|Ya got trouble, right here in River City, with a capital T and that rhymes with G and that stands for a good game you probably missed!|
Even back in the days of the NES, the beat-em-up genre was a relatively formulaic and tedious genre which consisted mostly of nothing more than mashing the punch button to KO entire waves of generic enemies.While most people only remember games like Double Dragon, or Battletoads there was one game that flew almost completely under the radar back them and is now among the legions of NES cult classics. I'm speaking of course of River City Ransom; a game that breaks the mold made by Double Dragon and Battletoads by introducing elements of role-playing into what then was a relatively brainless genre.
There's trouble here in River City and it ain't because of the addition of a pool table in the local billiards hall. Gangs of students are running wild and if that wasn't bad enough for Alex and Ryan of Crosstown High, Ryan's girlfriend is abducted by a gang leader named Slick whom has holed himself up in River City High School. In order to save their city and Ryan's girlfriend the two must defeat each of Slick's flunkies littered throughout River City to gain access to River City High School and battle Slick for control of the city. I can't really say much about the story since it is virtually non existant in the game after the begining screen of text, and one "cutscene" that happens early on; it does its job of setting the tone and stakes. MOVING ON!
For an NES game the backgrounds look pretty dang detailed and impressive, and surprisingly varied for a game that takes place in a city. You have the streets (which take up most of the game) a park, two abandoned buildings, shopping malls, construction sites, and of course the final destination of River City High School. The character sprites opt for a rather unusal, deformed look, but still look decent for an NES game as well (if a bit beefy). The music is also decent with each background having its own distinct track (although you'll mostly be hearing the streets' theme), but unless you are a fan of 8-bit tunes you'll be find the soundtrack rather forgettable.
However the text in this game is mired in hilariously bad "Engrish", as were many games back in the 80s. This of course means that the translation of the game's script is rough to say the least. It does however lead to some pretty funny moments such as when enemies yell out "BARF" whenever you defeat them or whenever you encounter a boss and they deliver their horribly translated taunts. Some may call it a flaw, but I call it a plus since it adds a touch of humor and doesn't really detract from the game.
As stated before; River City Ransom is best described as a beat-em-up with elements of role-playing. And being an early beat-em-up the controls are relatively simple, punch with A, kick with B, move with the D-pad, and jump by pressing both A and B simultaneously. You can also pick up and wield weapons to increase your attack range, and power, or throw as a projectile. However unlike most beat-em-ups at the time you are not restricted in your progression; River City is completely open to you for exploration, thus making this one of the earliest "sandbox" style games that have risen to popularity these days. Instead of facing wave after wave of enemies you search for Slick's main goons to defeat them and unlock the door to River City High School where he awaits you, you also must defeat the legions of generic gang members to gain money which leads to my next topic.
The RPG elements of this game come in the form of shopping. Along the way to River City High School you will come across several shopping malls in which you can purchase items such as food, books and other objects. Food in addition to recovering health can also raise your various stats such as punch or kick attack power, endurance, and max health; some snacks can also be taken to go and used in a tight situation. Books enhance your fighting techniques by teaching you new moves such as the lightning fast Dragon Feet, or the brutal Fatal Steps which can finish off a downed enemy. There are other objects that can be purchased with various boosts such as equippable clothes, and music CDs.Purchasing these objects is absolutely necessary to make through the game as you will be getting KOed rather frequently if you don't power up, and while being defeated doesn't net you a game over, it will cut your total money in half each time it happens thus making it even harder to power up. The game also uses a menu system similar to games like Final Fantasy in which you can see your characters current stats, and use/equip items.
The difficulty in this game is a bit uneven at times. In the begining you will be getting KOed a fair amount as you learn the game's mechanics and which foods or items are the best for raising stats for the most cost-effective price, and there will be several frustrating defeats to suffer. However once you learn how to play the game and power up properly then entire armies will crumble at your feet for a majority of the game, and this includes "bosses". But this is to be expected in a game with RPG elements since the premise is that you grow more powerful the further you progress. It also supports a password system that allows you to generate a password to restore your progress and stats.
To sum up, River City Ransom is perhaps one of the most unique beat-em-ups to date, and still holds up decently well as a result. While it is a bit frustrating in the beginning, it is a decently beatable NES title and is easily obtainable due to it being on the Wii Virtual Console for only five dollars. Should you be a fan of beat-em-ups, RPGs, or even just old-school video games in general I'd highly recommend this game.