How River City Girls Makes a Retro Franchise Fresh and New

first_img When you look back at the NES catalog, there are a few dozen titles that float to the top. The vast majority of them are first-party Nintendo classics, with a few other publishers represented. And then, sticking out like a sore thumb, is what might be the first true cult game of the 8-bit era: River City Ransom. Developed by Technos, it was the third game in that company’s long-running Kunio-Kun series that would go on to reach nearly fifty installments and spin-offs. And now, American indie developer WayForward is giving it a candy-colored twist with this week’s release of River City Girls.If you’ve never played River City Ransom, here’s the basics: you play high school student Alex (with a second player joining in as his friend Ryan) as they travel through River City to face off with a gang leader called Slick. The structure is reminiscent of hit games like Double Dragon at first glance — you move on a side-scrolling plane and batter foes with punches and kicks, eventually knocking them unconscious and moving on your way. But RCR transcended the genre’s arcade roots in ways that would influence action games for generations.Grand SlamTraditional beat-em-ups were extremely linear affairs, with the screen scrolling from left to right as you progress towards a boss encounter and the next stage. River City Ransom threw that out the window, instead giving you a city to explore freely. Sure, you can make a beeline for Slick, but he’ll probably whip your butt if you do. And that’s where the second innovation comes in: RPG elements.Brawlers of the past kept your player character totally static from the first screen to the last. You had the same arsenal of moves at the same strength, and the game was how you used them. Inspired by the success of action-RPGs like The Legend of Zelda, Alex and Ryan could spend money collected from defeated foes to purchase items. These included books you could read to learn new moves, food and beverages to boost your stats and even a sauna. Throw in lots of quips from enemies and you have a significantly richer experience than anything else on the market at the time.Many elements of River City Ransom were ahead of their time. Instead of giving the player a limited number of lives, the game predated Grand Theft Auto and just revived you in a neutral location minus half of your money when you got beaten down to zero stamina.Unfortunately, America wasn’t really ready for River City Ransom in 1989. The game’s blocky, sparsely-colored graphics didn’t stand out in an incredibly crowded marketplace, and it failed to find an audience. The era of the beat-em-up was also coming to a close, with one-on-one fighters like Street Fighter II poised to dominate arcades. That said, the game’s DNA still lives on in modern titles like Sega’s Yakuza franchise, which also blends street brawling with improvised weapons, traversing an open-ended world and spending money for new moves, stat buffs and health regeneration. The well-received Scott Pilgrim movie tie-in game was also heavily influenced by River City Ransom. And now, an American studio is trying to capture the magic in a new style.Suburban SprawlEven though River City Ransom didn’t take off in the States, the Kunio-Kun series (named after the main character) rolled merrily along in Japan across multiple console generations. The main series are all brawlers of varying complexity, but there are tons of spin-offs as well. Kunio plays dodgeball, leading his team to victory in multiple games, as well as soccer and hockey. 1992 saw Crash ‘n’ The Boys Street Challenge come to America on the NES, with Kunio renamed “Crash Cooney” and forced to compete in a variety of track and field and other Olympic-style sporting events.Technos was an oddball company that lucked into success. Founded by a trio of former employees of Data East, they originally operated out of a small apartment. They started with B-tier arcade games like Minky Monkey and Eggs, but had their first hit with 1984’s Karate Champ. In 1986, the first Kunio game was localized by Taito as Renegade, and the next year would see Double Dragon, the game that would pave the company’s future path.Featuring colorful, detailed graphics and two player co-op action, Double Dragon was a massive hit in arcades with players and operators alike. The ability to pick up weapons dropped by enemies and the complex playfields with environmental hazards and platforms made it a thrilling adventure that sucked quarters like crazy. Sequels and ports followed for nearly every console and computer system of the day.Unfortunately, Technos couldn’t catch lightning in a bottle, and none of their follow-up games reached the same level of success. Technos Japan went out of business in 1996, and the Kunio intellectual property was purchased by a holding company before winding up with Arc System Works, best known for fighting games like Guilty Gear. When they made the acquisition in 2015, they announced that they would pair with developers to revive some of Technos’ popular franchises, starting with 2017’s Kickstarter-funded River City Ransom: Underground and Double Dragon IV, which Arc developed in-house.Sisters Doin’ It For ThemselvesRiver City Girls takes the formula of the original game and inverts it — lead characters Misako and Kyoko get a phone call telling them that their boyfriends Riki and Kunio have disappeared, and they have to brawl their way through the streets to find them.The basic bones of a Kunio-kun game are simple: you fight, you get money, you spend it and get stronger. So the magic is all in the implementation. River City Ransom had to work around the two buttons and a D-pad of the original NES and still managed to pack in a solid number of moves, and this gender-swapped update brings it into the 21st century ably. You start out with a quick attack, a strong attack, a running charge and a jump attack and grow as you get new moves, throwing in air juggling, wall bouncing and more. Misako can even learn some dope WWE-style wrestling attacks, while Kiyoko has longer combos and a deadly dab.Unlike the original game, River City Girls‘ two playable characters have slightly different movesets. After completion, you can replay in a New Game+ mode, keeping your stats and items, and the developers have been vocally telling players that it’s very worthwhile to do so.It’s the new elements that make us interested in River City Girls. Like the original game, enemies are divided into different types. If you can knock out every enemy but one in an area and beat the last one down to low health, there’s a chance that they’ll plead for mercy, sort of like in the Persona series. That lets you request them as a special attack assist character, with each of the twelve groups having one. These assists add even more flexibility to the game’s already robust combo system.The items you buy now work in an RPG-style inventory system, where you can have two equipped at a time. Each item has a different special ability, and these vary wildly. Some give you a tiny chance of killing any enemy with one hit, others increase defense or weapon durability. Switching equipment can give you the edge you need to battle through a particularly tough boss.River City Girls also splits character progression into two tracks. Instead of cash ruling everything around you, Misako and Kyoko also gain XP from defeating enemies that boosts their stats, while money is used for items and teaching you new moves at the dojo.While most updates of retro games go no further than putting a coat of paint on crusty old mechanics, WayForward worked to take what made River City Ransom a cult classic and put on layers of modern frosting to make a game that lives up to its legacy and moves it into the future.River City Girls releases on September 5 on PS4, PC, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch.More on ‘Mortal Kombat’ Came Under Government ScrutinyHow ‘Final Fantasy VI’ Made Role-Playing a Hot Property in America‘Street Fighter’ and How SNK Started the Fighting Game Wars Sorry, You Can’t Date Keanu Reeves in ‘Cyberpunk 2077”Star Wars Pinball’ Has Your Favorite Brand in Ball Form Stay on targetlast_img read more