Delivering some retro beat ‘em up action, Natsume throws down River City: Tokyo Rumble — available now in the eShop on Nintendo 3DS and in limited print release. Originally released in Japan as Nekketsu Koha Kunio-Kun SP: Ranto Kyosokyoku in 2013, this installation in the long-running Kunio-kun run serves as one of the few times a title in the series was delivered relatively unaltered to the West. Though a rather short adventure, Tokyo Rumble’s macho Japanese story, familiar gameplay, and nice extra activities is sure to fill in a weekend.
In Story Mode, players take control of Kunio, a yankii (Japanese teen delinquent) from Nekketsu High and infamous Tokyo tough guy. After some of Kunio’s fellow classmates are kidnapped and roughed up, he teams up with his hooligan and bosozoku (motorcycle-riding yankii) buddies to seek justice. Their goal is to travel to various city districts around Tokyo — Shibuya, Yokohama, Shinjuku, and more — to oust the Lion Alliance, the gang that has been stepping on Kunio’s turf.
To say the story reeks of machismo and shonen justice, similar to what would be found in manga like Yu-Yu Hakusho and Shonan Junai Gumi, would be an understatement. But it’s the shonen manga formula that the game uses to drive its progress — much like any other beat ‘em up. Each time the player travels to a new city, a partner character tags along to help beat up local cronies and face off against the powerful boss; this process repeats until the end of the game where players confront the final boss. Though this may feel repetitive in most games, the signature RPG elements of the Kunio-kun series prevent that from being the case in Tokyo Rumble.
For those who have played River City Ransom (Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari in Japan) on the NES, shopping for new equipment and stat boosts from eating at restaurants make a return in Tokyo Rumble. These same mechanics give players a fighting chance against new bosses and their respective goons, who grow tougher with higher stats and new moves in later areas. Though I find the real fun to be in the challenge of these tougher bosses, players can go back to previous towns to beat up weaker thugs, leveling up further and harvesting cash in the process.
As the game progresses and Kunio and friends level up, they will be able to learn new moves from either defeated enemies, completed jobs (we’ll get to that soon), or from buying scrolls in book shops. These new and increasingly ridiculous attacks are actually a crutch for the game; without them, the game may run a little stale. Despite the simple three button combat system, with one button for “jump,” another for “punch,” and a third for “kick,” the unlockable move list does become quite diverse. It achieves this by combining moves like adding a hurricane kick if the player hits the “kick” button at the peak of a jump, or a spinning throw by grabbing downed enemies by the legs. These new maneuvers also serve to make tougher battles against multiple enemies easier, despite the game only ever pitting Kunio and his friend against a maximum of four enemies at any given time. This may be because of difficulty balancing or because of technical challenges, such as frame-rate drops, but either way it feels just fine and provides ample challenge later in the game.
Something that’s cool about the RPG aspect of the game is that in certain towns along the shopping center, players can take up to three “jobs” at a time by visiting TryWork. These jobs act as side quests and missions, giving something for the player to think about or a challenge to tackle, often yielding matching rewards. Some jobs consist of beating up an “x” number of a certain type of goon to earn cash — perhaps for upgraded gear or for those recovery items you were eyeing. Other jobs involve performing certain actions in order to earn special secret moves, like throwing enemies around the world. Literally. Personally, my favorite jobs are the bounty missions, which task the player with fighting tough side bosses and exploring the game’s world. Because the game can be beaten in under three hours, these side jobs are important to adding more play value. That brevity, however, felt perfect for the story Tokyo Rumble sets out to tell; any shorter and the game would have felt too shallow and lackluster, and too much longer may have begun to feel too repetitive.
Outside of the main mode, River City: Tokyo Rumble offers Rumble and Dodgeball modes — both of which support 1-4 players via local or download play with friends. In both modes, players can select from a roster of characters encountered during story mode. Another benefit of the aforementioned bounty side quests is unlocking these characters, which each include their own special move presets. Rumble mode controls exactly as story mode does, but allows players to duke it all out in a free-for-all setting.
Dodgeball adds a little twist to the formula by preventing players from directly attacking each other. Instead, the matches progress by throwing either of the two balls placed on the field. The rules are simple: catch the ball but don’t get hit. Getting hit costs life points, catching the ball gives players an attack. In this mode, the “punch” and “kick” commands are replaced with “throw” and “catch,” respectively. Players must use all their skills to pitch the balls at each other in hopes of being the last man standing. While both of these additional modes are fun, it does not last very long, especially without human players to join. As these two modes only have a handful of maps and little variety, they serve as a brief distraction at best.
I could say that this game “could be better with a bit of polish” but it already has a lovely luster. As stated above, the length of the game feels ideal for what it is and the visual impact is great. The character sprites have all been revised since the old NES games, now with cleaner lines and additional animations. The backgrounds, however, are lovely 3D models with wonderful details to give the stages depth and character. The audio adds to that polish, showing off its punchy 8-bit rockabilly tunes and squeezing in some old tracks from Renegade and River City Ransom. You can clearly hear greater depth achieved, thanks to modern hardware, without sacrificing qualities that still allow players to believe it could be from the NES. It pairs perfectly with the visual style, especially considering there are voice samplings with several different recordings thuggishly exclaiming “nan da yo?!” over the chiptune backing track.
Even the dialogue offers the right amount of cheese without being over the top. For example, each time Kunio refers to his teacher as “babe” while she scolds him, it brings a wry smirk to my face. And each time the school kids talk tough to each other, I feel like I am watching some old anime. The localization team did a good job of ensuring the feel and intentions of the original Japanese release wasn’t lost and that the game was purposely funny, not because it was poorly translated or awkward.
That said, the game’s mechanics, visuals, dialogue and bonuses are all very well fine-tuned and show a tremendous amount of care for the series. Those who play the game will surely feel the love that went into not only making it, but what it took to get it to the West. But that’s the drawback. It feels like a passion project geared toward a specific audience who is either familiar with the series, into yankii or bosozoku shonen stories, or really into the NES era of video games. There isn’t much here to draw in people outside of this target demographic.
To say the game is perfect is difficult. But it achieves what it is meant to achieve in the best way possible. Unfortunately, that means ostracizing a whole group of gamers, though I feel that this game may serve as a nice change of pace for those who are interested in what a classic ‘80s game is like without straying too far from more modern aesthetics. River City: Tokyo Rumble won’t provide weeks of fun, but it will definitely keep players hooked over a weekend and give them a little something extra to do with their friends.