Nominated for Best Action Game at The Game Awards 2020, and a recipient of Famitsu’s “Gold” award, Streets of Rage 4 has had a great year. After over a quarter of a century, the long-awaited follow-up to the classic Streets of Rage trilogy was released in April 2020 to critical acclaim. Critics hailed Streets of Rage 4 as a much-needed revitalization of the beat ‘em up genre as well as a welcome return to form for a beloved Sega property. Only the development of this particular installment was not handled by Sega themselves. Rather, a trio of French indie development studios were tasked with updating the series’ formula for a new generation. This partnership between an industry giant and a team of indie developers is the kind of success story that can happen when a company allows creativity and innovation to take priority over closely guarding its intellectual property.
Two of the studios behind Streets of Rage 4, Dotemu and Lizardcube, actually had prior experience working with Sega’s intellectual property. Both studios worked on Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, which is the 2017 remake of a 1989 Sega Master System title named Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap. Soon after the release of the remake, Cyrille Imbert, the CEO and executive producer of Dotemu, felt the time was right to work on a more ambitious idea: a brand new installment in the esteemed Streets of Rage series. He first raised the idea with Ben Fiquet, the CEO and art director at Lizardcube, and soon after they began to conceptualize a pitch for this major undertaking. Once they finalized it, Imbert went to Tokyo and presented the pitch in front of Sega. The pitch contained little more than a handful of Ben Fiquet’s art pieces and the stated goal of creating not a remake, but a genuine sequel to the original trilogy. Sega eventually gave the studios the final seal of approval for the project, and much like with Wonder Boy, Dotemu was allowed to publish the game instead of Sega. In fact, other than some tips and feedback, Sega would have little involvement in the game’s development, giving the developers near-complete freedom to shape the project how they wanted.
Development soon began for Streets of Rage 4, with the goal being to stay as faithful to the Streets of Rage formula as possible while still offering a unique modern spin. Dotemu and Lizardcube shared development with a third French studio, Guard Crush Games, who modified the engine they used for their previous beat ‘em up project, Streets of Fury, and used it for Streets of Rage 4’s gameplay system. The developers closely analyzed the frame data of the original games so that each basic action in Streets of Rage 4 closely emulates the look and feel of the equivalent action in the old titles. Strides were taken to preserve the difficulty of the original titles while still providing modern accessibility features, such as a save system. The developers sought feedback from fans of the original games, including one of the world’s best Streets of Rage players, Anthopants, and rebalanced the game multiple times based on their counsel. Fiquet wanted the game to adopt a hand-drawn visual style that evoked the fluidity seen in games like Street Fighter III and Garou: Mark of the Wolves. In the final game, around 1,000 frames of animation were designed for each of the five main playable characters, and between 300 and 400 frames were created for each enemy type.
Special attention was given to the game’s soundtrack. Some of the original trilogy’s most iconic elements were the soundtracks, created by composers Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima to emulate the kind of music heard in a 1990s nightclub. The soundtracks left a major mark on gaming culture, and even famous artists like Just Blaze and Flying Lotus were influenced by them. This legacy pressured the Streets of Rage 4 developers to ensure that the new soundtrack was on par with the old ones. Imbert decided to let composer Olivier Deriviere oversee the soundtrack while allowing several guest composers, including Koshiro and Kawashima, to contribute. The majority of the songs used for the main stages were handled by Deriviere, while the boss themes were left up to the guest composers to lend each boss its own musical identity. Initially, the developers wanted static, looping tracks for each stage, but Deriviere decided to craft stage themes that would gradually evolve as the player progressed through each level.
Once Streets of Rage 4 finally released, it quickly became a critical and commercial success. The game sold over 1.5 million units by the first half of September 2020, which is significant considering how niche beat ‘em ups have become in recent years. Both critics and fans alike commended the title for its nuanced combat system, striking visual style, and eclectic soundtrack. Fans have expressed interest in the soundtrack potentially becoming available for purchase on iTunes or another music app. Soon after the game’s launch, fans posted numerous combo videos on Youtube that demonstrate just how intricate the game’s combat system really is. The game was even nominated for Best Action Game at The Game Awards 2020, although it did lose to the breakout indie title Hades. The developers have continued to support the game ever since its launch; in September 2020 they released a major balancing patch that adjusted numerous gameplay mechanics pertaining to characters, stages, enemies, and bosses, and future DLC is currently being planned.
In the end, Sega’s decision to let passionate indie developers create the latest Streets of Rage game paid dividends. It is easy to understand why many gaming companies are reluctant to let anyone other than their internal development teams work on their intellectual property. But Streets of Rage 4 proves it is more than possible to form working relationships with indie developers that will lead to financially and critically successful products. Streets of Rage 4 stands out as one of the big indie success stories of 2020, and it bodes well for future revival projects of this kind.
Written by Daniel Pinheiro