If you were a child during the '90s then there's an excellent chance you've played many a scrolling fighting game in your time. From the genesis of the genre with titles like Renegade and Double Dragon to more advanced examples like Streets of Rage 2 and Dungeons & Dragons, this style of brawler was incredibly popular with both arcade-goers and console owners alike; the simplistic premise – coupled with the opportunity to play cooperatively with another player – made this the go-to genre for many a gamer, at least until Street Fighter II came along and made the one-on-one fighter the de facto standard.
To be honest, once that happened the scrolling fighter never really came back into fashion, and while the likes of Street Fighter, Tekken and King of Fighters have all endured over the years, franchises like Streets of Rage, Golden Axe and Final Fight have been forgotten by all but their keenest fans. Thankfully, the genre is enjoying something of a revival at the moment – we've already seen the excellent Wulverblade mix British history with skull-splitting gameplay, and now MakinGames has released Raging Justice on Switch – perhaps the closest thing we're ever going to get to a new Streets of Rage or Final Fight.
The setup won't be at all surprising to anyone who has played this kind of game before. A city is in peril thanks to the mysterious disappearance of the Mayor, and three righteous individuals are keen to restore justice and peace to the streets. The aptly-named Rick Justice is a veteran cop with an aggressive, no-nonsense fighting style, while Nikki Rage is a former soldier with a more precise and elegant technique. The third playable character is Ashley King, a teenager who looks to action movies for inspiration when it comes to his combat moves, and reminds us a lot of Skate / Sammy from Streets of Rage 2.
All three characters have the same basic moves, but there are subtle differences which make them all feel unique. There's a separate button for punch, kick, grab and jump; the first two can be combined to create combo attacks, and linking them with a jump produces two different aerial attacks. Depending on the character, you can also hit either punch or kick to inflict damage on fallen enemies (no doubt inspired by Konami's Vendetta / Crime Fighters 2, which designer Nic Makin cites as a personal favourite), while double-tapping left or right executes a short dash move that's perfect for clearing your path of annoying enemies. You can also double-tap up or down to perform an evasive leap in either direction – handy for getting out of the way of incoming blows or projectiles. You can also lash out at enemies behind you by pushing the opposite direction to which your character is facing and pressing punch, and pressing punch and kick simultaneously performs a special attack that dishes out damage to all nearby enemies, at the cost of some of your precious health.
The fact that Raging Justice has different buttons for punch and kick already gives it a little more depth than your typical side-scrolling fighter, but the 'grab' move takes some getting used to, especially if you're a genre veteran. In Streets of Rage and Final Fight – as well as numerous other classic scrolling brawlers – to grapple with a foe you simply have to walk into them. In Raging Justice, these grapples have to be initiated using the button; a second press of this button will perform your character's throw move, while kick or punch will cause smaller amounts of damage which can be repeated until the grapple is broken. Rick's throw move involves slamming the enemy into the floor, while Ashley executes a two-footed kick to the head. It's Nikki who has perhaps the most useful throw, as she is able to hurl enemies over her head, causing them to clatter into other opponents standing nearby.
While we would have preferred to see the old-fashioned 'auto' grapple in place here, having to execute such a move manually makes more sense when you see how crowded the screen becomes in Raging Justice; with so many sprites on-screen at once, an auto-grab would have made things annoying. This is a seriously busy game when it comes to enemies, almost to the point of becoming frustrating. However, you soon learn that controlling the crowd is all part of the challenge; if you rely too much on a single move then you'll struggle. A combination of flying kicks, dash attacks, throws and standard punches and kicks is needed to keep on top of things.
Weapons are also of paramount importance as they're capable of dealing out much higher levels of damage than your normal attacks. In fact, a baseball bat can effectively kill most enemies in a single swing – they even fly up the screen and slam into the wall, very much like they do in the aforementioned Vendetta. The caveat here is that enemies can use weapons against you, and weapons also break over time. If you'd rather keep opponents at a distance, you can throw weapons by pressing the kick button – a useful tactic when you consider how much damage it causes. Raging Justice gives you access to bottles, hammers, swords, knives and even guns, but perhaps the most deadly object in your arsenal isn't something you can hold – it's something you ride. One of the levels has you driving a tractor, while another gives you the chance to mow down enemies on a ride-on lawnmower. And yes, this is exactly as much fun as it sounds.
Perhaps the biggest innovation introduced in the game is the ability to arrest stunned enemies. From time to time, criminals will rise to their feet after a series of blows in a stunned state, and pressing the 'A' button in close proximity will cuff 'em and remove them from the field of play. The bonus here is that being the 'good cop' rewards you with health-restoring food items, so cuffing foes becomes a necessary part of your game plan on tougher stages. The only problem is that when the screen is really crowded, getting to a stunned opponent in time to handcuff them is easier said than done.
While Raging Justice adds a few welcome wrinkles to the tried-and-tested template, there are some times when its debt to coin-guzzling arcade fighting games feels a little too pronounced. The boss fights are especially brutal; as tradition dictates, these beefed-up characters are immune to certain attacks and showcase unblockable combos that have to be avoided if you want to survive. While each one has a pattern which can be analysed and then exploited, some of the bosses represent frustrating choke-points that are the cause of many lost lives and credits. In the arcades, end-of-level bosses were unfair obstacles whose sole reason for being was to draw more and more coins from the player; in Raging Justice, they sometimes feel like a similarly cheap way of imposing a challenge.
It's at this point that it should be noted that Raging Justice is a much more enjoyable proposition when played with someone else. Like all of the best scrolling fighters, the two-player mode is really where it's at, and thanks to the detachable nature of the Joy-Con you can effectively turn any flat surface into an old-school arcade experience – without the need to spend all of your dinner money on the next credit. Having a friend along for the ride makes things easier when it comes to dealing with the hordes of enemies and hard-as-nails bosses, but it comes with its own dangers – by default, 'friendly fire' is turned on, which means you can actually damage your fellow player. While it's possible to turn this off, we feel it's part of the charm; in all of the classic side-scrollers you were able to inflict damage on your fellow player, leading to many amusing moments of friend turning on friend due to a random punch going astray.
Three difficulty levels are available, and it's possible to continue from any level you've completed previously, which gives even the most novice player something to aim for when it comes to progressing through what is an intensely challenging game, even on the lowest difficulty setting. Outside of the main story there's also a 'Brawl' mode which has you fighting wave upon wave of opponents to see how long you can last. Finally, online leaderboards are included so you can see how you measure up against other players, and an in-game challenge system adds even more longevity; some of these are straightforward, such as not losing a life or beating a level in a certain time, while others are more creative – one tasks you with not using a knife for an entire stage, and another involves killing enemies by making a stuffed bear fall on them. Some enemies (those with a glowing red outline) have warrants on their heads, so cuffing them becomes an obsession.
It's no secret that Raging Justice's CGI visuals have divided opinion online; many fans of scrolling fighters can't bear to see them presented in anything but pixel-rich 2D, but putting aside such prejudices for a moment, it's pretty clear that this game has had a lot of care and attention lavished upon it. The team behind it have stated that the CGI look is very much inspired by what Rare was doing in the '90s (MakinGames co-founder Nic Makin is ex-Rare); imagine if 3D visuals hadn't happened for whatever reason and instead visual technology focused on the use of pre-rendered sprites – that's pretty much what you've got here. Raging Justice looks like a much more advanced take on the graphics seen in Killer Instinct; the characters boast incredible detail and the backgrounds are equally impressive. While some of the poses and animations come off a little goofy or stiff, the overall effect is very impressive – and had the developer gone for a pure 2D look, we're not sure the wonderfully gritty atmosphere would have remained intact.
Ultimately, Raging Justice is a fine addition to a genre which has fallen from grace in recent years. We can't say it will trigger an industry-wide renaissance for the scrolling brawler or turn younger players in rabid fans of the genre, but it will please those who recall the best works of Capcom, Sega and Konami. It's brutally hard in places and really has to be experienced with another player to get the most out of it; also – as you might expect – repetition does creep in after prolonged periods. Still, fans of this style of game will thank their lucky stars that someone has finally decided to tackle the genre once more, as well as give it a modern-day spin.
Raging Justice isn't going to win any awards for originality or narrative depth, but it succeeds in picking up the often neglected scrolling fighter, dusting it off and sending it out with a fresh pair of clothes and some new ideas. The extra buttons are put to good use, giving you a wide array of offensive options when you're in the thick of things, and the ability to arrest enemies adds a layer of strategy to the otherwise mindless action. When played solo the game is perhaps a little too unforgiving to recommend to everyone, but when you rope in a second player it becomes one of the most enjoyable multiplayer experiences on Switch; working together to clean up the streets is fun, but you won't be able to resist occasionally stabbing your ally in the back, just for old time's sake.