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.