Announced as a collaboration between Lizardcube and Guard Crush games, I could not have been more excited for Streets of Rage 4. So many great brawlers had been released since SOR3, and I couldn’t wait to see how the series would evolve, especially considering the work Guard Crush had done before, cramming an absurd amount of fresh mechanics and style in their previous game.
And, well, a few years, the full release and one DLC later and I have to say… I can’t really love Streets of Rage 4.
Streets of Rage 4 is by no means a bad game — it’s got a killer aesthetic, feels good, has plenty of depth. By all accounts it has really hit with most people. But it’s got this sort of conservative streak that almost makes it like a backwards step from Streets of Rage 3.
Well, it’d probably be more accurate to call it a sidestep.
In their piece on Streets of Rage 3 and its Japanese counterpart, Colin Spacetwinks makes the argument that Bare Knuckle 3 is the greatest game in the series, one that got botched on its Western release. And while the nuances of my opinions vary a bit from theirs, I always found its moveset to be the most fun of the series, and wished to see more iterations on it. So when SOR4 came out and ended up as a sort of alternative evolution of the Streets of Rage 2 format I was disappointed.
SOR3 above everything else was fast, explosive and a little wilder than the rest of the series. It experimented a lot and because of that — and its botched Western release — lost a lot of people along the way. There were a lot of ideas left on the table that SOR4 could have given a second shot, but instead it went the conservative, crowd pleasing direction of building off SOR2.
What this means was the removal of universal dashes, dodge rolls, free special attacks and the powered up Blitz attacks gained through consistent play. Some of these have been replaced with interesting alternatives, such as special moves now doing temporary damage that only becomes permanent if hit. But it’s losing the range of movement options that slows down SOR4 in a major way.
The change isn’t made without thought — this slower pace means you can’t play as reactive and have to pay more attention to anticipating attacks, and the removal of running means the team can create a little more variation in playstyles throughout the cast. Cherry gets full dash in exchange for low health, Adam and Shiva can dash fighting game style to cross small distances, while characters like Blaze and Estel use their Blitz and specials to cross spaces faster instead. It’s a more methodical approach, that asks for a little more planning.
Mania mode gets a little closer to the pace I wanted, with a larger number of enemies and greater tension, but it also highlights how many fewer tools I had. So many times I’d end up in a bad situation reflexively trying to dash and getting hit, or wishing I had a dodge roll instead of having to slowly walk downwards to avoid something.
Part of what contributes to that feeling is context. Brawlers have changed so much, and introduced so many new, expressive tools to play around with that it makes SOR4 feel out of step to me, almost archaic. Games like Fight ’n’ Rage clearly build on the SOR3, with its special attack meter and range of movement, but adds parries, grab escapes, and extended throw and air combos systems. Other titles like Speed Brawl or Aces Wild create genre hybrids that give wider spaces to play around in, and movement mechanics that let you traverse the screen in new ways.
Essentially, it comes down to a trade of immediacy for variety. To use another fighting game comparison, it’s the difference in approach between something like Street Fighter Alpha 3, and Marvel 3. Both have expressive systems that allow freeform play, but Marvel 3 gives you the tools to immediately do wild things from the jump, as unoptimal as they are, where Alpha 3 requires a little more time to figure out how they work.
Likewise, Bare Knuckle 3 and the modern brawlers that follow it immediately lets you go to work, while SOR4 requires you to put in the work. In most newer games I’m comfortable figuring out the systems on the fly, and to play a little more improvisational. In SOR4 you’re kind of expected to study and know your tools. If you wanna be stylish, put in the practice before the performance. To the point where the lack of a training mode felt like a huge absence, where in most brawlers it’s a nice extra.
I’ve heard people react to criticisms of SOR4’s more restrictive movement by offering up the idea that you can more aggressively use special attacks, or play as the unlockable SOR3 characters.
The first is dismissive, in a way that also ignores the fact that the new special system kind of rewards people who are already good, while disincentivizing those who aren’t by hitting them with even more damage if they experiment with the system but make a bad call. As for the second suggestion, I don’t think “play ten hours with the moveset you don’t like to unlock a different one, on a character that doesn’t aesthetically fit in with the rest” is a valid suggestion.
Streets of Rage 4 is a game that has tons to come back to. Over a year later and I still find myself dropping in for a session to try out new characters and approaches. But each time I can’t help but see it as a string of missed opportunities. It’s a game where I continually feel as if I’m learning how I’m allowed to play within its restrictions, instead of using more of its tools to overcome the limits of what I was previously capable of.
For me, brawlers are a side attraction to fighting games, one where I can express myself in a more freeform way with similar skills, but without the restrictions that fair play between players demand. I like them because they don’t ask me to grind them out before I can play around in the space. Streets of Rage 4 doesn’t really agree with that philosophy. Which is fine. It just means I can’t love it the way I want to.
Amr is the Editor-in-Chief of clickbliss.net (@clickbliss), and previously ran Deorbital (deorbital.media). They’re also the host of Hand to Hand, Heart to Heart, a fighting game podcast for everyone.