While the fun fighting mechanics of River City Ransom guarantee its position among the best beat ‘em ups of the NES, the game’s successful experiments put it in a level of its own inside the genre when it comes to uniqueness and innovation
Pioneered in 1984 through a now relatively unknown arcade title called Kung-Fu Master, the beat ‘em up genre achieved such a large degree of success that it became a staple in gaming cabinets all over the world, with that original effort quickly gaining various imitators and innovators that would try their hand at the format. In hindsight, the fact these brawlers became popular in arcades should come as no surprise: their controls are easy to get a hold off, which means anyone walking by can feel like they have a shot at putting up a fight; their objective is straightforward and appealing, because there is a certain instinctive allure in beating down anyone who shows up on the screen; and their very limited scope makes short gameplay bursts be the ideal way to enjoy the experience, given any long session runs the risk of allowing the genre’s inherent repetition to erode its fun.
Since the early home consoles happened to drink heavily from arcades in terms of ported properties and gameplay inspiration, as the industry up to that point had mostly been built on these large machines, it is equally unsurprising that the beat ‘em up format would also be prevalent in those new gaming platforms. During its run, the NES – for example – ended up being the home to dozens of them, going on to receive a version of the pioneering Kung-Fu Master as well as a slew of classics that are fondly remembered, such as Mighty Final Fight, Battletoads, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the incredibly popular Double Dragon. River City Ransom is another member of this vast troupe, and although it is an effort that is probably not as mentioned as some of its generational peers, it might actually be the most interesting among all of them.
One of the factors that might help explain why River City Ransom turned out so unique is that it was made by Technōs Japan, the company that birthed Double Dragon. By 1988, their developers had already released two installments of that franchise, and it is likely they could have just cruised along by churning out new chapters of the property. But since they had, in a way, reached mastery over the beat ‘em up genre in its purest state via Double Dragon, perhaps Technōs Japan felt they could take advantage of their street cred to get a little experimental with the framework, and there is hardly a better way to do it than by putting out a new franchise.
In premise, River City Ransom is not too different from its popular predecessor. In order to take advantage of the cooperative gameplay that was among the reasons that made Double Dragon such a hit (specially in arcades since the NES version of the game did not have that option), River City Ransom also features two friends taking it to the streets of their town to beat some gangs as they try to save a damsel in distress. Opting for a somewhat lighter and more humorous tone, though, the gangs, the heroes, and Cyndi – the objective of the rescue mission and the girlfriend of one of the protagonists – are all actually high school students from rival institutions, with the villains being organized in funnily named groups – each with their own specific shirt color – such as The Generic Dudes, The Squids, and The Jocks.
Even if the setting is similar, albeit in a parody-like manner, in gameplay River City Ransom smartly carves its own path within what was then a heavily reproduced genre. Traditional beat ‘em ups usually gravitated around a simple rule: beating all enemies on one screen would cause the next one to be unlocked, with players advancing linearly as if they were on top of an industrial belt where punches are thrown at every stop. River City Ransom throws that limitation so far away out the window that it radicalizes completely: gone is the on-rails progression, in comes the freedom of an open world.
It is important to highlight that River City Ransom is no The Legend of Zelda; that is, its open world is not a vast expanse of areas going in all directions and that can be cleared in any order. Here, the titular town is depicted pretty much as a linear sequence of screens that starts at the heroes’ high school and ends at the one of the bad guys, with just a few points in the path having alternate exits into standalone areas, like a park and a warehouse. The open nature of the adventure actually stems from how the protagonists are free to walk around the city as they see fit, since at no point in the game does an area become unreachable and the characters generally do not need to beat all bad guys in a screen to advance to the next one.
To an extent, these features seem counter-intuitive and perhaps even harmful to very core of the beat ‘em up genre. For starters, the value of an open world seems lost when that free-roaming playground is mostly a sequence of screens with a few side-areas, which makes it seem the traditional conveyor belt approach would be better. Moreover, if there is usually no need to beat regular grunts to move to the next part of the city, then these encounters – the very meat of the gameplay in a beat ‘em up – are running the risk of being pointless, especially since the game even has a command that lets the heroes dash across the screen fast enough to avoid any confrontation. As it turns out, River City Ransom intelligently builds its way around these potential issues, and it is in the act of doing so that it finds a lot of its brilliancy.
Firstly, mindlessly rushing to the finish line is not an option because in various points through the town bosses will be blocking the way. In fact, the high school building that serves as the game’s climax will be locked until players beat all bosses scattered around River City, and taking advantage of the world’s open nature, these main bad guys show up in a specific order; one that will certainly have the heroes backtracking through town and going to its standalone side-areas to find and face them. For instance, once defeated, a teen named Rocko reveals players should return to a previously visited area to fight the next guy in the gang’s hierarchy. As such, rather than a sequence of screens, the world of River City Ransom transforms into a place that needs to be scoured quite a bit so that all bosses show their faces, which is not only unique within the genre but also rather engaging.
Meanwhile, minor grunts – whose beating is never mandatory – gain purpose because River City Ransom is underlined by an unexpected RPG layer. As it turns out, the starting characters have stats, a whopping nine of them: kick and punch raise the power of these respective attacks; defense is related to the chance that incoming blows be blocked; max power increases the characters’ health; will power gives them the opportunity to keep fighting after running out of energy, since the higher the stat is the more times they are able to do it before falling for good; and there is also weapon, throwing, agility, and strength. Minor grunts come into play in this regard because, like bosses, when defeated, they drop the change they are carrying, and it is with this accumulated cash that players will be able to upgrade the value of these stats.
Luckily for the heroes, River City is punctuated with a bunch of malls – there are four of them in total – and these locations serve as a safe haven of sorts: there are no enemies roaming these areas; if players fall in battle, they lose half the cash they were carrying and are returned to the last mall they visited; and it is in these screens where they can go shopping for items that will increase their stats or restore their health. Malls are, therefore, River City Ransom’s equivalent to a checkpoint, with the screens between them being tough sequences that must be overcome so that players can reach the next milestone. The variety of commerce the game has is absolutely ridiculous, as it includes restaurants, candy shops, a butcher, and even stores dedicated to toys and CDs; with some of these allowing players to take their orders to go. However, in most of them, the items being sold have essentially the same effects: they heal and they upgrade stats.
As a sad note, it is only possible to know what stats an item increases after buying and consuming it, which makes a little bit hard for one to know what to buy when looking to either boost a specific characteristic or avoid investing on a stat that is already maxed out. Likewise, this limitation also makes it nigh impossible for one to calculate which items give the biggest bang for the characters’ buck. Nevertheless, the system is not just clever, it is absolutely essential as well, because the further the heroes go into the city, the tougher the gangs they face will get, making it nearly impossible for a player to clear the game without spending some time beating a bunch of regular grunts. Moreover, the fact half of one’s cash is lost upon defeat lends the accumulation of coins into a risk-and-reward game, because saving money for a few specific valuable items is certainly a good idea, but the prospect of losing a big pile of money is a scary threat.
On top of the unique and alluring ingredients that are its open world and its RPG undertones, River City Ransom also boasts – of course – a very solid combat system. The directional pad is used to move the characters; pressing twice quickly to either the left or the right makes them run; the A and B buttons trigger a punch and a kick respectively but they also have a chance of blocking enemy attacks if pressed right as they are about to hit; and pressing A and B simultaneously makes the heroes jump, which can be chained into kicking and punching. It is pretty simple, but there are at least two cool twists.
The first is that objects (tires, baseball bats, chains, rocks, or trash cans) and even temporarily fallen characters (including the other player in cooperative mode) can be picked up with the A button and used as melee weapons, a strategy that is also effectively employed by the CPU. When that happens, the A button lets the protagonists use the object while the B button causes them to throw the tools or the virtual human being. Needless to say, this particular mechanic adds a pretty fun dynamic to combats, and given players can hold objects for however long they want, it even allows them to tackle the entire game in different ways.
The second twist, whose result is a bit more mixed, comes in the form of special techniques. These are acquired by purchasing very expensive books at the malls’ specialized shops. In total, there are six of them, and they vary from simply increasing the speed of the characters’ kicks or punches to letting them perform a wild and damaging somersault. Unless the game’s manual is checked, it is sadly impossible to know what a technique does without buying it first, which is especially bothering because of how costly they are. Furthermore, even if overall they amount to a cool addition to the game, it is arguable an extra effort towards balancing them could have been done, as while a couple are not very useful, there is one in particular that makes all bosses pretty much trivial, hence potentially taking the fun and challenge out of the game.
River City Ransom, like any good NES game, has a few rough edges that have become more evident with the passing of time. Aside from the lack of item descriptions and the balancing issue that exists with one special technique, the game has a few other problems: its many bosses are not very varied; sometimes when entering a screen enemy positions are randomized in a way that makes players be inevitably swarmed by hits as soon as the area loads; and there are two segments that involve jumping where the movement’s physics can be a bit odd. Yet, the quest still holds up, be it in its humorous borderline cartoonish visuals with big-headed character models, in its equally light-hearted setting, in its solid soundtrack, in its dynamic fights, and in its cooperative gameplay.
The highlight of River City Ransom, though, is undoubtedly how the game grabs the well-established beat ‘em up formula that was prevalent in consoles and arcades of the time and manages to transform it quite boldly. The replacement of guided linear progression with a simple but effective open world is a radical departure that yields an adventure where punching and kicking are accompanied by exploration and even some backtracking. Meanwhile, its RPG elements turn the repeated beating of enemies into a far more engaging activity, since fighting leads to the upgrade of stats that are much needed for the heroes to be strong enough to rescue the damsel in distress. Therefore, while the fun fighting mechanics of River City Ransom guarantee its position among the best beat ‘em ups of the NES, the game’s successful experiments put it in a level of its own inside the genre when it comes to uniqueness and innovation.