By Jeremy Parish

Ah, the majestic brawler. Once, they roamed the American arcade in seemingly endless herds. From two-player pillars of the genre like Double Dragon and Final Fight, to manic four-player renditions of hot television licenses like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Marvel’s X-Men, to completely bizarre interpretations like Taito’s Pu-Li-Ru-La, the brawler ruled. The genre presented arcade-goers with a simple, compelling sales pitch: A chance for a group of friends (or strangers) to gather ’round a cabinet and pound the stuffing out of virtual bad guys, all for 25 cents a pop.

Then came Street Fighter II and the rise of one-on-one fighting games, and the brawler slowly faded from popularity. It never went away, precisely, but once the fighting game made its debut, most of the brawler’s innovation shifted to the console market. While 16-bit home hardware may have lacked the bone-crunching technical intensity of bleeding-edge arcade cabinets, those systems also didn’t need to appease arcade operators by bleeding players of their pocket change with unfair, unbalanced design. Home brawlers could afford to be inventive, expansive, and just plain weird in ways that didn’t necessarily work in arcade cabinets. That’s how we ended up with incredible Sega brawlers like Comix Zone (in which a cartoonist fought his way, panel-by-panel, through his own comic book) and Guardian Heroes (an anything-goes mash-up between brawlers and RPGs).

When it comes to Sega brawlers, none command more respect and nostalgia than the Streets of Rage trilogy for Genesis. Featuring excellent visuals, memorable characters and environments, tight gameplay, and some brilliant experimental soundtracks by composer Yuzo Koshiro, the Streets of Rage trilogy can support a strong argument as the greatest console brawler series of all time. Unfortunately, Streets of Rage vanished along with the brawler genre: Its final entry appeared way back in 1994, more than a quarter-century ago. The series looked to have been abandoned in every respect (besides straight reissues in classic compilations) until last year, when a fourth chapter in the venerable franchise was announced for release on PlayStation 4 and Switch.

 

Despite its crisp, high-resolution, hand-drawn graphic, Streets of Rage 4 should feel instantly familiar to fans of the older games. A cooperative brawler, it features a handful of new characters alongside old favorites like Blaze and Axel. They’re a little older here, but they’re still every bit as capable of handing out a beating as ever.

Unlike the original Streets trilogy, though, Streets of Rage 4 isn’t the result of a collaboration between Sega and developer Ancient. Instead, the property has been entrusted to a trio of French studios: Dotemu, Guard Crush, and LizardCube. Far from being untested fighting neophytes, though, the Streets 4 team comes to this project with years of experience between them. Guard Crush previously produced Streets of Fury, a Streets of Rage-inspired brawler, while LizardCube has proved their Sega mettle with 2017’s remake of Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap. Each contributor brings their own distinctive expertise to the project, combining all the skill and know-how they’ve cultivated through their earlier efforts.

“Working for years on Streets of Fury allowed me to have a lot of the typical brawler challenges already [solved],” says Dotemu game designer Jordi Asensio. “Things like how to make a punch feel right; how to make a fighting system deep but still easy to pick up; how to design tools to optimize beat-em-up game development. It was very helpful, because we started early on [in this project] to ask ourselves Streets of Rage-specific questions, and we saved a lot of time.”

LizardCube art director Ben Fiquet agrees. “We previously released Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap,” he says, “and it provided a blueprint in many different aspects—not only in terms of design and production, but also in respecting a retro license dear to our hearts.”

The team’s goal with Streets 4 isn’t simply to revitalize a much-loved but long-absent franchise. In their view, the brawler genre itself has grown largely stagnant, and they hope to change that.

“3D brawlers aside, I don’t think they’ve evolved that much,” says game designer Jordi Asensio. “The last brawler that surprised me was Guardian Heroes by Treasure, on the Sega Saturn. It’s a 1996 game, but it was ahead of its time with lots and lots of playable characters, RPG elements, crazy moves, spells and combos, branching stories, and top notch graphics and soundtrack. Since then, it seems that 2D brawlers have gone into hibernation. I hope Streets of Rage 4 can make a small push in making 2D brawlers a main genre again.”

Guard Crush programmer Cyrille Lagarigue feels the brawler hasn’t simply been abandoned, it’s been stripped for parts by studios looking to steal the brawler’s best ideas for their own, unrelated projects. This, too, is a trend Dotemu’s team hopes to walk back. “The brawler has now been integrated, mainly in 3D, into other genres,” Lagarigue says. “Open worlds, adventure games, and narrative games often have some brawler gameplay phases. 

“For Streets of Rage 4, we were interested in making a game where the brawler gameplay was the center of the game, then push it as far as possible, with the classic side-view perspective.”

The key to making both Streets 4 and an old-school brawler work in 2020, the developers say, is to be mindful of the past without being totally beholden to it. They acknowledge that gaming has changed radically over the past 26 years, and that expectations have shifted accordingly. There’s value to be found in works of the past, but by the same token, they realize a meaningful modern-day release needs to be something more than a mere rehash of a 16-bit brawler.

“Artistically, the approach was to stay 2D to be really close to the original games,” says Fiquet. “Nonetheless, it was important to add more details in the animations and background, which would make it more alive.” Lagarigue agrees: “We had to nail the gameplay and controls of the game, and have the arcade feeling, but update it with the new art style and deeper gameplay,” he says.

Above all, Asensio says, the team has done its best to balance history, legacy, and modern trends. “Stay focused on what Streets of Rage is,” he says. “Don’t try to make it some other game with a Streets of Rage skin. Don’t make a game like a previous Streets of Rage, but rather a game the way people remember them.” 

The team also recognizes that while high-minded goals are all well and good, the best of intentions can easily run astray during the development process. In order to keep Streets 4 on point and produce a game that lives up to fans’ long-held expectations, the Dotemu crew is working with a single guiding philosophy in mind. “We ask ourselves, ‘What if the original team made a Streets of Rage game today?’” says Asensio. “We really tried to stay away from any modern trends that wouldn’t feel ‘Streets of Rage’. We tried a lot of things, and sometimes we backed down.”

The Streets 4 team takes its commitment to their fellow fans seriously. Rather than treat the series’ enthusiasts as some abstract idea—or worse, to remain aloof and adversarial the way some developers do—Dotemu pays careful attention to fan feedback and places great value in the ongoing conversation they maintain with the community, even seeking hands-on feedback. “The Streets of Rage community was of great help,” says Asensio. “We talked a lot with fans, and with each hands-on session, they made very [helpful] comments.”

Ultimately, the team recognizes in working on Streets 4, they’ve been handed the task of continuing a legacy that stretches back three decades. While they don’t want to simply churn out a tired rehash of the games Sega and Ancient created so many years ago, they also know they can’t afford to stray too far from the principles and mechanics that turned them into Streets fans themselves. So while Streets 4 features a wildly different visual style than the older games, the developers are confident that underneath the new imagery fans will still find the same familiar core of fluid brawling and cooperative play that defined the Genesis originals.

“After more than 25 years, I think it was better to be too close to the original than too modern,” says Lagarigue. “It was not just a case of bringing back the characters or the story; it was very important to bring back the feeling you had when playing the originals. So we started with something very similar to the originals, but with the new art style, and we tried to improve from that—mainly the things that we thought were frustrating or hard to understand. And we added new things that did not change what we identified as the core of the franchise.”

“It’s a really thin line to walk,” adds Fiquet. “These games were so many things to so many players. We tried to propose something different when modernizing the designs, but at the same time to stay close to the feeling of the original visuals, story, and mood.”

Streets of Rage 4 is available for open preorder from Limited Run Games until one week after the digital version of the game launches (actual date TBA) | PlayStation 4 Standard Edition | Switch Standard Edition | PlayStation 4 Classic Edition | Switch Classic Edition

March 25, 2020