Sunday, March 17, 2019

COIN-OP Review: Knuckle Bash (1993)

An Elvis impersonator, a football player, a ninja, a guy who kinda’ looks like pro ‘rassler Sting and a random-ass luchador team up to save Chicago from Big Van Vader with a pig’s snout stapled to his face. And yes, it IS as awesome as it sounds.

By: Jimbo X

Next to side-scrolling shoot-em-ups and top-down shooters, I think beat-em-ups are my favorite old school video game genre. It’s also one of the few 2D genres that never really managed to adequately transfer over to three dimensions, as evident by the existence of Fighting Force and The Bouncer. As such, the classics of yore remain sort of isolated in time, almost like perfect encapsulations of Ronnie Reagan and George H.W. Bush’s America, unsullied by the trifles and taints of everything that happened post-NAFTA.

While the beat-em-up genre is largely considered a 1980s holdover, the reality is the best the genre gave us actually happened in the early to mid-1990s. You don’t need me to read you the lengthy list of coin-op favorites: X-Men, Turtles in Time, The Simpsons, Captain America, Captain America and the Avengers … jeez, I’m starting to weep with nauseating nostalgia already. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, really, because the fact of the matter is there were a TON of great arcade beat-em-ups released in the 1990-1995 window that just don’t get anywhere near the attention and admiration they deserve.

Which brings us to one of my absolute favorite genre hidden gems — 1993’s Knuckle Bash, which, as the name suggests, is just HEAPS of absurd, cartoony, mass aggravated-assault-simulating fun.

Although distributed by Atari in most English-speaking markets, Knuckle Bash is the handiwork of Toaplan,, a cult-favorite developer primarily known for such all-time SHMUP masterpieces as Truxton, Grind Stormer and Batsugun, although they also happened to do pretty well for themselves on the rare occasions they DID step outside of their genre wheelhouse (see Demon’s World, for illustrative purposes.) Unless I’m sadly mistake, Knuckle Bash represents the only time the company ever delved into the beat-em-up waters, and that’s a damn shame — considering how awesome their very first go at-it with the genre was, I can only imagine how awesome their games would’ve been after two or three years of engine tweaking.

I suppose structurally, there’s nothing all that new about what Knuckle Bash does. It’s more or less your basic left-to-right pummel-a-thon, but what the game lacks in apparent substance it more than makes up for with an idiosyncratic style that just reeks of early 1990s ephemera. One part Double Dragon, one part straight to video Don “The Dragon” Wilson movie and one part pretty much the entire WCW roster circa 1992, Knuckle Bash is just a wondrous goulash of so many beloved elements of junk culture that you can’t help but fall in love with its unabashed absurdity.

What, you don't remember that time Sting wrestled the Iron Sheik in an Iranian sex dungeon match?

From the outset, you have the option to play as one of three characters: there’s this guy wearing face paint and bright blue M.C. Hammer pants known as Devo (who, come to think of it, might actually be inspired by Brian Bosworth’s character in Stone Cold), Dice (your dime-a-dozen luchador) and my personal favorite, Clash, who is LITERALLY the most jacked Elvis impersonator in history. Of course, each character has his own special power-up attacks, but for the most part? They all play more or less the same. Of course, the playable character roster increases to five by the time the game is over, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there, dear readers.

[*] By the way, you should probably note than in the original Japanese version of the game, the three playable characters from the get-go have totally different names. You can easily Wikipedia this shit on your own, but out of the infinite kindness in my heart, I’ll just tell you their non-Atari names now: Jack Brow, El Plancha and Michael Sobut.

So you begin the game with a rapid fire opening cutscene of your avatar riding a motorcycle through the mean streets of Chicago, as the backstory text scrolls by the screen at the speed of light. After that, a dude who looks suspiciously like the late Big Van Vader — albeit, with a fucking pig's snout stapled to his face — jumps out of a limousine and throws a whole bunch of guys in orange tuxedos and rather effeminate-looking dudes in booty shorts at you (and even slap at you look a woman!), and the ass kicking, it doth begin. Then you enter the oddly titled "Hotel R.A.T.S." and beat the living fuck out of a whole bunch of bellhops, who through rolling carts at you as projectiles. Then your character spots a fountain statue of a baby taking a piss, and he dropkicks it to pieces, because he KNOWS that's a slippery slope to normalizing pedophilia. After that we have our first boss fight of the game, in which you do battle with a generic, green-mohawked punk pro rassler while a whole bunch of ritzy-looking white people in evening gowns and formal attire cheer you on. Oh, and there's also a waiter who keeps pirouetting in the background, because apparently, this is what the Japanese think America's inner cities are like.

After that, a cutscene is triggered where a guy puts  stick of dynamite behind you and blows you out the patio door to do battle with some generic looking Muay Thai fighter with a mullet and this guy that kind of resembles an amalgamation of Hacksaw Jim Duggan and Hillbilly Jim. After you kick their asses, we have our first mini-game bout, in which you have to press the red button a billion times over the course of 30 seconds to knock out this one muthafucka and get more life points. And then, we hop STRAIGHT into our next boss fight, which just so happens to be a dual to the death with ahomosexual mulatto wearing red lipstick. Oh, and after awhile, he sends his henchmen after you, who are these skinny (and possibly AIDS-infected) caricatures of gay men who LITERALLY attack you by trying to give you fellatio. Folks, I'm not even kidding.

With defense that weak, that dude MUST play for the Kansas City Chiefs...

Then some scuba divers attack, and then you mop the floor with them and hop aboard a boat filled with shory, fat punk luchadors in spandex wrestling singlets. Then a crate explodes and a blonde Blanka ripoff attacks you, and then you do battle with the hairy beast in what is basically Ken's stage from Street Fighter II, and they're not EVEN trying to hide it, either. After that there's another rapid-fire button pressing mini-game  and then you beat up more homosexuals in Chinatown, including these bears in their underwear who powerbomb the fuck out of you. Then you enter a parking garage in a back alley where these two redheaded guys attack you with knives while mice scurry all over the place. Then you punch your way into "Dragon Street" and do battle with this one ninja dude while a bunch of monks cheer the random act of violence going on behind them. Uh, aren't those guy supposed to be all pacifistic and shit?

The neat thing about this boss is that he can turn into a tornado and he has the most AWESOME swinging neckbreaker of all-time. Anyway, after defeating him he reveals he's so impressed by your karate skills that he wants to defect and join your gang to do battle against the Bull Group — that's the bad guys you're fightin', obviously — and then there's another rapid fire cutscene with lighting fast text and then you get to fight these two morbidly obese luchadors in the parking lot of Wrigley Field. Then you enter a pro wrestling ring and do battle with a palette swap of the punk pro wrestler you fought in the hotel bar in stage one. One of the things I really like about this game is the attention to detail: if you note the background, all of the wrestling spectators appear to be holding their penises while cheering on the homoerotic action in the ring. So anyway, that happens, and there's another mini-game, and then you INVADE SOLDIER FIELD AND LITERALLY FIGHT THE ENTIRE 1992 CHICAGO BEARS ROSTER. Of course, they don't come out and say it's technically the 1992 Chicago Bears, but we can all read between the lines here. Then, in a scene eerily predicting The Dark Knight Rises, your character falls through a trapdoor on the turf and is forced to do battle with a scimitar-carrying Iron Sheik in a pro wrestling ring wrapped in barbed wire, while what can only be described as Persian BDSM sex slaves masturbate to the mayhem. Again, you think I'm kidding, but play this thing your damn self and just try and tell me that's not what's going on, folks.

From there, one of the football players you beat up says he'll join your team, and then you invade a pagoda ... in the middle of Chicago ... and do battle with  a whole buncha' Onibaba-looking demons. And then after you defeat the head demon, it's revealed that he's actually ANTONIO INOKI, and he orders you to fucking wreck PIG VAN VADER in the game's final boss fight. So anyway, the final boss (who, now that I think about it a little bit, also kinda' reminds me of Dr. Robotnik and Carl from Aqua Teen) has a couple of different moves he keeps spamming you with, and all of them are cheap as fuck. Since his sprite literally takes up half the screen, when he starts rolling around like a boulder it's literally impossible to avoid him, and just wait until he grabs you by the head and starts slinging you around the place. Not only is that move practically impossible to block, it drains damn near three-fourths of your health bar everytime he does it. So anyway, once he's been bested, all of your teammates come out of the woodworks to celebrate the big bad's demise. One of the characters asks what the team will do now that Pig Van Vader is dead, and you character gives a rather abstract reply — "take control of our own destinies." Then there's a cutscene in outstanding Engrish of the five playable characters watching the sunset on Lake Michigan, as a scrolling text reminds us all that their valor and bravery has reminded children the world over that it's safe to dream of becoming wrestling superheroes. And after that life-affirming message, your asked to enter your high score initials, and that's all she wrote, fellas.

Nothing quite like hitting the bossest swinging neckbreaker of all time, only to have to eat the pin on a rolling ball of flab immediately afterward, eh?

In the interest of fairness, you could say the game has its fair share of faults. For starters, a good goddamn is it short — as long as you have enough quarters on your person, you can probably beat the whole game in about 20 minutes. Secondly, the combat engine isn’t terribly complex, even for its genre; if you’re looking for a beat-em-up with some mechanical depth, I’m afraid you’ll be sorely disappointed by the meat and potatoes setup provided by Knuckle Bash.

But beyond those two (admittedly, pretty major) complaints? Hot fuck on a Friday night, is this game an absolute RIOT to play. The pace is just about pitch perfect, eschewing the prerequisite genre tomato can bash-a-thon segments for straight and to the point non-stop boss battles that will kick your ass mercilessly if you don’t take ‘em serious. While there’s two different game modes to choose from — preposterously titled “Off to destroy the Bull Group!” and “Fierce Battle of the Four Mad Bulls!” respectively — the only real difference is the order of the levels, so that in the latter, you end up unlocking the football player first and the hotel/homosexuals by the lake donnybrook is reserved for the penultimate stage before you fight that Onibaba mothefucker and Pig Van Vader. But that’s not to say the game is sans replay value, because as basic as the combat system is, my goodness, are the controls silky smooth and the ass-whompin’ so gratifying. This is a beat-em-up that feels like it’s got some power behind it, and if you have even a passing interest in games of the like, it’s a long overlooked genre gem well worth going out of your way to experience.

Alas, since the 2D beat-em-up genre is deader than the chances of a Keith Flint comeback (too soon?), we’ll probably never see a proper sequel to Knuckle Bash, which is a pity. So few games of the like had so much charm and character, and it’s actually pretty easy to see the I.P. translating to a Saturday morning cartoon series and an action figure line. And try and tell me this shit wouldn’t make for a PERFECT popcorn summer movie; shit, after 10 years of Marvel melodrama, people would be champing at the bit to watch a quintet of pro rasslers fight pig-faced, homosexual Japanese mafia demons to save Chicago, wouldn’t they?

So yeah, Knuckle Bash is fuckin’ awesome and you need to play it. Like Mercs, it’s one of those games you can crank up once or twice every year and just plow through in 20 minutes and have a goddamn blast the whole time. It may not have the depth or substance and complexity of some of its genre contemporaries, but this thing is just so stylish — and so idiosyncratically ‘90s — that I can’t imagine anyone who isn’t a super-prude not loving the shit outta’ this one.


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