Videogame Art: Nekketsu Kouha Kunio-kun (1986)

By Alex Kierkegaard / October 25, 2013

On spiritual order of rank. — It ranks you far beneath him that you seek to establish the exceptions while he seeks to establish the rule.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Videogame Art: Volume I

Nekketsu Kouha Kunio-kun (Hot-Blooded Tough Guy Kunio), known in Western countries as Renegade, was a huge worldwide hit when it appeared. The arcade made shittons of cash, the magazine ads and review coverage were ubiquitous, and ports quickly appeared for every console and computer system in existence. At the time, I kind of missed the boat on this one. Although the first videogame I played was indeed Pong, the first system I actually owned was an Apple IIc (Mac lovers REPRESENT, since 1984!) followed by an 8086 PC and finally an Amiga — and it wasn't until much later that I would get into consoles with an official European Master System (which promptly got returned and exchanged for an import Mega Drive). Of course, even before I got the Apple IIc I'd been playing all sorts of games in the arcades and sampling all the other systems in friends' homes. But a game you can't have in your own home is a game you won't be spending much time with, and so it was with Renegade. What's worse is that the storm caused by Renegade's arrival had mostly blown over by the time I picked up my first videogame magazine, which as fate would have it was the issue of the legendary Greek magazine Pixel featuring the review of the home computer ports of a little game called... Double Dragon. I can still remember what a mind-blowing experience it was to skim through and read an actual videogame mag. It was almost more fun than playing games! Because when you're playing a game you are, after all, playing merely a single game, but when you're checking out a games mag you are being exposed to dozens of them, with the accompanying dopamine or whatever-it-is hit every time you stare at a new screenshot. Because, make no mistake about it, looking at a static screen of a game may not be as immersive, and therefore as enjoyable, as playing the actual game, but it sure is still enjoyable! It's the same thing that happens when you are looking at a painting! (a real painting, at any rate, if you know what I mean). In fact, if we are talking about, for example, games made by Vanillaware, staring at the screenshot can be even more fun than playing the game!
   Okay, excessive snark aside, I am sure you know what I mean. But what I am trying to convey to you here is that, the moment I picked up my first videogame mag, everything changed. Whereas before I was of course extremely interested in games, I still had no clue, not only what was under development, but even what was currently available or what had existed for a long time. I would simply encounter games in a variety of environments (a hotel lobby, a bar or cafeteria, a school computer lab or an arcade or a friend's home), and would engage with them as long as I was there. Even when my uncle-the-architect gave me the Apple IIc, and I at last had in my own room a machine capable of playing games, the only games I had for it were the ones he would occasionally bring me (and which mostly sucked, by the way, which is perhaps part of the reason it took me quite a while to become fully invested in the artform). All this changed when I laid hands on that so fateful for me copy of Pixel. A brave new world suddenly opened up before me, and these guys knew all about it! They knew more about games than my uncle, and all my friends, and the guy who installed games in my school's computer lab, and even all the arcade operators put together! To put it in modern terms so you can understand it, all the people through whom I was being exposed to games before I picked up my first mag were casuals, whereas all the magazine dudes where hardcore. You could almost say that, whereas before the mag I too was a casual player, afterwards I became hardcore. It was the magazines that made me hardcore (just as a certain website has been doing its best to make you hardcore, dear reader, for the last seven or eight years).
   After that first issue of Pixel had landed in my hands things quickly escalated, and a few months later I was already well acquainted with the entire British videogame press (chief among them Computer & Video Games), and shortly after also with the American (above all EGM and CGW) and even the French (primarily through Joystick), while still closely following Pixel and one or two other inferior Greek mags that eventually appeared. I was basically spending more money every month in the early '90s on game mags than your "hardcore" forum poster today spends ON GAMES, IN A WHOLE YEAR — and whatever mags I had no money left to buy, I WOULD STEAL. Serious as shit — I was even caught once, but after giving me a stern lecture, they let me go. And fags today think 30 euros A YEAR for unprecedented level of coverage and analysis is unreasonable... Ah, how the game-playing crowd has degenerated... And that's why they are getting precisely the gaming press they deserve.
   To get back to Renegade, though (and yes, dear Japanese readers, I am using the English title because, until very recently, that's the version of the game I'd been playing), by the time I synced up with developments in the videogame industry, Double Dragon was not merely already available, but it had even been ported. My recollection of the exact details become hazy at this point, and I am not even sure which of the two I played first, and even on what system. I do remember "beating" (i.e. credit-feeding lol) Double Dragon in the arcades — and I'll tell you all about this unforgettable experience in an upcoming essay. I also remember playing its Amiga port at some point — but Renegade... I don't know. What I do know for sure is that, by the time I'd picked up my first few mags, I was fully aware of the game, because its various ports were still selling through the roof, even while Double Dragon had arrived, and it was hard finding a mag that didn't have either an ad for it, or a review of one of its ports, or even just random namedropping of it in any number of other reviews and articles. At any rate, at some point I MUST have briefly tried out SOME version of it, but since it was in general considerably inferior to Double Dragon, and since I didn't have it at home, I promptly forgot about it and was swept away in the flood of titles that followed up on it as the genre quickly evolved to finally reach its peak with... Dragon's Crown.
   Hahaha yeah. I am sorry, I can't resist the digs. That game is such a trainwreck, I just can't stop looking. So back to Renegade then, and the number one question that any critical essay on it must ask... and try to answer. Why did this game, and the genre it launched, become such a huge success? What did it have that all previous games in the genre (the side-view action genre) lacked?
   To put it briefly, and not to mince words, the third dimension.
   I blew your mind now, I know.
   It really is as simple as that. Belt-scrolling games were the coolest action games in the late-'80s simply because, unlike all other previous games in the side-view action genre, these ones were in 3D — and you can take this fact and go quote it on any number of forums where 2D fans hang out, and rub their pimply, snot-nosed faces in it all day long (or anyway until they ban you lol).
   "But if these games were really as cool as you say, why did they disappear?", would at this point be a reasonable question.
   First of all, these game were indeed as cool as I say. Names like Double Dragon, Golden Axe, Final Fight, and Bare Knuckle are still household names for a reason, this reason being that they were awesome. Second of all, they have by no means disappeared — on the contrary, they are everywhere these days, in the form of any number of Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden sequels and imitators — it's just that people are too stupid to put two and two together and realize it.
   But let's take it a step at a time. To start off, there's no question that, as far as brawling goes, fighting in a 3D space is shitloads more fun than fighting on a single plane. There's just no way to adequately simulate the scenes of your favorite martial arts movie on a single plane, and that's why all the good action games that remained purely 2D put such a strong emphasis on some type of either shooting or platforming, or in the best of cases (e.g. the Shinobis and their ilk), a combination of both. Guardian Heroes and Viewtiful Joe appear to be among the handful of exceptions to this rule, but they are not really, since Guardian Heroes still works in a three-dimensional space since it features three tracks of movement, which is to say THREE PLANES instead of one, and Viewtiful Joe bamboozles you into forgetting how restricted a single-plane beat 'em up is by throwing as many special powers, slow-mo zoom-ins and gimmicky variety segments at you as it can (whilst Guardian Heroes achieves the same sort of effect through leveling and stat customization, remember). The case really is hopeless for pure beat 'em ups on a single plane, and the ultimate proof of that is that they have completely disappeared — or, to put it in another, equally damning, perspective, they have evolved into one-on-one fighting games, where instead of exploring complexity IN SPACE — which they can't because there isn't much of it to be found on a single plane — they are exploring it in TIME — i.e. in motion, in the moveset, the fighting mechanics. Of course, ideally you'd want to explore and maximize both aspects in a single game, which is why Bayonetta would have wiped the floor with every side-view brawler, belt-scroll action game and one-on-one fighting game (whether 2D or 3D) in existence if only... its stage designs, pacing and boss fights didn't suck so hard. But that's another essay.
   So what I'd like to address once and for all is the claim of some diehard 2D fans that STGs and FTGs are fundamentally more enjoyable than belt-scroll action games, since the latter have "disappeared" but not the former, whereas in fact the opposite is true. Once you realize that Devil May Cry is a "belt-scroll" action game in the exact same way that Ikaruga is a 2D shooting game even if it has 3D graphics, your eyes can finally open wide to the truth that belt-scroll action games have never been as popular, and as numerous and profitable, as they are today — while STGs are trickling in at a rate of a couple of games a year, and FTGs, despite their ubiquity, are a relatively stagnant genre, in terms of both innovation and market share, their sales grosses and dev budgets being nowhere near the level of modern "belt-scrollers". Whoever remains dubious of what I am saying only has to play through Xbox Ninja Gaiden, and if they still fail to see how it wipes the floor with every 2D belt-scroller ever made, I am sorry, but there's nothing that can be done about them. Hamsters too prefer running inside a wheel to any number of higher activities, so don't feel too bad about it — at least you are not alone.
   It's essentially the same relationship that obtains between sprite-scaling games of the '80s and '90s and their 3D successors. Is OutRun 2 not a sequel to OutRun because its graphics are 3D? Is Quake not a first-person shooter because it ditched the sprite-scaling of Wolf 3D and Doom? And would you seriously prefer a 2D sequel to Pole Position over any number of modern racing games? Why is it so hard for so many "gamers" to acknowledge the utter superiority of three-dimensional games? — Because they are mentally and emotionally stunted, neckbearded, mouthbreathing retards, that's why.
   A final analogy I will offer is this: the reason 2D STGs and FTGs are still being made whereas belt-scrollers have disappeared and morphed completely into 3D brawlers is the same reason that, though cars eventually replaced and phased out horse-drawn carriages, they will never completely replace motorcycles. For the function of the car and the motorcycle are too different for these two types of vehicles to merge into one, whereas that between cars and carriages is virtually identical, hence the latter's disappearance (or, more accurately, their morphing into the former). In other words, 2D STGs feel very different to 3D STGs (i.e. to stuff like Ace Combat, X-Wing and the like), just as 2D FTGs feel very different to 3D FTGs, and that's why all four of these categories of games are still going strong today. 2D brawlers, on the other hand, feel extremely similar to 3D brawlers — because they are not really 2D! that is to say, the graphics are but not the mechanics! — and hence why only the latter have survived.
   Does the above mean that every 3D brawler is better than every 2D belt-scroller? No more than the fact that men are stronger than women means that there do not exist some women who are stronger than some men. It is indeed even possible to make a car so shitty and useless that a horse-drawn carriage would be superior to it, but when we are talking about theory we are trying to establish, not the exceptions, like the imbeciles, but the rules. And it is one's capacity to recognize and acknowledge the superiority of the rule over the exception that separates the intelligent, theoretical mind from the brutish and narrowsighted practical one.
   And with this we have I believe exhausted the theoretical implications of Renegade's and Kunio-kun's phenomenal success, and I would like you to devote a few seconds of silence next time you load up Bayonetta or Metal Gear Rising to the memory of the game, and the people, who made possible the masterpiece that you are about to enjoy. Would these games have been possible if, according to the wishes of the 2D fans, the devs had not abandoned the 2D techniques? (or rather, not evolved and refined them into 3D?) I remember telling Recap one day that Zero Gunner 2 is one of the STGs where the 3D graphics were essential to the game's success because of the rampant rotation effects. He replied that the rotation could have been pulled off just as well if Psikyo had opted for 2D graphics instead. And it's true — to an extent. The game WOULD have worked with 2D graphics, of course — but certainly nowhere near as smoothly as it did in 3D. And lol at the thought of it as much as you want, but Bayonetta and Metal Gear Rising would also have worked as 2D belt-scrollers, just not with Game Maker for the engine or an arcade stick for the controls. You'd need a modern dual stick controller with a ton of buttons, and you'd need some serious technical wizardry and a shitload of sprite frames and scaling effects, but it could be done. Ask anyone who knows how this shit works and they'll agree. It's just that the effort would be immense, and the result far inferior to what you can get with 3D. And that's why no one does it. So try to finally understand that it was NOT the 3D games that killed your beloved 2D ones. All the genres that died, belt-scrollers included, had already been EXHAUSTED by the time developers began evolving them into 3D. I know because unlike all the poser losers who pretend to know what they are talking about in all the other sites (including the specialist ones), I was there and I played them. In the genre that concerns us here, for example, there was simply nowhere further to go from where the last belt-scrollers had left off; no more significant possibilities to explore — and so everyone, players and developers alike, simply moved on. Fighting games did NOT kill belt-scrollers, if anything they spurred on some really furious innovation in the belt-scrolling games, whose designers tried every idea under the sun in the final years, to keep the players from completely abandoning the genre in favor of the fighters — and they STILL failed to do it. Any innovation attained by the Taiwanese IGS in the aftermath of the genre's implosion is marginal at best, and it's still a matter of contention whether any of their games rival the pinnacles of the genre from the early-'90s, no matter what Macaw might try to tell you in the gamengai forums. I haven't played any IGS games yet, so I won't say anything more on the matter, but jesus fucking christ even an utter imbecile should be able to see that whatever innovation they may have made over the top Capcom brawlers is negligible compared to what would eventually be achieved BY SIMPLY CHANGING THE METHOD VIA WHICH THE GAME'S GRAPHICS ARE GENERATED. (And by the way, can the "graphics don't matter" retard brigade finally see how intimately connected the graphics are with the mechanics, to the extent that a simple change in the way graphics are rendered can help send the mechanical complexity of the game skyrocketing through the fuckin' roof?) Dragon's Crown's case, meanwhile, is even more hopeless than IGS's, since the damn thing isn't even a belt-scroller in the first place, it's a JRPG with a real-time battle system that just happens to have been modeled after belt-scrollers. In other words, twenty years after belt-scrollers died and still no one can find a way to significantly improve them without switching the graphics to 3D, and you are still complaining about the genre's "death" to us? Have you even PLAYED all the EXISTING belt-scrollers? So shut the fuck up already. Go 1CC every belt-scroller in existence, including all the console and home computer ones, and then come back here and tell me that you are not sick to fucking DEATH of them, and ready to take a look at what can be done in the same genre with three-dimensional graphics. DMC and Ninja Gaiden, Bayonetta and Metal Gear Rising, that's what. And that's why the Platinum dudes are not making belt-scrollers with Game Maker on the TIGSource forums. Because they aren't retards.
   And that's that for Kunio-kun's most outstanding aspect, the three-dimensional playing field that opened up the action and is thus responsible for the lion's share of the game's creative and financial success. There are, however, many others. I was particularly surprised, on revisiting the game, to see that it gives you only a single life (whoever has read my scoring essay will know why this is awesome), no continue feature (arcade culture FTW), and no health items (S.A. Renegade from Scathing Accuracy will love this — though as I explained in my scoring essay I don't mind it at all when it's implemented carefully as in the belt-scrollers, and not allowed to run rampant and debase the game to a stupid grindfest as in DMC and, worst of all, Bayonetta). I mean how hardcore is that? Are there any other brawlers, whether 2D or 3D, with a one-life, no-continue, no-item-hoarding, battle-to-the-death setup? But that's precisely how every martial arts movie ever plays out. Wouldn't it make sense then to universally adopt this setup, instead of insisting on going the exact opposite way? And can some people finally begin to see that my theorizing is not pie-in-the-sky daydreaming but sometimes even stuff THAT HAS ALREADY EXISTED, and the memory of whose awesomeness has been washed away by untold tides of hipsterism and bad criticism and pseudo-criticism?
   Other mechanics Renegade introduced were a wider variety of moves, combo attacks (with enemies that could take much more punishment, requiring a succession of punches), and superior AI tactics (enemies grab you from behind, backing off as soon as you begin attacking, but ganging up on you when in great numbers). Valid criticisms are minor. Kurt Kulata of HG101 claims that "Even though the game essentially invented a whole genre, it's really not very good", because "It runs at half the frame rate of a normal arcade game, the animation is choppy, and controls are sluggish", in the exact same way that Edge magazine gave GTA3 6/10, because the controls were "bad" or whatever, as if anyone gave a fuck. "Here's a spaceplane that can take off from a runway and fly you to Alpha Centauri, the first of its kind, though I have to warn you the controls are sluggish and the ride a bit rough." The reply of Edge and HG101? "6/10, not very good, don't bother." — Imbeciles.
   Kulata's mistake is even doubly offensive compared to Edge's, because of Renegade's age. I mean of course if you were playing Alien vs Predator and Shadow over Mystara last week, Renegade will seem to you "really not very good" today, but if you spent, say two years playing nothing but pre-1986 games, and suddenly one day someone gave you Renegade, you'd SHIT YOUR FUCKING PANTS OVER IT on first sight — which is precisely what happened on a worldwide scale in 1986. People like Kulata are simply too dumb to understand the past (and therefore, by the way, also the present and the future). HG101 in general has done a great deal of harm to the cause of videogame criticism and theory. Every single one of its writers is an emulator-abusing, credit-feeding, save-stating, FAQ-reading, YouTube-watching imbecile, whose "opinions" are nothing more than a regurgitation of inbred commentary scooped up over a period of months and years from Wikipedia articles and miscellaneous online message board threads. Compare their output to that of people like Recap, Rando and me, who were there when shit went down, or to younger guys like Josh, zinger and Macaw, who at least have the sense to immerse themselves completely inside an era before attempting to pass judgement on any given game within it. That's the only way to go if you want to properly appraise the past without having been there — and all the rest is "hardcore gaming".
   But Kunio-kun's excellence does not end with the mechanics. As befits a Japanese masterpiece, the game is even strong aesthetically, and Renegade even more so. In one of the extremely rare cases where the localization is aesthetically superior to the original (NES Shatterhand, for example, being another such prominent case), the Western version of the game replaces the Japanese high school setting (which I am not a huge fan of because of how averse I am to the dumb, sailor-inspired school uniforms of the era depicted in the game) with standard lowlife/punk attire, and makes changes to some of the backgrounds to reflect the move of the game's setting from Japan to America, a setting that would be adopted for Double Dragon the next year and explored a great deal further. More importantly, there is a grittiness and rawness to both the mechanics and aesthetics of Kunio-kun and the early Technos brawlers in general that is completely missing from their follow-ups in the genre. Just compare the attack animations of these games to what Capcom, Konami, Sega et al. would later come up with — no other punch (and kick, and knee and headbutt) compares to an early Technos punch. Final Fight's visuals seem sterilized and antiseptic in comparison, and the moves of its characters far too awkward and stilted. Bare Knuckle does quite a bit better in this regard, but the action still doesn't seem as rough and dirty as in the Technos games. Even the modern 3D brawlers, nearly thirty years on, have not managed to surpass this aspect of Kunio-kun's and Renegade's legacy, any more than they have managed to equal, never mind surpass, their one-life, no-continue, no-item-hoarding, battle-to-the-death setup. Now how freaking awesome is that?