Time to Take Down Some Toughs!
River City Ransom
It's interesting to go back and look at the Kunio-kun series all these years since the games debuted. Due to the vagaries of the Japan-to-U.S. transitions for the titles, a kid's first exposure to that series, and which games they associated along with, depended greatly on which title was the first one they played. For a strong sub-set of 1980s gamers, the Kunio-kun franchise has a very specific name: River City Ransom If you want to get Western gamers excited, just say there's a new "River City" game coming out. Kunio-kun is great, but River City is where it's at.
What's truly fascinating about this is the fact that, upon its release, River City Ransom (released as Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari in Japan, Street Gangs in other regions) was something of a failure. Developed by Technos, the game was an NES exclusive published between Double Dragon and Double Dragon II: The Revenge, and as far as technos was concerned, River City Ransom was an "also ran" put out to keep a contingent of the Japanese market happy but the focus was squarely on the Dragon boys for the U.S. As such, the marketing machine focused on the Dragons Double and River City Ransom came out to little fanfare.
That sucks because, between the two, I'd take River City Ransom over Double Dragon II any time, anywhere. In fairness, both games blow the original Double Dragon on NES out of the water -- these both have two-player simultaneous co-op where the Dragon boys suffered from alternating co-op play in their first NES outing. The difference is night and day and once you've played a "proper" co-op fighting game it's hard to go back to that first NES Dragons title.
While Double Dragon two is a perfectly fine game, a title that effortlessly iterates on the first Dragon game and expands it in all the right ways, even then it doesn't hold a candle to River City Ransom. For the casual fan, River City is fighting perfection wrapped up in a stylish package, packed with an RPG system and plenty of secrets. Its fun and light, fast and entertaining. In comparison to that how could the Lee Brothers compete?
The game opens with a story not all that different from Double Dragon: our heroes Alex and Ryan (Kunio and Rikku in Japan) have to chase after gang leader Slick after that thug kidnaps Alex's girlfriend, Cyndi. They start at Cross Town High and have to travel across town, fighting various gangs as they traverse the city, all so they can reach Slick's HQ over at River City High, defeat the big boss and get back the girl. In the process they'll also collect the coins of their defeated opponents and visit various shops and cafes, all so they can upgrade their way to victory.
It's the upgrade system where River City Ransom really sings. Where the boys of the Double Dragon games barely upgrade as they go (the meager RPG leveling to unlock all of Billy's moves in his first NES game notwithstanding), Alex and Ryan can get noticeably improved as they explore around downtown. Although the guys themselves don't gain levels from fighting, there are similar mechanics in the game, and it's all tied to currency. As noted, when you defeat bad guys they bust into coins when the "die" (although all enemies will re-spawn once you leave and come back to a zone). These coins can be spent at the shops, with reading books and magazines, and eating all kinds of food, adding buffs to your stats, many of them permanent. You start the game as a weak little scrub but quickly grow in power as you spend cash, this proving once and for all reading is power.
On top of that, the guys can also lean new moves at the shops as well. They start off with vary basic controls -- run, jump, punch, kick -- but reading special books will grant them all kinds of special powers. Multi-hit punches and kicks, flying flip jumps, and more are all waiting to be learned. None of it required, mind you, as speed-runners have proven you can quickly get through the game with just a purchased multi-punch and a teensy bit of luck, but if you want to spend the time to turn your teenage heroes into powerhouse brawlers it's all there for you.
Beyond the mechanics, River City Ransom is oozing with style. Yes it's an NES game but the pixel art actually works to its benefit, letting the silliness of the game come out in proper fashion. Design-wise the game takes a page from the NES edition of Super Dodge Ball, smoothing out the chunky graphics of Renegade and giving the Kunio-kun franchise a distinct "house look" it would carry on in its future titles.
It's the silliness that really is so distinctive of the game. As you battle your way through all the enemies, from low-level street thugs to the leaders of the various gangs, will all say stuff. They'll taunt you, they'll speechify, and they'll moan out a last line as they fall over. Every kid of the 1980s remembers defeating a thug and having them shout out "BARF!" as they die. It's so dumb and so good. The game wouldn't be the me without all these silly kinds of asides.
The game is simply great, but it did take a while for its legacy to catch on. The Kunio-Kun series would return to brawling again down he road, but for the most part it let the sports titles take over, doing more with Field Hockey, Soccer, Dodge Ball, and Street Events (the ever enjoyable Crash 'n the Boys). It does feel like Technos just didn't have faith that the brawler section of this series was really worth following, and that's largely the company's own fault, frankly.
Still, the legacy of the game did long outlast Technos's own stumbles. The game received a few decent ports to later consoles, starting with an enhanced remake for the Sharp X68000home computer. This version had more detailed graphics and a larger world (including more shops and more secrets) to add solid length to the overall package. This was followed by a PC Engine (TurboGraphix) port that again had touched up graphics, plus better music and full character voice-over (although the map remains the same as the NES edition). Then there was he GBA release which took out the two-player co-op (gasp!) but then added in the ability to recruit rivals to your posse (neat!). Any of these editions is a worthy way to play this stellar game, even if its the NES version that holds a place in so many hearts.
And then, of course, the series lived on with new editions to the series, from River City Ransom: Underground to River City Ransom: Tokyo Rumble, and then the River City Girls games that are continuing on the franchise. We'll get to all of those games, of course, in due time.