Without a doubt, Streets of Rage 4 is the finest game to release in 2020.
Ever since I first played it back in April, I had a feeling Streets of Rage 4 was going to end up my game of the year for 2020. With silky-smooth gameplay and visuals, an absolutely killer soundtrack, and some of the best game feel in a beat-em-up ever created, this throwback brawler gave me everything I could have hoped for when it comes to arcade action. Despite having reviewed it, I kept coming back throughout the year and managed to finish the campaign about 24 times. That’s absurd.
A lot of this may be subjective, but there’s an absolute joy to the simplicity that co-developers DotEmu, Lizardcube, and Guard Crush created here. After more than a decade of beat-em-ups incorporating RPG systems and complicated button combos, it was a real thrill to jump back into the ’90s and experience something so pure. Streets of Rage 4 is free of the convoluted mess of modern game design and it’s all the better for it.
It doesn’t hurt that in terms of speed, this is probably the fastest game in the series. Some fans might be quick to point out that Streets of Rage 3 had sprinting for every character, but that was mostly for show. The game wasn’t much faster than its predecessor and even if it was, the level design was incredibly lackluster. For all of the gameplay improvements that final entry into the original Sega trilogy made, it lost so much in terms of enemy design, boss encounters, and even soundtrack.
Those areas seem to be specifically what the trio of developers focused on when creating this long belated continuation. Instead of revamping the desperation move to be way too overpowered, Streets of Rage 4 introduces an absolutely wonderful risk/reward system in its place. Functioning more closely to Streets of Rage 2, the fact that you can gain back your lost health if you’re skilled enough incentivizes you to be bolder in your attack, more aggressive in your playstyle. It recaptures the brutality of the original while not punishing the player because of arbitrary design.
Then there’s the way the soundtrack is integrated into every level, playing out more like a well-choreographed film instead of just background noise. You cannot knock the OSTs for the first two titles and while Streets of Rage 3 may be contentious, even it has a decent enough score. Regardless of how good those bops might be, they just cannot hold a candle to how essential and well-mixed 4’s soundtrack is. When I hear tunes outside of the game, I can pinpoint specific moments when enemies jump in or when a boss crops up.
The pacing, too, is stellar. While featuring the largest number of levels in a Streets of Rage title, 4 doesn’t really play longer than past games. Once you figure out how to deal with specific enemies and where all of the secret items are, you’ll be blitzing this game on replays. That speed is what kept me continually playing it, finishing it with every character on the roster and then going back for multiplayer action with my friend.
The fan service, too. It’s just so well done. As you accumulate more points, you unlock almost the entire cast from past entries and it just gives you so much more to keep coming back. If you were miffed at the lack of sprinting or dodge rolling, those Streets of Rage 3 characters are there for you. If you want to dial back the game to an even simpler time, whip out Streets of Rage 1 and make do with only basic punches and a special. This game is a loving tribute and it oozes from every inch.
But really, the best aspect is just how polished and well-executed the game is. After almost 30 years since the last installment, there was every reason to believe that Streets of Rage 4 would end up a dud. It most certainly isn’t rewriting the playbook on beat-em-up design and other titles in the interim have perfected coin-ops. Castle Crashers may hold the edge with regards to the sheer amount of content and replayability, but then I also haven’t finished that game 20+ times. Even as I’m writing this, I want to cap off the Xbox achievements for Streets of Rage 4 by S ranking everything on Hard, a task I haven’t quite nailed.
You could potentially say the last level was too easy, but then an update released a few months back actually upped the challenge there. There was also a glaring omission of a few characters but recently announced DLC is coming to likely change that. Even the negatives I’m coming up with likely won’t remain, making me excited to play the game again despite knowing every corner of it.
There absolutely were flashier games this year and titles with better-realized narratives, but nothing else captured the intensity, polish, and sheer brilliance of Streets of Rage 4. It’s a crying shame that more people aren’t nominating this for GOTY because I don’t think a potential sequel could even top the majesty of this title. Kudos to DotEmu, Lizardcube, and Guard Crush: you guys made a bonafide masterpiece. As far as I’m concerned, nothing else in 2020 was even close.
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