River City Girls, as you might have already guessed, isn't your average Kunio-kun entry. It swaps out the series' heroes for heroines and has been created by WayForward, overseen by the talented team at Arc System Works.
With the River City Girls due to arrive early on in September, the game's director, Adam Tierney, was nice enough to take time out of his busy schedule to talk to us about the development process, his history with this iconic series and what it was like to work with such a prestigious Japanese developer.
So, without further ado, read on to find out why this upcoming beat 'em up is worth keeping an eye out for...
Nintendo Life: Can you tell us about your role as the director of River City Girls and your history at WayForward?
Adam Tierney: Sure! I was hired at WayForward 15 years ago, initially as a pixel animator. But shortly after arriving here, Matt Bozon (our creative director) and Voldi Way (the company’s owner) realized I was capable of designing and directing games. I started by working as assistant director on the game Sigma Star Saga for GBA before directing my own projects, beginning with an X-Men GBA game.
As a director at WayForward, it’s my responsibility to come up with everything in the game – all the gameplay, menus, story, etc – and then oversee the realization of those designs over the next year or so. It’s pretty comparable to a movie director. Bannon Rudis was my assistant director on this game, and we had a pretty nice split where I oversaw most of the story, presentation, audio, and art direction, and Bannon designed and oversaw all our combat.
In most previous Kunio-kun games, it’s Kunio and Riki who are the playable leads, so turning them into the “damsels in distress” this time was a fun twist on the series
What is the story in River City Girls about, and how exactly does it fit into the timeline of the Kunio-kun series?
River City Girls follows two high school girls (Misako and Kyoko) who break out of school and fight their way across River City in search of their boyfriends, Kunio and Riki, who have been kidnapped. In most previous Kunio-kun / River City games, it’s Kunio and Riki who are the playable leads, so turning them into the “damsels in distress” this time was a fun twist on the series.
As far as where River City Girls fits in the overall Kunio-kun timeline, I’m sure the experts at Arc System Works could pinpoint it chronologically better than I can. Kunio and Riki are friends in our game, so it must take place after Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari (aka River City Ransom). The game is most closely related to the Super Famicom Kunio-kun game Shin Nekketsu Kōha: Kunio-tachi no Banka. That game (like ours) starred playable Misako and Kyoko, and our version of those characters is pretty close to how they look and fight in that game. Beyond that, it’s sort of just WayForward’s spin on all these Kunio-kun characters and locations, so it could probably fit in anywhere in the history of the series.
Did WayForward decide to turn the heroes into heroines, or was this a decision made by Arc System Works? What was the reason behind this decision?
It was our idea. Although I’d been familiar with the Kunio-kun series since I was a kid, it has had around 50 titles released in Japan over the past 30 years, but only a dozen or so have come out here in the US. I’d never seen Shin Nekketsu Kōha: Kunio-tachi no Banka until another director here, James Montagna, introduced me to the game. I was instantly smitten with these scrawny-looking girls, Misako and Kyoko, curb-stomping enemies into oblivion, and I felt as though we should create a game based on them.
As luck would have it, I was visiting Japan a few months later (doing bizdev for WayForward) so we had the opportunity to pitch Arc System Works the idea for this game in person. They loved the concept, and shortly after that our two companies began working on the game together.
I think there are around 50 speaking roles in River City Girls, and a large portion of those are characters from the previous Kunio-kun games
What’s your own history with the Kunio-kun series?
I played a lot of Super Dodge Ball and River City Ransom on NES as a kid, although I was more familiar with the Double Dragon series, which has some crossover with the Kunio-kun brand (even in our game). I think I was aware of the very first Kunio-kun game, Nekketsu Kōha Kunio-kun (aka “Renegade”) on NES as well, although that game didn’t appeal as much to me; I liked the cute characters and funny animations of River City Ransom more. BARF!
It probably wasn’t until high school or college that I became aware of just how expansive this brand was in Japan, and the massive number of characters it involved. That’s one area where we’ve put a great deal of effort into this game. I think there are around 50 speaking roles in River City Girls, and a large portion of those are characters from the previous Kunio-kun games. I’m excited to see how people (especially in Japan) react to our take on all these well-established Kunio-kun mainstays.
How much inspiration was drawn from the original Famicom title by Technōs Japan?
River City Ransom is one of the few NES brawlers that I think really has aged well. Yes, you can speed through it in under half an hour (part of why we introduced screenlocks in our game). But the core combat, shop system, items, weapons, stats, levelling, etc. all really hold up.
Bannon was assigned to the project very early on, and I knew he was intimately familiar with the Kunio-kun games because he designed and directed the Kickstarter project River City Ransom: Underground. Although the combat in River City Girls was intentionally not as deep as that of Underground, to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, the core systems are all intact – brawling, levelling, shopping, BARFing... plus a handful of brand-new elements like the accessories and recruits systems.
We know the fighting system in River City Girls has been overseen by Arc System Works, can you explain how exactly its team helped out?
Arc was instrumental in helping us realize the full potential of our game’s combat. As our development partner and publisher of the game in Asia, Arc would be sent regular builds of the game-in-progress. They would then play the game and compile feedback on what they felt could use improvement.
Sometimes their feedback would involve brand corrections (i.e. Kyoko doesn’t actually go to River City High, she goes to Hanazono High, so she needed to be visiting Misako in our story). Sometimes they would suggest enemies (like Trash and Waver) or music tracks from old Technōs games to pay homage to. But especially as we got deeper into development, they would give us detailed feedback on how to get the combat as tight as possible.
Especially as we got deeper into development, they would give us detailed feedback on how to get the combat as tight as possible
Arc System Works is one of the (if not THE) best fighting game developers right now, especially after Dragon Ball FighterZ, which was a pretty big influence on us in regard to VFX and over-the-top attack animations. So the fighting experts over at Arc were very helpful in making our game not only as on-brand to the Kunio-kun series as possible, but also a fundamentally solid brawler.
How was the anime-style cutscene for River City Girls created – was it a similar situation to Studio Trigger working on the opening cinematic for Shantae 5?
All cinematics in River City Girls were produced through a mix of in-house and external animation. We partnered with Studio Yotta, which produced the animation in the Sonic Mania online shorts as well as the Rick & Morty “Oh Mama” music video. Their animation is great.
The process would begin with myself and Bannon planning out the sequences, then working with Eric Huang, a friend of Bannon’s (and very talented artist), storyboarding the sequences and in some cases producing animatics. Then we would pass those materials, plus audio files, along to Studio Yotta to do the final animation and compositing. Our lead animator, Kay Yu, also animated a few shots in the game’s opening and boss intros, in addition to Kay animating most of the gameplay animations.
What made you choose to go with a 16-bit pixel art style featuring anime and manga cutscenes – did you consider any other art styles during the development, or did you want to channel the earlier games in the series?
Pixel art was, I felt, a good baby step for the brand. Keep in mind that for 50 games and 30 years, the Kunio-kun games have always looked nearly identical, at least for the sprite art. The fact that we were one of the few Kunio-kun games to break away from the traditional ‘blockhead’ style characters was a big deal, and we didn’t know how fans of the series would react. So I felt that retaining scaled-up pixel art would be less jarring than making the leap straight to 2D HD or 3D, as many of our games (like Shantae) are. In future Kunio-kun games, if we’re lucky enough to work on more of these, we’ll see what style is appropriate then. But pixel was the way to go for this first adventure.
We also went out of our way on this game to work with new artists, not just the same pool of pixel artists we typically use on our games
We also went out of our way on this game to work with new artists, not just the same pool of pixel artists we typically use on our games. Those guys are amazing, but we wanted a different look and feel on River City Girls, so we teamed up with Hunter Russell (aka BigJerk) to design our sprites and Valeriya Sanchilo (aka Waneella) to design our backgrounds. Both of these artists have very unique, yet somewhat similar (to each other) art styles that rely more on flat colours and shapes than on rendering and shading. The end result looks unlike anything WayForward’s ever done before, which I love!
The manga scenes were a blast to do, too. Priscilla Hamby (aka Rem) designed all our characters in the game, and illustrated these comic-style cutscenes, which were then animated by WayForward. It turned out to be a really effective, charming way to handle storytelling in some of the game’s more complicated moments.
River City Girls will be supported by an "epic synth-pop soundtrack" – does any of it channel music from the older games and can we expect a soundtrack as catchy as the Shantae series and Mighty Switch Force games?
I hope so! I think this is my favourite soundtrack of any game I’ve personally directed at WayForward. It’s also massive – 62 unique tracks with about nine full vocal tracks. I listen to the soundtrack constantly while working.
Megan McDuffee was our lead composer, and created about 50 of the tracks. I think she’s going to get a lot more fans after this game is released. Megan’s got this wonderful synthpop style that flows through the entire game. One of my goals in River City Girls was to have music with a constant beat, so that it felt like the girls were basically dance-fighting their way through the game, and I think we accomplished that with Megan’s tracks. Another thing I love is when games unexpectedly drop a full-vocal song right in the middle of a standard stage, so we did that all over the game (with Megan singing). It’s really cool to be fighting enemies and suddenly notice you’re listening to a full-vocal song rather than just instrumental BG music.
There’s several homage tracks to older Kunio-kun, Double Dragon, and related music in the game
Chipzel is another musician I’ve been wanting to work with for many years, so we hired her to compose the boss battle songs. Nathan Sharp (aka NateWantsToBattle) created the music for our title and end credits songs, and sung vocals on the latter. Cristina Vee, who also cast and directed the game’s awesome VO, sang the opening song. And Dale North produced the retro game themes for our arcade stage.
As for nods to older music, there’s several homage tracks to older Kunio-kun, Double Dragon, and related music in the game. Most of those were suggested by our producer at Arc System Works, and Megan did a great job marrying those old themes with her style. The classic River City Ransom boss battle and store theme obviously make an appearance.
Have you made any major adjustments to the traditional beat 'em up Kunio-kun gameplay?
Definitely. Bannon designed our combat system, pulling from what they did in the original River City Ransom game, as well as his River City Ransom: Underground. But at the same time, we were very careful to not go too complex with the combat (especially inputs) in any way that might be intimidating to casual players.
Each playable character has over a dozen unique unlockable attacks – some of which are earned automatically through levelling up, some of which are bought in the dojo shops – but all of them are performed by pressing one of the three attack buttons plus a single direction on the D-pad. So like the Super Smash Bros. games, there’s a depth to the combat, but any player can pull off pretty much any move. We noticed Arc took this approach with Dragon Ball FighterZ as well, and I think it’s much more satisfying than requiring players to input complicated input sequences with zig-zags and quarter-circles on the D-Pad.
One awesome new feature in the game, which Bannon really pushed for, is the recruits system. The game has over 50 different enemies (when counting palette swaps), and any of those enemies can be recruited by the players to become an ally. Recruiting involves defeating all enemies in the room except one, then getting that enemy down to low health and knocking them down. In these conditions, the enemy will sometimes beg for their life. At that moment, the player can either finish them off or grant them mercy, which converts the enemy to a special call-in attack, like the striker system in Marvel vs. Capcom. It’s really fun to try out all the different enemies to see what each of their attacks is, and we also have a Pokédex-like system that unlocks each enemy’s profile if they’ve been recruited at least once.
We know the game will support co-op – is there any chance we could see online play added in the future?
Because there were so many systems and so much content to build from scratch in this first adventure, we decided to keep co-op local. Brawlers also tend to be more fun when playing with a friend in person, arguing and trash-talking with each other. I don’t know whether online multiplayer is something we would consider adding to this game later, since everything was designed around the idea of local co-op only. But I could definitely see us exploring that in a follow-up game.
I can say that both WayForward and Arc System Works were very pleased with how this game, and our partnership, turned out
How about post-release updates and DLC in general?
I hope so! We have some fun ideas, but nothing’s in production at this moment. I can say that both WayForward and Arc System Works were very pleased with how this game, and our partnership, turned out. So if the game sells well, I think there’s a good chance you’ll see more River City adventures from WayForward in the coming years.
Can you share any more information about the Limited Run physical release?
Limited Run is a great partner we’ve been collaborating with since the second and third Shantae games. I’m excited to see how the River City Girls physical releases come out. Details should be revealed soon, including a Collector’s Edition, but I don’t have any info beyond that I can reveal at this time.
How is the development of Shantae 5 going?
It’s going great! I’m not involved with that game directly, but I see it every day and it looks fantastic. I think series fans, and people new to the series, are going to really dig what that team is putting together.
Any final words about River City Girls?
The game comes out September 5th worldwide on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Switch. It’s a very weird, funny, crazy interpretation of the Kunio-kun brand, and huge thanks to Arc System Works for believing in us and letting us take their series in such a different direction. I hope you all dig what we came up with!
Thanks to Adam Tierney and the entire team at WayForward for taking the time out to answer our questions. We also wish River City Girls the best of luck for its big launch early on in September. Will you be taking to the streets when this game arrives on Switch eShop? Tell us how pumped you are for this upcoming beat 'em up in the comments below.