In my experience, beat ‘em up games — which amount to little more than walking around and throttling everyone that comes your way — are best enjoyed with other people. Repetitive actions and cartoonish violence lend themselves to wry commentary; off-color remarks help fill the vacuum left by the games’ throwaway stories. With that in mind, I drafted my cousin, a gifted trash talker, to enliven my romp through “Streets of Rage 4’s” dozen stages.
Though its plot details really are superfluous, “Streets of Rage 4” follows a handful of vigilantes as they try to dismantle a criminal syndicate led by the Y twins — the children of the previous game’s arch villain Mr. X. The nefarious brother and sister have hatched a plan to brainwash the citizens of Wood Oak City (whose subways and buildings are basically a stand-in for New York City) with mind-altering music, which they plan to broadcast at a concert.
Over the course of their first run through the game, players have access to the older characters from the series — Blaze Fielding, Axel Stone and Adam Hunter — as well as two new characters — Cherry Hunter and Floyd Iraia. Each has a slightly different feel to them. Blaze and Cherry are faster than the others, while Adam and Floyd are stronger and have greater reach; Axl offers more of a middle ground between speed and power. For our first run through the story mode, my cousin and I relied mostly on Blaze, Adam and Floyd.
Given that the most recent Streets of Rage game came out in 1993, the latest game’s visuals make quite the impression. Veteran players will recognize familiar enemies such as the fire-spouting, suspender-wearing Big Ben or those 1970s-style punks, the Signals. The gulf between their pixelated representations from back in the day and their contemporary versions is every bit what you’d expect. “Streets of Rage 4” looks like an animated comic book, an attribute accentuated by the game’s unvoiced cutscenes.
The first of many little visual flourishes that caught our attention was Dylan, a new enemy who fights bare-chested with his hands in his pockets like the world’s most obnoxious bro. Then there were the police officers in the police station that liked to wail on the prisoners, and the girls with names like Margaret and Victoria who sport fringe haircuts that attack you in an art gallery. In other words, plenty of silly bits ripe for commentary.
At a certain point my cousin mentioned liking “Streets of Rage 4” for its animation and because it offered us an opportunity to do something together. By those humble metrics, this throwback is a success.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
Recent game reviews: