If you're a retro fan, chances are you've come across at least one game in the longstanding Kunio-kun series. Running steadily for the past 30 years in Japan and localized under such varied names as Renegade, River City Ransom, Street Gangs, Crash 'n The Boys, and Double Dragon, the series has been incredibly prolific and consistently well-received in its homeland, but only a small subset of its many entries has ever made it to Western shores. Thankfully, Natsume's hoping to change that with the upcoming 3DS release of River City: Tokyo Rumble, based on the 2013 Japanese release Nekketsu Kouha Kunio-Kun SP: Rantou Kyousoukyoku. We got the chance to take Tokyo Rumble for a test drive at this year's E3 and left very impressed — this charming side-scrolling brawler was one of the nicest surprises of the show.
The Kunio-kun series' hallmark has always been accessible, enjoyable beat-'em-up action, and that's exactly what we found in Tokyo Rumble. The controls are simple, with 'A' to jump and a face-button each for punches and kicks, and stringing together combos between them was smooth and satisfying; damage numbers coming off your opponents with each hit is a nice touch, too. Perhaps the best way to describe the action is 'punchy' — Kunio-kun's short limbs can't travel very far, and there's a lot of weight behind every hit, so attacking feels both precise and powerful. Along with the small sprites, that gives the game more breathing room than something like Streets of Rage or Final Fight, and its own, uniquely pleasant rhythm as a result.
Of course, there's more to Tokyo Rumble than just punching and kicking. Nearly everything you come across can be used as a weapon, for instance, and in just our brief time with the game we raised cans, bins, bats, and bicycles against our rivals. There are also several AI-controlled partners Kunio-kun can team up with, and they're surprisingly smart; we tagged in swole schoolgirl Misuzu for a few fights, and benefited considerably from the help. You can issue commands to your partner using 'X', too, with conversations ('Charge!' 'You're on your own!') between the character portraits indicating the different support modes. You'll also be able to level up your characters, increase your stats, learn new moves, and upgrade equipment, with the series' brand of integrated RPG elements alive and well.
Beyond the battles, one of River City's defining features is an inviting world to explore, and Tokyo Rumble certainly continues that tradition. Kunio-kun's turf is based on real-life Tokyo, represented via a beautifully-designed metro map on the touchscreen, and you can take the train between districts to get around — emerging outside of actual subway stations, of course. Tokyo is a great spot for a rumble, and we had a great time just exploring the streets. Along with plenty of local landmarks and unique shops — where, as ever, smiles are always free! — the areas we saw sported interesting level design, with plenty of multi-tiered setups, separate paths, and one-off environmental features.
Though we didn't get to try them at E3, Tokyo Rumble will also include two meaty mini-games: a free-for-all arena brawler and a dodgeball game. The biggest extra, however, definitely has to be local co-op; two-players can retake Tokyo together, and given how well classic beat-'em-up gameplay translates to two-player modes, we suspect that that will be some of the most fun to be had in River City.
We loved what we played of this Tokyo Rumble, but what had us most excited as we headed out from Natsume's booth was just how passionate its staff is about the series, and making sure this release marks a real comeback for Kunio-kun & co. That's the reason they picked this title — one of five (!) Kunio-kun games to hit the 3DS since 2011 — as the first to bring over: they felt it would be the best entry point for newcomers, as well as an ideal balance between old and new for fans of the NES' River City Ransom/Street Gangs. The graphics are a great example of this, featuring gloriously pixelated 2D sprites over polygonal backgrounds with the stereoscopic 3D effect blending the two — there are even two modes each of zoom and camera tilt (selected with the shoulder buttons), so you can dial in a retro or modern perspective on the action as you like.
That attention to balance is shining through in the localization as well, which Natsume's handling with a cleverly mixed approach. Characters and locations all use their original Japanese names, but items returning from the NES days are consistent with their localised '80s terms, canon Americanised names for the main cast pop up as 'nicknames', and there are even some Crash 'n the Boys references to uncover. It would be easy to start from scratch and ignore prior translations, but we love that Natsume's thinking of fans who played River City Ransom on their NES back in the day as well as import enthusiasts who have kept up with Kunio-kun's career — after all, he was renamed Alex and teleported to California long before Apollo was eating his hamburgers, and acknowledging those earlier adventures makes for excellent easter eggs for longtime fans.
Natsume is clearly excited for River City: Tokyo Rumble, and after playing it for ourselves, we certainly are too — this was a surprise hit of the show for us. If you're a longtime fan with fond memories of River City from the 8-bit era, it's definitely worth keeping an eye on, and we suspect anyone with a love for retro gaming in general will want to watch out for this polished, personality-filled brawler. Luckily, we won't have to wait too long to take back the streets, as Tokyo Rumble is cleared for a Summer 2016 release in North America — here's hoping it's the triumphant comeback Kunio-kun deserves.