River City Ransom is what the Internet looks fondly upon for its pixelated male butt scenes and enemies that barf out quarters. What it never bothers to realize is the slow grind of beating up bad guys for quarters, then using the money to buy things at a mall in order to increase your stats; so you can do it all again! Its entertaining for the first twenty minutes before the nostalgia and charm wear off and you’re stuck with the grind. At least you can bring a friend for two player simultaneous cooperative play to rid River City streets of all its goons. If you’re not careful, you can even beat each other up!
The game makes use of square fisted, block headed sprites that have become their own art style over the decades. Like most other beat’em ups of the NES era, you’re limited to two enemies on screen at once. You’re never restricted or forced to beat them up to advance, instead they’ll keep following you. Defeat one and another will just join the fray from off a screen. These thugs can do anything you can do and their stats will vary, but they’ll definitely increase in difficulty as you progress further. Which is why you’ll need to increase your own stats to compensate.
For those dying for a story, you’ll get a full screen of text from Slick informing you that he has kidnapped your girlfriend and he holds the entire city hostage. Its a plot straight out of most video games and Kung Fu movies in general. The only problem is with a video game its better to show things off. The objective is really to beat up bosses that appear at the end of certain waves of thugs. The only way to know where they are is to beat up all of the waves. The bosses then show up with a bit of dialog and you’ve gotta putt hem down.
Each section of the game has its own feel and vibe. You’ll cross bridges, walk on highways, visit factories and a high school. Outside of brawling, there is some very light platforming to jump walls, get up onto basketball hoops and so on. Every time you enter a section, they have different colors of shirts and heads. Its an attempt to offer variety to a game you’ll be forced to play each section again and again, but without any specific detail everyone just feels the same.
As a game, it plays like a lot of other belt scrolling brawlers. The directional pad will move you in all sorts of directions, B to kick, A to punch and pressing both simultaneously will make you jump. From there you can punch or kick in the air, but you need to time it pretty well. Double tapping one direction makes you run and enemies will be running frequently as well. One thing that the enemies can’t do is follow you on walls. You can jump up onto a wall, railing or bench and use it as an exploit to get beyond enemies without a threat.
There are a wide variety of weapons from bats and chains to tires, baseballs and brass knuckles. You can pick up weapons with the A button, and use them or throw them with the B button. Its a nice dynamic to have for such a shallow game. You can do the same with a downed opponent, pick them up and then throw them or absurdly use them as a weapon. Its part of the game’s hilarious charm. Throwing things against walls will bounce them off and back at you if you’re close enough. If you kick a box, it will go sliding into an enemy. Weapons will also accompany you from section to section.
Since River City Ransom is almost a role-playing game, the pause menu has an inventory, your stats, help screen, password and an options, In terms of stats, you’ve got numbers for punch, kick, weapon, throw, agility, will power, strength, stamina (current health) and max power (health). Agility is your speed, defense is your blocking ability which is done by attacking when your foes attack. Yes that’s right, to defend you need to attack. Its an early NES game so its excusable. Your will power is the ability to avoid being knocked down and to get back up again after death.
Even though you start each game by selecting one of two characters, they both have the same starting stats at 15 with a maximum of 63 for all except for stamina and maximum power which start at 63 and end at 127. Stamina and max power fell prey to poor translation, and that’s not the only mistake you’ll find in the game. A scandal rag feels like it should have been scandal mag, but I’m sure you’ll manage to figure everything out.
Each area in the game has a few different sections that’s started with a mall. I’m only bringing this up because every death will send you to that area’s mall with half your money. I guess street thugs wouldn’t let you leave without mugging you. So if progress to the right after a mall, you still return to that mall. If you’re at a mall and go left, you’re in a different area’s mall. Its always best to grind to the right and you never really have to grind. You can easily avoid enemies and nothing prevents you from progressing further.
These malls all have several shops and restaurants. Enter doors by pressing up, then using the money you’ve taken from dead enemies to buy things. The painful part about the game is some meals aren’t consumed right then and there, instead, you’ll need to visit your inventory from the menu and use the items. Its an unnecessary extra step in some cases. Why would you chose to read a book later when it gives you permanent stats? I can understand meals to go that give you health for later, but its just time consuming. Yes I’d like to buy it. Yes I’d like to use it. Nothing tells you what stats it increases, so you’ll need to experiment.
Defeating enemies doesn’t give you a lot of money and you’ll need to physically touch the coins before they disappear. After a few hours in, I finally realized that hitting the select button replaces your health bar with how much money you have. Otherwise, you’d have to enter a store to see what you have, because its no where in the menus.
There are a laundry list of things that make the game less fun than it should be. You can leave a section by moving off screen, but sometimes its an invisible wall. So you can go running into an invisible wall. Other sections have visible walls, so its just odd that they wouldn’t have visible walls everywhere. Running into these walls with no health will kill you. When scrolling the screen to the left or right, you’ll only see ten percent of what’s coming. So enemies will surprise attack a lot.
Another bizarre thing is how the game acknowledges a second player, even if you’re alone. It has the second player’s money and stats. Perhaps the game would have felt empty without them being there. Again if the game was fun, I’d have less to criticize.
Its a forgiving game, you can live almost indefinitely with no health left. As long as you don’t get knocked down by an enemy, invisible wall or failed jump, you’ll be fine. Your will power can even resurrect you with two health. The only real challenge is needing to get the money to buy things to upgrade your stats, so its a game anyone can beat as long as they put enough time into the game. At some point enemies get very block heavy, but that just means you’ll need to increase your stats more or run attack them. If anyone finds the game too forgiving, there’s an advanced mode.
All nostalgia aside, River City Ransom is a one dimensional game prolonged by the need to grind. After playing it again for the first time in twenty-five years, I’m astounded that its much worse than I remember. It could have been a short and sweet game, but it just overstays its welcome.