Once upon a time there was a game called River City Ransom. On the surface this Technos game looked like any other 8-bit brawler, however it didn't take long to discover that this action game was incredibly ambitious. Instead of making you fight through levels that are straight out of a big budget action movie, this game took place around your home town. You were a bunch of teenagers exploring a series of inter-connecting areas, fighting gang members and saving the day.
River City Ransom is one of my favorite NES games, a cartridge I still go back to at least once a year. This is a game with a great sense of humor, adventure elements and enough depth to make me want to explore every nook and cranny of the city. For years I have wished for a 3D update to this classic game, something that incorporated the modern day sensibilities, all while mixing in a lot of the old school fun of River City Ransom. At long last I have found that game, and its name is Kenka Bancho: Badass Rumble.
As the name suggests, Kenka Bancho: Badass Rumble is a wacky Japanese street brawler that doesn't take itself too seriously. You play Takashi, a street-wise high school student on a class trip to Kyouto. While the intent is for you to learn from the beautiful locations, you have bigger aspirations. Your plan is to prove how tough you are by beating up the rest of the banchos in town. As luck would have it, banchos from around the country are here for exactly the same reason. It's up to you to beat up the 46 bonchos and prove to everybody that you are the toughest boncho of them all.
Okay, so the story is admittedly stupid. It's really just a set up for a kick-butt action game where you travel around a giant open world picking fights and beating up other district leaders. The game is split up into a bunch of different smaller districts, each with their own gangs, historical landmarks and commercial establishments. The idea is to go around and beat up as many district leaders as possible before time runs out. Unfortunately you only have a few days to travel around Kyouto and do as much damage as you can. What's more, you have to abide by the strict 9 pm curfew, which means that you only have twelve hours in each day to get into street fights.
All this is complicated even further when you realize that much of the game requires you to pay attention to where each gang is going to show up and when they frequent each location. Thankfully you can beat up random goons to find the lists of times and places where each bancho will be, but even with this invaluable information you're still racing against the clock to do and see everything. Because you are always aware that the clock is counting down, there's a great sense of urgency to locate every last bancho in town. And if you don't do it the first time, you're going to be just as committed to go in and try it over and over again until you finally are the king of Kyouto.
The combat is pretty good, for the most part. At first the combat feels a little clunky and sluggish. However, as my character leveled up and learned new moves, I realized the potential for the game. Kenka Bancho: Badass Rumble never achieves the level of control it should for being a 3D brawler, but it manages to get the job done without getting in the way. The level of depth and customizability is impressive, fans of micromanaging everything will get a kick out of how many moves you can choose. Even more impressive is how all of this is done with only a couple of buttons.
On top of having the standard punches and kicks, your character also has a series of throws, grabs, combos and special moves. You can also pick up weapons and cause even more damage. Unlike most traditional brawlers, the weapons (including baseball bats, metal pipes, pieces of wood, etc.) don't disappear after you've used them a few times. You can continue to use the same weapon day after day, which definitely comes in handy when you're going up against some of the harder boss characters.There is more to being a bancho than just getting into a bunch of brawls. One thing you need to do is warn your enemy first, that way you aren't known for being the guy that sucker punches everybody on the street. It turns out that reputations matter in the big city of Kyouto. The good news is that warning your foes means that you get to play a fun and exciting smack talk mini-game. In this mode you will have to assemble an insult using the game's face buttons and should triggers. You only have a few seconds to choose the right parts of each comeback. If you successfully insult your opponent, it will knock him off guard and you'll land an early blow. Fail to get the saying right and you'll be on the receiving side of a hard punch to the face. This mini-game gets harder the further you get into the story, but it always remains fun, if not a little stressful.
There's something of a story in the game, though it's split up and not always easily found. The story is extremely disjointed, often told in quick cut-scenes as you travel through the different districts. I don't mind this narrative, it's confusing and a little hard to follow, but it's not unlike most of my big vacations. It often feels like everything is a blur, but isn't that how most people feel when they're having fun (and beating people up) in a foreign land? While I definitely feel like the story could have been better fleshed out, it really isn't the focal point of this game.
What I really like is that you're rarely forced to get into fights. Oh sure, the focus of the game is to beat up a bunch of district heads and take control of character part of Kyouto, but there's nothing in the game forcing you to do that. You can stroll around and sightsee, all while avoiding fights and actually learning a few things about this beautiful city. On the other hand, if you want to fight everybody that gets in your way, there's nobody stopping you (except for the occasional police officer). You're free to play the game however you want, which really gives you incentive to go through the story mode more than once.
Where the game excels is in its clever writing. Instead of going for a deadly serious approach, Kenka Bancho: Badass Rumble realizes how absurd the genre is. Beyond embracing nearly all of the classic brawler cliches, this game includes a cast of characters that seem well aware of the joke. When you buy clothes or change your hair style you'll have to deal with snarky comments and one-liners. Your enemies will bad mouth you and drop pop culture references. The whole town is full of cheesy characters spouting even cheesier dialog, all perfect for the spirit of the genre. The game's sense of humor is certainly one of its most endearing qualities.
Sadly, the game's visuals don't hold up as well as the comedy. You will run into a lot of repeating characters in your travels, all of them wearing bland colors and having almost no fashion sense. Even the regular civilians of Kyouto are poorly detailed and unremarkable in every way. The locations are diverse and interesting, but you'll never be wowed by their high polygon counts. Even the 46 boss characters all look pretty silly, never as menacing as they are portrayed. Visually the game is a major letdown.
Another problem is the game's difficulty, which barely makes you break a sweat. No matter how far into the game you are, you'll always be able to dominate over your enemies, even when there are a dozen of them and they have baseball bats. You are always stronger and more agile, even when it looks like you're clumsily laying down combos. Most of the bancho fights turn into one on one battles, allowing you to move around and avoid powerful attacks. The challenge comes from finding all 46 of the boss characters before time runs out. Let me tell you, that is not an easy task.
When you're not tracking down a bunch of boss characters, you can check out the Night Out mode. This alternative to the story mode lets you take to the streets at night and do nothing but kick butt. Better still, you can play this mode with a friend via ad hoc. I only wish that the main combat mechanic was more refined, perhaps that's something they can work on for a sequel. Incidentally, Badass Rumble is actually the third game in the series (with a fourth installment hitting Japan later this year).
There's no question that Kenka Bancho: Badass Rumble is a niche product. It's a love letter to those of us who grew up loving games like Double Dragon, Final Fight and, of course, River City Ransom. It's not a perfect game, but it has a lot of ideas and a great hook. Even after I was done with my vacation to Kyouto, I wanted to go back and visit (and find the banchos I missed the first time around). There's a lot to love about this surprising action game, so don't shy about jumping head first into this Badass Rumble.