Considering how beloved and revered the Streets of Rage series is, it's remarkable that we've had to wait an agonising quarter of a century to get a new instalment in the franchise. That has a lot to do with the once-mainstream belt-scrolling fighter genre falling out of favour since the '90s, but it's equally attributable to the fact that Streets of Rage 2 is widely regarded as the pinnacle of this type of game, which begs the question: why try to improve on perfection? Lizardcube, Dotemu and Guard Crush Games were brave enough to attempt to answer that very same question, and the good news is that they have succeeded brilliantly.

Streets of Rage 4 is a modern-day, HD interpretation of Sega's classic side-scrolling brawler that simultaneously celebrates the history of the series while incorporating some new ideas which make it feel fresh and distinctive. You're tasked with progressing through 12 gritty, urban environments taking down countless hordes of thugs, corrupt police officers and even cyborgs, with each enemy type requiring you to modify your tactics and approach accordingly. Some will dash at you with knives, forcing you to leap over them, while others are skilled at catching you in midair before you have the chance to unleash an aerial attack. Elsewhere, riot police (based on the armoured officers from the first Mega Drive game) have special rechargeable shields which must be broken before you can successfully land a blow. Add to this a selection of boss characters which have their own unique strengths and weaknesses, and you've got a game that tests your brain as well as your brawn.

Built on Guard Crush Games' Streets of Fury game engine, Streets of Rage 4 sticks close to the template laid down by the second acclaimed Mega Drive outing. The ability to run and roll for all characters – introduced in Streets of Rage 3 – has been stripped out (although certain fighters, like Cherry and her father Adam, retain run and dash moves respectively); this feels odd when you consider that games as old as Sega's Golden Axe and Alien Storm included this dash-running mechanic. However, while the controls may feel toned-down to series veterans in one respect, they're massively expanded elsewhere; special attacks can now be performed in mid-air, and while they still deplete some of your health bar when used, you can now reclaim the 'lost' portion by attacking enemies without getting hit. This risk-and-reward mechanic enlivens the gameplay no end, creating a tense and exciting flow that really does reward skilled and dedicated players.

All-new 'super' special attacks – limited by your stock of collectable 'Star' icons – add another layer of depth to proceedings, and it genuinely seems like the selectable fighters present have never felt more powerful and potent. While these flashy moves certainly give the game a degree of visual impact that is pleasing to the eye, it's the basics that truly cement the game's engine. Grappling is as easy as ever, and you can now bounce enemies off the sides of the screen for maximum combo potential (this also avoids one of the most annoying things about side-scrolling fighters – enemies constantly going off the edges of the screen so you can't attack them, but they can hit you). Indeed, Guard Crush has put its combo-heavy engine to good use here, creating a system where it's possible to juggle enemies for prolonged periods of time, chaining together incredibly satisfying attacks which boost your score and look wonderfully flashy to onlookers.

There's an incredible level of attention to detail here, too; you can still prevent yourself from hitting the deck after being thrown, just as you could in the second Streets of Rage, and the developers have looked beyond Sega's franchise when it comes to other points of inspiration. Remember the ability to smash two grappled enemies' heads together in the SNES fighter Batman Returns? Newcomer Floyd can do that here. This team clearly knows its fighting games, and that results in a title that plays brilliantly and boasts considerable depth and nuance.

You begin the game with four available fighters – Axel, Blaze, Cherry and Floyd – but as you work your way through the game's Story mode you'll unlock additional characters. Each and every one looks, feels and plays entirely differently to the others; veteran Axel strikes a good balance between power and speed while the novice Floyd is sluggish and can't jump very high – yet his reach and power are second to none. You're bound to have one you consider to be your favourite, but what's really impressive is the way Streets of Rage 4 encourages you to make full use of all options. In-between stages you can switch characters, and we found that certain levels were better suited to the particular fighting style of a certain character, so experimentation is a must.

The Story mode will take you a few hours to complete, but that's perfectly in keeping with the typical size of one of these games – in fact, it feels much larger in scope than any of its forerunners and arguably covers more ground in terms of locations. While you're limited to a single credit, you can restart from your current stage, which means you only have to focus on beating the current level with your stock of lives. While we've established that Streets of Rage 4's campaign is big for a typical side-scrolling fighter, it might seem a little on the short side for those players who are accustomed to their video games being grand epics which run to 20 or more hours, but there's still plenty to do once the credits roll.

If you're in for a real challenge, you can try the Arcade mode, which tasks you with finishing the entire game on a single credit – a stern trial, but one that's just about possible if you study enemy patterns and focus on using the game's aforementioned 'risk and reward' special attack system wisely. A Boss Rush and Battle mode add even more longevity, but, as was the case with the original three games, it's the multiplayer options which will keep you coming back for more. You can play with a second fighter in co-op using Streets of Rage 4's online mode (friendly fire is turned on by default, so expect some arguments unless you toggle it to off), but if you can convince three other players in your household to join in, local co-op with up to four participants is where the real enjoyment lies.

Streets of Rage 4's intricate hand-drawn visuals may have alienated those few hardcore fans who steadfastly refuse to accept anything other than chunky, 16-bit pixels, but there's no denying that this game looks utterly spectacular. Lizardcube's artists operate at the very top tier of this particular skill set, and have created a cast which is blessed with character, detail and flair. The backgrounds are also wonderfully rendered, and as much as we adore the old-school 2D look (we love the fact that you can unlock pixel-based fighters from the original games, even if they do look rather odd against the modern backdrops), it's hard to argue convincingly that Streets of Rage 4 would have benefitted more from a fully pixel-based graphical style. What's on offer here is infinitely more appealing, but also perfectly in keeping with the look and tone of the original trilogy. We also loved the numerous little details in the backgrounds which call back to previous entries in the franchise.

As any fan of the franchise will tell you, though, visuals aren't everything. Streets of Rage is famous for its pumping soundtrack, and famed series composer Yuzo Koshiro thankfully contributes to the game's stunning soundtrack. Motohiro Kawashima – who also composed songs for the original games – is present and correct too, but the majority of the heavy lifting is done by Olivier Deriviere and a fresh team of artists who are new to the series but have clearly been inspired by its driving electronic beats over the years. The end result is a selection of songs which not only fit the tone of the franchise, but also suit their respective locations down to the ground; equally praise-worthy are the impactful sound effects, which make every punch and kick even more satisfying.

Conclusion

Taking a franchise as treasured as Streets of Rage and updating it was never going to be an easy task, but we can't imagine that any self-respecting fan of the series will be displeased with what has been achieved here. Streets of Rage 4 walks that fine line between paying tribute to its predecessors and forging its own unique path and feels like an evolution and a revolution at the same time. The gameplay is unmistakably faithful to the originals, but the addictive combo-heavy mechanics, gorgeous presentation and robust multiplayer options add a whole new layer of complexity, resulting in a game that fans and newcomers alike will enjoy no end. Let's hope we don't have to wait another 26 years for a sequel.