Editorial | 12/19/2012 at 2:25 PM

Co-Op International: Downtown Special

Discover the first sequel to River City Ransom

Not long ago, Co-Op International looked at the little-known Japanese Turbografx CD version of River City Ransom. This time we return with a River City Ransom sequel/spin-off that was never released outside of Japan. Downtown Special – Kunio-Kun no Jidaigeki Dayo Zenin Shuugou! (Downtown Special: Kunio-kun's Samurai Drama) for the Famicom (Japanese NES) looks and plays even better than River City Ransom, but it takes place in feudal Japan. And thanks to the magic of an English translation patch, anyone with an NES emulator can fully enjoy it.

River City Ransom is the most famous game in the long-running Kunio-kun series, which actually started with 1986’s non-co-op Renegade/Nekketsu Kouha Kunio-kun. The Famicom saw several Kunio-kun spin-offs like Super Dodge Ball and Crash’n the Boys: Street Challenge. But Downtown Special (as I’ll shorten it) is the only game structured closely after RCR and you could easily think of it as RCR 2, despite the change from an urban high school setting to the time of the Samurai.

RCR (especially the unedited Japanese version) has a strong story for a beat-em-up of the early nineties, and Downtown Special follows suit with a fairly dramatic introduction and mid-game conversations between the heroes and bosses. Unfortunately, the English patch doesn’t always make great sense as the translators seem to struggle with the original game’s character limits. The Japanese language can convey meaning with far fewer characters than English, which often led to wacky translations in the old days of strict character limits. But basically, the setup seems to be that a rival clan or gang leader has forced himself on Kunio’s girlfriend and cursed (?) Kunio’s master.

Confusing story aside, what most of us want from an RCR sequel is solid beat-em-up gameplay mixed with RPG elements. Downtown Special does not disappoint in those areas. The fighting controls work identically to its predecessor, though the roster of moves has expanded slightly. Weapons still add a ton of fun to the experience, only now they’re period appropriate. Sure you can get by with a plain old sword, but striking foes with a ridable rickshaw kart or a tree trunk (the most effective weapon) is way more exciting.

Downtown Special still has shops for players to visit and a decent selection of food to buy, but the food only refills players’ health instead of increasing their stats. Instead, character development works more like a traditional RPG. Defeat lots of enemies and you level up, boosting your stats. As a twist, you can assign varying percentages of your future growth to the stats of your choosing. Thus a player like me who loves using weapons can specifically focus on buffing weapon strength without having to experiment with dozens of shops.

The co-op is just as great as RCR. You can toggle friendly fire (a setting that was removed from the US version of RCR) and other settings mid-game, not just at the beginning. The first player controls series protagonist Kunio-kun, while player 2 starts as his brother Tsuu. The latter can even be swapped out for the bosses and other allies like Rikki who sometimes join up. The heroes can still carry and throw each other – more for kicks than any useful purpose. To that end, a player equipped with the rickshaw can even give his partner a ride! If you don’t have a partner, the AI will control your ally, just as in the GBA version of RCR. You’ll be thankful for the support, as this game is tougher than RCR, even on Easy.

Downtown Special boasts much more elaborate level design than its forefather, with sloping mountains, levels that stretch up and down instead of just left and right, and water to swim in. However, the game structure has become less linear, and not to its benefit. You’re supposed to hunt down bosses who randomly move across the new map screen. Enter an area not occupied by a boss and you won’t even see any enemies, which often makes the many interconnected areas feel like ghost towns. You may want to brush up with an FAQ to reduce confusion. Also, while the graphics have improved significantly, the game suffers from major slowdown problems whenever enemies are on-screen. Adjusting the emulation speed might lessen the feeling of fighting through molasses.

River City Ransom fans will definitely want to give Downtown Special – Kunio-Kun no Jidaigeki Dayo Zenin Shuugou! a try. The change in setting and character building make for a sequel that simultaneously feels fresh and faithful to its predecessor. I only wish the structure was more linear and action-packed and the fighting less plagued by slowdown. Still, if you’ve got a local co-op partner who digs RCR, those issues won’t outweigh the joy of this little-known classic brawler/RPG mash-up.

Language barrier: Nonexistent when playing the patched ROM. Low-medium if playing the original cartridge without a patch.

Difficulty to import: A collector could play the original cartridge in one of those knock-off NES consoles that has a Famicom slot. But most of us will just play the translated ROM on an NES emulator, eliminating any import barrier.