River City Ransom (NES)

Dat pixelated azz, tho!

Kunio is the most important video game character that most people outside Japan have never heard of. He was created by game designer Yoshihisa Kishimoto to star in Technōs Japan’s 1986 arcade game Nekketsu Kōha Kunio-kun (“Hot-Blooded Tough Guy Kunio”) and has since gone on to appear in nearly fifty assorted sequels and remakes, collectively comprising the Kunio-kun series. Kun is an informal Japanese honorific usually applied to young men and it definitely suits Kunio, a teenage tough guy who protects Nekketsu High School from rival gangs with his legendary street brawling skills. Supposedly, Kunio was inspired by Kishimoto himself, who states in interviews that he went through a bit of a juvenile delinquent phase following a bad breakup in high school when was getting into schoolyard brawls daily.

Kunio’s debut outing, known outside Japan as Renegade, was a huge deal and earned itself a place in the pantheon of most influential games of all time. It was the first arcade beat-’em-up game to add eight-directional multi-plane movement to the mix. With fighters no longer limited to walking left or right, a host of new combat tactics opened up. For example, players could attempt to maneuver their fighters so as to attack the enemy’s flanks or rear. Renegade’s core gameplay served as the basis for Kishimoto’s follow-up, Double Dragon, which proved even more popular worldwide and inspired hundreds of imitators until 2D beat-’em-ups in general finally fell out of mainstream favor around the late 1990s.

But wait, aren’t I supposed to be reviewing River City Ransom here? What’s with all this Kunio crap? Well, as it happens, River City Ransom is a Kunio-kun game! Specifically, the third one: Dauntaun Nekketsu Monogatari (“Downtown Hot-Blooded Story”) from 1989. Since Japanese high school students in their characteristic uniforms wouldn’t connect as much with Western audiences, Kunio became an American high schooler named Alex and his archrival and occasional ally Riki became Ryan. The uniforms were replaced by jeans and t-shirts and this, combined with the black pompadour style haircuts on many of the characters, made them look more than a little like stereotypical 1950s greasers. It’s an interesting choice and gives River City Ransom a period piece feel that the original version lacks.

All other Kunio games released outside Japan during the 8-bit era, like Super Dodge Ball and Crash ‘n’ the Boys: Street Challenge, received similar changes. In fact, the characteristic Kunio-kun art style with its squat, big-headed characters is the only overt hint that these games are related at all.

In River City Ransom, players control Alex and Ryan as they roam across River City fighting off countless rival gang members on a mission to rescue Ryan’s kidnapped girlfriend Cyndi from a mysterious villain called Slick. Along the way, they’ll need to collect money from fallen foes in order to power themselves up by purchasing equipment, food, and other upgrades at the local malls.

That’s right: This is a beat-’em-up with those newfangled RPG elements that were worming their way into so many Japanese console games at the time. Items from the shops will enhance your strength, agility, stamina, and seven additional stats. Buying books can also teach you all new combat moves that will greatly enhance your standard punches and kicks.

Even on the harder of the game’s two difficulty settings, though, you won’t really need to worry about fully upgrading your character in order to complete the game. I did it anyway because I’m weird that way, but even just purchasing the rapid fire kick upgrade and the game’s best pair of boots will allow you to make mincemeat of the toughest bosses. I’ll come back to this later.

The gameplay fundamentals are handled well. Controls are tight and the punching and kicking feels just as good as it does in Double Dragon. A couple indoor sections have light platforming elements where you need to jump up on crates or ledges and these can be a little awkward. Thankfully, you’re not expected to jump over pits or other deadly hazards, so this doesn’t drag down the experience as a whole. A nice touch is how the specific gang members you’ll encounter on each screen are randomized. Since some gangs are tougher than others, this helps to keep things interesting on multiple trips through the same section of the city. There’s even an in-game help menu that explains how the game functions, which is really strange to see in a console game of this vintage.

River City Ransom’s graphics aren’t spectacular in the least. In fact, they’re pretty plain. Characters animate well, but that’s about the best you can say for the visuals on a purely technical level. One thing that this doesn’t take into account, though, is the charm factor. The cutesy characters are really endearing and the bug-eyed, slack-jawed looks on defeated enemies’ faces as you send then flying never get old. Neither do the wacky quotes they recite as they’re knocked out. “Is this fun yet?” and the classic “BARF!” are some of my favorites. The character designs themselves are pretty restrained for the genre. Your heroes and all of their opposition are supposed to be high schoolers and that’s exactly what they look like. Don’t go in expecting any of the wild enemy designs from other brawlers like Final Fight, where everyone tends to look like sideshow performers that just got out of a rave. The music is energetic and catchy with a bit of a rockabilly flair and doesn’t wear out its welcome too quickly, which is good because there’s not a lot of it. If you enjoyed the music in the NES port of Double Dragon, you’ll be pleased with the tunes here.

So the game has a sterling pedigree, solid brawling action, RPG-like depth, and tons of charm. What’s not to like? Well, there are two significant flaws that hold River City Ransom back for me and prevent it from realizing its potential as a great game: A tiny game world and an overall lack of challenge.

For a game that offers ten different stats for your character, tons of shops and items, and an extensive password system, I would expect it to also have a bigger world with more to see and do in it than your typical beat-‘em-up, but it turns out that River City is one miniscule municipality. What you get in the way of a game world is a few dozen screens laid-out in a mostly straight line. There are a couple of small cul-de-sacs off the main path where you’ll encounter enemies and bosses, but they’re dead ends. The potential for branching paths and richer open world gameplay built into the design was not capitalized upon by the designers and the game is easily beaten in under an hour once you grasp its fundamentals. At least you won’t get lost, I suppose.

The lack of challenge comes from the way enemy encounters are programmed. For starters, you’ll only ever face off against a maximum of two enemies at once. While this does naturally help performance by minimizing slowdown and sprite flicker, beat-‘em-up veterans know that coping with one or two enemies at a time in these sorts of games is child’s play. Things get tricky (and interesting) when you’re fending off a whole mob of foes and that will never happen here. Adding a second player into the mix makes things even tamer, since the enemy count isn’t boosted to compensate.

If the enemies were tough to defeat, this still might be a workable system. Regrettably, though, this is where River City Ransom’s truly terrible enemy AI programming lets the game down even further. Enemies, even bosses, are quite content to walk or run straight into your attacks and once you knock a foe down the first time, you can simply stand over them and continuously mash the attack buttons as they attempt to regain their footing, insuring that they’ll never succeed. Additionally, many sections of the game have walls or fences in the background that Alex and Ryan can jump up onto and this simple maneuver is enough to literally stop enemies in their tracks. They’ll never attempt follow you up there and continue the fight but you can assault them from the high ground with impunity. I’m not going to say that every game ever made has to be super hardcore and tough as nails, but the opposition you’ll encounter in River City Ransom is so feeble and dim that it almost doesn’t seem sporting. It certainly stops being very exciting once you’ve grasped the glaring weaknesses in the patterns.

River City Ransom is a very likable game. I’d even call it good. However, it’s the kind of good that’s so close to great that it just irks all the more. The potential was there for this to be an all-time classic and one of the top titles for the console, but the short quest and cramped game world thoroughly undermine the clever RPG elements and the useless enemy AI does the same for the beat-‘em-up action. The humor and style are not to be missed, though, and every NES enthusiast should play through this one at least one just to spend a few hours savoring its exuberant silliness.

In its own way, River City Ransom was almost as influential as its progenitor Renegade. Every beat-‘em-up game since that has experimented with adding in statistics, character progression, and other RPG bits owes it a major debt, and titles like Odin Sphere, Dragon’s Crown, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game all qualify as direct descendants. There were several sequels, most recently River City: Tokyo Rumble in 2013 and River City Ransom: Underground in 2017. Technōs itself may be no more, but Kunio and friends fight on.

Is this fun yet? Hell, yes.

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