The place: New York city. The time: somewhere in the 1980s. Crime was on the rise. The city was in turmoil and facing financial oblivion. Times Square was filled with porno cinemas and hookers; Taxi Driver, now four years old, was starting to look like a documentary. Worst of all, Donald Trump used tax loopholes to buy a load of Manhattan real estate at bargain basement prices.
So if you grew up in the cocaine decade, you grew up thinking of New York as a lawless, tag-covered, punk infested crime hole. Video games were quick to jump on this aesthetic: garbage-littered streets, Mohicans, knife crime, burning trash barrels and sadistic, promiscuous women.
Wither our saviour?
Well… have you heard of the Guardian Angels? They were a ‘social concern’ group formed in 1979, to protect so-called law-abiding citizens against escalating levels of violence on the subway. Video games ate this proto-fascist vigilantism up, and stuff like River City Ransom (Kunio-kun), Double Dragon and Vigilante stuffed this ripe backdrop into brawlers, with a heroic male protagonist striding into town like a white knight (emphasis on white) to win the war on drugs and undesirables.
Walking into a frightening maze of back alleys, you’re a Galahad in Levi’s armour; Gary Cooper for the MTV generation. As was the style at the time, the only defence against the moral lassitude of the young and ethnically diverse was a punch to the mush and a kick in the nethers.
In the sub genre of the scrolling beat him up, it was always you against the world. Might making right. And most of the people you were fighting and righting were white kids with Mohawks (coded as drug users) and anyone with a skin colour a shade of mocha and above (coded as thugs, murderers, rapists). These weren’t the trustworthy Boomers, with their Don Draper suits, picket fences, legal amphetamine use, white collar crime and a fervent reverence for the almighty dollar; these were the druggie wastrels who had to be cleaned up like so much garbage.
There’s nothing quite like having the ethical carte blanche to boot somebody in the jewels but, even though SoR4 is a Delorean ride back to an era of simplistic moral and societal divisions, it neither revels in the milieu – turning it into exploitation gaming – nor fully elevates it to campy melodrama. Played perversely straight, there are judicious but subtle clean-ups of the more unpalatable sprites from the early Nineties, for sure, and it’s nice to see that the female characters from the originals aren’t as objectified in provocative clobber. Blaze herself retains her tight-top-and-mini-skirt combo, but the new art style negates a lot of the boobs ‘n’ buns, male gaze-ness of it all.
Developers Guard Crush Games couldn’t get rid of the lurid sexism completely, of course. But a lot of the new design choices like the biker gang (Caramel, Honey, etc) and new boss Estele have wildly different proportions from each other, and aren’t just reduced to ambulatory provocateurs. There are some women characters who still put the sexy clobber on, but they’re few and far between, imports from the original game, and contextualised a bit better here; very stylized.
I’m not sure where the whole racism thing stands within SoR4. I can say there’s a decent ethnic mix within the ranks of both goodies and baddies… with the exception of the police, who are pretty much all white. Read into that what you will. There are some cliched-looking goons, but it’s not like you’re just whitey constantly beating the black man into the ground. The optics of which would be pretty terrible in space year 2020.
Pulling a series like this back out of history, you’ve got to pick an era that you’re aiming for, mechanically speaking. In terms of gameplay sophistication, what they’ve done here is plant it just prior to the revelatory gameplay of 1996’s Guardian Heroes, with its combo inputs similar to Street Fighter II. That’s not to say SoR4 doesn’t innovate though. They’ve improved sight lines, reduced stun lock situations and prevented off-screen unblockables – all of which are very welcome changes.
Despite the original games ripping-off of Final Fight’s chunky visuals, right down to Axel being a Home Bargains Cody, this fourth entry has a unique appearance. Some people dislike it but I’m in the camp of being pleasantly impressed. It’s very Golden Age comic book in patina, hand drawn, with a Halftone style creeping in at the edges. Funnily enough, that makes it look more like Comix Zone than it does SoR 2 or 3.
You’ll notice a little bit of that DOOM 2016 thing going on when waist-deep in villain-pounding antics; constant attack being the best defence. Without a block button you’re like an exposed nerve out there, but there are manoeuvres and a range of attacks that act as pauses or breathers. In DOOM those would be the glory kills; in this game It’s defensive supers, and the ability to turn grapples into crowd-evading high vaults.
Pre-built combos, basic zoning and keep-aways are all present and correct, and anyone can get a good blast out of the game utilising the low difficulty settings. But the people who are really into this genre will spend weeks, months, years perfecting their play style, choosing a character that fits them perfectly, working out all the timings, how long wind ups last, when to use aerials or switch to chip damage… all that sort of tech tuning is dialled-in.
None of these seemingly innocent pieces of entertainment have a political agenda, but it’s funny you get so much effort put into a new game deliberately using semi-dated play styles. This game’s a labour of love, constructed from the rusty parts of a game style that was leading edge a mere 25 years in the past. It’s like SoR4 came from an alternate 1995 where devs had the power and the technology to really push the genre, but before it moved off in more sophisticated directions.
But hey man, there’s nothing wrong with that. Guard Crush have polished a very particular game from a niche genre to a high sheen, like restoring a classic car. Spray a little graffiti over the top. Add some weathering. Put a shirtless muscle man in the driving seat and a blousy broad in the passenger seat. Mount a Ronald Reagan bobble head on the dash and send it off onto the streets of Brooklyn, or Manhattan, or Harlem, where pimps and junkies congregate, and brace yourself for some neon-lit violence. That’s your Streets of Rage 4.