Known in the East as Nekketsu Koha Kunio Kun, Renegade was a fantastic brutal beat-’em-up that introduced several key gameplay mechanics of the genre. Here designer Yoshiihisa Kishimoto reveals how his clashes with the law helped create an arcade classic.
A useful piece of advice to aspiring novelists and screenwriters is to write what you know. This doesn’t just refer to working experiences (it would be a pretty limited writing career for many people if it did), but also to the emotions, memories, interests, passions and knowledge you have felt and experienced. This is not to say that everything you create should be semi-biographic, but instead make use of those instances where you can impart your own experiences and wisdom to your story and characters.
Because of their whimsical themes and outlandish characters, few videogames have been directly inspired by the lives of their creators. Shigeru Miyamoto wasn’t a plumber, and to the best of our knowledge never owned a pet gorilla, but The Legend Of Zelda’s open world design was inspired by his love of exploring the hilly forest surroundings where he grew up, while his ball-and-chain enemy Chain Chomp is said to be based on a chained-up dog that barked at him in his neighbourhood. So there is often a connection between the creator and their game, but if there was ever a game that could be classed as almost an interactive snapshot of its maker’s life, it’s Nekketsu Koha Kunio-kun – better known to Western gamers as Renegade.
Its creator, Yoshihisa Kishimoto, was a rebellious teenager. When he wasn’t testing the patience of his teachers and hating school, he filled his spare time street-fighting with students from rival schools, watching martial arts movies, idolizing Bruce Lee, and playing the latest arcade games in game centres in Japan. When he graduated from high school, he found the doors of opportunity open to him were few. But Kishimoto knew what he wanted to be.
“I went to a design school because I wasn’t able to do anything else,” remembers Kishimoto. “My goal was to create action movies but it’s a very long way to become a movie director. So, when I saw an employment announcement for Data East, I thought it was a nice opportunity to create my own games, with my own stories.”
It was at Data East that Kishimoto got his first taste of game development. It was there he directed the Laserdisc arcade games Thunder Storm (Cobra Command) and Road Avenger (Road Blaster). In 1985 though, Kishimoto left Data East to work for Technos Japan after he was tempted away with an offer to create action games for the firm. It was the opportunity he had been waiting for.
Kishimoto’s first project for Technos Japan was Nekketsu Koha Kunio-kun (Hot-Blooded Tough Guy Kunio), a fighting game that saw him put his first deep mark on the face of the games industry. Kishimoto was an avid gamer and a fan of martial arts cinema, and these interests combined with his rebellious streak helped him to perfectly understand what gamers wanted from a fighting game.
“At that time there were a lot of shoot-’em-up games,” Kishimoto remembers, “but I wanted to create something more ‘realistic’ because I thought it was a good solution to make users feel ‘involved’ when playing a game. There were already fighting games like Spartan X (Kung-Fu Master) or Karateka at that time. But the mechanics of almost all fighting games were similar to shoot-‘em-ups (when you hit one enemy one or two times, he disappears from the screen). As for the other karate games they were ‘clean sports games’. I wanted a dirtier and more realistic fighting game. I wanted an action game in which you felt every kick and punch. You just have to see characters animation in Kunio-kun to understand that it ‘hurts’. And such violence was pretty new at that time.”
Inspired by this idea to make an immersive and brutal fighter, Kishimoto wanted to also fuse the combat to a believable story. And looking to his own life and experiences for inspiration, remembered those high school rivalries he experienced growing up. “When I was teenager, I was a furyo, which means a ‘bad guy’. I disliked school and I spent my time with my friends fighting against other rival schools. We were high school students so we all were wearing our school uniforms, just like in manga (laughs). I was a huge fan of Bruce Lee and I wanted to be like him, to fight like him. So Nekketsu Koha Kunio-kun is a game created from my own experiences. I think that it’s the first ‘autobiographical videogame’ in the history of this industry! But the name of the hero, Kunio, was taken from Kunio Taki, the name of Technos Japan’s president. He also was a bad guy when he was young!” Kishimoto laughs.
For Kunio-kun to feel immersive, the controls would naturally also have a crucial role to play. The team therefore spent a lot of time coming up with an innovative and robust control system based on the concept of having a separate button for left and right attacks. Requiring a single button press to attack an enemy instead of having to face assailants first, not only offered greater control but the attacks more responsive. Kishimoto explains how the control system started to take shape.
“At the beginning of the development we tried to use the same combination as Karate Champ, with two simultaneous joysticks. But I thought that hitting an action button to reproduce a punch was more realistic than controlling a second joystick. The second thing I want to say is that today, the beat-’em-up and Vs. fighting games use action buttons for kick or punch. But in Kunio-kun, the left action button is used to fight to the left. And the right button is to fight against a guy at your right. It’s very dynamic and allows players to gain time when your character is fighting and surrounded by many enemies. I love this way of playing these games.”
Kishimoto and his small team ran into many conceptual problems during Kunio-kun’s four month development cycle. With Kunio-kun being so innovative, they had no idea whether the ideas they were implementing were good or not or, more worrying, how they would be received by gamers. The controls, setting and violence made sense in relation to realism and immersion, but there were concerns as to whether this approach would hold wide appeal. When Kunio-kun finally shipped in 1986, the team realised that it had been right to trust its instincts on the controls and design. However, there were still certain problems.
“Many PTA and police called us because they found Kunio-kun too violent for children,” remembers Kishimoto. “But we answered them ‘Sorry, but children are not supposed to be inside game centres without an adult, so take more care of your children’ (laughs), and took the phone off the hook. But it’s true that Kunio-kun had a bad influence on Japanese game centres at that time. After Space Invaders, there were a lot of yakuzas and furyos in game centres. And video game publishers tried to make this industry’s image better. That why we saw many cute games like Pac-Man, Mappy, Donkey Kong and so on during the early Eighties, and women and couples came back. But after Kunio-kun, bad guys came back massively to game centres.”
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