At the risk of sounding a bit hyperbolic, 2020 was not a fantastic year, and we all had to find ways to cope with having to severely limit our outside interactions. Luckily for me I had my old friends, video games, to help, and 2020 had several excellent titles to dig into. While most of my time went into Final Fantasy VII REMAKE, my second most played title was easily Streets of Rage 4, a new entry into Sega’s long-dormant beat ‘em up franchise.
This probably isn’t a surprise given my love for fighting games, but I’m a really big fan of beat ‘em up games. This isn’t just nostalgia talking either – as the beat ‘em up has evolved into far more sophisticated games like Devil May Cry V and Persona 5 Strikers, I think it is consistently one of the most fascinating genres of action games. When I play games I tackle it from a problem-solving perspective, and beat ‘em ups throw one problem after another at you, forcing you not only to be reactive, but proactive in what strategies you pursue on a screen-to-screen basis, all within a fairly rapid pace. At its best, there’s a sheer kinetic thrill when executing your gameplan to clear out swaths of enemies that is simply unmatched.
To that end, SOR4 is as close to perfection one can achieve in the genre. This isn’t grading on a curve – many would consider the series’ second iteration to be amongst the pinnacle of not just the genre, but that generation of games. Just coming close to SOR2 would be a high bar, but SOR4 surpasses it in my opinion. Across 5 (now 6) difficulty levels and 12 stages, developers Lizard Cube and Guard Crush crafted a game that walks the fine line of servicing nostalgia while making its own mark on the genre.
I’m probably in the minority with my vast praise, but I’m in an even smaller minority when it comes to one of the game’s more divisive decisions. The last SOR game, 3, added a lot of new universal mechanics, most notable of all extreme mobility; every character could run and perform a vertical dodge that allowed them to position and blitz across the screen, as well as perform a no-penalty special attack using a new rechargeable meter. Dashing and dash attacks had been around since Capcom’s Captain Commando in 1991, so SOR3 was arguably late in adding these kinds of mechanics. The game’s reception is split due to an absurdly difficult USA port and some of its stranger design choices, but most agree that the enhanced mobility, priorly restricted to one character, was a massive net positive.
SOR4 largely abandoned those mechanics.
Suffice it to say, there was definitely a lot of caterwauling over SOR4 going back to SOR2-level mobility and locking extended dashing/running to only a few characters (Cherry and Adam). A lot of people chalked up the game’s reasonably tough difficulty to feeling like they couldn’t move out of the way of attacks, and more generally that they felt limited by the game not allowing faster mobility for its entire cast. I’m not here to say that this is an invalid opinion, or even that there isn’t merit to the opinion at all – far from it. Instead, I would argue that the mobility is the way it is because the game was built around its extensive ranking system, which contributes to why it is so satisfying to dig into again and again, even after dozens of playthroughs. With it, SOR4 becomes a truly modern beat ‘em up, and not just a nostalgia bait from the past.
Most beat ‘em up games in the 90’s had a points system that was necessary to raise so one could get a free man, but also rank high when the ranking boards flashed after either a game over or a finished run. This is decently fun and a fun category to shoot for in a world record, but there is a way to optimize the max amount of points in a run that rarely changes once figured out. By contrast, some games choose to rank you after every level, with the ranking changing depending on how many points you got, which is contributed to not just by the raw count but by external factors that can give you bonuses. In my opinion, this is much preferred – the sheer amount of options and optimizing one can do in order to hit a flat score in order to get a high rank are near endless. Beat ‘em ups like Devil May Cry and even adventure games like Sonic Adventure 2 employ a ranking system like this, which can push and pull the player into completing levels not just faster, but more precisely, using all the techniques and mechanics a game has in order to push it past the red line and get that A/S ranking that is so desired. SOR4 taps into this same level of creativity.
In order to get an S ranking, the highest possible rank, in a SOR4 stage, the player has to pass a minimum threshold for points, with bonuses given at the end of the stage for how quickly the level was beaten, how much life and men you had remaining, if you took any hits during the level, and how many “Stars,” or super moves, you have left. Points are earned through attacking, obviously, as well as consuming health items (bonus if you have full health) and knocking enemies into stage hazards. The best way to earn points, however, lies in the game’s combo counter, which is ingeniously designed to maximize resourceful, smart play rather than optimizing a single strategy.
SOR4’s combo counter starts with any attack and is continued until the player is either hit or enough time passes between attacks that the counter expires. If you are hit during a combo counter, you do not earn any of the potential points, although if you are hit while the counter is flashing then you still get the points. What does mobility have to do with that, you may ask? Right away, there is an emphasis on not getting hit, which applies to more than just simply attacking before you are attacked – positioning and using attacks that grant you invulnerability, which typically involves sacrificing life, are just as important. Any life that is taken as a result of doing an invulnerable special move can be regained, and there are moves that make your character invincible, like throw animations and neutral jumps. Working around the fairly limited walk speed you have with the tools given to you is a constant process that demands maximum attention and creativity from the player. Not only is positioning crucial to avoid getting hit, it’s also critically important to position yourself towards getting to the next screen and keeping the combo counter going as long as possible. Doing a jumpkick or special move into a single enemy might not get the combo counter going off the charts, but it will keep it alive and can buy you some time to get yourself off to a corner so you can’t get hit from behind and can quickly advance the screen once all enemies are beaten. Not being able to roll or run away from enemies coming up behind forces the player to always be aware of the techniques they can do to avoid that and the risks inherent in pursuing those techniques. It’s always flowing and changing, and it makes almost every playthrough or screen a completely different experience.
You can’t really just cheat the system either. The text of the combo counter changes colors not based on how many hits are achieved, but how much damage is done to enemies. This in turn affects the points you get when the combo is finished, ensuring that points are rewarded for engaging every enemy. The points given by the combo counter has a hard out at 3800 damage (or 31,876 points) and the points you get from damage can’t exceed a character’s life bar; juggling a dead enemy to get the counter up can look cool, but it won’t actually get you any more points.
Even with Floyd, whose mobility is more like a Panzer Tank than a human, it’s possible to get a ton of points and a high combo counter with him by making the right moves and paying attention to where you are on the screen, the enemies’ position, and how much time you have left to continue the counter. From my Hard S-ranked playthrough of stage 6, Chinatown:
The obvious rejoinder to all this is this could all still be possible in a game where every character was totally cracked out and could move across the screen rapidly. Indeed, Cherry, who can run, and Adam, who can dash, are in this game and prove that talking point true. What that misses is not only that both characters are designed with that enhanced mobility checked by other, unique weaknesses (combo ability/laggier recovery), but also that it wouldn’t add anything to the game if you had more mobility.
Think about it: as Axel you can now run and roll vertically. Other than the novelty of being able to run through a stage, what benefit does this give to the game that we have now? It would be easier to keep the combo counter going, it might make getting around some enemies easier, getting closer after combos are finished, etc. but as far as being a meaningful addition to the game, what’s there? In fact, making it so it would be easier to keep the combo counter going between enemies and screens would lose the really interesting metagame of having to tackle screens in ways that would keep that going in spite of your walk speed. Everyone likes to move faster, that’s a given in almost any game, but I again have to wonder if it’s not just that natural desire overriding any real cohesive thought given to why they want it. I’m all for games having easier settings and good movement, but I draw the line at intentionally taking pieces of a game out just to tack on something that arguably makes it worse and less mechanically interesting
Taste is obviously a very real thing; some people are just going to find the deliberate pace of SOR4 slow and boring in contrast to most other modern action games which are far more visceral. And that’s totally okay! But in a general games discourse where games are routinely mocked for being nostalgia bait without any substance, SOR4 goes old school in its mobility for reasons that are very clearly communicated through the gameplay and mechanics via a new sub-system to the franchise that brings loads of depth. Chasing the combo counter, getting the S rank, this is the ultimate goal of the game that will last way beyond one playthrough. Being able to complete it as fast as possible is great, and the game feels, sounds (Oh my God, does it sound) and looks as slick as most other AAA action games out there, but I think the lasting legacy of SOR4 will be in how free you are to grab the highest ranking using everything given to you screen to screen as long as you operate within its tightly made framework.