Welcome to the first Save State of the new year! Hopefully this year will have fewer politicized viral pandemics, glitchy and disappointing games, and no more skunks. The last one is just a personal preference; I have a personal vendetta against Pepe le Pew. The good news is that we’ll be starting the year on a positive note, and I look forward to telling you about some neat games I’ve played over the last couple weeks that you may have overlooked. Without spending too much time, let’s get right to the streets with Streets of Rage 4, released in April of last year.
Streets of Rage 4 is the latest sequel of the Streets of Rage series, releasing a good 16 years after the third entry. Thankfully, this isn’t a Duke Nukem Forever situation where a game has a storied and troubling development period- it’s a solid, tried-and-true scrolling brawler where you control one of four characters (initially, more on that later) and punch, kick, and throw your way to victory. Classic characters Axel and Blaze are joined by two new characters, Cherry and Floyd, and each character has slight differences that make them pretty different to play. Blaze is excellent at extending combos- capable of bouncing enemies off the ground, carrying them to the corner of the screen, and smacking them until their health bars are depleted… if you’re skilled enough. Cherry can sprint like she’s Skate from Streets of Rage 2, giving her movement options not available to the base cast, but with low damage per hit to compensate.
The story in Streets of Rage 4 is basically just window dressing for the real meat and potatoes of the game, but it’s so unobtrusive and delightfully cheesy that it really gives those waves of nostalgia if you had been playing these kinds of games throughout the 90s. The comic book style cut scenes in story mode are vibrant and visually striking- a wonderful mix of smudgy line art and soft-blended colors really brings the cast to life and is, quite frankly, way better than I expected from a retro-reboot so many years after the previous game. The enemies live up to the mid-90s too: Do you want to fight a special forces officer who calls in air strikes mid-combat? How about a snake handler who uses the serpent to spit electricity or fire? That’s present too. A lot of creativity was spent in coming up with interesting enemy designs, and many will require you take advantage of terrain or dropped weapons in order to handle efficiently.
The controls are super simple, which makes the game quite accessible. You have a jump, a basic attack button, a charge attack performed by holding the basic attack, a special attack button, a blitz attack performed by pressing a direction twice and then the basic attack button, and a back attack that you can perform mid combo to interrupt attacks on your rear. The basic attack typically hits between 5-6 times before knocking an enemy down a distance away from you, while your special attack consumes some of your health but deals big damage in one or two hits and gives valuable invulnerability frames. Several of the blitz attacks gives invulnerability as well, among other properties like Blaze’s being capable of picking enemies off the ground so you can continue beating on them. Performing the basic attacks can feel pretty empowering as you go through stages, but eventually you’ll hit a point where you’re performing a mixture of every attack to hit a boss, carry them to the corner, and wail on them until they’re dead without them even being able to perform a single attack (Blaze is extremely good at this, for example). Not only will you feel accomplished for outright mastering the tools available to you, but you’ll gain an extremely high score as well.
By achieving high scores, you’ll unlock a plethora of additional characters, up to and including playables from previous Streets of Rage entries including all of their abilities ported pretty faithfully into the Streets of Rage 4 engine. Skate, Eddie, Dr. Zan, they’re all available if you’re willing to rack up the points to unlock them. As mentioned previously, these unlockable characters maintain a lot of what made them powerful in previous Streets of Rage games so you can look forward to playing the game with an old favorite if you have been a fan of the franchise. As aforementioned, maintaining a high score is critical to unlocking these characters with any reasonable speed, so you’ll need to practice a lot and avoid getting hit so that you preserve your combo counter as long as possible.
Streets of Rage 4 is also pretty challenging, especially while you’re learning the ins and outs. It’s not crazily difficult or anything, but encountering the boss of the 9th stage may leave you a little surprised if you’re not great at recognizing openings and where to position yourself so that you don’t easily get hit by spinning or charging attacks. Up until that stage, I hadn’t even lost a life, so imagine my surprise when I suddenly get a game over because I wasn’t sure how to deal damage and get out safely. On another attempt I was able to sail past the encounter, but that particular encounter is present to teach you that fighting a boss isn’t always about getting off as big of a combo as you can off of one event of hit stun- sometimes you have to pick your moments and react accordingly.
All in all, Streets of Rage is a great, but short, game. There’s 12 stages and truthfully the whole game could be beaten in a couple of hours, and most of the character unlocks could be obtained in a few days’ time. However, with two great soundtracks to enjoy (a regular and a retro one), 2 player online cooperative play or 4 player couch co-op, this can be a great little time waster for you and some friends, especially considering it’s only $25, even more so if you can find it on sale. If you enjoy old school beat ‘em ups, truth be told, Streets of Rage 4 is among the best you could play, so if you’re interested get out there and flex your combo muscles- but don’t flex too hard, and don’t do so in public.
Streets of Rage 4 is an excellent game through which I experienced no major bugs. So what if we talk about a game that is nothing but bugs? No, not glitches, actual bugs. Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling is an RPG styled after Paper Mario- except, you know, the good ones; the first two. Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door was one of my favorite console RPG experiences for many, many years, and Bug Fables captures a lot of its magic with aesthetically pleasing artwork, memorable main characters, and a great turn-based combat system that captures the magic of the Paper Mario series and, much like Goku transforming into Super Saiyan 3, goes even further beyond.
The story of Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling takes place in a location called Bugaria- and the world itself is actually remarkably well designed. Even the basic grassy plains area is dotted with tall grass that shows the diminutive size of the protagonists. Due to the characters being bug-sized, it can be jarring to be subjected to “tall grass area” which then shifts to “desert area,” but after reaching a location in a tall tree you can find a telescope that reveals that the desert area you just previously explored was actually just a child’s sand box in a backyard. Lots of love went into crafting the world of Bug Fables, and the story will have you venture all across it in search of the Everlasting Sapling whose leaves are rumored to grant immortality. The story isn’t what I’d call groundbreaking, but it does have its heartwarming and funny moments, making it worth the investment.
In Bug Fables you wander from place to place throughout the various locales, solving puzzles using the various field skills available to you. Vi, the spunky bee, can use her trusty Beemerang to hit switches or carry party members across gaps they couldn’t otherwise traverse. Kabbu, the trusty beetle-knight, can cut things with his horn, and Leif can freeze water for easy traversal. Each character has different actions they can do in the overworld, similar to games like Wild Arms or Paper Mario.
There’s lots to find while exploring, as well, as you may stumble across bookshelves that have lore books written by the perspectives of the bugs, which can yield insights that are both interesting and hilarious (since, again, they’re explanations of the world from the fleeting worldviews of insects). There are some 108 medals to collect, as well, which function like the badges from early Paper Mario titles. Medals can be freely equipped and unequipped when not in battle, and can give all different kinds of bonuses like extra health, defense, but the interesting ones that give attacks sleep properties or unlock new skills during battle can be an absolute joy to find as they can help you maintain better control over battle.
As far as battle is concerned, you should be somewhat familiar with how it plays out if you’ve played Paper Mario previously. Battles are turn-based, and you select your actions from a menu but can boost your damage if you time commands on-screen properly. Similarly, when an enemy attacks you, you can reduce damage to yourself by timing a button press just before the attack hits. Most special skills will have action commands that will boost the damage or effectiveness of the skill, so some may require you push specific buttons in sequence, another may want you to hold a button and release it at the right time, and another might instruct you to button mash to build up energy. The commands all appear on screen so you’ll always know what action to do for what skill.
The largest departure from Paper Mario comes from you controlling multiple characters instead of just one primary character and a single helper, and the positioning of one character can lead to them getting damaged more by an attack than another character further in the back. Thankfully, you can swap the order your bugs are in during your turns, and can even exchange one character’s turn for another though attacking moves chosen on that turn will be weaker than usual (similar to Radiant Historia in that way, another phenomenal RPG that was spoken of on Save State a few months ago here ). Winning battles will reward you with EP that levels up your party, and upon leveling up you can choose to raise your party’s health, increase the TP you spend for special skills, or boost your medal points so your squad can equip more medals to utilize more flashy abilities.
All in all, Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling is a fantastic love letter to a Nintendo franchise that’s radically changed in the last 13 years. It is a game that, in some ways, actually surpasses some longstanding favorites by incorporating elements of modern game design and marrying those with what people loved from the N64 and Gamecube Paper Mario games. Bug Fables is available on pretty much every platform and is, at the time of this writing, $14 on Steam and $17.49 on Switch (it’s full price on PS4, but that’s still only $25). Being one of the best games in recent memory that I had heard nothing about previously, I hope that anyone who mildly enjoys RPGs with great art styles and turn-based combat will give Bug Fables a chance.
With that, we bring this week’s Save State to a close. I look forward to spending my random thoughts with you for the coming year, and informing you of only the best titles I happen to find in the amorphous mass that is my video game backlog. Let’s break in the new year with style!