Monday, April 14, 2014

The Weekly Beat-'Em-Up 4/06/14: Shin Nekketsu Kouha: Kunio-Tachi no Banka

at 6:30 PM
Everyone needs to let off a little steam sometimes. We here at GNG find that it helps to beat up as many people as possible at a regular interval. Luckily the video game medium has provided us with a safe, harmless environment in which to release our overflowing rage. That's why Golem and I are taking on one classic arcade-style beat-'em-up a week and bringing you this... questionnaire.

Game: Shin Nekketsu Kouha: Kunio-tachi no Banka (New Hot-blooded Tough-guy: Eulogy for Kunio and Friends)
Year: 1994
Developer: Almanic
Publisher: Technos Japan
Translator: Aeon Genesis
Platform: SNES

Here's something different for you faithful out there: an adventure beat-em-up. A narrative-driven actioner meant to be played over multiple sessions with an overarching story setting up individual beat-upping scenarios. Sure, lengthy action-adventures eventually succeeded the beat-em-up as the main place to get combat kicks, but in 1994 a beat-em-up was pretty explicitly a one-session (arcade-style) game. Console games like Super Double Dragon and Streets of Rage may have taken many sessions worth of practice before you earned the ending (rather than a bottomless stack of quarters), but they almost always needed to be conquered in a single sitting. By contrast, Shin Nekketsu Kouha provides a continue password after every single battle, always allowing the player to pick up from where they left off in the 3-5 hour playtime. This structure is actually closer to what we see in latter-day beat-em-ups like Double Dragon Neon and Castle Crashers (which adopted the action-adventure pacing of their contemporaries).

Of course, if you like your retro games, you can probably name one other adventure-style beat-em-up: River City Ransom. While it's not obvious from the names, Shin Nekketsu Kouha is one of a handful of sequels to River City. In Japan these are known as the Kunio-kun games after the main character, Kunio(-kun). There are quite a few, spanning platforms, genres, and even developers - Super Dodge Ball, Nintendo World Cup, and Crash n' the Boys are just a small sampling. The only Kunio beat-em-ups to make it to Western shores are RenegadeRiver City Ransom, and the Game Boy version of Double Dragon II (oddly enough, a localization of Nekketsu Kouha Kunio-kun: Bangai Rantou Hen), but the Japan-only SNES sequels continued to explore action/adventure/RPG territory in different ways. Shin Nekketsu Kouha is the last of that original six-game run, featuring fairly straightforward action gameplay (no shops or level-ups or anything) and instead focusing on a thoroughly-developed narrative.

While most of the Kunio games were developed by Technos (you'll remember they're one of the beat-em-up kings - the Double Dragon guys), this one was handled by Almanic. Almanic would be a total no-name were it not helmed by the very producer, director, and composer behind the Double Dragon and Kunio series. So this is a Technos game in all but name.

So does Shin Nekketsu Kouha manage to uniquely iterate the beat-em-up formula over a multi-session experience, or does it struggle to find content to justify its extra-arcade length? And can the Commune do a podcast about it? (yes, the Commune did a podcast about it, which is why we played it in the first place, which is why we're covering a game so far out of the normal arcade WBEU wheelhouse).

Pro-run: This is a console game, so there's no need for a pro-run. It has infinite continues and passwords, but death means being set back to a checkpoint, meaning there's no way to quarter-feed.

How was the game's aesthetic appeal?
Golem: As is the usual for a Kunio-kun game, characters tend to have very similar-looking faces. When riding a roller coaster, Kunio and his sidekick Riki have the exact same sprite, just with swapped colors. However, it's a style that has lots of exaggeratedly frowny faces and giant fists, giving everyone a menacing, or at least severely annoyed, look. I can't think of much to say on the settings--they look really good, but aren't noteworthy--but the soundtrack plays off of setting well. Roaming around the amusement park, you'll get a cheery tune that doesn't fit the mood of beating guys up.
Yourself: The game is bright and colorful, even if the graphics don't exactly scream SNES. Animations had a nice cartoony look that's fairly unique in the beat-em-up universe, even if it isn't as immediately eye-catching in screen-grabs as Final Fight. Thought the music was absolute top notch, I'm humming the title theme in my head right now.

How was the control and move variety?
Yourself: The game puts the Final Fight standard to shame, making use of the entire SNES controller and even a couple special inputs on top of that. If you like pressing lots of different buttons, boy are you in for a treat. The basic attacks, each mapped to their own button, are punch, kick, and back-attack. The difference between the first two is subtle: punch is a bit quicker, kick is a bit longer, and kick stuns faster. Stunning is key, as a stunned enemy can be uppercut/dropkicked to the ground or grappled for some free hits and a throw. There's a pretty fair trade-off between the attacks, where I tended to use kick for playing cautiously, trying to poke enemies from afar to stun them before they had a chance to counter-attack, and switch to punches when the enemy had left themselves vulnerable after a miss or a diversion. Needing to choose between two superficially similar attacks like this caused me to think more about the strategic variables in play in both my and the enemy state rather than just waiting for cues. Every attack opportunity became a decision beyond just recognition of an opening, even if those opportunities did often come too fast to make the smartest choice every time.

The back-attack and the special attacks (performed by pressing block then any attack/jump button) were more situational. While some were basic heavy-damage-dealers (such as Riki's block+kick machine-gun punch), most had some performance detail or effect that allowed them to change the flow of battle. These included a tornado kick to knock enemies across the screen and create space, a jumping knee to instantly stun a foe in front, and the ever-useful back-attack to knock down anyone sneaking up from behind.

The game also belonged to that rare class of beat-em-ups with a block input. The block had to be timed to incoming hits - the button couldn't be held for a standing guard. The block didn't vastly change the fighting landscape - to be totally honest I had a hard time making use of it - but it did add a third basic answer (beyond "punch" or "kick") to the "an enemy is coming at me, what do I do?" question. While there didn't seem to be many reliable means to predict when an enemy would attack, the guard was still a safe bet: succeeding meant avoiding damage and getting an opportunity to attack, and failing just meant the enemy did nothing or you probably would have gotten hit anyway.

There was one control oddity that bothered me too much even throughout a second play to leave out here. Holding down and pressing kick did a stomp attack, even if you weren't standing on top of an enemy, and holding down over an enemy with either Riki or Kunio caused them to kneel over their victims chest and wale on them. These two moves created a lot of awkwardness - the former meant you couldn't kick while walking down (you had to stop for a moment first) and the latter meant that the stomp itself was extremely difficult to pull off without immediately sequencing into a kneel, a state that was much more vulnerable to counters.
Golem: The block allowed me to interact with enemies even when I wanted to avoid them; it gave me something to do other than stand outside of their attack range. Also, the special attacks were, for the most part, well balanced. You might use Kunio's forward-launching block+punch attack to take advantage of an enemy coming off of their own attack. Or, you could use the speedy block+jump to seize a small window of opportunity.

How was the player character variety?
Golem: At most, there are four characters. Kunio and Riki, the two male characters, share standard move sets (their punches and kicks are the same), and Misako and Kyouko, the two female characters, share standard move sets (with slaps instead of punches). Kunio and Misako share most of their special moves, as do Riki and Kyouko, aside from a few tweaks to make the female characters play faster but with less force. As a result, I had an easy time adapting strategies from one character to another--Misako is Kunio but faster, and Riki is Kunio with different special moves.

You can swap between characters on the fly, and each one has his or her own health bar. So, if you're about to run out of health on Kunio, you can switch to Riki to get a fresh health bar. Having such similar characters made it easy to adapt strategies from one to another while still retaining apparent differences between them.
Yourself: More specifically, the ladies can't do grapples or sit on downed foes, but they have a convenient finisher on their kick combo that knocks enemies down toward them, allowing a chance to get in more down-attacks than usual.

How was the pick-up variety?
Yourself: There were no pick-ups in the game. The total lack of items lent a clean, straightforward feeling to the fighting, leaving the player only the option of mastering the combat system to proceed. It kept the tone of the fighting consistent and put progress in the hands of enemy and state variety.

I don't know where else to mention this but there was a mid-game roller-coaster ride to restore the players' health. It was, in a word, spectacular.

How was the stage variety?
Golem: There are a decent number of levels here (eight brawling levels), and during the middle of the game, you'll get some motorcycle levels just for variety's sake. Checkpoint placement was unique to the level's pacing. So, you've got to marathon it up a few floors without checkpoints when fighting through a school, but every time you switch screens in the amusement park, you get a checkpoint. The campaign became its most intense towards the middle, featuring one stage in a disco that's just two boss fights in a row.
Yourself: Just about every screen of the game introduces either a new enemy or a unique playing field. It's easy to recall all of the fights individually because each had some identifying feature: the fight in the school where the floors fall out and slope down, the fight on the pier where enemies can be tossed into the drink, the fight on the Ferris wheel where you can ride the cars up into the air and battle your foes five stories high. The slight details are minor enough that you can still fight with bread-and-butter tactics, so you can mix in the gimmicks at whatever rate you prefer. Throwing every biker off the pier is a satisfying challenge, but I didn't ever bother to use the meat-hooks in the warehouse for stationary kicks.

How was the enemy variety?
Yourself: The enemy variety was heavily tied to the progress of the story - each new area meant a new foe to fight. There weren't any Donovans or Breds who stuck around for the entire length of the game. Each breed had an identifiable moveset - the early school hooligans fight with basic punches and kicks, while the subsequent bikers expanded beyond that with heavy use of blocking and dashing. Though the late game did have a few grunt-type enemies - most memorably, knifemen who could cut straight through your guard - after about the halfway mark, the game transitions into a sequence of unique boss battles dictated by the plot. Because of this, the line between 'normal' enemies and bosses was pretty blurry. Very few tactics were effective beyond a single type of enemy, as they all substantially shook up the core dynamics - any time you thought you landed on a win-all strategy like blocking-then-special-attacking or infinitely jump kicking, an enemy would show up with a specific counter that forced you to go back to the drawing board. 
Golem: The enemy set also did well to explore the nooks and crannies of variation. For instance, that disco stage has two boss fights, but they follow the same basic idea: a fast and weak character accompanied by an overpowered enemy with tons of health. In the first version, the powerful enemy is a little more aggressive in how he approaches you, but his attacks are easier to weave between (the second guy attacks less frequently but is more dangerous when he does). Even the basic high school grunts get some cool variation, seeing them upgrade to bikers in the warehouse and knife guys outside the pachinko parlor.

Shin Nekketsu Kouha finds a way to demand reinterpretation of its mechanics just by making small tweaks to how an enemy works, and I felt like I got a lot of variety out of my technique without the game having to do anything too crazy.

How were enemy groups formed?
Golem: Outside of the intro segment, you'll never see more than two enemies onscreen. Segments would focus on one or two types of enemies, often just one. They're often subtle differences, like between the two school goons (I'm not 100% sure they even have different behavior, they just look different) and the two yakuza members. The disco fight, when you get one fast enemy and one slow enemy, is the only time I recall there being a dramatic difference.

How did combat work one-on-one?
Yourself: Shin Nekketsu was all about intense one-on-one combat - it's such a textbook brawler that it may as well be the definition. With only a handful of boss exceptions, enemies' skill-sets exactly match the players' and fights are distinguished by the AI's behavior rather than enemy mechanics. To fight one of the bikers from the warehouse the player needs to know how to block/dodge/override basic punches and kicks, how to interrupt dash attacks, how to block jump-attacks, and how to respond when one of their own attacks is blocked. Learning how to defend against your own techniques like this highlights their vulnerabilities and how they sequence together. 

How did combat work against crowds?
Golem: During the warehouse stage, you'll face a stream of bikers in each room. It was definitely easier to manage one type of enemy at once, since I could keep to one strategy and either focus on one guy at a time or just regularly bounce between enemies. Even if there were two enemies on screen, if they were the same type of enemy, I could hone one strategy to handle them both.

When the two enemies onscreen were of different types, I had to manage them more carefully. For instance, in the disco boss fight, I'd try to take out the fast character first. However, as I did so, the slow character would advance on me, and I'd have to decide when to turn my attention to him. This uneven pacing between enemy characters made certain fights feel dynamic and hectic.
Yourself: Generally I really only wanted to fight one enemy at a time, so my strategy revolved around disabling half of a pair and then engaging the other as quickly as possible to take advantage of the one-on-one time. Back-attacks and jump-attacks - anything that did a quick knockdown - were the most useful for crowd control.

How was the boss variety and how did boss fights generally work?
Yourself: The bosses were simply a continuation of the evolution of standard conflicts. I didn't need to substantially change my tactical approach or expect that they'd completely change the gameplay dynamics, though they did each have characteristic moves that provided personality to the fights.

For instance, the charging bull Misuzu had a special running slam that allowed her to cross space diagonally and do heavy damage much more quickly than other opponents. She was too dangerous to fight head-to-head, as head-to-head combat always meant taking a few hits and Misuzu's were so strong that her intermittent counters would kill you far before you could kill her. Without direct combat available, aerial attacks were typically the next option - Misuzu easily swatted those down as well. That's where her charging attack came into play - by that point in the game it was clear that a dashing enemy was locked into his/her pattern and had no means of counter. So the trick was taking advantage of that locked period, and it turned out that by keeping far away from her and circling around, it was possible to get behind her immediately after her charge and land some safe hits. The battle gives repeatable concrete feedback to your tactics and feels like a strategic puzzle to solve - there might not be a singular right answer, but there are clearly wrong ones.

As for the variety, the bosses built up on a similar scale to the standard conflicts - the large bosses were built from a similar set of moves with charge attacks, jump-kick blocks, and instant knock-downs, differing mostly in their tactical approach. Joe put on constant pressure with his charging attacks but was vulnerable interrupting counters, while Kinji played more defensively with his quick and deadly stationary kicks, requiring you to match his reflexes. The penultimate boss is a Kunio mirror-fight, a culmination of the near-equal-footing battles that make up the entire game, and the finale in the textbook beat-em-up Fist Vs. Gun. 
Golem: Bosses typically had more impressive attacks, such as Misuzu's charge and Shinji's hurricane kick. While this meant they did more damage, this also gave them more visible cues to attack, since you could spot vulnerabilities in their special attacks. The final boss fight takes this to its extreme, since his main attack kills you in but a few hits, but you can rush under it during a pretty generous window to knock him down.

How was the learning curve and difficulty?
Golem: Even at eight stages, it manages a few twists. The first several stages go from mindless grunts and drill down to intense, focused enemy encounters, but after that sequence, it plays around with both modes. I can't say anything too meaningful about the difficulty curve, but I definitely got the sense that it was always getting harder (aside from one memorable portion at the start of the final stage). The knife guys were generic grunts introduced right after an intense boss fight, but even these knife guys did well to upend my strategies by cutting through my block. I'll say this: the game found ways to develop difficulty by using clever variations on what it had already developed, and some of the later enemies were deceptively tricky.
Yourself: The game was pretty tough throughout, though that's somewhat dependent on how willing you were to take advantage of looped jump-kicks and special moves. Around the warehouse (mid-game), the difficulty hits a level where you really have to be taking advantage of all of your moves. It doesn't get significantly harder from there except for one or two boss fight spikes, but since moving forward always means there's a new enemy to learn, you can never rest easy.

The all-time famous line
Play again or recommend?
Yourself: I highly recommend Shin Nekketsu Kouha to fans of action-adventures, beat-em-ups, and Shenmue 2. It has a rich set of combat options and a great set of unique enemies that could even provide a backbone for a fighting game. This is a game that constantly presents the player with new challenges, making it perfect for replay. The dialogue drags down the pace a little (especially later on when losing a boss fight means re-reading the pre-boss cut-scene), but there's no reason anyone who likes a good brawl should miss this one.
Golem: Easy recommend. Because enemies are so hearty and feature so many moves, each fight feels significant. And, because there's a password system, you end up with shorter, more manageable sessions. That does mean there's not a lot of brainless fodder to toss around, though--by my reckoning, this is the farthest the genre gets from button mashing.

Hey look. Someone made this. Even though they were some kinda weirdo Russian.

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