Let's Fight Downtown Special Tonight for Vengeance!
I've wanted to discuss the Kunio-kun series for a little while now but, frankly, it's a daunting task that I kept putting off. The reason I wanted to discuss the games was specifically so I could get into the River City sub-series, but the main Kunio-kun games are so numerous, and had so many spin-offs and related titles, that getting into the series is basically opening up a can of worms. You really have to commit to it if you're going to explore the series.
For starters, while River City Ransom was originally released as the third title in the Kunio-kun series, did you know that the Renegade, the American NES and Arcade game, was a localization of the first game in the series, and that it's sequels were unofficial sequels unrelated to the main Kunio-kun games. Well, sure, if you're deep into it like I (now) am then you knew that, but this just highlights the quirks of the games. To discuss this whole series fully we're going to be touching on dodge ball, street sports, Double Dragon, and much more, and it all comes back to Renegade (or should I say Nekketsu Koha Kunio-kun, translated as "Hot Blooded Tough Guy Kunio").
The game, viewed from the distance of 35 years (holy crap, has it been that long?) seems very basic. It's a bog-standard (for today) beat-em-up with a protagonist taking on waves of enemies before a boss appears, only to take them on too before going on to the next area. In the process, our hero Kunio gets to punch, kick, throw, jump kick, and beat the ever loving shit out of everyone he meets because that's what heroes do. Get through all four stages and you get to do it all again, except harder, as Arcade games of the era looped so you could perfect your high score.
While this first Kunio game wasn't the very first beat-em-up ever (games like Kung Fu Master and Karateka predated it, this was the first game to really put all the elements of the burgeoning genre together. While we look back at this game and might think it's fairly primitive (and we'll get to why in a second) back in the day this game seemed positively revolutionary. It added in so many new things to the genre that it was like night and day when compared to what had come before.
The first major innovation is that Kunio (our delinquent student and protagonist) isn't tied to a single linear line. Unlike other beat-em-ups of the time, Renegade (or whatever you want to call it but Renegade is quicker to type) features an open plain for Kunio to move around on. You can use this, then, to dodge attacks and plan your own next strike without having to think "this guy is right behind that guy and they're all going to attack along this line". It added strategy and finesse to the experience, making the basic game play feel much more dense
Along with the open movement the game (in Arcades at least) employed a three-button attack system: punch, kick, and jump. This allowed Kunio to take on guys from the front and the rear (back-kicks) as well as perform combos (multi-hit punch attacks), jump kicks, and charged running attacks. In comparison to the other games that had come before this level of mix-and-match combo creation had a lot of depth to it. Yes, in comparison to what would come from the genre in a few short years these moves don't feel all that deep. Hell, even Double Dragon would quickly improve upon it, but it was still quite revelatory at the time.
And then there was the stages themselves which featured a small amount of scrolling along with pit traps, transitions, and other special features. The NES version took it even one step further, adding in additional mini-stages between transitions, as well as one motorcycle section with the hero riding on the highway and taking out dudes along the way. This was a lot of depth in a game of this type, clearly making this title stand out against all its competitors in Arcades.
All that being said, the game itself it really short. A whole loop of the Arcade version (either Japanese or American) will only take you about seven minutes, and even the NES game isn't much longer, clocking in at a mere 15 minutes once you know what you're doing. On top of that, the controls do feel a tad dodgy. Bosses can have unlockable attacks but they have no issue avoiding many of your moves, and it's way too easy for even a basic mob to combo you. The NES game suffers even worse as it lacks the third button for controls which ends up making the whole thing feel even dodgier and less finely tuned. That, coupled with a last stage that's easily half the game, with traps that can warp you back to the previous level forcing you to play through that part of the game all over again, can lead to an annoying and frustrating experience. This game, in many ways, feels like the prototype that it is.
And yet it's not hard to see the charms of what developer Taito was doing. There's something special about this game, and that special quality was picked up and carried on through the multiple games in the main series as well as in all the spin-offs that were to come. What's most interesting about the game, really, is all the ways it permutated and changed over the years and its multiple sequels.
In America, for example, Nekketsu Koha Kunio-kun became Renegade and while the game didn't change much of its meat between editions (the two Arcade version as well as the new NES/Famicom editions), stylistically the games were different. Kunio-kun features school thugs battling it out around their city, fighting rival gangs of school toughs over slights (and perceived slights). Seeing teenagers fighting in school uniforms played the the media (and cultural fears) of Japan but that wasn't a look that worked in the U.S. Instead the graphics were updated with a veneer of The Warriors playing to a style that worked much better with a Western audience.
Of course, that appeal to Western audiences was taken a step further with subsequent spiritual sequel series Double Dragon. That series, on both sides of the pond, followed the Warriors aesthetic while the continuing Kunio-kun games would continue to follow the travails of school toughs (while also getting sillier in the process). Each series saw its own success in different markets and the two halves of this larger franchise then came to be iconic in each era, defining games of their respective systems and cultures. Heck, there's a reason why Western studios have picked up both the Double Dragon and River City franchises and continue to develop for them even today.
All of that, though, starts here with Renegade. We needed the genre shift this game would usher in to have any of the subsequent games across this mega-franchise. While Renegade feels positively archaic now, the germ of what was to come was planted here making this game absolutely essential in the history of the beat-em-up genre.