As we all know, when Street Fighter II landed in arcades and revolutionised the fighting game genre, every developer under the sun rushed to put out their own take on the one-on-one brawler. What’s less clear is why Namco decided to name their effort after a Three Stooges insult. It’s the 1992 global-weirdo-convention-em-up Knuckle Heads!

That’s a surprisingly severe logo for a game that, as mentioned, is all about a bunch of weirdos getting together for a punch-up. Tekken this ain’t, folks - but it is a fighting game, so despite the quirks and foibles of the gameplay which we’ll get to in due time, at its core Knuckle Heads is all about hitting the other person until they stop moving. But why are they fighting?

The bright lights and the sharp-suited host reveal that Knuckle Heads is framed as a televised fighting tournament, with the combatants battling it out for a ten billion dollar prize. Given that the prize is ten billion dollars, it’s a real surprise that only six people entered the tournament. For that amount of cash I’d enter the goddamn tournament even after seeing the kind of violent lunatics I’d be up against. There’s always the tiniest chance I might win the tournament and claim enough cash to solve all my problems, or I’d be bludgeoned to death by a viking and in a way that’d also solve all my problems. It’s a win-win situation.
Yes, I did say that one of the characters is a viking. Let’s meet him, and all the other characters, right now!

First up is Rob Vincent, an American fighter with two tonfas, a supremely smug expression and a chin that Bruce Campbell is probably going to want back at some point. Rob’s the most generic character in the game, but even so he’s still fairly interesting. You certainly don’t see many ginger, tonfa-wielding America fighters in videogames, do you? He’s also dressed kinda like M. Bison. He is certainly not as cool as M. Bison, though.

The obligatory Japanese representative is Fujioka. He is, of course, a ninja. He attacks with a sickle and chain, also known as a kusarigama. I remember that from playing Nioh. See, videogames are educational, presuming you want to learn all the many ways humans have tried to murder each other over the centuries. A less common part of the ninja get-up is Fujioka’s headgurad, which makes him look like a contestant on the Japanese version of Gladiators. Ninjas, you will go on my first whistle! I should go and pre-emptively apologise to my neighbours, because now I’m going be blasting the Gladiators theme while I write this article. Oh, and on the subject of ninjas, this image made me finally get around to looking up why ninjas are so often depicted as wearing fishnets, as you can see on Fujioka’s arms. Disappointingly it’s not because ninjas make their uniforms out of discarded Babybel packaging. It’s supposed to be a stylised representation of chainmail, apparently.

Hailing from China is Christine, the staff-swinging acrobatic fighter who presumably chose this outfit so she could enjoy her hobby of hiding in grape vats. She’s ninety percent of the way to wearing California Raisin cosplay. Yeah, there’s not much to say about Christine. She’s a good character for a beginner to pick. Oh, and her voice lines were provided by Megumi Hayashibara, who’s probably best known as the voice of Rei in Neon Genesis Evangelion. Or Ranma in Ranma ½. Or Jessie (well, Musashi) in the Pokemon anime. She’s voice acting royalty, is what I’m getting at, and Namco spared no expense in getting big-name anime voice actors in for Knuckle Heads.

The characters get a bit more unusual from here, starting with the aforementioned viking Gregory. He’s not a real viking, of course. He’s only thirty-nine years old. A historical re-enactor who has taken things way too far, one assumes. Gregory is the powerhouse character of the roster, ready to cause carnage with his twin axes but always with a smile on his face. Of course he’s smiling, this is one of the rare occasions where owning two massive axes is going to pay off for him. And hey, it’s nice to see a character from Norway rather than the usual fighting game locales.

The Brazilian representative is Claudia, who combines the usual Brazilian fighting game clich├ęs into a scantily-clad, jungle-dwelling, carnival-themed character. She’s also a lot like Street Fighter’s Vega, what with the claws and all. She likes to jump around a lot, so you’ve got to give her bikini top a lot of credit. That thing is solid. She’s also got a big-name voice actor, with her lines being provided by Sailor Moon herself, Kotono Mitsuishi.

The weirdness reaches its apex with the final character: it’s Blat, the tiny Greek man who fights with an enormous hammer. Of course, there are very few Greek fighting game characters to crib from and little in the way of non-historical Greek stereotypes that’d work as the basis for a videogame fighting style unless Blat threw bottles of ouzo at people or something, so Namco had free reign to create their own take on a “Greek” fighter. They went with “peculiar gremlin man who stole the weapon and armour of a fantasy barbarian who was three times their size.” It’s a bold look, but I’m not complaining.

Okay, so the time has come to actually pick a character and play the game. As is traditional by this point, I’ll be playing as Rob Vincent, because he was the first character highlighted on the select screen and he’s also the least interesting, which means he’s the closest Knuckle Heads has to a main character. Having seen the attract mode I already know that Rob has his own versions of the fireball and the dragon punch, so he’s basically American Ryu. No, hang on, that’d be Ken. Oh, you know what I mean, let’s get on with the fighting.

The first bout takes place on the bustling streets of Hong Kong, where the locals have come out in numbers to see Christine crack Rob’s head open with her stick. A bit rude, considering I hadn’t had a chance to figure out what the buttons are yet, but that shouldn’t take long because there are only three of them. You’ve got high attack, low attack and… jump? Well look at that, you have to press a button to jump in this game. That’s a significant difference from Street Fighter et al, and I’ll tell you what – it was a nightmare trying to get used to pressing a button to jump. Decades of fighting game experience have conditioned me to press up to jump, so that’s what I kept doing the whole time I was playing Knuckle Heads. I tried to mentally condition myself to accept this control quirk by murmuring “just like Smash Bros., just like Smash Bros.,” over and over again, but that did not work. It just made me think about the weird “Gaaanondooorf” chant from the Smash Bros. games.

Another interesting feature of Knuckle Heads’ gameplay is that only having two attack buttons means that you have to charge up to perform stronger blows. Keeping the button pressed for a second or so gives your character a coloured aura – it’s up to you whether you belt out a Dragonball Z-style scream as you do so, but it certainly adds to the ambience – and then letting go of the button makes your character perform a different attack. In Rob’s case, he hops forwards and attacks twice with his tonfas. I don’t think I ever landed this attack on a CPU character, possibly because a glowing red aura is a bit of a giveaway re: what attack’s coming next.

Knuckle Heads is still a 2D fighter at heart, though, so much of what you know about other examples of the genre will serve you well here. Special moves are executed using the usual joystick-and-button combos, (like Rob’s dragon punch here,) although fireballs seem to be more away-toward-attack than traditional fireball motions, and I’m very happy to report that Knuckle Heads has smooth, responsive special move inputs. I’ve played many a fighting game where trying to perform a task as basic as launching concentrated spiritual energy from your hands was a real struggle, but for the most part Knuckle Heads let me use my special moves when I wanted to, not at some point thirty seconds and multiple attempts down the line. It’s a good job, too, because the dragon punch quickly became a crutch that I relied on to defeat Christine. The only time she wasn’t blocking was when she was using her jumping attacks, you see.

Next into the fray is Fujioka, and he’s just as much of a videogame ninja as you’d expect. Lots of fast attacks and agile movements, plus a costume that would in no way help him to be stealthy unless he was trying to sneak in as an extra in a He-Man cartoon. Nice y-fronts, dork. Fujioka is also very fond of fireballs. Normally this would be a good thing because I could jump over his projectiles and kick him in the face, but of course I kept forgetting that I had to press a button to jump.
It was also at this point that I realised I’d made a grave mistake in choosing to play as Rob. The issue is that Rob uses a very short-range weapon in a tournament where his opponents are wielding long sticks and extending chains, and a lot of the time range is king in Knuckle Heads. It’s not an insurmountable problem, although it might feel like it when Fujioka chooses to fight from a different postcode and keeps whipping you in the face. If you are going to play as Rob, my advice is to practise using his fireballs.

I must admit, it feels a bit strange to be fighting beneath the (presumably) disappointed gaze of Jesus Christ. Maybe I can convince him that Claudia is a moneylender or something. Namco really went all out to make sure you knew this stage was set in Brazil, huh? The statue of Christ the Redeemer, the carnival dancers, the big neon sign that says “Brasil.” Then there’s Claudia herself who, as previously mentioned, combines most of the usual tropes of videogame Brazilians into a character who ends up fighting mostly like a cat. Lots of leaping and clawing attacks from Claudia. She’s especially fond of the one where she jumps off the top of the screen and then tries to land on your head – unfortunately for her, it’s very obvious when she’s doing this, so you can be ready with a block or a dragon punch.

Other than that, the most notable thing about Claudia is that she stands like a T. Rex in her neutral stance. Or maybe it’s more like a praying mantis. A praying mantis wearing a gold bikini and shoulderpads.

Now we’re off to the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the fact that Rob’s attacks have no range really does blow. It’s viking impersonator Gregory! You know, Greg the viking? Yeah, that guy. His fellow historical re-enactors have all piled into the longboat to watch their friend fight beneath the northern lights. The Norse aesthetic is somewhat undermined by Gregory’s musical theme, which is not the kind of rousing Scandinavian drinking song you might expect – instead it’s a strange techno / rave tune. It’s certainly a, erm, unique combination.

Being Knuckle Head’s biggest, strongest character, you won’t be surprised to lean that Gregory likes to get in close, using his charging headbutt to close the distance so he can get you with his backbreaker or his “Tidal Wave” axe attack. In a way this does play to Rob’s strengths, because it mitigates the differences in range. I found that the dragon punch has enough invincibility frames that you can often sneak one through before Gregory’s attacks land, but one very useful tactic that applies to all battles in Knuckle Heads is to simply block whatever’s coming your way and then go for a throw once the enemy’s attack is over. This is an especially effective tactic because you can block everything (except throws) simply by holding back on the joystick because – get this – there is no crouching in this game. That’s right, no ducking, no crouching attacks and no need to block low. Even more that jump being on a button, the complete lack of crouching took a lot of getting used to because it’s such a fundamental part of most fighting games. I was still trying to land low attacks by the time I reached the fifth fight…

...which is against over-armoured, hammer-swinging Greek diddyman Blat. I feel like that hammer is too much. Like, I understand that this is a weapon-based fighting tournament, but that thing’s just taking the piss. I’m surprised Blat didn’t turn up with a gun. But a hammer he has, and he likes to spin around a lot and clip you with its massive hitbox when you’re convinced you should have avoided the attack. Knuckle Heads is mostly a solidly put-together game, but it definitely lacks the precision of Street Fighter II or SNK’s fighting games, with sometimes fuzzy hit detection that’s not bad enough to ruin the game but will make you utter a slightly annoyed “hmm” every now and then.

Perhaps it’s unfair to keep comparing Knuckle Heads to Street Fighter II, because Namco were clearly trying to do something a bit different, especially when compared to more formulaic clones like Fighter’s History or World Heroes. The lack of low attacks gives the fights a very different feel to most fighting games – I’m so used to high-low mixups being a fundamental aspect of fighting game strategy, and the lack of that option means it can be difficult to break through your opponent’s defence. This means Knuckle Heads becomes much more of a test of patience and timing rather than finding openings through aggressive play, and the best strategy almost always seem to be to wait for your opponent to make a mistake and then punish it because you simply don’t have the offensive tools to pressurise effectively.
Anyway, I managed to beat Blat by repeatedly chucking him across the screen, and with all the other playable character defeated it’s time to move on to the final boss, right? Well, you’d think so, but Knuckle Heads has yet another twist up its sleeve.

It’s a two-on-one fight now! I’m the one, naturally. Blat and Gregory have teamed up to take Rob down, and I’ve made the terrible mistake of getting caught between them, where their long-reaching attacks can keep me trapped. This explains why you can’t crouch and why jump is on a button – it’s because in the two-on-one fights you need up and down on the joystick to walk up and down between background planes, like you would in a side-scrolling beat-em-up. Not only are there two-on-one fights, you can have up to four fighters on screen at once in versus mode.

The multi-man melees had the potential to be a frustrating, overwhelming mess, but fortunately Namco managed to keep them just on the right side of chaotic. Your opponents can hit each other, for starters, and you can throw them into each other, too. Your special moves come to the fore here, because they’re more likely to hit both opponents at once, and if you’re playing as a character who had the foresight to bring a weapon that doesn’t boil down to “punching, but with a stick strapped to your arm” then keeping your enemies as far away as possible is a good strategy, too.
On the whole the tag battles work much better than I expected them to. They’re quite difficult, of course, but it’s easy to get your character facing the right way and blocking being so effective prevents one enemy hitting you high while the other hits you low, for example. My biggest gripe is that each of these battles is still a two-round fight, which is downright rude. I just beat two fighters at once, I shouldn’t have to beat them again.

After three tag battles, you do have to face Knuckle Heads’ equivalent of a final boss – but disappointingly it’s just a golden doppelganger of whatever character you’re playing as. That said, I’ve played a lot of arcade fighting games where you struggle to the end only to be presented with a final boss who is, to use the technical term, absolute bullshit – I’m looking at you, every SNK fighting game ever. Still, it’s hard to drum up much enthusiasm for Rob Redux, even if it does give you a taste of what’d happen if the Oscars statuette came to life and got rowdy. The same tactics apply here, especially the block-throw-repeat loop, and soon the ten billion dollar prize will be in your hands.

Rob’s ending was not what I was expecting. I though he was going to live the life of a playboy millionaire, or maybe eschew the money to devote his life to martial arts training, but no – instead he used the money to bail out his father’s failing business. Then he asks for a job. Rob, you have ten billion dollars, the only job you need is building your own Scrooge McDuck-style money vault.

I like that Rob literally hangs up his tonfas, that’s a nice touch.
Each character has their own ending, and unsurprisingly Rob’s is the least interesting of the bunch. Christine uses the money to fund her own kung-fu action movie. Fujioka turns out to be an undercover cop who’s investigating the show’s host for drug smuggling, and it must have been a fun day down at the precinct when he was picking ninja gear as his undercover outfit. Claudia uses her billions to buy the Amazon rainforest in order to protect it, sorely underestimating the cash value of the Amazon rainforest. Gregory gives the money to his estranged wife and kids – the wedge between them no doubt being Greg’s insistence that he’s a viking – and his generosity helps them reconcile. My favourite ending is Blat’s, because he manages to spend ten billion dollars on women and booze in just three years. Eat your heart out, George Best.

And that’s Knuckle Heads, Namco's bold and sometimes experimental take on the fighting game formula. Whether this was the inspiration for the weapon-based combat of Soul Edge, who can say?  I definitely had a fun time playing it, though. Not as polished as the cream of the fighting game crop, a little more one-note in its gameplay and the small roster of characters is a drawback, granted, but Knuckle Heads' gameplay is smooth, intense and colourful enough to be ideal for a bit of pick-up-and-play action. The characters are mostly interesting, (not you, Rob,) the graphics are bright and cheery and the soundtrack has some excellent tunes, especially Christine’s theme. I believe it’s what the kids refer to as a “banger.”

If you listen to it long enough, it starts to sound like it’s being sung by meowing cats. Actually, the first time I heard this I thought “this really reminds me of “Iron Eyes” from Street Fighter EX3, a track I bloody love.” I looked up Knuckle Heads’ soundtrack after I finished the game to see it was composed by Takayuki Aihara… who also composed “Iron Eyes.” Good ear, me.

Anyway, give Knuckle Heads a try. If you manage to get three other friends together to try the four-player mode, let me know what it’s like. The four-player battle, I mean, not having three friends. Obviously I’m not not interested in that.

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