Cartoon owl holding up a pixelated head. Pixelated red background. Text: River City Saga: Three Kingdoms

Quick details:

  • Genre: open-world brawler RPG
  • Graphics: pixelated, low poly 3D, anime
  • Length: 6-10 hours (Story on Moderate), 100+ hours (Completionist)

River City Saga: Three Kingdoms (RCS:TK) is a recent game in the Kunio-kun franchise.


And while there are a lot of Kunio-kun games, I’ll forgive you if you haven’t even heard about them. The series is much better known in Japan than anywhere else. (In fact, most western audiences are only aware of River City Ransom/Street Gangs on NES.)

River City Saga: Three Kingdoms continues the franchise’s signature fast-paced, chaotic brawling, combined with RPG elements and placing Kunio and his classmates into silly story settings.

The game seems especially reminiscient of another older NES Kunio-kun game: Downtown Special Kunio-kun’s Historical Period Drama! (In that game Kunio adventures in feudal Japan.) Don’t be surprised if I’ll be drawing comparisons between them every now and then.

It’s been almost 30 years since Historical Period Drama! How much has the series improved?

RCS:TK is based on the historical Chinese novel called Romance of the Three Kingdoms (which itself is a novel that is based on Records of the Three Kingdoms, depicting China’s Three Kingdoms period around 220–280 CE).

You may have heard about it elsewhere, since it’s quite known and very popular in China. Several other video games use the story: Dynasty Warriors series, Romance of the Three Kingdoms series, Total War: Three Kingdoms etc.

Now it’s Kunio’s turn to adventure in ancient China!


The game tells the Romance of the Three Kingdoms story from the viewpoint of three characters (Liu Bei, Guan Yu, Zhang Fei). You get to wander around China, righting wrongs and beating up rival factions’ armies. You only play as Guan Yu (Kunio), but Liu Bei (Gouda) and Zhang Fei (Godai) join in as allies during story-relevant fights.

(I realize that Gouda’s and Godai’s names are pretty similar. In fact, a lot of the Chinese characters names are also pretty similar, such as Zhuge Liang and Zhuge Liao. There’s talk about enemies called “Zhang brothers” in chapter 1, but you have a “Zhang Fei” in your team… Try not to get confused!)

Kunio plays the role of Guan Yu, Gouda is Liu Bei and Godai is Zhang Fei.

Much like Kunio-kun’s Historical Period Drama, RCS:TK kind of feels like it’s being told by high schoolers as a stage play. Almost every character is portrayed by someone in the Kunio-kun series.

The story mode of the game is split into six different chapters. Depending on what chapter you’re playing, certain cities, roads and side quests are available. You can also return to previous chapters later with the money and skills you have. And you might feel the need to, since some abilities you need to finish side quests aren’t always available in the chapter you’re on. (Or you can wait to replay those chapters later on harder difficulty levels.)

I’m personally not a big fan of the chapter format. Historical Period Drama! was an open-world game where every place was available from the start. It’s a bit of a pity they haven’t gone for the same approach here.

Branching paths

The developers seem to hope that you replay the Story mode multiple times. There are 4 difficulty settings that open up one at a time as you finish the previous ones. Additionally, after you’ve played through the game on Moderate difficulty, you can play on harder difficulties where there are some branching paths.

The chapters open one by one.
(Your reputation resets at the start of every chapter, so that you can try out different routes. But your level, items, moves, money etc. remain.)

Basically, your reputation near the end of each chapter decides whether which ending you get:

  • Reputation >200: Hot-blooded
  • Reputation 0-200: Romance
  • Reputation <0: Comedy

Romance: This is the same story you always experience on Moderate difficulty.

Hot-blooded: Requires high reputation, so you need to do most side quests in the chapter and sometimes choose correct options when given the choice. In some chapters, this route puts you against an extra tough final boss fight. But on some others, you get an easier boss fight. It’s a bit of a mystery.

Comedy: Requires negative reputation, so you have to actively choose wrong options, avoid quests on billboards and search out people in need just to say “no” to them.

The routes themselves don’t offer all that much extra content. The only major thing that changes is the last confrontation in the chapter (including the dialogue before and after it). But I do like the fact that there’s a route that allows you to actively choose to tell quest givers to piss off.

Do you need to know about Romance of the Three Kingdoms beforehand?

Before this game, I didn’t know the original story of the Three Kingdoms all that well. I have played some Romance of the Three Kingdoms games on SNES. However, they don’t really explain the story and just use the characters and setting. In other words, I knew a bunch of character names and who are the main actors, but not much else.

The story in RCS:TK skips over many smaller details. It seems that they tried to simplify the immensely convoluted story of the Three Kingdoms quite a bit while keeping all the main events intact (up until “The Battle of Red Cliffs”). The end result is… mostly pretty good. However, there are quite a few characters that come and go and don’t get established all that well.

As I mentioned before, the developers wish that you play through the game multiple times. If you’re willing to go through with that, it does help a bit with establishing the actors.

Wait, why doesn’t this character have a Kunio-kun actor?

It doesn’t really help that the Romance of Three Kingdoms has so many characters that not even the impressive amount that appear in the Kunio-kun series is enough to fill all the roles. (Either that or they just decided to have some characters not use a Kunio series actor? I have no clue.)

The story archive. There’s a ton of name dropping.

There is a separate story archive in the main menu where you can go read more details about the events. There’s also a separate place where you can read up on the characters (and their Kunio-kun counterparts). And while those are a nice to have features, it’s not quite the same as the story mode itself giving you all you the details you need. The texts in the story archive also do even more name dropping than the game’s story mode, so there’s a ton of more characters mentioned that you never see in the game!

Godai angy. (Even though the text box mistakenly claims that Kunio is talking.)

I’m a bit sad that many of the main story segments are very safe and bland. The portraits do add some personality to the characters (mostly Zhang Fei/Godai), but aside from that, the way everyone talks and the things they say are somewhat tame and uninteresting. Most of the time the humor is very subtle and the Kunio-series characters don’t always add much of their own personality to the characters they’re portraying.

(Crash) x4

While the main story is somewhat bland, it’s the side quests (and gameplay itself) where you can see Kunio-kun series humor shine through. You go around, making people barf out their lunch monies and beat up bears and tigers. This is what I signed up for!


The Kunio-kun games produced by western studios over the last decade have opted to use a mostly pixelated style with improved character sprites:

River City Ransom: Underground uses real pixels. Everything in the game is pixelated and all the pixels are the same size.
(image source)
River City Girls 1-2 do not use real pixels, but the character sprites and backgrounds follow an identical pixelated style.

However, Kunio-kun games produced by Japanese studios have gone a slightly different route: the backgrounds use simplistic, somewhat low resolution 3D and the characters themselves are stubby like in the original NES Kunio-kun games.

RCS:TK continues this tradition:

  1. Backgrounds are simplistic, low res 3D
  2. HUD and other UI elements are sharp and stylized
  3. there are sharp particle effects during punches and kicks
  4. character portraits (during dialogue) use short anime-style characters
  5. the characters, coins and weapons are pixelated
River City Saga: Three Kingdoms is a whole mishmash of styles. Not to mention unnecessary HUD elements.

The 3D backgrounds are… not pretty. I remember looking at various other Kunio-kun games that use this same kind of graphical style and being sad that they’ve decided not to use pixelated surroundings. I much prefer the looks that River City Ransom: Underground and River City Girls have adapted. Despite that, I must admit that they didn’t really bother us while playing. (As always, gameplay is king!)

2 player co-op!

There’s 2 player local co-op for the story mode. It’s a bit confusing to enable this on Nintendo Switch, since you have to specifically choose “Joy-con Share” from the co-op settings, despite the fact that both players can use any type of controllers.

Player one always plays as Guan Yu (Kunio), while player two always plays as Zhou Cang (Sonokawa). Zhou Cang himself doesn’t actually appear in the story after the tutorial sections at the start of Chapter One.

Player 1 and 2 share experience and levels, despite the HUD mistakenly claiming that Zhou Chang would be two levels lower than Guan Yu.

Sadly, multiplayer cannot be played from the very get-go. If you try to access multiplayer during the story mode, the game says that you have to finish Chapter One (which is somewhat long) first. However, that information isn’t completely true either. The game actually allows you to play multiplayer sometime during halfway of the first chapter, once you meet Lu Zhi (Madoka).

The other interesting thing is that player two doesn’t have separate stats or move sets. Everything is shared with player one, including experience, activated move sets, equipment and items. The only thing separate is how much health and focus meter each character has at any given time.

Embrace the chaos!

The game also supports 4 player multiplayer, but only in the separate ChinaHeroes arcade mode (I’ll talk about it later).


We played using the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller and SNES Controller. Both worked well and the only thing the SNES controller is missing is ability to change from walking to running (since it’s activated by pressing down the left stick) – which we thought was fine, since you don’t really need the lower speed of walking almost anywhere in the game.

There were quite a few times it felt that the game didn’t register attack inputs. This never affected movement, so I assume it’s just a problem with us trying to press the attack button while the character was still doing something else.

The game runs very smoothly (even on Nintendo Switch)! Even with two players and several whole dozens of enemies on the screen, we never experienced any significant slow-down. This was a welcome change from River City Girls 2 where the framerate would go down quite a bit at times when playing multiplayer. (On Switch, that is! PC and the other console versions of RCG2 apparently fare much better.)

The camera does sometimes glitch slightly in 2-player when both players are running towards the same direction. (The game also crashed a few times here and there. But since the game saves every time you change screens, we never lost any progress.)

There are also a few combat mechanics that feel a bit unreliable:

  • If you fall on the ground, you can get up quicker by rolling to left or right. Sometimes you can do this very fast after hitting the ground, but sometimes it feels like it takes several seconds. Also if you don’t do a roll, then you will just lie there for quite a while.
  • After you do a kick, you can hold left or right to do a dodge afterwards. But sometimes, especially after Mach Kick, your character may completely refuse to do the dodge.


One of the things that has made the Kunio-kun series special since 1991 with the original River City Ransom, is the open world exploration, combined with real-time combat and RPG-like elements (inventory, character stats, shops…).

RCS:TK uses this same system. (For the most part. You don’t gain stats from eating food in this game.)

You run around ancient China, visiting towns (there’s a lot of them!) and fighting opposing factions on your way. There are also some platforming sections involved.

Map. Lighter roads are ones that can be traversed. Orange exclamation marks are main quests, blue ones are side quests.

Most of the map consists of towns and villages, which are safe to travel. Road points between those towns are mostly infested with various rival factions that attack you on sight.

Beating up enemies nets you experience points. And once you get a level up, you can go to the status screen to allocate 5 points to make you stronger. Level 50 is the max you can get on Moderate difficulty, but you can go up to 99 in harder difficulty settings.

We put all our points in Luck, because that gives us more MONEY. And Endurance, because that means less damage from enemies.

You can also buy gear and equip them. This gives you mostly minor, but permanent stat boosts. On harder difficulty settings, enemies can also drop gear with all sorts of special attributes.

You have three different sets of equipment for different situations.

You can eat food to heal yourself, but it’s a bit awkward because you have to pause the game and pick your food from the Items menu. It’s slightly more awkward when you or an enemy uses a Tactic, making you unable to pause the game altogether for a while.


Honestly, there are maybe a bit too many towns in the game. They mostly have similar shops and some NPCs you can talk to. Some have secret shops and you can usually hop onto the buildings and walls, but aside from those the towns mostly lack meaningful variety. Some shops offer new special skills, but the food shops only restore different amounts of health and give you different temporary buffs for a while.

Hanging around in a town.

The big things to do in towns:

  1. Heal yourself by eating, if you’re damaged
  2. Stock up on healing items
  3. Look for side quests
  4. Look for new moves and equipment to buy
  5. Look for beneficial (temporary) buffs from foods (rare ones, like movement speed, are really nice!)
  6. Look for secret shops

Some food items can be carried with you, but some can only be eaten there and then. The items don’t clearly say if they must be eaten here or taken with you, but you can learn to recognize the difference from seeing if there’s a “Currently owned:” text on the screen.

Shopping. Up to the right there’s the “Currently owned:” text, so these items will be bought to go.

Then there’s the secret shops. Some of them also exist outside of towns. Some are clearly visible (you can see a red, suspicious-looking dude hanging on a rooftop), but some require that you enter them through spots that don’t necessarily look like there would be an entrance there (such as under bridges or behind waterfalls).

The secret shops offer rare and expensive skills and items. Even after you find one, you may have to grind coins for quite a while before you can afford anything. Some secret items can cost millions! (For reference, late-game enemies usually drop about a hundred coins each. But there are ways to increase it with stats and items.)

Things in secret shops are expensive!


The Kunio-kun franchise already had a unique and quite satisfying combat gameplay with the original River City Ransom. Ever since then, the series’ developers have tried to improve and change that system. It’s fast, it’s chaotic, it’s unbalanced, and (most of the time) it’s very fun! Just be aware that the enemies can and will also kick, throw and juggle you around as well.

Note that if you’re used to the combat style offered by many traditional side-scrolling fighting games (like Final Fight or Streets of Rage), this game’s combat feels quite different: less rigid, less snappy, more fluid, more chaotic. There’s a lot less focus on stopping to do intricate combos and more on moving dexteriously all around.

Most of the time there’s a whole bunch of enemies to smack the soles of your shoes at.

You can buy new moves from shopkeepers (and sometimes receive them from side quests). Then you can customize your move sets to your liking. Not every move can be put to any button (“punch” moves need to be put to your “punch button”), but it’s great that you do get to choose what kind of moves you want to use.

Punch moves go to the punch button.

You also have ultimate moves, which are super powerful and use up your entire focus meter. In order to learn these, you have to rack kills with specific special moves. (For example, to learn Aura Gatling, you’ll need to take down a bunch of enemies with Mach Punch and Aura Punch.)

Ultimate moves deal a ton of damage, but cannot be used often.

Then there’s the Tactics. It seems that the Romance of the Three Kingdoms likes mentioning all sorts of brilliant strategies employed by master tacticians of the time. RCS:TK implements this idea as fullscreen special attacks. There are a variety of Tactics you learn, from flooding the screen with water, to ordering a bunch of weapons to be brought to the battlefield. Each Tactic uses up a different amount of the Tactics meter (the big fan at top middle of the screen). You charge the fan by beating up enemies and picking up scrolls from them.

I regret everythiiiiiing.

Finally, there are a whole bunch of weapons in the game that you can pick up and smack your enemies with. Like in Kunio-kun games in general, you can’t put them into your inventory, so if you drop your weapon and move to another screen, it’s gone (or if you fall into a pit or water).

Mostly all weapons can be easily recognized because they’re pixelated, but you can also pick up certain 3D objects (like chairs and crates). Those, however, cannot be taken with you to other screens and they break immediately if you ever throw or drop them.

All weapons have a type (generic, sword, spear, axe, fist, fan), which mostly determines what special moves you can do with them (yes, you can buy special moves for weapons, too!). Some weapons also cause status effects (like darkness or poison).

The wagon makes its triumphant return from Historical Period Drama! Sadly, the second player cannot hop on and ride it in this game…


The platforming sections are surprisingly polished. (And by that, I mean that they could be much worse!) Some of the platforming sections are meant to be easy, and to add variety to traveling. You may have to jump from one boat to another. Falling into water deals next to no damage, so you can try again and again.

In some places, you can also pay a ferryman 1000 coins to save you the trouble. And once you reach the next city you will gain fast travel access there, so that’s another way to skip the platforming later on.

Platforming in a castle. The spikes have annoyingly big hitboxes, so you’ll end up hitting them even when you think you’re safe.

There is one exception at the end of Chapter Three: a platforming section that’s not only mandatory but also requires you to do it while carrying a crate (so if you fall down, you’ll have to go back and grab another crate before you try again). Additionally, it’s not all that clear what exactly you need to do, so you may use the crate in a wrong way and have to go back to fetch another one.

Jump and throw your crate here. But before that, if you happen to have some Special Throw ability equipped, you need to unequip it first!

But there’s also a couple of harder platforming sections. These are all optional, more difficult, and don’t allow you to skip them with money. I personally found the difficulty of these to be about just right.

(On single-player that is. Many of the sections utilize falling platforms, so only go for two-player co-op if you’re looking for extra challenge! The good thing is that you can quite easily disable co-op for these sections and turn it on again after you’re done.)

Some of these sections are tied to side quests, and some reward you with a holdable weapon (that you can lose if you drop it and exit the screen, or fall into water). At least one of the platforming places is a bit convoluted, because you can get pretty far in it, but you need to have unlocked a specific Tactics move to make the last hurdle.

You can’t advance here until you have unlocked a specific Tactic.

Bonus Modes

When you’re done with the story… you can replay it as much as you want on harder difficulty levels and try for different endings.

But when you’re really done with the story, there’s the Bonus mode called ChinaHeroes.

If the Story mode is the pseudo-RPG mode where you can traverse freely, level up, equip items and use healing items, then the Bonus mode is the arcade experience where it’s just you and the character you choose, seeing how long you can last (or how high a score you can get).

The Bonus mode loosely follows the Story mode. But you only get a little bit of dialogue at the start and end of each stage. Aside from that, you walk to the right, beat enemies, and walk more to the right. Eventually you fight a boss to clear the stage and move on to the next stage.

Unlike in the Story mode, you have a big roster of characters to choose from. (And a couple more to unlock, mostly by clearing the Story mode on harder difficulty settings.)

Each character is already equipped with a bunch of special moves and can’t learn any new ones. (Kunio, for example, comes with his signature Mach Kick, Typhoon Kick and Nut Shot.)

This mode can also be played with up to 4 players.

For some reason Kunimasa is named MONEY in this mode.

There’s no difficulty settings to choose from, but you can choose how many lives you have, whether friendly fire is on or off, and of course, aim for bigger high scores.

You also have 3 extra credits, if you just want to see the mode to the end without caring that much about the score. Using a credit resets your score, but let’s you continue playing exactly from where you died.


I already mentioned that there’s a place in the menu to read through events of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but the main menu offers a few more extras.


You can go through the characters that appear in the story. Not only does this allow you to read up on Romance of the Three Kingdoms characters that appear in this game, but also read up on the Kunio-kun characters portraying them. Every character shows their in-game sprite and portrait in this game, but also sprites from other games they’ve appeared in.

You can go through a bunch of sprites of the characters. Sadly, the text doesn’t mention what games the character appears in.


You can go through the moves you’ve unlocked in the story mode. There are additional details about the moves and videos to remind you what they look like. (And also spoiler still images for moves you’ve yet to unlock.)


You can read through events in the original Romance of the Three Kingdoms. These contain some details and characters that the Story mode doesn’t go through, but they’re still quite condensed. The events also stop where the Story mode stops, so you don’t get to enjoy the entire Three Kingdoms story.


You can freely listen to songs you’ve heard in the Story mode.


I’ve been a fan of the open-world-brawler-RPG gameplay that the Kunio-kun series offers since the original River City Ransom. And to this day, I suggest everybody to try out any game in the series that uses that game style. (There are several sports games in the series that play differently.)

With that said, I don’t think any game in the franchise is perfect. I have certain lamentations about each and every game. As far as I know, there’s no “perfect Kunio-kun” game out yet.

And that goes for RCS:TK as well. It’s one of the latest games in the series (as of 2024), but it’s not the ultimate Kunio-kun experience.

  • Most of the story is pretty tame
  • The game could be a single open-world, but isn’t (instead, it’s tied to chapters)
  • The controls are tight, but a couple of the mechanics feel unreliable
  • The game expects you to replay the chapters several times for minor differences
  • Some special moves are learned from rare items that may or may not drop from certain boss fights, further making you replay the chapters over and over
  • The combat is fun, but if you dislike unpredictability and being thrown around by enemies, then you probably won’t like it
  • The presentation of the game and HUD is all over the place

Despite those, there are many fun parts (we were chuckling loudly at many things happening in the side quests and during combat). The combat is chaotic but often satisfying. And if you’ve ever been interested in reading about the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, this is not the worst piece of media to do that with.

At the same time, I did find myself using quick travel a lot. And as I’ve discussed on this blog, that usually means that I’m not really enjoying the core game anymore and just want to get things done fast.

River City Saga: Three Kingdoms earns a bunch of copper, with some silver thrown in.

Gheralf H. Swiftwar

Gheralf H. Swiftwar

Crazy owlmister. Eternally attemps to find ways to prove that his thousands of hours put into video and computer games has not been just an utter waste of time.

Leave a Reply

Please share your thoughts! But try to stay on topic, okay? (^v^)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with an asterisk *

Back To Top