In a resumption of the SB Nation collection of hockey blogs looking at video games this week, this post is about a hockey game with the longest title I have ever played. It is a game I did not play through legitimate means but I can happily say is now available thanks the continued rise of nostalgia in gaming. The game was originally called Ike Ike! Nekketsu Hockey-Bu: Koronde Subette Dairantou. This literally translates to Go-Go! Nekketsu Hockey Club: Slip-and-Slide Madness as per the Kunio-kun Wiki.
Some background is in order. One of my favorite games on the NES was River City Ransom. This game was developed by Technos Japan Corp. Technos had developed a number of good games for the NES such as Super Spike V’Ball and Double Dragon (let’s not talk about #3) as well as arcade games. But River City Ransom was different. It featured memorable and simple sprite characters running around beating people up - usually making them go BARF - to earn money, use that money to build up Alex or Ryan (I don’t know how, but donuts apparently increase your power with weapons), and run all over a city to eventually get to River High, fight through many gangs to get some dude named Slick who’s really a childhood friend named Simon, and rescue Cyndi. It was a lot of fun to play and I would argue it holds up well. Unbeknownst to a younger me in the 1990s, this game was part of a larger series of games developed by Technos known as the Kunio-Kun series. In America, he was Alex. In Japan, the main character was Kunio and he went on to star in many games by Technos both in beat-’em-ups as a delinquent hot-blooded tough guy from Nekketsu and in sports games where he starred as a delinquent hot-blooded tough guy who was also an athlete.
A handful of those sports games did make it to America, although with re-translations and adjustments. Their dodgeball game became Super Dodge Ball over here. Their first soccer game became Nintendo World Cup. There was a cross-city athletic event for the schools and the second version of that became Crash ‘n the Boys: Street Challenge. Had you beaten that game, there was a teaser for Crash ‘n the Boys: Ice Challenge. That was supposed to be the American version of Ike Ike! Nekketsu Hockey-Bu: Koronde Subette Dairantou, which came out in 1992. However, despite the teaser and previews being sent out to games magazines in late 1992 and early 1993, the plans to have the game released in America were cancelled. I do not know exactly why but it was near the end of the NES’ commercial viability and I do not know if Crash ‘n the Boys: Street Challenge did well enough.
Technos carried on in making games for another three years or so. Like a lot of developers, they moved over to the Super Nintendo. They still did arcade games - The Combatribes, for example - and continued their Kunio series. Those Kunio games never came over to America. Technos faded and ended up closing in 1996. It seemed like the iconic, blocky high-school tough guys would be a memory of the past.
However, thanks to Million - a development company made up of former Technos personnel - revived the series for a bit. Most notably by remaking River City Ransom for the Game Boy Advance as River City Ransom EX. And Arc System Works has taken the mantle forward further with releases for the 3DS and PC. The nostalgia for this series really showed when a Kickstarter by Conactus Creative obtained the Kunio license and made River City Ransom: Underground, which was a success. The game, while different in a number of respects, was very much in the spirit of the original series. WayForward developed River City Girls, another spinoff that pulls two characters from the SNES games that never officially came out in North America but put together a very fun beat ‘em up in the Kunio way. The latest sign of the Kunio comeback was the North American release of the Kunio-Kun and Double Dragon Retro Brawler Bundle for the Sony PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch. This collection of 18 games includes 11 NES games by Technos that never came over - including their take on hockey: Ike Ike! Nekketsu Hockey-Bu: Koronde Subette Dairantou.
Needless to say, I picked up this bundle when I could. How can you go wrong with Kunio? Or hockey? I am happy to say that the games are accessible and come with helpful features such as instructions, saves, and options to reduce flicker and stutter that was present in the original NES version. I also made a beeline for trying out the hockey game. Without going into specifically how, I sought this out when I was a teenager for much of the same reason. The people who made River City Ransom made a hockey game? A game that I wanted back in the NES days but never did come out? Sign me up.
In those days, I muddled through the game, trying to figure out how to do super shots, how to keep the opponents at bay with “legal” swings of the sticks, and try to compete my way to the top. There was a story mode with the teams becoming odder - kendo fighters, dudes in football uniforms with golf clubs, and a biker gang that played with pipes - and tougher. Things got serious when the opponents actually looked like hockey teams and they were fierce battles as I recall. Mostly because I never actually learned how to do any super shots. The computer absolutely did, so it became a challenge of seeing if I can stop them while somehow sneaking a puck through. Fittingly, the best team in the game was the only team wearing hockey helmets and I somehow prevailed. Nekketsu won situation and Kunio was the hero of the story.
Now that I have the bundle for the PS4, I went right to the hockey game. My memories did not hold up so well. First, I want to explain what the game is like.
The game itself is definitely not a realistic version of hockey. As mentioned, characters and/or opposition teams had their own super shot that often ended up with the puck in the back of the net. It was legal to swing your stick, jump up and throw a hand, or throw checks at anyone - although the goalie would just knock you down. Players who were being hit a lot would get real mad and then the real fists would fly - and too much would have an offscreen referee stop the game and dump you in the penalty box, which was a trash can. There is no timed power play, but the next goal would free the player. Which happened often because the game was 3-on-3 with goalies. Going down a player was a big deal. The lines were cosmetic, there are no offsides or icing whatsoever, and no player changes except in intermission. There were still three periods of three minutes each and you won by outscoring the other team.
The game has two modes: a story mode for up to two players and a versus mode for up to four players. Not a lot of non-realistic hockey games had stories. Thanks to the Kunio-kun Wiki and the now-translated version in the released bundle of games, I now understand it. Kunio, the captain of the dodgeball club, was practicing outside of the school and beaned someone by a tree. This someone was Yoichi, who was the captain of the school’s hockey club. He was worried. They were bad and if they lost to Shirogane’s club, they would have to fold. Kunio tells him to man up and that he’ll help the team. An exhibition game is arranged between the dodgeball team and the hockey team. The dodge ball team wins, Kunio effectively takes over the hockey team as a result, and starts to work to get the team into shape.
Kunio is hot-blooded, well-intentioned, and not the sharpest tool in the shed. Instead of getting other hockey teams to try to prepare Nekketsu’s team, he reaches out to his friends in other organizations that do not play hockey. Such as the school’s kendo club, the school’s baseball club, the American football club led by his friend and rival Riki at Hanazono (whose rink has bouncy pads for boards), and a roller hockey team led by a wild biker that plays on an outdoor rink with mines. Amid all of this, the only hockey team he sets up a game against before Shirogane is against an all-girls school. So Kunio is 1 for 5 in terms of appropriate opponents ahead of this must-win game against Shirogane. As Nekketsu wins each game, a few more players join the team and the team wins a uniform from their opponents that boosts their stats. Yes, there are stats for attacking, defending, and weight (meant for goalies). More than just cosmetic, some allow special abilities like the kendo uniform allowing you to fling a wave of power in the air with your kendo blade or the roller hockey outfit that has you jump in the air and do a spin instead of a traditional slapshot.
When it comes time to play Shinogane, the AI really picks up the pace and the game’s difficulty rises up. It is meant to be a challenge. From this point onward, there are no gimmicked rinks or uniforms. Granted, it is still cartoonish with the super shots and how hockey is played, but it more measured. The story continues after Nekketsu beats Shinogane. After not having the club being shut down, Kunio leads the team to the Inter-High Hockey Tourney. They play two more teams before taking on the tourney-favorites Daisetsuzan High in the finals. They are the ones with the helmets and they are appropriately the toughest. The story mode concludes with Nekketsu taking the big trophy and celebrating their win. As far as a story mode for a sports game, it is not bad.
What is not very good is how the game plays. Unlike other Technos games, the game feels generally sluggish. Especially in the early part of the story mode. As Nekketsu takes on better teams and wins better uniforms for their stats, the game’s pace is faster and smoother. And as you learn how to play the game, it does feel better. However, the three minute periods can feel like a grind especially if you know what you are doing. Similar to Blades of Steel, the single player mode has you control one of the three skaters and the goalie at the same time. With the goalie, all you need to do is move the netminder in front of the shot and, ideally, hit a button to try and catch it to avoid a rebound or a puck trickling through. Unlike Blades of Steel, you only see your goalie when the game is by your net. The action is zoomed in, so you cannot see much ahead of you if a teammate is open or if someone is coming in hard on a backcheck. While this closer view shows more detail and focus on the puck carrier, the players without the puck matter in hockey. This is another fault of the game. The computer-controlled teammates tend to skate forward in a line with you being flanked by both sides. If you move up or down, then so do they. Left? They go left. Right? They go right. Despite the positions being different, your computer-controlled teammates are not playing like it. And so they are not often in good positions for passes. Also, it is not easy to make passes or even set up good ones across to each other. Tapping the ‘A’ button flips the puck up to yourself. Holding it too long lofts a pass to a teammate instead of a quick, on-ice dish. Even in this wackier take on the game, that is a challenge to overcome. Especially since the goalies take up so much of the net. You would think one-timers would be the way to go, but Technos opted for super shots instead.
Once you figure out super shots, then the challenge of the game becomes much more trivial. Technos’ idea about flipping pucks up was intentional. If you lift up the puck to yourself and hit it at the right time (and you may need to jump for it), then your shot becomes a super shot. This can also happen if you hold onto the shoot button at the right time (too long and you’ll just lose the puck) or you hit a lofted pass at the right time too. If you’re Kunio, it’s a straight-line bullet to the net that could knock the goalie out of the crease. If you’re Yoichi, it’s a shot that goes a distance, stops, hits the ice, goes off in a direction, and knocks down anyone that comes in contact with it. Others have other moves. Most of these end up as goals and the opponent can do them too. The game wants you to use them. I learned the hard way that not being able to do them consistently makes the later opponents harder.
The problem is that when you are able to do them consistently, the computer has no answer for them. You can basically blow out the opponent within the first period and effectively win the game provided you put in a minimal effort for the remaining two periods. Some games are still fun in blowing out the opponent. Not this one. You either just have to play out the game or just run up the score even further because there is not much else to do. It would be one thing if dumping the first few opponents by 20 goals would make you better or allow you a more challenging difficulty level. Nope. In playing it recently, I wondered why this game did not have a mercy rule built in? This way players who were experienced could just get on with it instead of having the dodgeball club school the hockey club. Check out this long play of the game and you will see the grind in action as the player just steamrolls the other clubs with the super shots and other ways to score with some very cheesy ways:
A lot of games from the NES-era were short ones made longer due to their difficulty. But the ideal was that even if it was a dominating performance, it was a fun way to spend 30 or so minutes. Like Super Dodge Ball, which can be blasted through in fewer than 30 minutes without any speedrunning feats or glitches. Someone who is adept at this game would still need to spend at least two hours to go through the story mode from start to finish. The game has a password system to break things up, and its now official release allows you to make saves as you see fit. If you have friends who know the game, then you could do a co-op play through of the story but one player controls a skater and one player controls the goalie that is only on-screen if the game is by the net. If you know what you’re doing, then that will not be common. You could also get into the four-player versus mode. I imagine it would be competitive . But if you were like me then and me now, then the story mode was the primary way to play it. If the game was smoother and more responsive to play, then it may be worth going back to it after beating it like Super Dodge Ball, Super Spike V’Ball, or River City Ransom. Now? Not so much.
Of course, I did play and beat it before. My memories of this game were more positive. In describing it, it does sound like a blast. Different kinds of teams, super shots, and hockey with the Kunio characters. But, in practice and revisiting, it does not quite come together. Wanting to like this game were driven by wanting to play something I once wanted and could not get. I tried to appreciate it more because of that. But how the game handles and how it ends up did hold up so well. It was and is memorable, but definitely nothing that I could say that you all need to run out and play the next chance you get.
If you never heard or seen this game before and it looks interesting, then I do at least checking it out to see if it may be something you would like to play. The legal method to go get it is through the Kunio-Kun and Double Dragon Retro Brawler Bundle. If you turn out to not like it, then there are 17 other games in that compilation to play and a lot of them are worth playing. I would say that, though, I am a fan of the Kunio series.
I would like to know your thoughts about this game. Have you heard of this one at all? Now that it is officially released, are you interested in checking it out? Have you played it? If so, what do you remember from it? Please leave your thoughts in the comments. Thank you for reading. A hint for tomorrow’s post: Mode 7.