Being a Kunio fan in the West is tougher than the mean streets Kunio and his friends come from. We’ve had to endure butchered localizations and dozens of titles being missed because they were simply deemed “too Japanese for Western consumption”. In fact, even nowadays, few Western gamers might realise the full extent of Kunio’s successful multi-genre proliferation across 8 and 16-bit formats. But underestimating this hot-blooded delinquent – who was first introduced in the West via Renegade – often proves a fatal mistake. In 2015, Arc System Works became the curator for the whole franchise in a deal that also included the Lee brothers made famous worldwide by the Double Dragon series. They have since released more or less successful entries into the franchise, along with one particular generous retro compilation back in 2018: Kunio-kun: The World Classics Collection. This is now being released in the west as Double Dragon & Kunio-kun Retro Brawler Bundle.
Marketing ploys aside, this Western rebranding is a somewhat surprising localisation. Make no mistake: Putting Double Dragon front and centre on the title does not change the fact that the Lee siblings remain an amuse-bouche in this eighteen-strong compilation. If you grew up with the NES Double Dragon trilogy you will surely find some nostalgic fun here, but the true reason (and price justification) for this bundle is without a shadow of a doubt the eleven all-new English localised Famicom exclusive games, giving them a chance at the Western success for the first time in nearly three decades.
This offering eases players in with seven familiar NES titles: The complete Double Dragon trilogy is present and accounted for, with their unique and quirky home adaptations still resonating well with gamers who grew up with them (except for Double Dragon III, which is quite possibly the one true misfire in this whole bundle). Following up the Lee brothers is Kunio’s localised NES efforts, with a serviceable home adaptation of Renegade (we must admit that despite the extra exclusive features, the Sega Master System version remains the superior game) sitting alongside Super Dodge Ball, the open-world genre-precursor brawler River City Ransom, and the extreme sports antics of Crash ‘n the Boys Street Challenge. See how hard it was to keep up with Kunio in the West? In these three games alone, he went under three different names – hardly the best way to establish a franchise.
The main course is the eleven brand-new English-localised Famicom Kunio entries. Let’s begin with the present “repeated offenders”: Nekketsu Renegade Kunio-kun, Nekketsu High School Dodgeball Club, Downtown Nekketsu Story and Surprise! Nekketsu New Records! The Distant Gold Medal are all the original Famicom versions of games mentioned in the previous paragraph, all presented for the first time with English localisation. Whichever one you pick, a treat is assured; the localisation differences are substantial and far more varied than simple dialogue changes and correct naming conventions.
In most cases, entire cutscenes were removed from the old western NES versions due to either ROM size restrictions or a simple case of publisher deeming them unfit for the young, impressionable Western audience. Do remember that Kunio can sometimes be extremely “unfiltered” vocalising his emotions, and excessive cartoon violence is a hallmark of the franchise in Japan. These are four prime examples of the sort of treatment Japanese games were subject in order to secure a Western release, and thanks to this package you can finally see the difference side-by-side.
The remaining seven Japan-exclusive Famicom releases are the real stars of the show, however. If you were in Europe growing up with the NES, Nekketsu High School Dodgeball Club – Soccer Story should be quite a fond and familiar sight. It was localised by Nintendo, released both as a stand-alone game and alongside the four-player adaptor under the name Nintendo World Cup. In this Famicom original, you don’t pick an international squad; instead, the plot picks up right after Dodgeball Club with Kunio having to offer his athletic prowess to his high school football team to face off against rival high schools. This game introduces Misako, a name that should be familiar to any River City Girls players out there. While it remains a fun and quirky football game, you probably won’t spend much time with it.
Downtown Nekketsu March Super-Awesome Field Day! is the prequel to Crash ‘n the Boys Street Challenge. If you were ever confused by the NES version intro that shows what had happened prior to the events of the game, this title explains everything. It is an athletic meet compilation with some radically extreme and hilarious events, much like the sequel Surprise! Nekketsu New Records! The Distant Gold Medal. Both games remain extremely popular choices with gamers due to the hidden depths of its gameplay systems and excellent use of four-player mechanics.
Downtown Special Kunio-kun’s Historical Period Drama! is the true direct sequel to River City Ransom. While it recycles the open-world gameplay mechanics, this time Kunio is part of a period drama theatre presentation, essentially giving the developers an excuse to make a Kunio game set in Feudal Japan – and you know what? It worked surprisingly well.
NES gamers who completed Crash ‘n the Boys Street Challenge were surprised with an end screen claiming Crash ‘n The Boys Ice Challenge was “coming soon”. Twenty-seven-years later is most definitely not “soon”, but the brilliance of Go-Go! Nekketsu Hockey Club Slip-and-Slide Madness is finally accessible to the Western audience. First impressions might lead you to believe this is nothing more than Nintendo World Cup on ice, but hidden gameplay depths elevate this game to be on par with the other two best NES hockey titles: Konami’s Blades of Steel and Nintendo’s own Ice Hockey.
You may struggle to name the single best ‘proper’ fighting game on the NES because, despite some efforts, the console is best remembered for its fantastic platformers. But from now on you can confidently claim that Nekketsu Fighting Legend is the all-time greatest fighting game in both NES and Famicom library. Kunio gets a mysterious invitation letter on his locker regarding an all-out, two-on-two fighting competition. Unlike the previous games, the player is given a chance to create their very own “Kunio-ish” avatar. The game then assigns special moves based in your date of birth and blood type, and lets you pick from one of twelve available students (including Riki and Kunio himself). Deep fighting/grappling mechanics, interactive stages, secret boss fights and four-player support all combine to create a stunning video game.
From one “best of” to another, Kunio-kun’s Nekketsu Soccer League is an utterly ambitious Famicom-only sequel to Nintendo World Cup and there is a very good chance that once you play this, you will never go back to the former. It is hard to conceive how many different actions you can perform here with just two buttons. Name another football game that lets you ride the ball – or, if you prefer, your teammate – in order to reach otherwise impossible heights from where you can score over-the-top, Sholan Soccer-style goals. Has any other football game be created where both teams can be zapped by standing on puddles of water during lighting-storms or swept away by tornados (sometimes along with the ball itself)? Imagine the zaniness of the previous Kunio football game amplified many times over, and you will have a good grasp of what this one is all about. Kunio-kun’s Nekketsu Soccer League is a complete riot in multiplayer, and despite not being “proper football” like FIFA or PES, it is by far the best game of its kind in the whole NES/Famicom library.
Last but by no means least comes the final Kunio venture into the 8-bit turf: Nekketsu! Street Basketball All-Out Dunk Heroes. While most of us in the West by 1993 were already firmly entrenched in the SNES vs. Mega Drive 16-bits wars, Kunio saw himself win a trip to America, where he meets his long-time friend Johnny and the pair embark on a street basketball adventure. If you think 8-bit NBA Jam with six baskets instead of two, you’re on the money. This is a memorable but understandably overlooked final game in this compilation.
With all this content, that price point no longer feels out of place when you sum up the single-player and multiplayer fun provided by all eighteen titles. Arc System Works truly went the extra mile to ensure the quality of this compilation is above and beyond your standard ROM and emulator bundle. Achievements have been introduced, every game has a unique wallpaper, you can save and load states at any time and most of the games not only allow you to play flicker-free (a huge problem in their original ambitious releases) but also with proper game fixes and updates. The localisation work is uniformly excellent, making these versions the definitive option when it comes to properly enjoying these games.
We fear repeating ourselves every time a new Kunio entry is released, but sadly, having real friends is the only true option when it comes to properly enjoying the multiplayer side of this package because, at the time of writing, we found nothing but empty online lobbies. Also, this one can’t also be considered the ultimate Kunio collection because it sadly still omits several other games released on other platforms, but what you consider what’s here, complaining about it seems a bit churlish.
Double Dragon & Kunio-kun: Retro Brawler Bundle goes well beyond a standard ROM compilation due to proper curation of the source material, and it successfully shines an overdue spotlight onto a sizeable selection of 8-bit Kunio masterpieces that most Western players never had the chance to experience. Contrary to what the tile may suggest, the NES games included end up being merely filler, while the real thrillers are undoubtedly the Famicom games, accessible to non-Japanese gamers for the first time here. A very large offering of varied single-player content complements nearly infinite multiplayer replayability, provided you keep it local, of course, as finding a game online is borderline impossible. In summary, Kunio’s catchphrase “Don’t underestimate me!” perfectly describes the content of this compilation. Do not be surprised to find most of these decades-old Famicom games among your go-to choices when you have friends around.