The History of Kunio-kun: Downtown Special Kunio-kun’s Historical Period Drama!

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When I sat down to type this article, the first sentence that came to mind was “now we’re getting to the really weird shit” — but in retrospect, looking back at the Kunio-kun series as a whole and the many weird and wonderful things it has already done in the titles we’ve explored so far, Downtown Special Kunio-kun’s Historical Period Drama! doesn’t feel particularly odd in the grand context of things.

In fact, what we have here is a prime example of how the Kunio-kun series was one of the first video game franchises to successfully establish an ensemble cast who are able to effortlessly transcend their original context. We see this quite a bit with popular Japanese series such as Neptunia and Senran Kagura these days, whose respective ensemble casts have done many different things over the course of the last decade — including collaborating — but it’s interesting to see that this idea of having a “virtual cast” stretches right back to the 8-bit console era.

Downtown Special Kunio-kun's Historical Period Drama!

Downtown Special Kunio-kun’s Historical Period Drama! is, mechanically speaking, a follow-up to Downtown Nekketsu Story in that it plays in quite a similar fashion. There’s an open world you can explore freely, there’s fighting to be done, and there’s stats to progress. There are a number of twists, though.

Firstly, as the title suggests, the game is not set in the world of delinquent Japanese high-school kids. Instead, it’s positioned as the characters acting out roles from a play about feudal Japan. When speaking, the “characters” are given new names, but in the game interface they’re still referred to by their “real” names — plus all the distinctive chibi faces from the previous Kunio-kun games have been carried across, making famous characters such as Riki immediately recognisable.

Secondly, the overall structure is rather different to Downtown Nekketsu Story. Rather than fighting your way from one end of the map to the other, gradually powering yourself up along the way, Downtown Special Kunio-kun’s Historical Period Drama! instead features a much more open world with a number of different ways it’s possible to go, and your aim is to track down a series of targets and kick the crap out of them.

Downtown Special Kunio-kun's Historical Period Drama!

Unlike Downtown Nekketsu Story, not every screen you wander onto bombards you with enemies, meaning once you know how the map is laid out — and this takes a bit of figuring out in some of the more complex areas — you can proceed directly to the key encounters rather than fighting off endless waves of goons. That said, once you reach an area that an enemy has “occupied”, you’ll still have to fight off a swarm of henchmen before you take on the boss character himself — you just don’t need to fight your way to your destination this time around.

Downtown Special Kunio-kun’s Historical Period Drama! features a notably different progression system from Downtown Nekketsu Story. Rather than simply stuffing your face with food that corresponds to the stats you want to increase, Kunio instead earns increases to his stats by fighting off enemies — you’ll hear a distinctive sound when he “levels up” in this way.

A particularly interesting aspect of this structure is that you can choose to level up some stats more quickly at the expense of others. If you decide you don’t need extra kicking power, for example, drop your “kick” progression level down to 0% and boost your “punch” level up in its place. By default, Kunio levels up in a completely balanced manner across all his stats, but by tweaking these boosts you can build him according to your own preferred play style.

Downtown Special Kunio-kun's Historical Period Drama!

Staying up and about is a little different now, too; Kunio has two health bars to consider. The Stamina bar can easily be replenished by eating food, while the Energy bar can only be refilled with special potions or staying at an inn. Essentially the Stamina bar acts as a buffer before you start taking Energy damage, so it’s important to keep it topped up regularly, as opportunities to restore Energy are harder to come by. Naturally, you can upgrade both through the progression system, so if you’re struggling to stay standing against tougher opponents, this might be something you want to focus on.

On top of the levelling system, Kunio also has the opportunity to learn a variety of techniques, both from defeating certain enemies and by purchasing them in shops. Techs include upgrades to his basic moves such as rapid-fire punches and kicks, plus unique special moves that are especially useful in specific circumstances. In total there are 24 to learn — though as you might expect some are more useful than others!

You can also purchase equipment from certain shops, providing boosts to particular stats while you’re wearing it. This can be a good means of quickly buffing yourself up without grinding up your stats the slow way — but in the long term you will, of course, want to have Kunio as strong as he possibly can be “au naturel”.

Downtown Special Kunio-kun's Historical Period Drama!

Downtown Special Kunio-kun’s Historical Period Drama! also features cooperative gameplay, even if you’re playing solo. In one-player mode, Kunio is accompanied by another member of the cast who is controlled by the computer, and as you progress through the game you’ll be able to recruit a variety of different allies to stand by your side. Each have their own particular strengths and weaknesses, and they’re also able to learn techniques in a similar fashion to Kunio.

Naturally, if you have someone on hand to play with, they can take control of the ally character, too — rather pleasingly, you can switch from single-player to two-player and back again on the fly during gameplay, which is relatively rare for a NES/Famicom game — and it’s even possible to choose if you have “friendly fire” activated or not. Trigger-happy Kunios will probably want to note that even in the “co-op” mode, you can still hurt your ally if you throw something at them, though!

All in all, Downtown Special Kunio-kun’s Historical Period Drama! is a thoroughly interesting beat ’em up. It’s oddly daunting when you first start playing, since it doesn’t give a lot of indication of what you’re really supposed to be doing — and indeed, even as you continue to play established beat ’em up veterans may find themselves craving a little more in the way of “go straight” linear structure.

Downtown Special Kunio-kun's Historical Period Drama!

But its action RPG-style “gradually power up until you can flatten everyone in existence with a single punch” approach really makes for some satisfying gameplay — and its freeform, open-world nature makes it a great pick-up-and-play game for when you just fancy punching a few dudes.

Is it better than Downtown Nekketsu Story? Debatable — but if you enjoyed that game, you should absolutely give Downtown Special Kunio-kun’s Historical Period Drama! a go, at least!

The Double Dragon and Kunio-kun Retro Brawler Bundle is available for Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4.

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Pete Davison
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