What is today's game about? Well, it's about brawn. It's about strength. It's about the flexing of oiled muscles. Most importantly, though, it's about the burning spirit of justice that exists in the hearts of those who swear to uphold the honour of professional wrestling. It's Toaplan's 1993 arcade slam-em-up Knuckle Bash, and I hope you're a fan of glistening pectoral muscles.
If you ever do any internet reading on Knuckle Bash, you're going to see phrases like "homoerotic" and "camp" and "super gay" being thrown around, but why? Just because the entire game consists of shirtless men grabbing each other with nary a single female character in sight? Yes, that's exactly why. Never mind that now, though, because there's wrestling iniquity afoot and it's time to meet the three brave heroes tasked with restoring order to the world of sports entertainment and re-sanctifying the squared circle.
I fucking love videogames. On the left we have an extremely muscular and very cheerful luchador - his name is La Plancha, which a quick search on Google Spain tells me means "The Iron." No, not like the metal, like the thing that you use to get creases out of your clothes. On the right is the still extremely muscular but far less cheerful Jack Brow (or possibly Jack Blow), a brooding sort with piercing blue eyes and a quiff so solid you could use it as an anvil for emergency blacksmithery. In the middle is an Elvis impersonator called Michael Sobut. The chances of me picking either of the other two over Wrestling Elvis are precisely zero percent.
Those are their Japanese names, by the way. Knuckle Bash was actually brought to the West by Atari, who renamed the characters: La Plancha was switched to Dice, Michael Sobut became Clash and Jack Brow's name was changed to Devo, presumably because he can whip it good.
Knuckle Bash is split into two halves, and you're given the opportunity to choose which one you want to take on first. They both sound very tempting, but I think I'll start with the top one. I should point out that the Bulls mentioned in these descriptions are not literal bulls, although I would not blame you for thinking that they could be.
Michael rides into action (past the "Zivenchy" store) on a motorcycle, because of course he does. If he was in a car people might not be able to see his outfit, and that's just not acceptable. As he rides along, the game's plot scrolls along the bottom of the screen at a speed that makes reading it difficult and slightly nauseating, so here it is in full so you can take it in at a more leisurely pace.
"Becoming a professional wrestler has always been my dream. I'll fight to the end to save the sport from the corrupt Mad Bulls. Wrestling heros unite! In a Chicago hotel, a secret meeting has been arranged. The heros decide to obtain the services of a powerful master of NINPOW. His name is 'HAYATE' ninja warrior. He resides in Hong Kong and is known to be a skillful and cunning fighter. The Mad Bulls want him too and will stop at nothing. The heros can't let this happen. Even if it means..."
So, the motivation of the wrestling heroes is that they're trying to save the sport from the Mad Bulls, a group of evil wrestlers whose corruption takes a very vague form. How are the Mad Bulls going to destroy wrestling, exactly? Murder? Extortion? Grossly inflated pay-per-view fees? Whatever their diabolical plan, our heroes will put a stop to it by recruiting the ninja wrestler Hayate, so get ready for some hard-hitting, bone-crunching contract negotiations and extended haggling over image rights and appearance fees. Nah, not really, I'm going to punch him until he joins our side.
The game begins as Michael arrives at the Chicago hotel mentioned in the intro. The hotel is called "Hotel Rats," and I'm no expert on marketing but I reckon naming your hotel after vermin is a poor branding decision. There's a reason the nearby Restaurant du E. Coli was forced to close.
And we're off, punching and grappling in the traditional "one attack button and one jump button" style familiar from so many oter side-scrolling beat-em-ups. To call Knuckle Bash "side-scrolling" feels a little inaccurate, though, because there's barely any side to scroll to. Each area is only a couple of screens wide, so the game feels more like an arena fighter than a belt-scroller, with a small number of enemies to be fought in an enclosed space before moving on to the next "room." The combat is mostly the same as always - tap punch for a combo, walk into enemies to grab them - but forget about that because I'm playing as an Elvis look-a-like in a skintight one-piece jumpsuit and cowboy boots, smacking seven bells out of cartwheeling mafiosi clad in retina-searing suits and hotel doormen built like oaken logs crudely fashioned into the shape of a man, and it is fantastic. Not gameplay wise, not really - it's fast and fun but hardly the next great leap in the evolution of the genre - but, well, you read that description, didn't you? There's nothing here not to like.
Okay, I think I've finished my TripAdvisor review for Hotel Rats. "A good location, interesting décor (I especially liked the fountain of the urinating cherub) but the bellhops became aggressive when I refused to leave a tip and tried to murder me with their luggage carts. Breakfast was adequate. Free WiFi. Overall, two of out five."
This being (sort of) a side-scrolling brawler, you can of course press both buttons together to perform a special attack that hurts all the enemies around you at the cost of some of your own health. In Michael's case, he creates a guitar from lightning and spins it around while shouting "Rock 'n' Roll!" because someone at Toaplan has a magical machine that can see into my dreams. Also, I didn't realise until after I'd finished the game that it's a literal electric guitar, oh ho ho.
Oh, I'm fighting this guy now? That's cool, he looks like a fun dude who definitely hasn't just escaped from a circus side-show.
Here he comes now, repeatedly launching his 'roided-out chest at me while the diners look on with feigned interest and a waiter in a frilly shirt does pirouettes. I think that waiter might encourage me to increase my hotel review score to three out of five, if only in admiration for his sheer energy. Nice to see that the boss is trying to expand the usual range of post-apocalyptic bandit fashions by adding the trailing wisps of a mullet to the usual mohawk, I'm sure that will be next season's hot new look for savage men who exist in a bleak, lawless future.
The boss's flying attacks are powerful but also easily dodged by moving up and down, allowing you to wait for him to land, stand behind him and then punch him in the back of the head when he gets up. This is a fairly reliable strategy for many of Knuckle Bash's bouts, and before long you'll be able to move on to the next vignette of violence. But how will Michael get to the next stage?
By staring at a window while a member of the hotel staff plants a bundle of dynamite behind him, either on the orders of the Mad Bull or in a desperate attempt to save his hotel from further destruction. The dynamite explodes, propelling Michael through the window and into the next fight. The dynamite does not hurt Michael because, much like how fire can only be fought with fire, only wrestling can harm a wrestler.
On the rooftop terrace, Michael must do battle with a kickboxer and a fat hillbilly. The hillbilly has the upper hand, because Michael can't see him past the comically oversized collar of his wrestling onesie, but a few electric guitar attacks and making sure to focus on removing one threat at a time will see him through.
Between certain stages there's a button-mashing minigame which, as far as I can see, provides the player with no reward beyond the vision of some firm, toned buttocks that have been vacuum sealed into a pairs of brightly-coloured silk trousers. Simply tap attack to build power until the timer runs out, when...
...both men punch each other in the face at the same time, possibly in an effort to thoroughly streamline the sport of boxing, or to create a new and punishing version of Rock, Paper, Scissors where you may only throw rock. If you've pressed the button enough times you'll knock your opponent to the floor. That is all.
Hang on, am I going to be fighting this guy or watching him do a strip show for a hen party?
Fighting, then. Also some posing, but mostly fighting, especially when the boss starting busting out his handstand kicks that I was having trouble avoiding until I realised that you can do a sliding kick by pressing both buttons while you hold the stick to the left or right. This move provided a good "in" for me as I used it to close the distance between us in a relatively safe manner. It was such an effective strategy that the boss retreated for a while to regroup, summoning in a swarm of lesser minions for me to deal with while he recuperated.
These minions, to be precise, these louche catalogue models that it's impossible not to imagine having the voices of people who attended exclusive American boarding schools. It's no surprise that you're fighting them at the marina, they were probably born on a yacht. They may even have yacht DNA, who knows what the ultra-wealthy inhabitants of The Hamptons get up to in the summer months.
Now that I've made it onto a boat, I decided that it was time to give La Plancha a try. I'm glad I did, because his special move involves grabbing an enemy, setting them on fire and then using their flaming corpse to batter any other enemies who didn't have the good common sense to run away when a huge masked man set one of their comrades alight. With no accelerant or ignition source readily identifiable, we are left to assume that La Plancha can make people combust using nothing but the white-hot flame of his unquenchable wrestling pride. La Plancha doesn't mess about, which makes it all the more puzzling that he's named after a household appliance.
Lurking in the hold of the boat and bursting through the hull to attack our hero was this gorilla. This gorilla-type thing, I should say, because gorillas do not have green skin and orange fur, as a rule. Or wear shorts, for that matter. Hang on: green skin, orange fur, shorts - this is Blanka from Street Fighter II, isn't it? Blanka, but with a more simian form almost totally lacking in humanity. I say almost because his genitals are covered by clothing, as God intended for the race of Man. Maybe this is what Blanka would have become had he not left the rainforest, fought men and women who could shoot magic soul energy out of their hands and eventually met the humanizing influence of Dan Hibiki. Oh well, rabid Blanka will have to be put down, and because La Plancha can burn him alive with a touch I guess that makes him the man for the job.
Also of note: earlier I mused that Knuckle Bash might not fit into the category of side-scrolling brawler, but I've just seen all those oil drums so we can now state with one hundred percent certainty that this is, in fact, a side-scrolling beat-em-up. That's that kind of scientifical gameology research you get here at VGJunk.
La Plancha takes the battle to Chinatown, a dangerous place populated by men who look like sleazy Seventies movie producers. Look at those two guys in the red jackets and tell me you can't imagine them with a gold chain around their neck, promising you that you'll be a star as you slide into the jacuzzi next to them. There are quite a lot of them, the one who manages to kill La Plancha having been promised the rights to adapt the story of Knuckle Bash into a major motion picture.
I really like the graphics in this section, you know. There are some nice details, like the chefs busily preparing food that has almost certainly had either blood or sweat splashed on it, and an overall pleasing quality to the whole scene. I can't really go into more depth than that, I just like it is all.
Two of Ronald McDonald's bastard sons stab a man to death in a Chicago back alley just because he wanted to clean up professional wrestling, while their supervisor - a large bear of a man in speedoes and a jacket with-rolled-up sleeves - mentally conducts their latest performance review. "Good work on the stabbing," he muses, "but their plain outfits do not reflect the standards of high camp that the Mad Bull organization strives towards. For this, they shall be reprimanded and sent to rummage through Elton John's cast-offs."
At last, I have found the ninja master Hayate, and Jack Brow is here to take him down. Don't worry, La Plancha survived his brutal back-alley shanking, I just thought it was time to show you this guy.
Jack is the least interesting of the characters visually, which is a shame because the way they look is all the characters have to separate them. Their special moves are slightly different, but they all have the same basic attacks and as far as I can tell they all share the same statistics - no-one is any faster or more powerful than anyone else. It's a shame, and more individuality would have definitely improved the game, but it does at least mean you can pick the the character you most like the look of without worrying that you're missing out on a "better" fighter.
As for Hayate, he's master the deadly NINPOW arts of sliding around on the floor like a dog with worms and turning himself into a cartoon tornado, making him a disciple of the rarely-seen Tasmanian Devil no Jutsu. It was a tricky move to counter at first, but then I realised that I could block by holding down punch. This revelation not only made beating Hayate much easier but it also entirely changed the flavour of Knuckle Bash's combat: whereas before I was trying to get in quickly to stop enemies from executing their moves and to finish them off as fast as possible, now I can take things at a slower pace and fight in a more counter-attacking style.
"I'll join you, but I won't fight them. I'll fight to them, right up to their front door if I have to, but I must insist that you respect my wishes not to fight anyone who might figure out how to stop me turning into a tornado."
Hayate joins the Knuckle Bash squad, and before you take on the second part of the game - the grandly titled "Fierce Battle of the Four Mad Bulls!!" - you are even given the chance to change your character. I'll be sticking with Jack Brow for a while, just to see what else he can do, but Hayate will get his turn later.
Another slice of what you might call plot if you were feeling very generous or had just sustained a serious head injury, once more brought to you in a text scroll quick enough to give your eyes whiplash. I think the speed at which these information dumps hurtle by speaks to the overall ethos of the Knuckle Bash experience - it's a game that wants you to get straight into the act of big men slamming into each other, with no time to spare for varied characters or complex moves or words. It's sort of refreshing, to be honest, and Knuckle Bash's weird and wonderful setting means I'm more than happy to overlook it's somewhat mediocre gameplay.
Anyway, here's the intro text of part two in full: "My journey takes me to BATTLE KINGDOM, headquarters of the Bull Group. It's rumored that one of them wants out of the organization. It seems he doesn't agree with their methods... I too was once lured by the temptations of the Bull Group. They are nothing but a gang of criminals, evil as sin."
Jack can't even make it through the car park without being attacked. It's good to see that wrestling is bringing in the big crowds, it's just a shame that the Mad Bulls' profits didn't extend to finding these guys shirts that fit properly. In a universe where (I assume) wrestling is the pinnacle of cultural and artistic expression you'd think that kind of oversight could be avoided.
Oh look, it's the first boss in a different set of colours. The tactics for beating him remain the same - block or dodge his jumping attacks, pummel him with some cowardly but very effective attacks from behind - but as this fight takes place in an actual wrestling ring I found myself subconsciously trying to perform more grabs and more wrestling moves on him. Hey, I'm just trying to give the crowd what they want, and until Jack Brow turned up I don't think they were really getting into it.
I mean, half the people in the crowd aren't even looking at the match! The guy on the far left has spotted a bird that has flown into the stadium and is fluttering around in the rafters, while the two men on the right are mortal enemies who, through a hilarious coincidence, bought tickets for adjacent seats and are so consumed by mutual loathing that they have to look in opposite directions at all times lest they accidentally make eye contact.
It's time to see what Hayate can do. What can he do? He can spin around. His tornado powers are still available now that he's a playable character, and very useful they are too although I definitely got more use out of them as a defensive technique than for doing damage. Other than that, Hayate is the same as all the other characters. I sort of want to say that Hayate's faster than the other characters, but I don't think that's true and I have just been mentally conditioned, through decades spent consuming videogames and action movies, to believe that ninjas are faster than everyone else.
I'd certainly expect Hayate to be faster than this American footballer that he's fighting. I'm not doubting the athletic prowess of American footballers, but they're not ninjas, are they? Actually, American Ninja Football would be great, leaping around the gridiron, throwing the ball like a shuriken, teleporting into the end zone, occasionally performing the silent assassination of the umpires. Anyway, the footballer: he's big, he's strong and he can set the ground on fire by punching it so he's handy to have around on a camping trip. His eyes are also tiny red dots of light glowing deep the shadows of his helmet, so I think he might be Johnny Maximum from World Heroes. Jumping over his grapples seemed to work pretty well, and once I'd figured that out it was a simple enough task to beat him. Then a trapdoor opened up - in the middle of a football pitch, I should remind you - and Hayate was dropped into the next arena.
Now, as we've seen, Knuckle Bash is a weird game, or rather it's a very average game with a weird and completely over-the-top setting. In the case of this stage, however, I think it's worth describing the environment just to fully communicate how bizarre it is. You can ignore the bad guy, because he's just a stereotypical "Arabian" fighter with a scimitar and ploofy trousers, but this background... You're in a wrestling ring, but the ropes are made of barbed wire (and yes, they do hurt you if you run into them) and the canvas appears to be made of marble. Behind the ring, wretched prisoners are trapped in a cage of fire, the punishment for their undefined crimes being to burn to death while watching wrestling. Atop the cell is a raised area where a reclining woman uses a tiger as a pillow and a man dressed as one of the Untouchables keeps checking his watch, as though he has somewhere more interesting to be than this vision of insanity. Further to the right is a figure that you never get to see in full: all you're privy to is that they're wearing leather trousers, they're carrying a whip and they may have a snake wrapped around their body. I am somewhat relieved that the camera never moves up high enough to see the rest of them. It's all rather wonderful, really.
You know what else is wonderful? The power of friendship, and I'm feeling pretty great now that the football player I clobbered earlier has decided to join my cause. His name is Captain, and what the hell was he doing while I was fighting the Arabian? Watching to see who would emerge victorious before he pledged his loyalty to either side, no doubt. Typical mercenary sportsman.
It's the final stage, according to the pre-fight splash screen, so I'd better give Captain a chance before I run out of things to beat up. Nothing much new in the moves department for the football star, although I was getting a lot of use out of his slide attack against the final boss: a flying Japanese demon that can breathe spiritual fire and split into multiple copies of itself to breath three lots of spiritual fire at once. That's a lot of fire to avoid, and avoid it you must because it does a ton of damage. Appropriately enough, I managed to fight fire with fire by exploiting the brief period of invincibility you get when activate Captain's ground-flame special move to dodge the streams of fire. Other than that, it was a battle of patience rather than all-out attack or significant yardage gains, but eventually I kicked the boss in the back enough times to claim victory and clear Knuckle Bash's final stage.
Except, in a shocking twist, the game is not over and the final boss was actually legendary Japanese wrestler Giant Baba in disguise! He was merely testing the wrestling heroes to make sure they had the strength to defeat the Mad Bulls, although I fear he may have taken the test too far as I appear to have beaten him most of the way to death.
Now I can take on the real final boss: deep in his secret base full of random cables, jets of flame and TV sets that are erupting from the floor, it's time to do battle with the grotesque, bloated leader of the Mad Bulls in a desperate attempt to save wrestling once and for all. Hang on, does the boss have the head of a pig?
Nope, he has merely sliced the face off a pig and stapled it over his own face Jesus Christ that is horrifying.
He's an intimidating opponent, all right, and not just because of he's clearly a deranged serial killer with a backstory that probably revolves around being raised on an isolated pig farm by his abusive, inbred parents. All his attacks are highly damaging, but special mentions must go to this grab where he shakes you around by the neck - good for removing almost a whole health bar - and his admirable foresight in installing gas hobs on the floor of his lair from which he can summon jets of flame whenever he bloody well feels like. The attack to really watch out for is his rolling cannonball, though, because that's the one that can be easily blocked and then punished. You'll probably lose a few lives, but Knuckle Bash isn't the credit-hungry coin guzzler it could have been and before too long the Pigman will fall.
Everyone gathers to celebrate their victory, and it's nice to see them all together, even if only because it clarifies that an Elvis impersonator is hanging out with a ninja. "We have one thing left to do," says whichever character you beat Pigman with, but what could it be? Another foe to defeat? The remnants of Mad Bull's evil plan that must be wiped out? No, the answer is "take control of our destiny!" I'm not sure how that works, I would have classed beating up this entire criminal organization as some grade-A destiny-seizing already, but I suppose that as a humble and squishy normal person I will never understand the heart of wrestling hero.
Knuckle Bash ends with our five champions of justice staring out to sea and wondering who to suplex next while some text rounds off the proceedings. I've pasted all the text into one image for you, because I'm nice like that. What a Knuckle Bash it was, they laugh, not realise that "knuckle bash" isn't really a phrase or anything, but at least they can be happy that their story will be passed on from "mouth to mouth." Eww.
I'm glad that I've done my part to pass on the story of Knuckle Bash, even if it wasn't in the traditional mouth-to-mouth manner, because this is a game I had a hell of a lot of fun playing. Eighty percent of that is down to the atmosphere and the setting, but you've probably figured that out already. It's basic but enjoyable game mechanics provided Toaplan with a solid base for their madness to sprout from. Fights are fast and fierce, and the very short running time even feels like a plus because sometimes you want a short blast of arcade fun and if Knuckle Bash went on any longer it would start to wear out its welcome. It has flaws, many of them large and obvious - no real difference between the characters, not much in the way of strategy and bland music that doesn't live up to the rest of the game's aesthetic overindulgence - but for fun, pure, stupid fun, I would recommend everyone give Knuckle Bash a try.