A Teen Dirtbag Beat-Em-Up With Phenomenal Writing

By Tim Rogers on at

The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa, an independent game for the Nintendo Switch, shocked me with its greatness. I streamed it yesterday. You can watch the video archive below if you want to see me, sincerely and in real time, react to the game’s blowing of my mind.

Before I downloaded it, the game had already hooked me with its concept. Visually and with its game design, it evokes works in the legendary Japanese Kunio-Kun series, in which a high school ne’er-do-well pals around with like-minded tough guys. Together, they with whom he bonds over a trouncing of similar-haired tough guys from other neighbourhood high schools. Western audiences most likely know Kunio-Kun through the game River City Ransom (1989), a superlative early example of what the video game industry would later come to call “localisation”: in River City Ransom, the Tokyo suburbs of Kunio-Kun became a cartoon America; the monochrome school uniforms became shirts with jeans. Rice balls became hamburgers. The teenage yakuza-posery J-slang morphed flawlessly into the affectations of any given James Dean wannabe who slouched teenagedly through the 1950s.

There are many ways to find out who your friends are. Some of them are hard. For Ringo Ishikawa, the only way is to play this video game.

As the 1980s became the 1990s, video game magazines informed young me that River City Ransom came from Japan, that it was related to the unremarkable, straightforward NES brawler Renegade, and that it got a sequel for the Super Famicom entitled Shodai Nekketsu Kouha Kunio-Kun, in which Kunio and his friends, fresh off a turf war victory at home, go on a school field trip to Osaka, where they rekindle their love with being unable to stay out of trouble.

The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa lifts the pompadoured image and brawling RPG concept of a Kunio-Kun adventure, yet where Kunio-Kun games carried themselves like a cartoon frolic and tended to dance around social issues, Ringo Ishikawa’s sole developer has allowed his game to marinate in the decades of meaningful distance between its 1980s setting and today. Its characters smoke. They spew profanity. There’s a dedicated button on the controller (R) for entering “delinquent mode,” which puts your character’s hands in his pockets. Where in River City Ransom you can read a book instantly to be able to punch faster, or eat a hamburger to gain more maximum HP, in Ringo Ishikawa you sit sit at a library table and watch a page number tick up. Eventually, after multiple tightly time-managed sessions in the library between classes, Ringo might declare “The book was about nothing.” You gained no stat bonus. However, you read a book. Here is Persona and Stardew Valley by way of Waiting For Godot.

The fighting action is fantastic. It contains both touches of River City Ransom and its largely unplayed-in-the-West Super Famicom sequel. I detect a tinge of the influence of Kunio-Kun developer Technos’s more straightforward Super Double Dragon in here as well. Anytime a game makes me think of a lesser-appreciated game like Super Double Dragon, I’m all ears. (I mean, we all love Streets of Rage 2, though like, we can talk about some other brawlers, you know?)

The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa is a game that feels like reading a book. I said on Twitter yesterday that this game “has the texture of literature.” I still believe this, though I’m not sure yet how to unpack it.

The texture of literature studs the surface of this, a Kunio-Kun-inspired minimalist life-sim with crunchy brawler mechanics, immediately and forever after you consider that you can assemble a posse after school and then press down on the d-pad while holding the A button to hunker down simply for the graphical effect of it, and to know that your character is wasting precious in-game time he could be using to study, get his grades up, and avoid expulsion. Then, the magic happens: your boys all hunker down right next to you. One of them lights a cigarette. Now you’re all literally smoking in the boys’ room after class.

The texture of literature is palpable in the quietest moments: press down on the d-pad (don’t play this with the analog stick, please; Kunio-Kun wouldn’t approve) while standing in front of your dormitory balcony to put your arms on the railing. Press B to light a cigarette. Now listen to the smooth jazz and watch the pixel sun go down while a man waits patiently beneath a street lamp below.

The texture of literature sparkles in the game’s structure: Ringo, a ne’er-do-well, has to juggle being captain of a brawling gang of idiots and trying to not get kicked out of school. You can sit at his desk at night and read books to improve your grades from 0% to 100%, one percentage point at a time. If you don’t eat, you’ll pass out. Food is expensive. You have to beat people up to eat. The mechanics are all so tuned and work so well together that Ringo’s desperation becomes yours and a sense not too much unlike Russian literature begins to crush you.

Speaking of which, you can literally read Russian literature in this game. You can buy Anna Karenina or The Brothers Karamazov and watch while Ringo reads the books slowly in a cafe. Does he understand their subtle thematic structures? What happens if you finish reading them? I wholeheartedly intend to find out.

The texture of literature is palpable in dialogues. A classmate tells Ringo about how life is struggle, and the boneheaded doubt Ringo expresses about her claims rings chillingly true to his character.

A weight gym owner explains to Ringo why he does not offer single session passes.

The school theatre club captain offers Ringo a role in a play, to which Ringo replies that he doesn’t like pretending to be other people. Her reply to him is classic.

More than anything, what immediately shocked me about The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa—well, first was the developer himself confirming that, yes, the title is a reference to The Friends of Eddie Coyle. The second thing that shocked me about the game is the quality of the dialogue.

The English script in this game feels perfectly, flawlessly, texturally like reading the Japanese language. It feels as though someone with a PhD in literature translated Japanese to English. I do know that the developer lives in Russia. I wonder about his literary influences. I suppose I could always ask him, though for now, I will hold any questions until I have completed the game. Also, speculation is fun.

The one thing I haven’t praised yet is the Japan. The Japan is incredible. The developer communicates a knowledge of Japanese popular culture so intimate the game has managed to climb the Nintendo eShop charts even in Japan. Japanese commenters on videos of the game commend the game for presenting such a nuanced portrayal of Japan that they’d swear a Japanese person had made it.

In conclusion: I wake up at 4am every day. I swear off all social media use until 9am. I reserve the hours between 4am and 9am for personal projects. Sometimes this simply means reading a book. Sometimes, I tinker with the game I’m co-developing with my best friends. Usually, it means writing my own fiction, which I show to no one. Today was the first day in eight years when I have used that time to play a video game, and that video game was The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa.