Cruisin’ for a bruisin’

  • Developer: Nichibutsu
  • Publisher: Nichibutsu
  • Release Date: November 29th, 1991 (Japan only)
  • Available On: PC Engine / TurboGrafx-16
  • Genre(s): Fighting (2D), Mecha

Have you ever played a game where two characters do battle while running or moving the entire time and thought, “wow, this is the coolest thing!”? The Sonic series is probably the most prominent example of this between Adventure 2, Mania, and all of the boost system games, but it occasionally shows up elsewhere and, I gotta say, I think it’s extremely cool every time! The example I always go back to is this boss battle in Romancing SaGa 3 that places your character on a car as you fight against another car that went rogue and on a rampage. Sure, it’s a turn-based battle, but it still manages to capture such a strong sense of adrenaline and excitement unlike anything else you’ve encountered, enough to make your eyes pop out of your skull from the sheer coolness and audacity of it all. I exaggerate, of course, but only slightly! The idea of two opponents locked into a high-speed battle where any mistake is costly is so dang cool, in fact, that Fighting Run is a game about exactly that. If you happen to remember the anime called Immortal Grand Prix, it’s a bit like that too, only without the racing part and a sole focus on the fighting part. That 2005 anime would end up getting a PS2 game, but Fighting Run here attempted the concept of a constantly moving melee fight all the way back in 1991, which was no small feat! As you might expect from such an intense concept, the PC Engine tech isn’t entirely able to meet the ambition (and the game certainly has friction points beyond that), but it’s one heck of an admirable effort with enough about it to like that I think it’s worth talking about. If you’ve read my post about Super Metal Crusher or have played it yourself, there are some similarities here, but let it be known that Fighting Run is undoubtedly more successful overall despite coming out on the exact same day as Make Software’s curious experiment. What are the odds of that, huh? If Super Metal Crusher was too easy to cheese through for you as it was for me, trust me, Fighting Run will be much, much more challenging to get through – there ain’t no cheesing this beast of a game!

The members of “Owl Warks” presented to you at the credits. I wonder who these five images are supposed to represent…

This is the second game from good ol’ Nichibutsu that I’ve covered on this blog (the first being Mighty Guy), and like that game, it’s hard to find information on this one. All of the usual sources I check like Mobygames and GDRI have nothing on it (aside from the credits, which I also have) and to make matters trickier, the credits contain shortened names and/or pseudonyms for the developers involved like “Robot Man”, “Kenji”, and “Bataro”, which makes tackling this one from an informed and historical perspective quite difficult as an unconnected outsider looking in. I was at least able to find a Japanese Wikipedia page for it (the English Wikipedia doesn’t even have a page for it) that claims the sound design for this game was handled by Hiroshi Funaba, who would go on to do sound for games like Iga Ninden: Gao and Seisenshi Densho: Jantaku no Kishi. Those games were developed by a company called Cream (according to Mobygames), which doesn’t appear to be related to Nihon Bussan/Nichibutsu at a glance, but it’s entirely possible that Nichibutsu employees ended up there at some point. The Wikipedia article claims that the proof of Hiroshi’s involvement is in the ending itself, so if that’s true, that means Hiroshi Funaba’s pseudonym would have to be “AMIGO” since that’s what appears under “Composition” in Fighting Run. Keeping that in mind, the next game we can look at on this goose chase for a bit of additional info is Expert, a 1996 PS1 game developed by Nichibutsu. If you look at that game’s credits on Mobygames, Hiroshi Funaba is credited under “Sound” with his name and AMIGO in parentheses. Seems like that Wikipedia article is correct after all! As a bonus, this credits list also gives us some food for thought. The name “Kenji” shows up a few times in Fighting Run under “Photograph”, “Character Design”, and “Title Design”. This alone isn’t enough to be 100% sure, but it’s possible this is Kenji Horonouchi, who has multiple art design credits on Expert along with a “Support” credit on Iga Ninden: Gao. If I’m right about this bit of conjecture, it would certainly explain why this game has such nice menus and visuals (something that I’ll be focusing on in the next paragraph) – Kenji Horinouchi was the Interface Programmer on Persona 4 Golden and Persona 5 Royal! Now, I can’t say I know what exactly “Interface Programmer” entails, but those games have some of the nicest interfaces around and everybody has to start somewhere, so I could very well see Fighting Run being his first test canvas for a future career full of style and excellent designs across the board.

Something that Fighting Run makes evident immediately is just how cool it is. I know, that’s a bit of a vague statement, and perhaps I’m too eager to throw the word “cool” out like its meaning should be obvious, but seriously, this game is going for something! After a cute logo drop from the Nichibutsu owl, Fighting Run’s title screen is displayed on a battered gray door that lifts up to reveal the “Push Run Button!” prompt and the subsequent menus, opening the game up like the curtain that ushers in a stage play. Though you don’t get any full body shots of the game’s characters aside from the unnamed protagonist, every character gets an incredibly detailed portrait that looks like they’d make for the nicest wanted posters ever seen. These illustrations look like concept art that made it into the game completely intact and it’s rare that you see anything as detailed and realistic as these characters on the platform. Even the screens that separate menus and combat are incredibly well designed, featuring almost 3D-like animations wishing you the best of luck through a pilot getting ready or a robot preparing to sortie. There’s three different ones too, in case the amount of effort here wasn’t already obvious! Each of the four tracks in the game are blisteringly fast and scroll at high speeds without any hint of slowdown. That is, except for when a contestant is defeated; at that moment, the game dramatically slows down to signal the end of the fight and that it’s finally safe to breathe and bask in your victory or wallow in your defeat. It’s really pitch perfect use of intentional slowdown to extract a particular emotion out of the player! Four tracks is a pretty slim amount, but they offer a lot of diversity, including a simple mechanical interior with bombs strewn about, a lava-filled corridor that includes flame geysers on the side and machines that bounce you around, a mountainous area with boulders and bear traps designed to mess you up at the worst possible times, and a corridor with the beauty of space in the distance behind it. Fighting Run is a gorgeous game that puts loads of effort into depicting its heavy, battle-filled world, but it still finds time to introduce a bit of levity; after defeating three opponents in a tier, you’re treated to a cute “halftime show” of sorts that ranges from cheerleaders doing their thing to some kind of sea creature moving and even a robot attempting to juggle some bombs. After how stressful this game can be, a bit of comic relief is honestly very welcome!

In the single player mode, you’re given four tiers of three opponents to fight through before you’re crowned the champion of whatever event this is. Between how scarce information is about this game on the internet and how there’s no in-game story, I really wish I had the manual for this one! That does work to the game’s benefit from an importer’s perspective, at least, because it means that there aren’t any walls of text or required bits of context needed to give it a shot. The only thing you’ll miss out on are the names of your fellow combatants, all of which are actually pretty great. You’ve got some adorably cheesy names like “Ninja Buster” (are there even ninjas in this world?), “Mad Slaughter”, “Dead Maker”, “Great Braveman”, and “Hell Messenger”, all of which are incredibly good. There’s even a kabuki pilot called “Kabuki Fighter”; he might not be the Kabuki Quantum Fighter, but I’ll take it! Perhaps best of all, the final boss is named “Dark Murder” – if that’s not delightfully on the nose,  I don’t know what is! I feel like this is something I end up saying a lot, but these ridiculously named characters really make me wish there was more to chew on here. I imagine if this game came out years later and had the opportunity to expand upon its characters with lore and intriguing emails and dialogue exchanges like in Armored Core, it’d be one of those games that people would bring up as a cult classic because the vibes here are just immaculate from start to finish.

Just like Super Metal Crusher, you get a starting number of points to allocate to your robot’s stats and earn more as you play the game, but the amount of customization here is far slimmer. Normally, that’s something that would be a bad thing for me, but in this case, I think they hit a solid balance between flexibility and simplicity. Super Metal Crusher’s system was ridiculously over-complicated for how simple the actual fights were (I still have no idea what some of the stats do!), but Fighting Run’s stats can be figured out in seconds. There’s speed, which affects how fast your robot moves, armor, which determines how much damage they take, and power, which determines their attack strength. Yup, that’s it! Each stat starts at two points and can go up to four points, but you only earn four more points throughout the game, which means it’s only possible to max two stats at most. In comparison, Super Metal Crusher had 15 different stats that started at 15 points and could go up to 30 points – talk about a huge difference in complexity! The one thing that I would say I liked better in Super Metal Crusher was that you could choose from twelve different robots, whereas you’re stuck with just the one robot here. Everyone else is stuck with it too, with the only thing changing being the color of the robot, resulting in some deeply unfortunate repetition. Varied and creative mecha designs are the backbone of good mecha media and for all its faults, Super Metal Crusher absolutely nailed that.

There’s a bit more you can customize in the form of your two subweapon slots. You get two choices per slot and subweapons are divided into attacks that deploy from the front or back of your robot. Front weapons can be used every time your power meter charges up (your Power stat might affect this?), but back weapons only have a limited number of uses per fight. For the front slot, you get the choice of an electric beam that temporarily slows your foe down or a flamethrower that can, in theory, be held for continuous damage. I say “in theory” because attempting to do this is a really bad idea! We’ll get into this more soon, but Fighting Run is an extremely fast paced game where you absolutely cannot afford to stay still. The idea of staying in place, waiting for your stream of fire to reach its full size, and hoping your opponent stays in it long enough is a frankly laughable idea. You try that any time after you unlock it and you’re gonna get clowned on so hard that you’ll be sent straight to clown college with a full scholarship! I tried to make it work just to say I was fair, but man, I don’t think I even managed to do any damage with it! There aren’t many videos out there on this game, but I didn’t see any of them make good use of this thing either, so I can’t imagine it was purely a personal problem. I did find a promotional video advertising the game that specifically demos the flamethrower and tries to make it look good, but I don’t buy it for a second! The back slot encounters a similar “balance issue”; the grenade sounds great in theory as a way to cover your rear (something that’s vitally important in this game), but like the flamethrower, I couldn’t get the thing to land. It seems to work great for the AI and managed to be a thorn in my side a few times, but for me, the other option was more appealing. As I mentioned before, getting behind your opponent is a big deal because that’s the easiest way to deal safe damage, and the grappling hook aids in getting to that sweet, sweet position. In one smooth motion, you deploy the hook from behind and swing your opponent directly in front of you, putting them at the mercy of your fists. Well, sometimes, anyway, because some opponents are fast enough to immediately move out of the way, but even getting the opportunity to swing them into an incoming obstacle is something that’s still quite useful.

The #1 trick to success in Fighting Run is easier said than done – don’t let the enemy stay behind you!

Subweapons are a neat idea that don’t work so well here, but I suppose I’m getting a bit ahead of myself by focusing on them first. At its core, Fighting Run is a game of fisticuffs, a mobile take on Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, if you will. Two robots are placed on a vertically oriented track and fight until one is eliminated. It’s important to note it again because I’ve seen the mistake at least once, but this isn’t a racing game – the track never ends and victory in combat is the only way to proceed. Your main method of fighting involves moving around and trying to punch the opponent more than they do to you. It sounds simple, but the sheer speed of the game and the finer details make it far trickier than it seems. Punching is just a matter of pressing a button, but depending on the context in which you press it, you can get different punches, which is a clever way to get around the mere two buttons that the PC Engine is working with (not counting Run or the turbo switches, of course). If you’re next to the opponent and you two try punching each other, you’ll get something that resembles a messy slap fight where both of you take damage back and forth in ways that are hard to discern. If you press punch while holding down, you can attempt to shove your pursuer away if they’re attempting to grind you into paste from your weak spot. It’s definitely all a bit goofy and the janky hit detection makes it difficult to tell what’s going on, but it’s also a harsh but helpful way to enforce the “right way” to play the game. This isn’t a game that allows for much in the way of self-expression nor does it understand the idea of leniency – it’s do or die in the world of Fighting Run, and you can expect to die a whole bunch even when you’re getting the hang of it!

The bottom of the screen is the safest, but it’s also a poor choice if you want to go on the offensive

Newcomers might be tempted to button mash and try to wear their opponent down with sloppy aggression, but if you try to bank entirely on those side punches, you won’t be getting far. There’s no way to see the stats of your opponents, but it becomes evident that things are stacked against you. Even if you fully invest in power and armor and start mashing away with punches at their side, opponents will outdamage you by responding with the same thing, guaranteeing a loss if you don’t learn your lesson. Naturally, this means you need to approach from a different angle and hit them from behind. By punching without pressing a direction, you get a nice and clean straight punch that’ll cause a visceral reaction, solid damage, and some knockback if it lands. Landing said punch is harder than it sounds, though, because the hitboxes for it are extremely tight and your robot alternates between left and right punches automatically. I swear, the amount of times I lined up a punch only to have my robot miss by using the wrong arm was enough to make me incredulous! That frustration and struggle to land this one particular attack is what makes Fighting Run so conceptually strong in my eyes, though; by having two players, both of whom are aware of the “optimal state” to be in, constantly vie for the right to take a chance to get a crunchy hit through a combination of movement skills and mindgames, you create a game that is just drenched in intensity and anxiety-fueled panic. You both want the same thing, but something has to give, so do you move around and try to get the better of your opponent? Do you wait for them to come to you so you can react? Can you distract them long enough for the environment to give you an edge? So many ways to make mistakes means that there are an infinite number of moments at which the tables can turn, which is the kind of thing that makes for a wonderful spectator sport. It probably rules when played with another human! But getting someone to play Fighting Run in 2023 isn’t the easiest thing on the world (it’s just begging to be added to Fightcade) by any means. This means you’ll probably be playing with the AI and, well, they don’t like to make things easy.

I’ve been alluding to it the entire time, but Fighting Run is a viciously hard game. Not only does it demand patience and complete understanding of the core loop (starting with movement, then knowing the environment and how to outsmart an opponent to get in a proper blindside), it also throws you against opponents who won’t hesitate to dunk all over you. Every opponent starting from the third one onward becomes absolutely merciless and somehow capable of running circles around you while also managing to stay on your back even more tightly than the shirt you’re wearing right now (or whatever you’re wearing). The shove maneuver is supposed to help get these guys off of you, but they’re so aggressive that they’ll sometimes manage to get back into position as soon as you get them off, forcing you to eat a ton of damage. High-end opponents are also in sync with the incoming hazards to a frightening degree, using the stun induced from them to juggle you into additional hits and more hazards like they’re playing a game of pinball. The sheer ferocity on display is ridiculous, so much so that I’m running out of ways to express it! Their statistical advantage only serves to make things more overwhelming and exhausting as well, with later fights (the final boss especially) taking upwards of 5-10 minutes per attempt because they can just take such a beating while leaving you with little room for mistakes. The two bits of mercy the game provides you are infinite continues and a chance to heal every so often in each level. As you move along the track, you’ll eventually encounter a branching path of sorts that gives you a chance to either grab a healing item in the top left corner or an item that fills up your power gauge and replenishes your back weapon in the top right corner. As long as you’re not running on minimum speed, reaching either item is consistently easy and your opponent will oftentimes just let you have it. Of course, moving to to the top of the screen is the absolute worst place to be because it exposes your back, so there’s a good chance your foe will just run up to you and give you the worst beating you’ve experienced in a good long time. Such is life in Fighting Run!

Beyond playing against another player or beating your head against the AI, there isn’t much else to do in Fighting Run. The more interesting of the two remaining modes is the “Edit Mode”, which lets you play as any character and customize various attributes like starting health and available weapons. Playing as the other characters doesn’t feel any different because everyone uses the same robot, but I like the idea at play here, both as a way to “know thine enemy” and as a way to relieve your stress when the single player starts getting to you. Think of it like one of those stress dolls you squeeze, except it’s a robot you beat up instead. Once you’ve had your fill of that, there’s the Tournament mode, which pits a handful of AIs against each other in a tournament bracket. This all plays out exactly like the normal game does, but I want to mention it for one particular reason. Before each fight, this mode allows you to select a normal speed or a high speed option. Doesn’t sound like such a surprising thing since other fighting games let you choose the game speed, but Fighting Run’s take on the feature is absolutely absurd! Seriously, words don’t do this option justice; just watch the gif below, I promise it’s unedited and presented to you exactly as it is in-game!

Fighting Run is simultaneously a game that’s a gigantic pain in the rear and also one that I kinda love. Everything about this game is just so dang cool! The aesthetics create an environment that’s both grim and silly, the concept is something that so rarely gets an entire game dedicated to it, and the mechanics leave a ton of potential for an indie developer to build upon and the foundation for a passionate competitive community to take root in. If this game was something people were aware of and if it was just a bit more polished, I seriously think it could be a proper cult hit! As absurdly challenging as the AI can be, the sheer catharsis earned from even a single win is something that’s difficult to describe but extremely earned if you’re able to pull it off. Even when this game wanted to push me down and kick me while I’m still reeling, I felt myself coming back to it to try and get just a little bit better. If the concept here appeals to you, give it a shot even if you don’t get past the first few opponents. If you like it, try to find someone else you think would be into it – I wanna see a scene for this game grow because I know the FGC could do some great things with this one!

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