Double Dragon (NES)

“Fifty thousand? You got fifty thousand on Double Dragon!?”

Technōs Japan had a groundbreaking hit on their hands with the first entry in their Kunio-kun series, 1986’s Nekketsu Kōha Kunio-kun. Also known as Renegade outside Japan, it introduced a crucial element that other martial arts themed action games of the time lacked: The ability for characters to maneuver around the stage both horizontally and vertically in their ceaseless quest to pound the ever-loving crap out of each other.

When it came time to craft a follow-up, producer/director Yoshihisa Kishimoto wanted to advance the genre again while also insuring that the setting and characters would be more palatable to an international audience than the rival Japanese high schoolers plot of the Kunio-kun games. The end result was an even bigger smash in the form of 1987’s Double Dragon.

Introduced here was the now-standard ability to pick up and wield enemy weapons. Even more significant, however, was Double Dragon’s titular two player simultaneous gameplay. As much as we think of games like this as natural multiplayer experiences today, kicking street punk ass side-by-side with a buddy was a new and electrifying concept at the time. Of course, two players at once also meant twice the quarters for arcade operators. It was the start of a beat-‘em-up boom that would persist well into the next decade.

The story was set in a post-apocalyptic future New York City after a nuclear war has resulted in the breakdown of law and order among the survivors. The action follows two initially unnamed twin martial artists (later dubbed Billy and Jimmy Lee) as they take to the streets to rescue their shared love interest Marian from her abductors, the Black Warriors gang.

Home conversions for every console and computer of the time were inevitable. Some were pretty good and some were just dismal. The best-selling, most influential, and weirdest of them all was this one for Nintendo’s flagship machine. I never played it much back in my youth but I’ve been intrigued by it ever since I saw it featured prominently in the very first issue of Nintendo Power magazine.

I might as well lead with the bad news: The trademark two player cooperative gameplay of the arcade original is nowhere to be found on the NES. This was presumably done for performance reasons. In other words, to keep the game running at a reasonable pace. Whether this was really due to insurmountable technical limitations or programmer inexperience is debatable when you consider that both Double Dragon II and III on the NES do allow for simultaneous play. At least the designers actually went so far as to tweak the storyline in order to justify the second Lee brother’s absence as a playable character. In video gaming’s most shocking heel turn since Donkey Kong Jr., it turns out that a jealous Jimmy is behind Marian’s kidnapping in this version and poor Billy is on a dual mission to rescue his sweetheart and put an end to his brother’s evil ways once and for all. Pretty dark there, guys. Or I guess it would be if Jimbo wasn’t alive and a good guy again in all the sequels. Oh, well. I still appreciate the effort.

Technōs threw in multiple new gameplay elements in order to (hopefully) make up for the loss of the game’s signature feature. The most obvious is Mode B, a rather crude stab at an early head-to-head fighting game for one or two players. There are six selectable fighters on offer but each combatant isn’t allowed to choose from them independently, so all fights are “mirror matches” where two differently colored version of the same character square off. With its awkward movement, stiff controls, limited moves, and only six possible matchups, Mode B is certainly no Street Fighter II. It is, at the very least, curiously forward-thinking. Here you have a port of the game that had set the gold standard for martial arts action in its time anticipating, albeit in a very limited capacity, the next title that would come along and do the same thing three years later.

In terms of the main game, a simple experience system has been implemented. Billy starts out with a single heart icon below his health bar and only basic punch and kick attacks. Every 1,000 experience points earned by attacking enemies adds another heart and another move to Billy’s arsenal, up to a maximum of seven. This addition is, again, more interesting than it is enjoyable, as it’s clearly a forerunner of the RPG/brawler hybrid playstyle that would be much more fully realized later on in Technōs’ own River City Ransom. Here, it mostly just functions as a time sink. Since the player has a much better chance in the later levels with a full repertoire of moves, it makes the most sense to run down the timer grinding out experience in the early stages by repeatedly punching and kicking weak enemies without finishing them off for as long as possible. This does add a few extra minutes of uneventful padding to a very short game but that’s about all.

There are four stages total, just like in the arcade. They’re very similar to their original designs, broadly speaking, though stages three and four have been lengthened via the addition of some seriously dodgy platforming segments. Like the rest of the new material in this port, they fail to add anything of substance to the core game. Billy’s jump kick works fine as an attack but it’s terrible for leaping over pits and onto moving platforms. It has a small arc, requires pressing two buttons at once, and seems to be slightly delayed. Here’s a tip: Resist your natural instinct to compensate for the short jump distance by waiting until you’re at the very edge of a gap before trying to leap over. Not only is the aforementioned delay a threat, being anywhere near the edge of a platform also seems to suck you inexorably down to your doom somehow. Once you get used to avoiding those edges and inputting your jumps a split second before you would in most other games, you can pass these sections relatively easily but that learning curve is a killer. A particularly annoying one, I might add, when you’re only given three lives with which to complete all four stages.

If it sounds like I’m down on Double Dragon, I’m really not. Even as a single player experience, it’s still a damn fine action game for its time. While the various extra features may not amount to much, punching, kicking, headbutting, and elbow smashing your way through an endless conga line of dumb thugs is timeless fun. Billy has a ton of moves at his disposal once he’s fully leveled up and most of them are quite effective. This allows you a lot of freedom to experiment with taking out the opposition in different ways. A great game with a bunch of odd, superfluous junk grafted onto it is still a great game.

Double Dragon’s soundtrack is rightly remembered as one of the highlights of the system’s middle years. The songs themselves are taken straight from the arcade but they sound even better played through the NES sound chip. Except for one rather discordant track that plays at the start of the third stage, everything here is legitimately iconic. The graphics are pretty sweet, too. Characters animate well and show a decent amount of expression on their faces as you pummel them senseless. While the backgrounds could have benefitted from a bit more detail and some additional colors in many spots, this was one of the best looking 1988 releases for the console overall.

If you just want the best possible Double Dragon experience on the NES, I would direct you toward Double Dragon II: The Revenge. It has the cooperative play that made the series famous and ditches the tedious experience point system in favor of simply giving you all your moves at the outset. The horrid platform jumping is still there but two out of three ain’t bad! The original is still an ass-whooping good time, though, and is arguably the more essential experience for NES aficionados due to its greater impact on the fan culture surrounding the console as a whole.

Besides, a little fratricide never hurt anyone, right?

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River City Ransom (NES)

Dat pixelated azz, tho!

Kunio is the most important video game character that most people outside Japan have never heard of. He was created by game designer Yoshihisa Kishimoto to star in Technōs Japan’s 1986 arcade game Nekketsu Kōha Kunio-kun (“Hot-Blooded Tough Guy Kunio”) and has since gone on to appear in nearly fifty assorted sequels and remakes, collectively comprising the Kunio-kun series. Kun is an informal Japanese honorific usually applied to young men and it definitely suits Kunio, a teenage tough guy who protects Nekketsu High School from rival gangs with his legendary street brawling skills. Supposedly, Kunio was inspired by Kishimoto himself, who states in interviews that he went through a bit of a juvenile delinquent phase following a bad breakup in high school when was getting into schoolyard brawls daily.

Kunio’s debut outing, known outside Japan as Renegade, was a huge deal and earned itself a place in the pantheon of most influential games of all time. It was the first arcade beat-’em-up game to add eight-directional multi-plane movement to the mix. With fighters no longer limited to walking left or right, a host of new combat tactics opened up. For example, players could attempt to maneuver their fighters so as to attack the enemy’s flanks or rear. Renegade’s core gameplay served as the basis for Kishimoto’s follow-up, Double Dragon, which proved even more popular worldwide and inspired hundreds of imitators until 2D beat-’em-ups in general finally fell out of mainstream favor around the late 1990s.

But wait, aren’t I supposed to be reviewing River City Ransom here? What’s with all this Kunio crap? Well, as it happens, River City Ransom is a Kunio-kun game! Specifically, the third one: Dauntaun Nekketsu Monogatari (“Downtown Hot-Blooded Story”) from 1989. Since Japanese high school students in their characteristic uniforms wouldn’t connect as much with Western audiences, Kunio became an American high schooler named Alex and his arch-rival and occasional ally Riki became Ryan. The uniforms were replaced by jeans and t-shirts and this, combined with the black pompadour style haircuts on many of the characters, made them look more than a little like stereotypical 1950s greasers. It’s an interesting choice and gives River City Ransom a period piece feel that the original version lacks.

All other Kunio games released outside Japan during the 8-bit era, like Super Dodge Ball and Crash ‘n’ the Boys: Street Challenge, received similar changes. In fact, the characteristic Kunio-kun art style with its squat, big-headed characters is the only overt hint that these games are related at all.

In River City Ransom, players control Alex and Ryan as they roam across River City fighting off countless rival gang members on a mission to rescue Ryan’s kidnapped girlfriend Cyndi from a mysterious villain called Slick. Along the way, they’ll need to collect money from fallen foes in order to power themselves up by purchasing equipment, food, and other upgrades at the local malls.

That’s right: This is a beat-’em-up with those newfangled RPG elements that were worming their way into so many Japanese console games at the time. Items from the shops will enhance your strength, agility, stamina, and seven additional stats. Buying books can also teach you all new combat moves that will greatly enhance your standard punches and kicks.

Even on the harder of the game’s two difficulty settings, though, you won’t really need to worry about fully upgrading your character in order to complete the game. I did it anyway because I’m weird that way, but even just purchasing the rapid fire kick upgrade and the game’s best pair of boots will allow you to make mincemeat of the toughest bosses. I’ll come back to this later.

The gameplay fundamentals are handled well. Controls are tight and the punching and kicking feels just as good as it does in Double Dragon. A couple indoor sections have light platforming elements where you need to jump up on crates or ledges and these can be a little awkward. Thankfully, you’re not expected to jump over pits or other deadly hazards, so this doesn’t drag down the experience as a whole. A nice touch is how the specific gang members you’ll encounter on each screen are randomized. Since some gangs are tougher than others, this helps to keep things interesting on multiple trips through the same section of the city. There’s even an in-game help menu that explains how the game functions, which is really strange to see in a console game of this vintage.

River City Ransom’s graphics aren’t spectacular in the least. In fact, they’re pretty plain. Characters animate well, but that’s about the best you can say for the visuals on a purely technical level. One thing that this doesn’t take into account, though, is the charm factor. The cutesy characters are really endearing and the bug-eyed, slack-jawed looks on defeated enemies’ faces as you send then flying never get old. Neither do the wacky quotes they recite as they’re knocked out. “Is this fun yet?” and the classic “BARF!” are some of my favorites. The character designs themselves are pretty restrained for the genre. Your heroes and all of their opposition are supposed to be high schoolers and that’s exactly what they look like. Don’t go in expecting any of the wild enemy designs from other brawlers like Final Fight, where everyone tends to look like sideshow performers that just got out of a rave. The music is energetic and catchy with a bit of a rockabilly flair and doesn’t wear out its welcome too quickly, which is good because there’s not a lot of it. If you enjoyed the music in the NES port of Double Dragon, you’ll be pleased with the tunes here.

So the game has a sterling pedigree, solid brawling action, RPG-like depth, and tons of charm. What’s not to like? Well, there are two significant flaws that hold River City Ransom back for me and prevent it from realizing its potential as a great game: A tiny game world and an overall lack of challenge.

For a game that offers ten different stats for your character, tons of shops and items, and an extensive password system, I would expect it to also have a bigger world with more to see and do in it than your typical beat-‘em-up, but it turns out that River City is one minuscule municipality. What you get in the way of a game world is a few dozen screens laid-out in a mostly straight line. There are a couple of small cul-de-sacs off the main path where you’ll encounter enemies and bosses, but they’re dead ends. The potential for branching paths and richer open world gameplay built into the design was not capitalized upon by the designers and the game is easily beaten in under an hour once you grasp its fundamentals. At least you won’t get lost, I suppose.

The lack of challenge comes from the way enemy encounters are programmed. For starters, you’ll only ever face off against a maximum of two enemies at once. While this does naturally help performance by minimizing slowdown and sprite flicker, beat-‘em-up veterans know that coping with one or two enemies at a time in these sorts of games is child’s play. Things get tricky (and interesting) when you’re fending off a whole mob of foes and that will never happen here. Adding a second player into the mix makes things even tamer, since the enemy count isn’t boosted to compensate.

If the enemies were tough to defeat, this still might be a workable system. Regrettably, though, this is where River City Ransom’s truly terrible enemy AI programming lets the game down even further. Enemies, even bosses, are quite content to walk or run straight into your attacks and once you knock a foe down the first time, you can simply stand over them and continuously mash the attack buttons as they attempt to regain their footing, insuring that they’ll never succeed. Additionally, many sections of the game have walls or fences in the background that Alex and Ryan can jump up onto and this simple maneuver is enough to literally stop enemies in their tracks. They’ll never attempt follow you up there and continue the fight, but you can assault them from the high ground with impunity. I’m not going to say that every game ever made has to be super hardcore and tough as nails, but the opposition you’ll encounter in River City Ransom is so feeble and dim that it almost doesn’t seem sporting. It certainly stops being very exciting once you’ve grasped the glaring weaknesses in the patterns.

River City Ransom is a very likable game. I’d even call it good. However, it’s the kind of good that’s so close to great that it just irks all the more. The potential was there for this to be an all-time classic and one of the top titles for the console, but the short quest and cramped game world thoroughly undermine the clever RPG elements and the underwhelming enemies do the same for the beat-‘em-up action. The humor and style are not to be missed, though, and every NES enthusiast should play through this one at least one just to spend a few hours savoring its exuberant silliness.

In its own way, River City Ransom was almost as influential as its progenitor Renegade. Every beat-‘em-up game since that has experimented with adding in statistics, character progression, and other RPG bits owes it a major debt, and titles like Odin Sphere, Dragon’s Crown, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game all qualify as direct descendants. There were several sequels, most recently River City: Tokyo Rumble in 2013 and River City Ransom: Underground in 2017. Technōs itself may be no more, but Kunio and friends fight on.

Is this fun yet? Hell, yes.