against the city and the power of the Y Twins growing by the day, the trio of Blaze, Axel, and Adam, as well as some newcomers, sweep the streets once again to rid Oak Wood City of evil.

Like a newly renovated 1960 Dodge Charger, Streets of Rage 4 maintains that old school charm and sex appeal with the ingenuity and upgrades that only the modern times could achieve. The cast of five fighters: Blaze, Axel, and Adam from the original entries, with Cherry Hunter and Floyd Iraia entering the fray, are a nice varied blend of hard hitting power and breakneck speed. While Axel, Adam, and Floyd carry more raw power in their attacks, Blaze and Cherry run a faster, more technical approach to their arsenal. Their stats may differ, but every character is an absolute blast to play.

Streets of Rage 4 takes the juggling and patient combos of the original trilogy and shifts them into 5th gear. The standard basic attacks are available, with air attacks still in use, but now each character can unleash special attacks that can either carry on a combo (and add to the combo count) or provide spacing and some much needed invincible frames. The specials will cost health, but more in the style of how focus attacks from Street Fighter IV consumed HP; get hit once and the spent health (highlighted green on the fighter’s health bar) will be taken away, but the health can be earned back by dishing out damage. It’s a solid risk/reward program that compliments hectic combo continuations with the need for clean gameplay, as the risk of losing a ton of health is stacked on one slip-up. You can finish off that combo with a Star Finisher, a character’s over-the-top exclamation mark that delivers on the “ooo’s” and “ahh’s,” like Axel’s giant flame-spiraled uppercut, or Floyd’s full-screen Iron Man-like Unibeam.

These new gameplay changes are on full display in Streets of Rage 4‘s 12 stage Story Mode. The city of Oak Wood is vibrant and soaked in synthwave-style sectors: murky undergrounds, semi-built high-rises overlooking the city, and luxury cargo planes cover some of the beautifully crafted areas you’ll do battle in. Enemies are a nice blend of smaller fodder and bigger enemies that require a little more finesse: enemies will flash white, which indicates an un-blockable attack, while enemies blinking red will charge a move that with enough damage can be interrupted. With a three way battle going between the playable vigilantes, the Cops of Oak Wood, and the Y Twins’ syndicate, I love the little addition of everyone fighting everyone as the Cops fight the Syndicate in various levels. But all this wouldn’t be as engaging as fans of the trilogy expect unless it had the bangin’ soundtrack that the franchise is known for: and boy does Streets of Rage 4 deliver. With help from previous titles’ composers as well as new faces, each stage delivers outstanding backings to the beatings that get amplified through pounding beats and whining synths. Demetri and I were commenting more on the stage music during our first run than most other new additions to the game.

Not only does the new soundtrack carry a head-banging tune, the original OSTs from Streets of Rage 1 & 2 are available for use to get a real retro feel. Streets of Rage 4 doubles down on its remembrance and celebration of the classics with every playable character from the trilogy available as unlockable characters. Still coated in their 16-bit glory, all 12 characters retain their original move sets and still function impeccably within the new style, even if the character models feel adorably wonky. While the older characters will lack special moves or star finishers and the newer characters feel more grounded in tackling the newly updated enemies, it’s still a lot of fun to jump back into memory lane and play the retro characters. Streets of Rage 4 boasting 17 characters is a serious jump in count from its previous titles, but the lack of playable boss characters is a little disheartening considering how fun the bosses are to fight, and how much fun it would be to try them out. Their exclusion feels like a future plan for DLC, but it’s still unfortunate: I really wanted to play as Estel!

Streets of Rage 4 comes with plenty of modes to keep the fists flying after Story Mode has been completed. Arcade Mode pits fighters with just one continue to get through the entire campaign, which, yeah, good luck. Boss Rush challenges characters in a survival-style romp through every boss in the game, where timing and knowledge of each opponent is crucial. Battle Mode returns as well, giving players a chance to duke it out against each other on 8 different stages. Team battles are possible in Battle Mode, with some stages throwing in cannon fodder enemies to throw a PvPvE curveball into the mix. Each of these modes are a welcome inclusion to a game already packed with content.

And that’s one of the main standpoints I see with Streets of Rage 4: the amount of replayability within its core gameplay. The game is jam packed with enough choices for hours of gameplay, and I mean per sitting. The combo system is top-notch, the fighting is tight and precise, and the music is on-point for the franchise. So grab a pizza, or chicken, or sushi: whatever food your fighters decide to eat, grab some buddies, and enjoy this impeccably made return to one of the Sega Genesis’ greats.

Reviewed on Steam.