When brawling through Wood Oak City’s prison and police station, the level’s end comes in the commissioners office. In anger, the corrupt leader smashes his desk, revealing a hidden briefcase full of cash. Things changed for Streets of Rage.
The series began with Axel, Adam, Blaze – all detectives – fighting against the criminally-infested, rotting metropolis. In the first sequel, the same, but things were brighter, richer, restored to an extent. The third game, still more intact urbanity. Slowly, the crime syndicate relented.
Intervening years (26 of them) let the criminal underworld simmer, unchecked. Wood Oak reverts to a city in disrepair. Cracked streets, dirty facades, trashy sidewalks. That’s nostalgia calling; the genre origin’s stem from New York’s skyrocketing murder rate circa the 1980s. The feeling returns, still seedy, and now syndicate music controls the population. Streets of Rage 4 flash forwards to the ’90s when Marilyn Manson was going to turn kids into devil worshipers, or maybe it is the ’80s when hair bands were suspected of doing the same.
In Streets of Rage, an attack called a police car – the passenger launched a napalm rocket to quell the crowd. That wasn’t included in any sequels, suggesting a distance between Axel and the department. Streets of Rage 4 doesn’t hide that – not only with the commissioner’s bribe, but actively fighting the police. Axel looks like he’s come from an unending grunge concert, clothing in tatters and longer hair, every bit the tired hero. Everything he (and his team) fought for is now undone; he walks with an angry, determined stride. Along with him, the kids of those he once fought alongside, generations joined to fight systemic hate, disparity, and inequality.
Yet, there’s a certain class in this often fantastical story, refined for the now, and exuding a growing social disenfranchisement with law enforcement. Story beats carry frustrated attitudes between their action cinema (even superhero) chaos, wondering aloud how no one else sees the underlying issues that led to Wood Oak’s fall. Streets of Rage returned because because the dynamics it held aloft became perverted. Now, it makes right.