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Streets of Rage 4: the return of the beat 'em up | Games

In the Netflix animated series Hi Score Girl, a romantic comedy set in early-90s Japan, Haruo Yaguchi, a low-achieving high-school loner is whiling away his time in the local video game arcades when he meets Akira Ono, a popular wunderkind from a wealthy family. Ono, it turns out, is an unusually talented player of coin-operated games. She nightly sneaks away from home in order to tap her initials on to various leaderboards. As he witnesses Ono’s dazzling prowess, Yaguchi’s envy soon turns to respect then, finally, obsession.

A tale of love seeded through rivalry, and frustrated by class and status, Hi Score Girl – currently in its second season – also charts, in precise detail, changes in taste and fortune within the popular arcade game scene of the era. As the series progresses we see the industry lose ground to home consoles and, as a result, entire genres vanish. The scrolling beat ’em up, a style of video game most resembling comic-book heroics, where players biff ! and kapow! their way through packs of street thugs, was one such casualty. Popularised by 1989’s Final Fight (the game that first awakens Yaguchi to Ono’s skill) the genre, once one of the most popular styles of video game, has long been defunct.

Enter Streets of Rage 4, a sequel to perhaps the best-loved beat ’em up series, one that has lain dormant for 26 years. As with its 90s predecessors, in Streets of Rage 4 you return to a city beset by civil unrest and police brutality – something akin to the insalubrious districts of 1980s New York City. You punch, kick and jump your way through the unwashed streets, fighting off a rogues’ gallery of attackers en route to a showdown with the area’s crime boss. The action is exaggerated and stylised: your health is restored by cooked chickens punched from trash cans, and apples booted from phone booths. And while your palette of moves is repetitive and restricted (part of the reason these games fell from fashion), this modern interpretation adds sufficient complexity and capacity for showboating to maintain interest.

Watch a trailer for Streets of Rage 4

The Streets of Rage series is as celebrated for its soundtracks as its on-screen action. Composer Yuzo Koshiro’s scores have influenced grime, dubstep and electronica artists from Labrinth to Childish Gambino. Koshiro, accompanied by his contemporaries, including Olivier Deriviere and Yoko Shimomura, returns to Streets of Rage 4, not only with an all-new soundtrack, but also the option to switch, at any time, to his original scores. It’s a generous option reflecting the level of care that has been lavished on this passion project. The game’s artists, from Paris-based developer Lizardcube, have also painstakingly transposed every pixel and animation frame from the source material to ensure that the original’s feel has been maintained. Almost all characters from the older games can be unlocked and used in their original pixelated form, alongside today’s pristine, cartoonish versions.

Like Lizardcube’s previous project, Wonderboy: The Dragon’s Trap, this game works both as a celebration of a vintage style and a contemporary reinterpretation. It would be too much to expect it to revive a dead genre – one whose passing was, principally, the result of the video game’s migration from the arcade, where short bursts of play did not expose its relative flimsiness, into the home – but as a joyous celebration of a style of game whose thrills are visceral, not cerebral, it’s a triumph.

If you like Streets of Rage, try..

The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa

The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa

The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa
(yeo; Circle Entertainment; PC and Nintendo Switch)

The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa (2018) opens in much the same way as any other street-brawling beat ’em up: your character trades blows with local thugs, this time on a suburban train. Soon enough, however, the game reveals unexpected tonal qualities. You play as Ringo, leader of a school gang who, a few months before his final exams, realises he is at a crossroads in his life. With rock-bottom grades, he must choose whether to continue truanting around town with his deadbeat friends or apply himself in a last-ditch attempt to alter his life’s grim trajectory. Designed by a literary-minded Russian programmer who claims to have grown up in similarly violent circumstances, the game achieves a singular atmosphere in its exploration of adolescence, loneliness and the loss that accompanies all choice. Notable, too, for having a button dedicated to lighting and flicking cigarettes.

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