Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Streets of Rage / Bare Knuckle (ベア・ナックル Bea Nakkuru) beat ‘em up video game series from SEGA in the 90’s returns with flying colors with Streets of Rage 4. Released worldwide on April 30th by French developers Dotemu and Lizardcube and Canadian developer Guard Crush Games, and published by Dotemu, Streets of Rage 4 is a solid return to form for the series that has already sold over 100,000 copies on Steam alone.

This game is short but highly replayable — just like any other classic beat ‘em up — and you can play it with up to four players, which is a first for the series. However, you can only play with up to two players online, with the three and four player options reserved for local play only, which is a strange choice for a game released in 2020, but it isn’t an issue thanks to features like Steam’s Remote Play (however, if you buy it from GOG.com, there is no online multiplayer option period). That feature, by the way, makes the 100,000 copies sold on Steam even more of an achievement, since Remote Play allows one player with the game to share it with three friends who didn’t buy it.

The game offers five difficulty settings, four of which are unlocked at the start, with the last and hardest one being unlocked after clearing the game once. Additionally, the various modes it offers are: Story, the default campaign mode which lets you play through all 12 stages with checkpoints in between; Arcade, which is unlocked by clearing the game once and which expects you to play through all 12 stages in one sitting; Boss Rush, which is unlocked by clearing the game once; Stage Select, so you can go after some of the secrets in certain stages; and Battle, which lets you battle your friends in an arena.

The game features three classic playable characters from the original trilogy — Axel Stone, Blaze Fielding, and Adam Hunter — and two new playable characters — Cherry Hunter and Floyd Iraia. Axel is now an older, bearded man who is just as fiery as ever, while Blaze has retained her youthful and erotic appearance and Adam is a muscle-bound stud. Cherry, who is Adam’s daughter, is a young budding guitarist with flair in her step. Floyd is a hulking construction worker gone cyborg after losing his arms in an accident thanks to Dr. Zan from Rage 3.

All five characters have a unique play style to them. Players familiar with the series will instantly find Axel and Blaze intuitive to play, as their play styles have been maintained from the original trilogy. Axel has versatile grapple moves and Blaze has powerful aerial moves. Adam is a powerhouse with a dash move allowing players to dominate the screen. Cherry has a sprint move and is the fastest character in the group, similar to Skate in Rage 2. Floyd has good grapple and crowd control moves. The game includes fighting tips which explains these mechanics in greater detail.

There are also 12 retro characters to unlock. These characters use the original sprites from the original trilogy and are designed to play just like them. Reports from players say these characters are overpowered, which is fine as they exist as unlockables for players to just have fun with.

Each character has three special moves which can be triggered by pressing the special move button and holding down different directional inputs. This time, activating a special move doesn’t simply drain your health: instead, a portion of your health turns green. This green portion of health can be lost by getting hit by an enemy once, or it can be recovered over time by beating up enemies. This makes using special moves still risky, but a lot more forgiving.

However, the game is far from forgiving overall. This is one of the hardest, if not the hardest entry in the series, if you play on Hardest or higher. Veterans of the series will be able to manage Story but will have a hard time getting through Arcade, while newcomers will want to play on Easy or Normal difficulty to start unless they feel like challenging themselves. Arcade on the Mania difficulty setting is a blast, and is extremely difficult, but there is one thing the avid gamer from the arcade era should note: between stages, your health will be restored to full, and in multiplayer, when a player runs out of lives and dies, they will return with an extra life at the start of the following stage. This makes Arcade not a perfectly faithful arcade mode, but it isn’t a significant detriment to the game since it is still very difficult.

The game features fully hand-drawn animation for all characters and baddies, recognizable enemy types from the previous games, mid-stage bosses and end-stage bosses, and a soundtrack composed by Yuzo Koshiro, Motohiro Kawashima, Yoko Shimomura, Keiji Yamagishi, Harumi Fujita, and Olivier Derivière, making the vibe of this game familiar but also fresh.

Overall, this is an excellent beat ‘em up that exceeds expectations in 2020 and promotes core values from arcades and home consoles in the 90’s.

Streets of Rage 4 is available on Steam, GOG.com, Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch.