Streets Of Rage 4 and the battle for more fun

Are video games becoming too serious for their own good?

I’ll be honest: I didn’t expect to be sitting here in 2020 writing about how I’m enjoying a Streets Of Rage game so much. There is, of course, much about the present reality of the modern world I did not expect. The inability to buy eggs, for instance. Or to get a haircut (I live in fear that the very instant that UK lockdown measures are eased I will find myself sighted within the target of a sniper, shot through the head and my body preserved as evidence of Bigfoot). Or spending most of my nights sat at my laptop inputting the words ‘what is the apocalypse like, then?’ into Google. Perhaps there’s some correlation here. After all, the world’s present state of being has seen me retreat into nostalgia in a variety of other ways.

The other day an Amazon package arrived for me. I opened it up, only to be amazed that the contents were three boxes of chocolate chip-flavoured Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts I’d seemingly ordered during a particularly vulnerable moment. I am just two months shy of turning 40. I haven’t eaten Pop-Tarts in at least 25 years.

Streets Of Rage 4 fight
Streets Of Rage 4. Credit: Lizardcube

My nostalgia kick hasn’t just led me to Streets Of Rage 4, a flashy if faithful update of the early ’90s classic sidescrolling beat ’em up – new and free for Xbox Game Pass members right now, FYI. The majority of games I’ve been playing under lockdown have been simple, childish and more often than not, retro. Perhaps there’s some correlation – rise, write, eat, write, sleep has become the standard format of my daily existence. Maybe, if there’s the faintest slither of gas left in the tank, I’ll then fall asleep during an episode of Netflix’s excellent new animated series The Midnight Gospel.

Is my brain craving simpler things? Am I yearning for simpler times? Is the fear and uncertainty of life outside my window making me retreat to the safest place I know – my childhood?

Two Point Hospital overview
Two Point Hospital. Credit: Two Point Studios

I wonder. Recently I’ve found myself obsessed with Sega’s Two Point Hospital, an isometric hospital management simulator released in 2018, which is essentially 1997’s Theme Hospital in all but name (it comes as no surprise to learn that former Bullfrog stalwarts Mark Webley and Gary Carr, two students of the great Peter Molineux, worked on the new game).

TPH is not a great game, by any means. It’s also not a bad game at all. What it is, though, is an extremely satisfying one. Building new hospital wards and directing janitors to go clean up sick couldn’t feel more in sync with my teenage playing habits if it were punctuated by my mum shouting me for dinner (fish fingers and chips, please – again, I can’t stomach anything more complicated).

I had a list of games I wanted to try to break the back of during this strange period of inertia. Top of the list was Death Stranding, Hideo Kojima’s much-discussed, very innovative, hugely divisive action-adventure from late last year. I bought it on release – the conversation was too loud and too diverse in its flurry of opinion for me not to want to make up my own mind. I’m not sure I made it more than two hours in. It being a Kojima joint – he of the brilliant Metal Gear Solid series – it’s full of great ideas.

You play a courier – the voice and image capture of The Walking Dead’s perennially skulking Norman Reedus – who is tasked with making and receiving deliveries across discombobulated locations dotted across a craggy landscape in a new dystopian world.

Death Stranding fight
Death Stranding. Credit: Kojima Productions

Break it down to its essence and the game is essentially a balance simulator. How efficiently you load your cargo upon your back at the start of each mission dictates how well you’ll be able to compete with gravity and ascend cliff faces and steep drops in your quest to deliver your load. It’s a nice idea. I think, perhaps, a genuinely new one – and how often can you say that? But a fun one? Hmmm.

I can’t think of any game I’ve ever played with more deliberately obtuse loadout screens. With more pointless options offered forth. Whereupon I stare at the game’s inventory options with such bewilderment. I just can’t be bothered. Even during a time where humanity has downed tools en masse and I have all the time in the world, I just can’t bring myself to care. Where’s the fun?

Remember that word. Fun. It’s crucial to this whole argument.

There’s been a lot of Mario Kart going on ’round these parts these last two months. I’ll play with my wife at lunch and it’s a whole load of – yup – fun and spluttered out bits of baked potato. My wife makes for an interesting, if infuriating in the possession of a red shell, case study. For her, video games ended with the death of the GameCube and the sixth generation of consoles. Life got in the way. Life got too busy. Important things started happening. She couldn’t make the commitment to games that I could. My wife will sometimes come in the living room when I’m playing some uber dense, turn-based RPG and look at the wordy, number-heavy screen a bit like she’s looking at some newly classified breed of water vole.

She hasn’t done that once while I’ve been hooked on Streets Of Rage 4.

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