We chatted with WayForward about River City Girls' ass-kicking heroines and the Kunio-kun legacy


School’s Out

If there’s one title from 2019 that came out of nowhere, kicked down the front door, and immediately captured the attention of the video game community, it’s WayForward’s upcoming brawler River City Girls. With a reveal trailer dropped like a technicolour nuke, this new entry in the long-running Kunio-kun series won over an army of supporters, thanks in no small part to its attractive pixel art, retro-inspired soundtrack, and, of course, the magnetism of its fearless stars, Kyoko and Misako.

With the pedigree of both WayForward and Arc System Works at the helm, the title is expected by many to be a winner. But is there still a place for the simple brawler in modern gaming? At a time when many titles blend genres to create deep, layered adventure experiences, can the old-school simplicity of the Kunio-kun franchise still score a knockout?

I sat down with River City Girls writer/director Adam Tierney to look at our schoolgirl sluggers, the legacy carried on their pixelated shoulders, and the trick to keeping brawlers engaging in the modern era.

River City Girls

Destructoid: Hi, Adam. Thanks for taking time out from development to chat with us. I imagine things have been pretty hectic since the first trailer dropped. That clip seemed to generate a very positive response from the gaming community. How have the last few weeks been and what do you make of the early buzz surrounding River City Girls?

Adam: It’s been incredibly exciting! We’ve been working on this game for roughly the past year-and-a-half, and I think the earliest concepts go back to almost three years ago, so it’s really exciting to finally unveil our game to the public. The reaction has been amazing so many people seem to already love the game, and all the fanart has been incredible. I can’t wait until the full game is released and everyone can get their hands on it.

Destructoid: Right off the bat, I’d like to ask about Technos’ Kunio-kun/River City franchise itself. What made you want to create a new entry for this classic but still somewhat niche series? Is this a franchise that is particularly close to your heart, and what was the process of turning the project into a reality?

Adam: I’ve always been a River City fan, going back to the NES game, which was the third game in a roughly 50-game series in Japan. I knew about the sports games like Super Dodgeball and the fact that while we only got around a dozen Kunio-kun games here in the States, that it was a much bigger brand in Japan. But I’d somehow missed being aware of Shin Nekketsu KÅha: Kunio-tachi no Banka for the Super Famicom, until another director at WayForward (James Montagna) brought it to my attention one day.

I instantly fell in love with the characters, particularly the playable girlfriends, Misako and Kyoko. You had these cute girls curb-stomping street thugs into the pavement. I love playing with juxtaposition in my games, and the visual of these pretty scrawny girls beating up dozens of massive street thugs resonated with me. So we decided to pitch a game focused on those girls to Arc System Works, who own the Kunio-kun brand. They loved the idea.

Destructoid: Yeah, It’s already clear that perhaps the most popular element of River City Girls is its heroes, Kyoko and Misako. While this isn’t the gals’ first rodeo in the Kunio-kun universe, it’s looking pretty snug that it’s aiming to be their finest hour. Can you tell us a bit about the events that turn a typical school morning into a skull-busting downtown rumble?

Adam: River City Girls ties into the greater Kunio-kun universe, and is canonical with the rest of the series. But we knew, given the limited number of Western Kunio-kun releases, and the fact that Shin Nekketsu KÅha: Kunio-tachi no Banka (our biggest influence) never even got a US release, that most people playing the game would essentially be new to the franchise. With that in mind, we made sure that our plot would hold up on its own. If you’ve played previous Kunio-kun games, you’ll recognize a lot of faces and locations, but if you’re new to the series, nothing about River City Girls should be confusing or rely on previous Kunio-kun knowledge to enjoy.

The game is really about the friendship of these two girls, Misako and Kyoko, who get a mysterious text that their boyfriends, Kunio and Riki (typically the heroes of these games), have been kidnapped. The girls then break out of school and battle their way all over town in search of their boyfriends. It’s a very silly game, with one of the crazier plots I’ve ever helped create, although there are some sweeter and touching moments in there as well.

Destructoid: It seems like the community has already fallen for the girls, based on the deluge of fanart that has rolled out since the reveal. Even at this early stage, how does it feel to see the audience so eagerly accept characters that, for many in the gaming community, are relative unknowns? Where do you think this instant-appeal comes from?

Adam: Oh boy, it’s super intimidating, to be honest! It’s great to see people embracing these characters, and in particular these versions of the characters, so immediately. Now I just hope the full game lives up to everyone’s expectations. I think it will the first world of the game was playable at Anime Expo, up through the first boss (Misuzu), and people seemed to love it. So fingers crossed it resonates with gamers worldwide when the full game is released.

I think a large part of the appeal comes from the updated character designs, which came from our incredible concept artist and lead illustrator Priscilla Hamby. Priscilla has an incredible eye for fashion and character design, and the two of us worked closely together for years to re-imagine everyone in this universe. The end result is, hopefully, something that feels exciting and fresh, but still authentic to the Kunio-kun brand.

Destructoid: I’m a huge fan of the girl-gang movies that flooded Japan throughout the 1970s, so Kyoko and Misako are two heroes that really appeal to my personal ideal of defiant, strong, cool, and rebellious protagonists… Also, spiked knuckledusters.

Adam: Yeah, there’s a lot of that feel to the game. Although it takes place in modern-day, everything is drenched in a slightly ’80s vibe, in large part due to Priscilla’s art style and the synthpop music of our lead composer, Megan McDuffee. One of the things I wanted early on was the feeling that the girls were basically “fighting-to-the-beat” throughout this game, and Megan’s music really helped realize that goal. She also composed a large number of full vocal songs, which is another thing I love in games just low-key dropping a full vocal song into a scene as BG music. There’s a lot of that, and Megan’s vocal tracks actually end up tying into one of the boss battles.

River City Girls

Destructoid: River City is primarily thought of as a scrolling brawler franchise. This is a genre I grew up with, and although it was insanely popular in the arcade, it sometimes gets hollow when in the home environment. How is WayForward bringing this genre up to speed for a new generation? What elements of River City Girls will add depth or longevity?

Adam: Ooof, yeah brawler burnout is a real thing, for sure. And since WayForward has done a fair number of brawlers, it’s something we were aware of from the beginning. The best way to alleviate that is with regularly fresh content and continuously surprising the player.

One of the ways we accomplished this is that the game doesn’t use tiled backgrounds. With a lot of retro pixel games, it’s like, “Here’s the street tileset” and then you get five stages that look identical. It was important to us to keep the visuals fresh and make River City feel like a real place, so every scene you enter is completely unique. Over the course of the game you’ll go through River City High School, Crosstown, Downtown, Uptown, Ocean Heights, and Sanwakai Tower. Each world has its own distinct feel, and the player is never seeing the same location art used twice.

Second is the humor and storytelling. My games tend to be pretty stuffed full of VO, and River City Girls is no exception. As you play through the game, you get anime cutscenes, manga sequences, the classic WayForward “slide-in portrait scenes,” and also passive VO dialog that plays during battle. We wanted a very heavy story component to provide context to everything the girls are doing, and why they need to go from point A to B to C. At the same time, all story sequences are skippable, and most of our storytelling comes via passive VO (so you can laugh as you fight).

Finally, the combat is deep, fun, and hilarious. My assistant director, Bannon Rudis, previously directed River City Ransom: Underground before joining WayForward. The guy knows his combat design, and the creativity (and often, plain silliness) of the girls’ attacks should also help alleviate any brawler burnout. Our lead animator, Kay Yu, has very anime-style sensibilities to his animations, so the combat that he and Bannon designed is consistently engaging, funny, and really true to the personality of each character.

River City Girls

Destructoid: A lot of the praise for the trailer is directed at its detailed sprite-work. This art style reminded many people in particular of Paul Robertson’s work on 2011 brawler Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Were pixel-based visuals always a lock-in for River City Girls?

Adam: From the beginning, the game was always planned as pixel art, yeah. Partly because that approach is quickest to iterate on (very important with an animation-heavy game like ours) but also because of the connection to previous Kunio-kun games. Even as the series has recently shifted to 3D backgrounds, they’ve always kept the same NES-style sprites. River City Girls substantially breaks away from the classic Kunio-kun sprite style, and all props to Arc System Works for allowing us to do that. But I think had we jumped straight to HD art, or 3D characters, that might’ve been too big a leap for the brand all at once.

For future games, we’ll see. As much as I love the pixel art in this game, I would be curious to see a River City Girls follow-up animated entirely in HD anime-style visuals like the game’s cutscenes. That could be pretty interesting.

Destructoid: As you’ve noted, anime fighting game master Arc System Works is overseeing production. ArcSys is a company with a pedigree for amazing artwork, animation, and stage design… Were you at WayForward able to tap into that well during development, or is this partnership strictly on a licensing level?

Adam: Oh, it was absolutely a partnership, not just a licensing deal. I’ve seen some people online assuming that Arc was just the game’s licensor and co-publisher and had no say on the game’s contents, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. They are not only the Kunio-kun owners, but also the experts of that brand. They were instrumental in helping us decide on specific characters, locations, plot points, even which Kunio-kun classic songs to homage.

Arc’s Dragon Ball FighterZ was particularly influential on us and the RCG team in terms of VFX design I think that game’s about as good as it gets in regard to crazy, over-the-top fighter VFX. And since Arc are the fighting experts, they would also play our game throughout development and provide notes on how to improve combat. Arc really helped us make this game live up to its potential.

River City Girls

Destructoid: WayForward is also responsible for the popular Shantae series. Within minutes of RCG’s reveal, people were immediately asking if the Half-Genie Hero and her pals would show up to lend a hand. I’m gonna take a wild guess that the team is already sick of that question, so I won’t repeat it here! But are you able to spill the beans on any unlockables or surprises?

Adam: For sure. First off, the game has the same stat-building and item-eating of previous River City titles. It’s also got a ton of unlockable moves, and those are unique per character. We’ve also got some brand new systems to this game, such as Accessories, which are permanent, non-consumable boosting items you collect and equip (like Castlevania‘s clothing items), and Recruits, which is a very exciting new system that allows players to convert any enemy in the game into a jump-in ally. The Recruits system was really Bannon’s baby in this game, and I think people are going to be surprised at how much it adds to the classic Kunio-kun formula.

We DO also have a couple of really fun unlockable extras and secrets, but as you expected, we’ll leave it to the gamers to discover those after the game’s release.

Destructoid: Finally, picture post-release. Imagine that River City Girls is out in the wild, and now you’re hearing back from the players. As the game’s director, what would you specifically hope to hear (or see) from the fans that would tell you that RCG had nailed your vision for the game, its world, and its characters?

Adam: River City Girls is, to me, a character-driven game first and foremost. It’s a story about two friends who are very close and look out for one another. Even when you play the game single-player, the story that unfolds is about Misako and Kyoko working together, it’s never an entirely solo adventure. So really, I just hope people fall in love with these two girls, and the larger cast (50+ unique characters) as much as the dev team did while making the game. Judging by the positive reactions online so far, it seems like they might.

Destructoid: Thanks again for your time, Adam. And best of luck to you and the team for the launch.

Adam: Thanks! It’s been fun to chat about the game. I hope you guys enjoy it!

River City Girls launches September 5, 2019 on PS4, PC, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. A physical edition will be released by Limited Run Games at a later date.