Streets of Rage 4
The side-scrolling beat 'em up was the genre that made me really fall in love with games. Renegade on the Speccy and Double Dragon in the arcade were two formative games for me. Then came Final Fight and, of course, the Streets Of Rage series on the Mega Drive before the world, including me, turned its attention to 1v1 fighting games with the arrival of Street Fighter 2.
Afters Streets 2, I played a bit of SOR3 and the occasional Capcom side-scroller like Punisher and AVP but for me it was always about those urban, Warriors-inspired environments - lead pipes, graffitid subway trains, denim jackets with torn-off sleeves and end-of-game bosses who brought a gun to a knife fight. A genre that shone brightly between 1986 and 1991 before gamers moved on.
Streets of Rage 4 brings back everything I loved about the side-scrolling beat 'em up, bringing a modern game design sensibility without succumbing to any of the cruft that could potentially distract from the sheer kinetic fun of stun-locking five goons in place with a combo of unblockable punches and kicks. No XP, no skill-trees, no parrying. Just deal as much damage as you can before turning to face the next threat, mixing things up for the sheer fun of it.
But SOR4 is more tactical than I ever remember the genre being. I guess it was always about crowd-management, I just never realised how much skill was involved in knowing when to abandon a combo, or when to finish up a grapple by throwing your victim into his colleagues. I finished the game on the toughest setting at the weekend, and it felt like a 2D Dead Rising. Every split-second counts as you try to clear a path to the chicken-shaped health re-up, desperately manoeuvring yourself closer as you try to prevent your life-bar from reaching zero. Mania difficulty level brought back memories of Halo on Legendary. Very tough, but intensely rewarding. Bite-sized sections that play out differently with every attempt.
SOR4 introduces some new features that add significant depth and immediacy, most notably the ability to use the edge of the screen to bounce and juggle enemies, racking up obscene damage and keeping the game flowing. Weapons are a lifesaver in some instances and a bind in others. They're not always the best choice for dealing with crowds, but you sure as hell better stop the black-shirted Barney cop from picking up his taser and using it against you, and if you see Galcia pick up a knife, the next few seconds become about disarming him before he rushes you.
Every game mode works in its own way. There's the standard Story mode for working through the 12 stages one at a time with the allotted lives, and Arcade mode for trying a '1 credit' run. Even Boss Rush is fun. This works better than the traditional setup of having to do the whole game in one go with an arbitrary number of continues, as was the custom in the SNES and MD era. SOR4 is balanced around being played and replayed at home, rather than trying to guzzle coins via cheap bosses and a steep difficulty curve. The whole thing is tough but fair. Even the original SOR games, a series that started on home console but was closely modelled on the Final Fight arcade game, didn't get the balance right in my opinion.
The whole thing is just so smooth, responsive and satisfying. I'll be firing it up for a quick blast for a while to come. It's another success for Game Pass - I've no doubt this would've passed me by otherwise. I didn't know how much I missed the genre until I played this.