Hitting the arcades almost one year after the genre-changing Double Dragon and three years after grandfather Spartan X, Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja was Data East’s first beat-em-up. Like the recently released The Ninja Warriors, Bad Dudes leans into action movies featuring ninjas for aesthetics, since they were extremely popular at the time. Instead of controlling a ninja (well, a robot one anyway) against an army with the goal of assassinating the President though, this time you control a street brawling tough guy (or two, if you’re playing multi-player) attempting to rescue the President from a group of ninjas known as Dragon Ninja.
Bad Dudes owes more to genre originator Spartan X and even the early games in the Fist of the North Star/Hokuto no Ken series than it does more contemporary beat-em-up hits like Nekketsu Kouha Kunio kun and Double Dragon, mostly because it sticks strictly to the side-scrolling formula instead of allowing for the more free movement that the previously mentioned Technos Japan games do. It does introduce one unique feature though, and that’s the ability to progress through each stage on either a higher or lower level, done simply by pressing the jump button. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the ability to do some light platforming in our beat-em-ups though: That would be Fist of the North Star 2 on the Famicom. This implementation is much more binary though, and it ultimately doesn’t make a difference which level you stay on. It’s primary use is a mechanism to get away from enemies, since you’re temporarily invincible while you make the transition. This comes in handy for certain bosses in particular.
Control-wise, it doesn’t try to implement any odd control schemes or moves that the previously mentioned beat-em-ups did. And in that way Bad Dudes can be more pleasant to play. You only have two buttons to worry about: Attack and jump. Holding the direction that you want to attack in on the stick does exactly that, and nothing else (I’m looking at you Kunio kun). If you want to perform a jump kick, you simply jump and then press the attack button (no simultaneous button presses needed). If you do press both buttons though, you get a more powerful spin-kick. You can also hold a direction while doing this to propel you, making this one of the most effective moves in the game. The attack button seems to dynamically switch between a punch or kick, maybe based on proximity to the enemy character. And in a Bad Dudes first, if you can hold down the attack button for a couple of seconds, you’re able to unleash a powerful charged attack that does significantly more damage. Learning when to use this is also a key to taking down bosses much more efficiently.
Design-wise though, Data East didn’t take this far enough. When you compare it to the style and music of The Ninja Warriors (even if it’s not the most fun game to actually play), Kunio kun, or Double Dragon, it just doesn’t have as much to offer. The titular Bad Dudes are just non-descript guys in tank tops, and most of the enemies are just very…what you’d expect. This may have been an intentional decision to make things feel more like an ’80s Hollywood action movie, but it would have been nice to see a little bit more of that Japanese design flair injected in.
Data East did do a good job of including plenty of references to their own properties into Bad Dudes though, in a way that wasn’t really done up until this point, creating their own sort of Data East culture. The pride of Data East himself, Karnov (from the 1987 arcade platformer of the same name) appears as the first boss, with a re-colored version of him also appearing later. He’s named in the credits of the Japanese version as “Kusamoci Karnov”. The “kusamoci” here is almost certainly supposed to be “kusamochi“, or literally “Grass Mochi”. The color of the mugwort leaves that wrap this spring time specialty sweet is right about in-line with this version of Karnov’s coloring. There’s also a reference to Chelnov (or Atomic Runner Chelnov) on the side of a train car, referencing the Data East runner-like arcade game that was released just months before Bad Dudes.
But perhaps the most obscure reference to be found in Bad Dudes is the “I Like DECO Game” sign. This is referring to Data East’s nickname: DECO (Data East COrporation). So their releases were affectionately referred to as “DECO Games”. There also is such a thing as the “DECO Game Trilogy”, which consists of Karnov, Chelnov, and Trio the Punch (which at this point had not been released yet).
We haven’t really seen many localization changes in the process of bringing Japanese developed beat-em-ups overseas, with the notable exception of converting Nekketsu Kouha Kunio kun to Renegade, and that didn’t work out as well for the overseas market in my opinion. Bad Dudes is the second example of this (just look at the difference in titles), but this time it worked out a lot better for the west. Sure it may be more well known for the “Are you a bad enough dude to …” meme that it spawned from its opening so long after its popularity as a game disappeared, but giving it that little bit of over the top ’80s schlockiness without changing the way the game actually looks is just what was needed to give Bad Dudes that edge over Dragon Ninja.
The end of level victory shout that the Dudes gave in the Japanese version was replaced by the iconic shout of “I’m bad!” The obvious cans of Coca Cola featured as health restoratives in Bad Dudes were also clearly cans of sports drink Pocari Sweat in the original Dragon Ninja. I guess nothing said ’80s America like cola. The unnamed President was also specifically named “President Ronnie” in the western version.
President Ronnie doesn’t invite the Dudes out for a burger at the end of the original version, he just thanks them and encourages them to keep doing a great job. And while Dragon Ninja doesn’t have the iconic picture of the Dudes standing with President Ronnie (who is holding said burger) in front of the White House during the credit roll, it does give us something completely missing from Bad Dudes: The enemies are given their own credit roll over the top of a statue that has apparently been erected of the Dudes, as they solemnly gaze into the sunset.
Bad Dudes works much better when you look at it during the time at which it was actually released versus examining it in the grand scheme of all beat-em-ups. In 1988 we hadn’t been bombarded with games from this genre like we would be into the 90s, so the small amount of original ideas found here didn’t seem quite as small as they do now. In any context though, this isn’t a a BAD game to play, and it’s goes down fairly smooth in terms of difficulty and learning curve. It just doesn’t have that extra something that I would have liked for it to have, even in its western incarnation.
This game was ported to a ton of different platforms, and the ports vary wildly in quality: Famicom/NES (easily the most well known port, probably even more well known than the arcade original), PC, Amstrad CPC, Apple II, Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Amiga, Atari ST, and even the weirdo Zeebo edutainment system that was targeted primarily toward Brazil and Mexico (I’d never heard of it before this). Actual accurate ports of the arcade version are few and far between though, even now. American studio G1M2 (developer) and Majesco’s (publisher) 2010 Data East Arcade Classics for the Nintendo Wii and Flying Tiger Development’s 2018 Johnny Turbo’s Arcade: Bad Dudes on the Nintendo Switch are the only modern ports that exist. While they’re both serviceable, neither is dressed up with options like something from Hamster or M2 might have been, and these are both the western ROM only. If you want to play an accurate port of the original Dragon Ninja, there’s nothing for you on consoles.