SEATTLE—PAX West has overtaken Seattle's downtown convention center with roughly 4,000 new and in-development games across its giant expo halls. Yet somehow, it's the kind of ragtag show where titans like Spider-Man, Artifact, and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate can stand toe-to-toe with promising indies like Due Process and Risk of Rain 2.
But before we post our usual best-of-the-best PAX wrap-up, we got a day-one opportunity to try two games that are quite unusual owing to their incredibly early status, their behind-closed-doors nature, and their "holy cow, these exist?" flavor: Streets of Rage 4 and Windjammers 2.
Axel to grind
Yes, the two PAX West games with arguably the biggest time gaps between sequels—24 years for both, if you're counting—shared a press-only hotel suite mere blocks away from the PAX show floor. Both games will be published by the French publisher DotEmu, and both are clearly not ready for public consumption, thanks to missing assets and incomplete polish.
But both already have us excited, particularly the gorgeous Streets of Rage 4.
Some of SoR4's excitement is thanks to Lizardcube, the French studio largely responsible for a 2016 remake of Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap. That Sega Master System classic received a jaw-dropping visual, audio, and mechanical overhaul, all while operating on top of the game's original code base, and it proved Lizardcube's chops at both protecting and spit-shining a classic series' pedigree.
That project's gestation period, which required negotiating with Sega for the game's rights, apparently went so well that it led to a meeting in early 2017. That's when Lizardcube and DotEmu had one (and only one) game to pitch as a follow-up: a brand-new Streets of Rage game, and not a sequel.
The reason being, DotEmu's programming team had designs on pushing the game's mechanics just far enough into the modern era to require more than a "remaster" of an existing game. SoR4 mechanically revolves around the series' '90s beat-'em-up basics: a jump button, a melee button (which automatically chains a flashy punch-and-kick combo when tapped repeatedly), a "special" attack button, and combat that sticks to a horizontal axis.
But two seemingly tiny tweaks change this sequel's combat: the ability to juggle foes as they bounce back from hits' impact, particularly against a wall, and the ability to recoup any health lost when using a special attack. The original SoR games made players trade health for a special attack, but any SoR4 fighter who can pull off a clean, uninterrupted melee combo after doling out a special will get that lost chunk of health back.
These combine to give your characters more control over waves of baddies, and in kind, SoR4 will push more intense foes for you to contend with. This is a clever way to scale the combat while still making it tough to pull off 1CC game completions, we reckon.
The late-2017 pitch was little more than concept art, but it was enough to get a "go ahead with your vision" thumbs-up from the Sega powers that be, DotEmu says. The above gallery shows off levels we got to fight in during our behind-closed-doors demo, including a dimly lit street and an office bathed in sunset light. To get a sense of the fluid, clean animation, you'll need to click that preview video above, which only teases the tantalizing combat we got to button-mash through for roughly 15 minutes.
Enemy AI and level designs were all solid thus far, but this is clearly an early build. We saw nothing in the way of real boss encounters; we got unclear answers about whether to expect more than the two announced characters thus far (Alex and Blaze); and placeholder sounds were used across the board, with all sound effects and tunes apparently lifted from Streets of Rage 2.
So, wait: what is DotEmu going to do about music for a series famous for its Genesis-pushing, club-worthy tunes? The publisher tells Ars that it'll have "more to announce" on the soundtrack front in the future, which seems to imply some heavyweight contributor to come—if not original composer/engineer Yuzo Koshiro himself. (Koshiro still makes electronic music to this day, and considering that the original SoR games launched with his name on the cover—a rarity in that era, let alone today—his status on this project is a significant question mark.)
We have less to report about Windjammers 2 beyond the fact that we're stunned it exists.
Windjammers, a cult classic for the Neo Geo, returned to modern systems last year via DotEmu's pixel-perfect port of the 1994 original. That port came and went with little fanfare, so we had no idea if the port sold all that much. But DotEmu insists that the port's launch set this sequel's production into motion almost immediately.
DotEmu describes this game as "the sequel the original dev team would have made in the '90s." Meaning, DotEmu's game should be almost mechanically identical to the original frisbee-meets-dodgeball versus action, only with redrawn artwork and a new "EX move" meter. After enough successful throws, catches, lobs, and counters, a player will be able to toggle a single, ultra-powered special move.
We saw two of these specials in action at PAX West. One drew a giant smoke cloud over our opponent's side of the court, while the other allowed us to draw an exact path for a high-velocity shot before it launched from our hands.
With no music, missing sound effects, and a severe lack of selectable characters, stages, and modes, this game needs way more work from DotEmu. Even with all of those remarkable caveats in mind, Windjammers 2 already feels authentic to the original's lightning-fast arcade action.
We're waiting on DotEmu to announce release estimates and target platforms for both of its 1994 retreads.