One of my favourite genres growing up was the old side-scrolling beat ’em up. I would often spend hours as a kid playing Double Dragon and Double Dragon II: The Revenge on the NES, along with using that last bit of change to play Bad Dudes or Final Fight at the local chippy after swimming. The 16-bit era had some killers too, with Streets of Rage and Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles: Turtles in Time, not to mention the first decent movie tie-in game that was, of course, Batman Returns on the SNES. However, the genre has waned quite significantly since then. Games have become bigger and more technologically advanced than ever. There just seems to be little room anymore in the mainline industry to cater for such a niche and shallow style of game.
Well, it seems that I am not the only one to dwell on these fond memories, because a UK-based husband and wife team, MakinGames, have decided to create their own love letter to the genre. Make way for Raging Justice, a Team17-published old school beat ’em up complete with a 90s style pre-rendered visual flair. A game that stuffs all the clichés and memorable moments of the genre into a cocktail mixer and violently shakes it up with a stiff visual shot of Clayfighters and Killer Instinct.
The story is set up with the bread and butter plotline that you would expect from the genre. A mayor has been kidnapped and it is down to three bad ass cops to clean up the streets and track him down. First, you have Rick Justice, an old-school officer who isn’t afraid to fight dirty. The female of the group who goes by the name Nikki Rage is an ex-military soldier who can pack a punch. And finally, there’s a 15-year-old boy who’s obviously too young to be a cop and looks like Justin Bieber after doing an all-nighter in a happy hardcore rave club. As you can see, it’s all fun, silly nonsense that fits well in line with the tone of post 80s action culture.
What you will notice first and foremost is the game’s unique visual style. It’s a Marmite kind of look that you will either love or hate. The character design is undeniably ugly and the animation moves along like a Robot Chicken sketch. It’s a design choice that I didn’t dig at all at first, but it did gradually grow on me the longer I spent brawling. It is a brave concept and one that has been long forgotten since games like Donkey Kong Country and Killer Instinct made the style almost revolutionary and popular back in the day.
The animation itself is a bit of a mixed bag in terms of flow. Some animations move along quite nicely, while others seem completely out of place. The walking animations for each character are pretty horrific, while Nikki’s ground and pound action looks like she’s giving the bad guys a flurry of dead legs. I would have liked to see some kinetic energy with some of the backgrounds as they are pretty lifeless for the most part with still backdrops that come across a bit too safe. This is more so the case considering most old-school games of this ilk would usually feature a moving stage like a subway or a rising lift of some sort.
There are some animations that do give off a bit more weight, though. One of the highlights of Raging Justice is cleaning out an enemy across the napper using a sledgehammer with an almighty wallop as the words “HAMMER TIME!” boldly pop up on the screen. In fact, it’s the controls and weapons that are the saving grace of Raging Justice. Despite purposely looking like it’s running at 15 frames per second, the controls are overall pretty tight. What makes the combat a little bit more interesting is that it maintains that old school flavour of punch, kick and jump while adding a dedicated grapple button and a four-way travelling attack that can be used as a form of defence for you to gain some breathing space.
This is where a lot of modern takes on the classic genre do seem to get it wrong. Most will apply a move set that doesn’t stretch any further than the spammy punch, kick and jump action found back in the day. In Raging Justice it keeps the old school battle system feel but adds a little more diversity to keep your character’s limbs busy. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t Bayonetta by any means but it does allow you to express your tools in a more graceful string of attacks. For example, you can lay in a few light punches into the cakehole of an enemy, dash through them as they retaliate, grab them, launch them into a crowd of other bad guys and then stomp all over them while they are grounded on the deck trying to recover. It’s a simple but effective way to keep the momentum going which is the key to what makes the experience pretty fun.
In regards to features to extend longevity, there isn’t too much here outside of a survival brawl mode, online scoreboards and a few difficulty settings. However, what could quite possibly bring fans back for more is the list of objectives handed to you before each level. This is where the interesting mechanic of being either a good cop or bad cop comes into play. Beating enemies to death will tag you as a bad cop, while arresting them in a fazed state will provide you with a bit of health boost along with a good cop pat on the back. It’s a cool little addition that fits well, both as a unique feature and one that adds slightly more depth to the combat. Your list of objectives will require you to arrest certain enemies with a warrant while others may urge you to take out the baddies with a certain tool. One specific objective gets you to see how long you can stay on a tractor as you mow into a criminal crowd of punks in an odd but satisfying way.
The developer’s love for the genre is evident throughout. There are so many nods to the classics that the trained eye can see instantly. Take the purple-suited pimp boss, for example. Once he has one too many digs thrown in his direction he will whistle for backup very much like the first boss, Damnd from Final Fight. Another example is the two chubby chasers who you first meet in the bar who resemble the Abobo twins from Double Dragon. There’s even a shoutout to the motorbike riders from the Batman Returns game here, and not forgetting, a slew of Streets of Rage traits seen throughout. It’s clear that MakinGames aimed to keep traditional with its content, including enemies throwing dynamite, breakable trash cans containing food and, of course, an army of clones made up of the half a dozen character variants.
As a throwback to an arcade favourite, Raging Justice does a decent enough job to provide you with the short and shallow candy fix that made the genre appealing in the first place. It may be ugly in design, in a 90s 3D model pre-rendered kind of way, but it does have a plasticine charm to it all to make it visually stand out. At a ten spot price range, it’s affordable enough as an impulse purchase especially if you can take advantage of playing two-player local co-op with a buddy as there is no online multiplayer at present. The Nintendo Switch is perfect for it too, with the obvious multiplayer convenience attached to the system. It’s unlikely going to completely win anyone over who finds the genre stale, but if you were in love with it once you may be quite surprised with this offering.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Team17