Virtual Spotlight: River City Ransom

Virtual Spotlight: River City Ransom

More than just the game that inspired Scott Pilgrim, River City Ransom is goofy, genre-bending fun.

Back in the '90s, game emulators rose to prominence as computers became powerful enough to fake the workings of 8-bit consoles, the Internet created a convenient venue for sharing content, and kids who grew up playing Atari, NES, or Commodore 64 came of age and longed to revisit the games they remembered from childhood. One side effect of this burgeoning hobby was that video gems which had gone largely overlooked back in the day suddenly gained newfound appreciation as gamers began poking through their directories of ROMs to see what they could find.

A number of obscure NES titles in particular developed larger fanbases through emulation than they had enjoyed while they could have made money for their creators -- a creative vindication, perhaps, albeit not much of a financial one. Well, now you have a chance to make good on at least one of these emulation favorites. River City Ransom barely created a blip on the radar during the NES era, but it became a darling of the emulation scene once curious fans began messing around with it and discovering how much more interesting it was than the average 8-bit brawler. While its delayed fame didn't help do much for River City Ransom's creators, now we all have a chance to make up for it by dropping five bucks on the Virtual Console version.

How many other 8-bit games feature street hoods tossing boxes at you while shouting out their own sound effects? None, that's how many.

As one of the few who actually played River City Ransom on NES but didn't think much of it let alone proselytize it, I feel especially obligated to stick up for the game now. It was so unusual among its contemporaries that people like me didn't fully appreciate what it was attempting to do. It was a brawler like Double Dragon, sure, but it was much more than that. River City Ransom amounted to a combination brawler/role-playing game released at a time when most NES fans barely even knew what a role-playing game was.

It's hardly a perfect example of a genre mash-up, but that's often the case in hindsight with madly inventive works. The game is fairly repetitive, occasionally cheap, ultimately not especially challenging, and it desperately needs some item descriptions for its shops so you're not just dropping cash blind on mystery goods. There's a lot of trial-and-error going on in River City, and that's never a good thing. You can honestly breeze right through it, especially if you play with a friend.

But if we can accept the hiccups -- the worst of which can be rectified by bringing up an item FAQs in about two clicks of the Internet -- we can better appreciate what it did well. River City Ransom set the player (or two players working together) in a more or less free-form adventure in which they traveled through a city, beating their way through rival gangs. The members of the different gangs would comically react and cry for help upon being pummeled ("BARF!"), and heroes Alex and Ryan would grow in strength and skill as they took their vanquished foes' loose pocket change and exchanged it for stat-ups and advanced combat techniques.

What does the conger eel do, besides taste delicious? The only way to know is to drop a few bucks on a sample and see for yourself. Not the ideal approach to a shop system.

River City Ransom paired two unlikely genres in a way that echoed a lot of Capcom and Sega's economy-driven arcade melee games from the '80s (Black Tiger, Wonder Boy in Monster World) and paved the way for later, deeper ventures like Dungeons & Dragons: Shadows over Mystara. It took conscious strides to overcome many of the fundamental limitations of the genre by adding a huge variety of tactics -- not only you could swipe weapons and chuck bits of scenery such as trash cans, the more advanced combat techs also let you perform spinning jumps and use others' bodies (including that of your partner in vigilantism!) as weapons.

Coincidentally, River City Ransom hit the 3DS eShop on the same day as Tamsoft's modern-day brawler Senran Kagura. Whatever you may think of the more recent game's content and perspectives on gender, the simple fact is that it amounts to a one-note, button-mashing bore compared to River City Ransom's thug-filled city of BARFing hoodlums and free smiles. Certainly there are parts of River City Ransom that haven't aged well, but the reality is that most brawlers that have come since have been perfectly content to regress and muddle along at the shallow end of the pool. Somehow, a game more than 20 years old remains one of the genre's high-water marks.

So savor River City Ransom. Back when games felt weird and experimental as developers tried to figure out what worked and what would flounder, we didn't appreciate how good we had it.

A dated game for sure, but dated in a good way. River City Ransom overcomes a lot of its limitations by virtue of being nutty enough to stick in your memory. Definitely worth a download -- or two, since it supports cooperative play on two systems.

3.5/5

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