–River City Ransom
Step aside Arkham Knight, there’s a new crew cleaning up the criminal filth of the cities of America and their names are Alex and Ryan. River City Ransom was Technōs Japan’s third game in its Kunio-kun series. It is a startlingly unique blend of gameplay, considering its age, fusing together into a delectable blend its multiplayer, action-RPG, open world, side-scrolling beat ’em up flavors. Since its original appearance on the Nintendo Entertainment System, the game has seen numerous remakes and re-releases, and I’ve been able to re-enjoy it on the Wii Virtual Console.
Follow two burly high school students played by actors in their thirties, Alex and Ryan, through Riverside, California… er, I mean, River City city. Ryan’s girlfriend has been kidnapped by “Slick”, voiced by John Travolta, and Ryan will bring his third wheel along for the ride: Alex, who evidently has no girlfriend to be kidnapped because of his stupid flat-top haircut.
Together, Blue-Shirt-White-Pants bro and White-Shirt-Blue-Pants bro will insert fists in the hideously caricatured faces of River City’s riff-raff. The gangs which confront them throughout their various “turfs” all possess intimidating street names like “the Frat Guys” and “the Generic Dudes”. The bosses of these gangs await you, cracking their knuckles with testosterone-fueled, pubescent glee. There are several mini-boss and boss fights: Moose, Benny & Clyde, Rocko, Blade, Turk, Mojo, Thor, Ivan, Otis, Tex, Randy & Andy, and the big man himself, Slick. Don’t expect much from such imposing names. The boss fights usually revolve around cornering someone and beating them senseless with a baseball bat, brass knuckles, chain, rocks or trashcan.
In fact, that’s pretty much an apt summary for River City Ransom, and it would be satisfying in the moment but horrifically boring in the long run if not for its additional features. Because the game is non-linear and open-world, Alex and Ryan can tag team anywhere they want and confront most of the bosses in a number of different orders.
The game is further deepened by the opportunity for Alex and Ryan to learn new skills. Defeated rivals and gangsters drop coins, usually after barfing. Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why they barf before dying in River City Ransom that we would know a lot more about the nature of the Universe than we do now.
Your flying kick-gotten gains can be traded in for a number of menu items that restore energy or textbooks that teach you martial arts. Yet another reason why the world doesn’t need the Batman: you can teach yourself the art of self-defense through the miracle of literature. You’ve got to master these skills if you’re going to save Ryan’s main squeeze.
Stone Hands, Dragon Feet and Grand Slam are book techniques that replace regular punching, kicking and weapon attacking with three quick strikes in a row. Acro Cicrus allows you to do a spinning somersault, rendering you invincible in the air. Fatal Steps allows you to stomp on a knocked down enemy. Javelin Man enables you to pick up a fallen opponent and toss them as if they were a mere plaything. Oh the power of reading!
Fast-paced and savagely fun in its cartoonish violence, the action is ramped up to heart-attack-inducing levels once a friend picks up that second controller, making River City Ransom’s multiplayer one of its best features.
The side-scrolling beat ’em up genre has been in the decline since the old days but I’ve always loved it for its accessibility and immediately fun gameplay. This is one of the best beat ’em ups from the NES, and it is still really, really fun today.
The 8-Bit Review
Several other NES titles lacked sprites with black outlines, but River City Ransom’s characters pop because they are thus defined. The backgrounds are also fairly detailed. While there isn’t much dissimilarity between the enemy sprites, they threw in a bag of minute details like glasses, spit-curls or unibrows to keep things lively. Also, the funny little animations the lead characters do when entering shops are adorably out-of-place in a game with as much bare-knuckle brutality as River City Ransom.
Most of River City Ransom’s OST isn’t very good, sorry to say. A lot of it is just high-pitched, ten-second-loops of warbling and bleeping. However, there are some standout tracks with energetic street-jazz sound and others which sound like they could belong in Mega Man. Still others blend in layers of orientalism, reminding you that this is exactly like one of those Japanese high school animes.
Book techniques and raising stats through consuming food and such is a neat element to bring into a side-scroller beat ’em up. The only other game I’ve played that I can remember with an action-RPG-slash-beat ’em up presentation was the now defunct English-version Dungeon Fighter Online.
River City Ransom can be pretty hard, especially if one of the two players is inexperienced with it. Expect to die often and get lost even more often unless you’re familiar with the game. It’s accessible because punching and kicking have got to be the most primordial button inputs ever, but that doesn’t make it any easier to survive the hordes of polo-shirted gangs.
Because it is so accessible, it’s easy to pick up and get into the action, even if you don’t make it very far. The action itself is the draw rather than actually finishing the game. A password feature, open-world exploration and non-linear boss orders make River City Ransom an easy game to revisit from time to time to let out a little steam by crushing 8-bit femurs and impacting 8-bit skulls with large, blunt objects.
The multiplayer co-op is awesome, except for the fact that you can slug your partner in the back of the head, or miss and flying kick them in the kidneys. This is inevitable if your buddy has never played River City Ransom before. You’ll be leading them on slowly and then find yourself lying flat on your back while they say “You can hit each other?! Sorry! Uhm, now what?” But this is a paltry complaint next to trapping an enemy between the both of you and just wailing on them.
The way that it blends its different elements puts River City Ransom ahead of several other games that are either strictly action-RPGs or strictly beat ’em ups. It’s really a match made in heaven. But the gameplay doesn’t vary much beyond that and the narrative of rescuing your girlfriend from the clutches of *insert villain here* isn’t particularly rare among contemporary titles.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
How can you not enjoy River City Ransom? The game wasn’t a tremendous success upon its release but it eventually cemented itself as a cult classic, remembered fondly and quoted often in 8-bit parody (“Barf!”). It may not be enough to carry you through the whole game from start to finish, but you’re sure to have a heck of a laugh while you’re playing, at least. What a beautiful brawl!
Aggregated Score: 7.3