If you were to ask kids in the late '80s and early '90s for iconic NES video game characters, alongside the usual gang of Nintendo, Konami and Capcom regulars, you would often hear the name "Alex". No, not our own Alex "Lovely People" Olney - this Alex was none other than the western version of Kunio, the short-tempered high school delinquent whose adventures date back to the original Nekketsu Kouha Kunio-kun (localized in the west as Renegade) and who gathered a cult following thanks to the Famicom releases of Nekketsu Koukou Dodgeball Bu and Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari (Super Dodgeball and River City Ramson respectively in the west), which ultimately turned him into the mascot to Technōs Japan. Kunio's and his friends adventures in both sports and brawling have been entertaining us for the past three decades, with no signs of letting up anytime soon.
Shodai Nekketsu Kouha Kunio-kun is the series' very first 16-bit outing, but it is not a sequel to River City Ransom, despite most people assuming so. As the Japanese title implies, this is in fact a direct sequel to Nekketsu Kouha Kunio-kun. Kunio (plus Riki if you have a friend around to play with) and his colleagues from Nekketsu High take a field trip to Osaka. Of course there is very little peaceful sightseeing as they engage in battle with rival Osaka gang soon after arrival. It is up to the player to survive the whole ordeal in hostile territory with only the relative safety of the Hotel room where you can save your game. You might have believed this was just a regular scrolling beat'em up from the synopsis, but in fact it mixes a whole bunch of RPG aspects into gameplay - just like Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari / River City Ransom.
For every rival gang member (and even civilian) you beat up, you get experience points. These will level up your character, raising base stats like strength, speed and defense, and allow you to learn new moves and special techniques that consume Ki. Unlike River City Ransom you can't buy stuff from shops but you can get items from vending machines. You can also get equipment drops from enemies and there are even random encounters while you stroll through Osaka. These are not like your regular JRPGs of course; random fights erupt with people you see walking across the screen (or the ones you start harassing…we're not judging!) and not all of these are necessarily rival gang members. Thanks to a great variety of characters, it could potentially be a middle aged business man attacking with his suitcase or even the nice old lady brandishing a chain. Considering the amount of (cartoon) violence towards female characters, we pretty sure if Poison didn't show up in western versions ofFinal Fight Nintendo would have never even considered a western localization of this game - at least not in its original state. Sometimes civilians even ally with you, but since friendly fire is mandatory, they are more often an hassle than help; when in doubt, just start throwing punches (or any of the pickup weapons that include pillows) in every direction.
Kunio and Riki start off with a very basic set of moves: punch, kick, stomp, block and a couple of grabs. Start levelling up and the game will reward with new tricks, from the always useful jump kick at level 6 to the good old suplex at level 32. Just like the Famicom game's single attack button controller scheme, everything (even blocking) is done with the "Y" button and this is sadly where Technōs could have done one better. "Y" attacks, "B" jumps and "A" is used for interactions with "Start" bringing up the menu for stats, equipment and Ki techniques usage. The control could have easily been modified to make use of the extra SNES joypad buttons, assigning a control scheme more like Super Double Dragon with a button for punch, another for kicks and another for blocking. As it stands, more often than not you will end up mistakenly performing moves you didn't mean to due to your relentless bashing of the "Y" button. Couple this with the fact that your punches hurt both friend and foe alike and it spells certain disaster when you happen to accidentally get your partner in the line of fire.
Graphics wise, Shodai Nekketsu Kouha Kunio-kun looks great for an early Super Nintendo title, with wonderful variation in both environments and characters. The sprites lack some of their super deformed 8-bit charm, but you can still clearly recognize Kunio despite the extra details. We particularly like the parallax effect on the floor, something that reminded us of the similar trick used in Street Fighter II and Batman Returns. The music perfectly complements the whole "rival gang fight it out in Osaka" motif with the usual American '60s-flavoured tunes and the meaty sound effects are excellent. In its native state, you will need to know Japanese well else you will end up wandering the streets of 16-bit Osaka aimlessly, since most of the plot is delivered by dialogue between Kunio and either his colleagues or civilians. Unless you have a guide, you will not know what you have to do in order to further advance the plot. Fortunately, Aeon Genesis has released a complete English translation patch in 2007, so if you own a RetroN 5 or Retro Freak and are a Kunio fan, importing is certainly a viable option.
Shodai Nekketsu Kouha Kunio-kun is very good attempt to upgrade the genre to 16-bits. It's an excellent way to spend some fun hours playing alone and twice as fun to play with a friend, something that remains true for all Kunio-kun games. Violence is never too far away and upgrading your character to discover what new special move or Ki technique does is always a blast. It might not be the very best scrolling beat'em up or action RPG on the system, but the mix of both worlds works well. It certainly is a far superior game to the original Renegade and a good companion piece to River City Ransom. Plus, we are fairly certain this is the only game in the system (nay, ever?) to let players start a pillow fight. Barf on, Kunio. Barf on…