River City Ransom
  • Genre:
    • Beat 'Em Up
  • Developers:
    • Technos (NES)
    • SPS (X68)
    • KID (PC Engine CD)
  • Publishers:
    • Technos (NES)
    • UK Infogrames (NES)
    • Sharp (X86)
    • Naxat Soft (PC Engine CD)
  • Released:
    NES
    • JP 04/25/1989
    • US January 1990
    • UK 1992
    X68
    • JP April 1990
    PC Engine CD
    • JP 12/24/1993
Score: 80%

This review was published on 02/15/2017.

River City Ransom, known in Japan as Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari and Street Gangs in PAL regions, is a side-scrolling beat 'em up video game developed by Technos Japan for the Nintendo Entertainment System and Famicom. It was originally published by Technos Japan in Japan on April 25, 1989, North America in January 1990, and Germany in August 1993. Infogrames published the game in Europe in 1992. SPS developed a port of the game for the Sharp X68000 that was published by Sharp in Japan in April 1990. KID also developed a port of the game for the PC Engine CD that was published by Naxat Soft in Japan on December 24, 1993. This game is actually the third part of Technos' Kunio-kun series, which is named after the protagonist. The first game in the series was known as Renegade outside of Japan and came out in the arcade in 1986 before being ported to other platforms such as the NES, and it's considered to be one of the first beat 'em up games ever created. Super Dodge Ball is what the second game in the series is called outside of Japan, and it came out in the arcade in 1987, though the NES version is more popular. Anyway, River City Ransom is good and you should play it.

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Slick, the meanest, most powerful gang lord in River City has taken over its high school and is holding it captive. With countless gangs of high school students at his command, Slick is asking for a hefty ransom. So despite the title, it's the high school that's being held for ransom, not the city itself. After issuing his ultimatum, Slick sent his gangs to roam the streets, striking fear into the citizens of the town. Fortunately, Alex and Ryan weren't in school the day Slick took it over. Unfortunately, their fellow students are prisoners, including Ryan's girlfriend, Cyndi! It's now up to Alex and Ryan to battle their way through Slick's many gangs to eventually defeat the gang lord himself, freeing the students of River City High and restoring peace to the populace. Why don't they just call the police, you ask? I don't know; I didn't write the game's story.

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Before the game begins, you're able to pick either Alex or Ryan, though both play identically. You can also rename them, but this isn't necessary. Once you begin playing the game, you use the d-pad to freely walk in all eight directions, the A button to punch, and the B button to kick. Since that takes up most of the buttons on an NES controller, you have to press the A and B buttons at the same time to jump. You can also sprint by double tapping the desired direction on the d-pad. If you hit an enemy enough to knock him down, then you can pick him up with the A button, and either press the A button again to use him as a weapon, or press the B button to throw him into other foes. The controls take a little getting used to, but they feel pretty good once you do.

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Normally, you'll be punching, kicking, and throwing opponents into submission, but there are also some weapons you can use. Often, the enemies you face will come armed with various weapons, like sticks, lead pipes, chains, brass knuckles, and even rocks. Hitting armed foes will cause them to drop their weapon, allowing you to pick it up by standing near it and pressing either the A or B button. Once you're armed, you press the A button to attack with the weapon or the B button to throw it. Throwing a weapon will leave you unarmed, but doing so lets you hit enemies from afar. You can also block weapons thrown at you by attacking at the right time, either with your own weapon, or with a punch or kick. Some items in the environment can also be picked up and used as weapons by either you or your enemy, such as trashcans, wooden crates, and even loose tires. You can stand on these particular items, too, and even ride on moving tires. The weapon system was clearly inspired by Technos' other popular beat 'em up series, Double Dragon, but it's been greatly expanded upon in River City Ransom.

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What sets River City Ransom apart from most beat 'em ups is that it's got elements of a role-playing game. You've got stats that determine the damage output of different attacks, like punching, kicking, throwing, and weapons. There are also stats for your agility, defense, strength, and maximum HP. All these stats can be permanently increased, but not through experience points or leveling up. Instead, character progression is tied to money. Every time you successfully defeat a street tough, they'll drop some of their pocket change, and you can use this money to shop at malls for various items, mostly food from restaurants. Almost all food items permanently boost some of your stats when consumed, in addition to restoring varying amounts of your health. Some foods must be eaten at the restaurants, but others can be stored in your inventory for later use. Additionally, you can buy books at bookstores to learn special techniques, like a rapid punch or somersault. This game's progression system is neat, but the one issue with it is that you won't know what stats a particular item will boost until you ingest it.

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Every enemy you face is part of some gang, the name of which appears at the bottom of the screen when you meet them. They all look quite similar, but have different stats and AI. Some gangs are cowardly and will run away constantly, others will attack aggressively, and some prefer to use weapons. Gangs encountered later in the game are generally tougher. Pretty much anything you can do, your enemies can do, too. Well, except for the special techniques. Besides their gang names, each individual enemy also has a unique name and dialogue, both of which are displayed via text at the bottom of the screen without interrupting the action. Some of the dialogue is quite comical, like how many goons will yell out "BARF!" when they get trounced. All of this goes a long way towards adding personality to the game.

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Instead of being divided into isolated stages, River City Ransom takes place in a large, interconnected world. Well, more like city, but you get the idea. Everything is still presented in a side-scrolling perspective, but the environments are slightly more open ended. However, you never really have to worry about getting lost, because the overall layout of the world is still fairly straightforward. While there are enemies almost everywhere, the malls are peaceful locations free of danger, so you can shop there with no worries. If you do happen to die, you'll spawn back at the last mall you visited, but with half your money gone. Before you're allowed to storm River City High, you must beat all the bosses spread throughout River City. This requires a little exploration and occasional backtracking, as some bosses must be beaten in a specific order. Thankfully, defeated bosses will sometimes give you hints on where the next boss is located. Exploration is highly unusual for a beat 'em up, but these are the things that make River City Ransom so unique.

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At the start of the game, you can pick whether to play by yourself or with a friend cooperatively, the latter of which is highly recommended. When playing with a friend, both players need to exit the screen at the same time in order to go from place to place. If a single player dies, he or she will come back to life if the remaining player switches screens, though at the cost of half of his or her money. However, if both players die, they'll spawn back at the last mall they visited. Each player also has his or her separate inventory, not to mention separate stats. Fun things you can do together include standing on each other's heads and throwing each other around. If a player holds a crate over his or her head, you can stand on top of that, too. One negative thing about playing with two players is that there's friendly fire, but this is a small price to pay for maximum fun.

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Almost all of the Kunio-kun games that get released outside Japan undergo significant changes during the localization process to make them more palatable to Western markets. Nearly all the games in the series take place in Japan and have countless references to Japanese culture, so this stuff typically gets changed to something that would be more familiar to Westerners, particularly Americans. For example, the two main characters originally wore Japanese school uniforms, but the localized version has them in standard t-shirts and jeans. Some of the background graphics were also changed, like the Japanese mailboxes being replaced with American ones. Most of the text and names have also been changed to more American sounding equivalents. While purists might frown upon these alterations, the localization isn't half bad.

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Both ports of the game have some differences from the NES original. The PC Engine CD version has enhanced graphics, a proper save system, a Red Book audio soundtrack, and even voice acting for various characters in the game. Everything else is mostly the same, however. As for the X68000 version, it looks almost identical to the NES original as far as graphics go, but has some significant differences. On top of being able to display up to three enemies at once instead of two, this version has new items, techniques, enemies, bosses, and even brand new areas to explore. There are also stats for all the individual special techniques that go up the more you use them. Due to the expanded world, this version of the game is less linear, but that also makes it easier to get lost in. Unless you can read Japanese, it's best to stick to the NES original. The PC Engine CD version may be worth a try if you can read the text, though.

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There really aren't many games out there quite like River City Ransom. It does the unthinkable by turning a beat 'em up into an action RPG. Somehow, this combination is perfect, as the lightweight RPG elements and minor exploration make up for the inherent weaknesses of the beat 'em up genre. The fact that you can also enjoy this game with a friend makes it that much better. The only real issue the game suffers from is that the NES version uses ridiculously long, complex passwords in place of a proper save feature. If you've yet to play River City Ransom, then grab a pal and get right to it.

Word Count: 1,831

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