Streets of Rage 4

Since childhood, I’ve always had a fondness for arcade-style brawlers like Double Dragon, Final Fight and Streets of Rage. Some of my most vivid childhood memories are playing Streets of Rage on my Genesis. I remember renting Streets of Rage 3 and nearly beating it, I reached the final boss fight playing as Dr. Zan but ran out of continues before having to return the game the next morning. Anyone who has played these type of games can tell you the experience is greater having a friend or sibling to play co-op with you. Streets of Rage 3 was released in 1994, the next several years would see a couple of attempts to create a sequel get canceled and fans wondered if they would ever see another Streets of Rage game. This past Thursday, the long-awaited Streets of Rage 4 was released after being officialy announced in August of 2018. Following up on last week’s post about another classic beat ’em up – Capcom’s Knights of the Round, I wanted to write up a brief summary of some of my thoughts about the game.

Streets of Rage 4 in-game storyline takes place ten years since the end of Streets of Rage 3(though released 26 years later in real-life). The villainous Mr. X has since been defeated, but his children, known as the Y Twins have taken over their father’s criminal empire in Wood Oak City. Blaze Fielding, one of the main protagonists in all three previous games as well as general badass, gets wind of the new crime syndicate operating in the city and places a call to former ally Axel Stone to once again begin cleaning up the streets. Axel and Blaze are also accompanied by Cherry Hunter, daughter to Adam Hunter – playable character in prior games as well as SoR4 and an assistant to Dr. Zan named Floyd, who represents the strong, but slow character in the game.

The game begins with four playable characters, along with Adam Hunter who joins the game as a playable character after a few levels. There’s also an additional twelve unlockable characters to use once you reach enough points; every playable character in the previous three games is available to use, each in their 16-bit, pixelated glory. The only exception to this is Roo, the boxing glove-wearing marsupial is not unlockable, though they do appear in the background of one of the levels…as a bartender. Ah, the 90’s…picking up turkeys found in garbage cans, and kangaroos with boxing gloves beating the crap out of people with names like Condor, Honey, and Y. Signal.

Back to basics

Fans of the genre will know exactly what to expect in Streets of Rage 4 – moving from the left side of the screen to the right while brawling with anyone who dares get in your way. The simple premise exemplifies what players love about beat ’em ups, they’re easy to pick up and play, but rarely ever considered EASY games. It was an accomplishment to see a game like Final Fight or Streets of Rage to the end without running out of continues(or quarters), even with a buddy fighting alongside you.

The developers at Dotemu knew they need not revolutionize the genre with a beloved series like Streets of Rage, but merely refine what players love about the games. The combat feels just as you would remember SoR2 on the Sega Genesis, perhaps with an even smoother feel and response this time around. Streets of Rage 4 perfectly encapsulates the tone and feel of a series that hasn’t seen a sequel in over 20 years.

Rather than simply trying to replicate the 16-bit graphics of the previous Streets of Rage games, all of the characters and animations in SoR4 are hand-drawn. This being the biggest difference to prior games as they all otherwise feature tight gameplay and a great soundtrack. Speaking of great soundtracks, the in-game music is phenomenal and features tracks from Olivier Deriviere with original composers Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima contributing as well. You know those soundtracks that you find yourself wanting to listen to when you’re not even playing the game? Streets of Rage 4 is definitely among those. The synth-heavy compositions feel like a modernized version of those heard in late 80’s/early 90’s movies and I love it.

Streets of Rage 4 features number of different game modes in addition to the main story. There’s a boss rush mode as well as a battle mode which sounds eerily reminiscent to the 1v1 game modes in Double Dragon. Those wishing to experience the game as closely as possible to playing it on a Sega Genesis can play Arcade Mode which challenges players to complete all 12 stages in one sitting with a set number of continues. You can even turn on the retro soundtrack from the very start of the game. There aren’t a great number of modern conveniences other than the game autosaving after each level and online co-op. I haven’t tried out the game in co-op yet, but the ability to play 4 player online co-op sounds intriguing.

For everything that there is to love about old-school beat ’em ups in Streets of Rage 4, the familiar annoyances also exist. Many times it feels as if enemies will simply dance around you as you are unable to move as quickly and the sometimes frustrating trademark of your attacks not connecting because you aren’t precisely on the same plane of background/foreground remains. I did become a bit frustrated at times when enemies are able to attack you diagonally when it’s near impossible for you to do the same. Once I remembered to start using the directional double-tap to actually move faster than a slow, plodding walk the game became slightly less frustrating. Also, in nearly every beat ’em up game you have the ability to perform a special attack which can deal damage to multiple enemies at once. This comes at a cost, as it takes a small portion of your health bar every time you use it, however, I really appreciated the fact that you are given a few moments to land a few basic attacks to regain any potential health lost from using a special attack.

No beat ’em up game is complete without an elevator level…

Streets of Rage 4 is an example of a sequel to a popular franchise knowing exactly what its player base desired from it and delivering. Everything that you loved about previous games is present, along with just about everything that frustrated you. SoR4 doesn’t revolutionize the genre, but is content to provide more of what works. Beat ’em ups tend to be dismissed as just a bunch of button mashing, which at worst, is true of many of them. Streets of Rage 4 is not a deep game by any means, but its beauty is in the simple, yet silky smooth gameplay, stylish animations and absolutely fantastic soundtrack. Longtime fans of the series will be more than satisfied with the simple fun provided by SoR4 and for those unsure about spending the $25, it was a Day 1 Xbox Game Pass release, which is pretty awesome. I know many others out there who would love to see other classic Sega games like Golden Axe get the same treatment…

Did you pick up Streets of Rage 4? What did you think about it? Let me know. Thanks for reading!

Blogtober 2019 – Vampire: Master of Darkness

An influential and beloved game series like Castlevania is going to have is share of copycat versions, a Mello Yello to its Mountain Dew, right? I recently came across the game Vampire: Master of Darkness, released in 1993 on the Sega Game Gear and Master System(PAL only), and by just looking at the screenshots of the game it was quite apparent the game was created as a response by Sega to compete with the Nintendo-exclusive(at the time) Castlevania, being one of the most successful and recognized of Konami’s game franchises in the late 80’s and throughout the 90’s. I happened to look through the Virtual Console games on my 3DS and had completely forgotten there were a few Game Gear games available. So, is the game worth playing or is it simply a Castlevania clone? I was pleasantly surprised to find out the game is actually pretty good…

In Vampire: Master of Darkness, the story begins with Dr. Ferdinand Social, a Ouija board playing psychologist(I bet that’d look interesting on a resume…) who receives a message telling him to head to the Thames River to confront Jack The Ripper. Thus begins Dr. Social’s adventure across the streets of Victorian-era London before battling Jack The Ripper who has been tasked by Count Massen to bring him fresh blood to perform a ceremony to resurrect an ancient evil(Spoilers – it’s Dracula!). Dr. Social makes his way across the foggy streets of London, a Vincent Price-less House of Wax, generic Cemetery, and finally Castle Dracula in the mountains of Transylvania. The level design isn’t bad by any means, as one may view the levels(and game in general) with a greater degree of scrutiny due to the high regard typically held for the game it so closely emulates.

The look and feel of Vampire: Master of Darkness is nearly IDENTICAL to that of Castlevania. you pick up primary attack weapons like daggers, axes, rapiers(easily the best weapon due to its reach), and a silver-handled walking cane (because England of course!). You also have a few secondary weapons such as a pistol, bombs, or a boomerang with which there is clearly show NO similarity to the daggers, holy water, or crosses thrown by members of the Belmont lineage. The game also uses the exact same staircases to ascend higher floors in each level, along with the giant pendulums for you to jump onto as you traverse through a clock tower, which may same eerily familiar. The level design isn’t bad by any means, as one may view the levels(and game in general) with a greater degree of scrutiny due to the high regard typically held for the game it so closely emulates. The final level, which takes place in Dracula’s Castle actually take a cue from the Mario games you simply need to navigate your way through a maze-like arrangement of floors before finally reaching the final boss; I wandered around this level getting quite frustrated before finally realizing two random stone blocks were able to be destroyed, providing access the floor below granting access to the boss battle. I honestly should have been looking for this, as each level has several areas where small sections of the wall can be destroyed revealing additional health…of course.

The boss fights themselves were pretty enjoyable, seamlessly fitting into any Castlevania game(almost) and like older Castlevania games, several of the bosses you can defeat by ducking in the corner and unleashing all of your secondary ammo and hopefully deal more damage than receive…that’s how we all play, right? The final encounter against Dracula also seemed downright easy once I realized he had just about the exact same attack pattern as the first Castlevania where he will appear randomly around the screen and you will need to jump and attack to target his head while evading the oncoming projectiles.

The critiques I have of Vampire: Master of Darkness are primarily of the enemies, which all too often lunge at your from offscreen to get in a cheap hit at you enter the next room or ascend a staircase. Another annoyance is the fact that enemies will home in directly on you to where you are unable to attack them as they’re too close for your weapons to register the hit-box, this is something incredibly frustrating AND common in older platforming/action games like Castlevania or Ninja Gaiden. And speaking of annoying enemies, there’s an abundance of dogs to charge at you which are incredibly difficult to hit due their smaller size and speed at which they attack, and of course there’s bats…I really, really hate bats! I did appreciate however, the fact that in Vampire: Master of Darkness, there isn’t any knockback damage from enemies, which always seem to cause as many deaths as anything in older games. Enemy ambushes that seem to always exploit a far-sighted blind spot are my biggest complaint about the game.

As for the positives aspects of the game, the level design and bosses are pretty good with surprisingly good visuals and control. The ability to crouch and walk under walls and other obstacles is also nice to have in reaching a few hidden areas within the levels, the game is a bit more forgiving in terms of difficulty than the old-school Castlevania games as well. The game only consists of five levels which means the entire game will take two hours or less to complete. This may seem unreasonably short, but this was first released on the Sega Game Gear, a handheld console that would devour a six AA batteries every three hours or so. All in all, I was pleasantly surprised with Vampire: Master of Darkness. I had never heard of the game until very recently and honestly wasn’t expecting much more than just a Castlevania rip-off. While the game does certainly copy borrow many similarities to the Konami’s beloved series and doesn’t even attempt to establish much of an identity of its own, other than providing a Victorian England setting, I still believe it provides an enjoyable enough experience to warrant a try. The old adage of “Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery” seems quite applicable in regards to this game.

Have you ever played Vampire: Master of Darkness? Have you every played a game that looked merely like a copycat version only to end up enjoying? Let me know in the comments. I apologize for getting a little behind on my Halloween Blogtober posts, but I plan to get a bit more accomplished this weekend and still have quite a few games to go over in the upcoming weeks. Thanks for reading!