Sunday, 7 October 2012

River City Ransom

System(s): Nintendo, Game Boy Advance

Genre: Beat em' up

Developer: Technos Japan
Publisher: Technos Japan

Release Dates:
Japan - April 1989
North America - January 1990
Europe - August 1993

River City Ransom may not be the most well known NES game, but it has inspired many other games since it's release. It was made and published by Technos Japan, a now bankrupt developer noted for it’s beat em’ ups, including the legendary and hugely popular Double Dragon series. They also developed Nintendo World Cup and Super Spike V'Ball, among others. River City Ransom became something of a cult hit among NES gamers, and a remake was released for the GBA many years later by Million Co. Ltd who had purchased the rights to the franchise. There is now also a version available on the Wii's Virtual Console. However, if you are expecting a game with the difficulty and serious tone of Double Dragon, think again........

Also known in PAL territories as Street Gangs, River City Ransom is a side scrolling beat em’ up. The plot follows high school students Alex and Ryan as they fight their way across rival gang territory in River City in an attempt to rescue Ryan’s girlfriend Cyndi from the clutches of a villain called Slick. Suffice to say, the North American title neatly sums up what the game is about. And it gets bonus points for the use of alliteration.

The gameplay in River City Ransom is what you would expect from a side-scrolling fighter. Players move from left to right around the city, fighting enemies. Basic attacks are a kick, punch and jumping attack. You can also pick up enemies and throw them, although depending on how powerful the enemy you are facing is, they may just repeatedly land on their feet like a ninja feline. There are a large variety of weapons in River City Ransom, from two-by-fours, to trashcans, to cinder blocks and more. Of course, enemies can also use weapons, and you will want to dodge often as many AI opponents will frequently throw things at you from off screen before they engage you directly. If you double tap the control pad you can run, which also allows for a much higher jump. Using this jump and utilising fences in the background can give your enemies a nasty surprise, although dropping down on to unsuspecting opponents feels a bit cheap given the inability of the AI to follow you up there most of the time. If you are defeated, you will lose half your money and be returned to the last shopping district you bought something in.

Depending on the area of the game you are in, various gangs of assorted meanness will attack you, with alternate coloured shirts being the way to differentiate between them. They will also drop more money relative to their strength. In addition, you will need to beat a string of bosses in order to progress, and these bosses are not only much tougher by themselves than a group of regular enemies, but drop a lot more cash. Depending on your defence stat, attacks can be automatically blocked by hammering the attack buttons. It goes without saying that this applies to enemies, and this can make boss fights quite tense. Needless to say, combat is great fun, so fighting to earn cash rarely becomes tedious. It’s even more fun when you bring a friend along, as you can accidentally hit each other, which makes co-op exciting to play – if for the wrong reasons. If you manage to avoid hitting each other though, it makes the game easier, as it doesn’t add extra enemies to compensate for the extra player.

There are also some RPG elements to play around with. You can enter shops and buy food and magazines to spend your money, which is a particularly unique feature for a NES game. There is a huge variety of shops and shopping centres between fighting sections in this game, and each type of item you buy will have a different effect. There are burger joints, sushi takeaways, French restaurants; it really makes it feel like it was modelled on a genuine place. This is enhanced by the fact that River City Ransom is one of the first ’sandbox’ games with an open world you can explore (although there is a limited amount to actually do besides fight and shop). You can backtrack at any time to previous areas, and at certain points the game does require it. You can not only regain health by buying items, but also level up your stats. Although this makes the game much more fun and gives it some replay value, it is quite frustrating not knowing what stat increases you will receive, as the game does not tell you in the menu screen. To be fair, it probably needs the extra challenge of paying to increase stats without knowing what you're getting. Aside from the bosses, River City Ransom is unfortunately a fairly short and easy game game. Special power ups, which you can pick up from specialist retailers, will hone your punches, kicks etc. with extra techniques like a triple kick or enhanced throws or jumps. One even lets you stomp on foes. These factors make the game dramatically easier, especially in co-op.

Its not just the RPG elements and sandbox style that make River City Ransom stand out on the NES though. The real charm from this game is the sense of humour, which is rare for most games to be able to pull off well. The super deformed sprites will make hilarious anime style faces when struck by the player. Even more funny, when defeated, they have a bizarre tendency to scream “BARF!” and “Mamaa!”, which still makes me laugh after hours of play.

Some gameplay elements allow for elements of humour to arise. You can pick up enemies and even your co-op partner and use them like any weapon, bashing with them, or throwing them at foes. Weapons can also bounce off of walls, so you can strategically throw something off a wall and entice the enemy to stand in the way, resulting in a devious and rather comical little trap. Although this can easily backfire, it never fails to amuse. Also, don’t make the mistake I did and run around too much – you can run into walls and comically injure yourself by mistake. And when you finally do rescue Cyndi before fighting Slick, you won’t exactly earn her gratitude….she berates your tardiness before rushing off to go shopping. Pfft, women. Can’t live with em’……

Graphically, the sprites look good, and there are a large variety of enemy sprites considering the limitations of pixellated graphics. If you have played any of Technos Japan’s other titles, such as Nintendo World Cup, you will probably be familiar with many of the character faces. Not only are the characters varied, but the locations really feel unique. Whether you are under the bridge fighting the twins or battling through the corridors of River City High, everything has it’s own style. This is a refreshing break, as many games of the era were notorious for rehashing backgrounds, much like older cartoons did. There are some very noticeable, periodic episodes of slowdown though, even though the game only allows two enemies on screen at a time. This is most often triggered when the screen has quite a few weapons, and since many enemies carry weapons from off-screen, this is likely what causes it to happen, as there is no limit to how many weapons are on screen like there is with enemies.

Sound effects are mostly good. Punches, kicks etc. sound like you would expect from a game inspired by anime cartoons. Lots of smacks and cracks going on, even when someone is hit by crates or dust bins. The music is the aspect of the sound design that really shines though, The main theme is a groovy 12 bar blues theme that goes with the whole 50's vibe of burger joints and teddy boys with slicked hair and white t-shirts. The boss themes are also pretty epic, up tempo tunes. Really, the weakest element of the sound design comes from the shopping; the music isn’t as interesting as the rest of the soundtrack and the sound affects are extremely grating.

All in all, River City Ransom is one of the NES’s best games. It's even better, if too easy, with a friend along for the adventure in co-op mode. Although it is possible finish the game in less than 3 hours, the RPG elements, comical style and sandbox world make the game well worth it, and will likely keep you coming back every so often. The music is infectious, particularly the main theme and despite the game being very short, it will take you a long time to tire of making enemies “BARF!” If you are looking for a co-op game on the NES or just to punch some dudes in the face, play River City Ransom, you won’t regret it.

+ Gameplay is advanced for a NES title
+ Excellent music
+ Manages to pull off a terrific sense of humour
+ Co-op is tremendous fun
+ Boss battles provide a decent challenge

- Very short
- Some jittery frame rates

Overall Score

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