Virtual Spotlight: River City Ransom

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

Review by Jeremy Parish, .

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

Virtual Spotlight: River City Ransom Jeremy Parish More than just the game that inspired Scott Pilgrim, River City Ransom is goofy, genre-bending fun. 2013-11-20T21:55:00-05:00 3.5 5

This article may contain links to online retail stores. If you click on one and buy the product we may receive a small commission. For more information, go here.

Comments 16

  • Avatar for davidbabb52 #1 davidbabb52 4 years ago
    Fantastic! As mentioned early in your article, I'm one of those that grew up with the NES and Atari 2600 only to rediscover lost gems such as this with the breakout of Nesticle in the early 90s. I will definitely pick this one up just in time for an out-of-state visit to relatives over the Thanksgiving holiday. I am curious about the two-player mode, though...
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #2 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @davidbabb52 Curious in what sense? It's simultaneous co-op, and it simply requires two people with their own 3DSes and copies of the game (as seen with Super C, Tecmo Bowl, and a few other 3DS VC titles).
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Futaba #3 Futaba 4 years ago
    This was one of my favourite NES games as a kid. It's still fun to play today but doesn't keep my attention quite as long.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for orient #4 orient 4 years ago
    Did you just coin the term "video gems"? I like it.

    I might have to try this out for myself. I was a fan of Double Dragon growing up on SMS and this looks more involved. Hopefully it's more fun than Double Dragon Neon -- the demo drove me up the wall with it's finicky depth/hit detection. You had to be vertically aligned to a tee to land a punch, and I don't know what was going on with the throws. It's been 20 years since Streets of Rage 2 -- devs shouldn't be making these mistake in 2013.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for landocal67 #5 landocal67 4 years ago
    I played this game everyday from 1991 to 1997. 3.5/5 does not do it justice.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Stevegasm #6 Stevegasm 4 years ago
    I was huge into brawlers growing up, especially Double Dragon. But this game's free form ways and RPG elements were huge to me.

    Me and my brother played the hell out of RCR.

    I think one of me and my brother's coolest gaming achievements involves this game: we memorized our passwords that gave us all the ability books, max HP and Willpower, as well as the food that refilled your HP completely. You'll get why that was a big deal if you see these passwords. I think only The Guardian Legend comes close to having crazy passwords.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for kidgorilla #7 kidgorilla 4 years ago
    For some reason, I remember a lot of flicker when enough enemies were on the screen at once in co-op. Is that really an issue on the 3DS's screen if it still exists at all?
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for SargeSmash #8 SargeSmash 4 years ago
    I was lucky enough to experience River City Ransom in the days before emulation. It's easily one of my favorite brawlers out there, not just for the RPG elements, but because the combat just "feels" right. And that's something important for a genre that has you thwacking endless waves of mooks, because if the combat isn't satisfying, nothing else around it is, either.

    There's also a team that's working on River City Ransom: Underground, and they just had a successful Kickstarter drive. And they're proceeding with the blessing of Double Dragon's creator, Yoshihisa Kishimoto.

    @orient: I loved Neon. Once you get the hang of the combat, it's a tremendously satisfying game. But it does make some significant deviations from the older Double Dragon games.Edited November 2013 by SargeSmash
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #9 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @kidgorilla Flicker isn't a function of the screen, it's the system's (in)ability to handle more than a certain number of sprites on the same row of the screen at the same time. Virtual Console emulates that limitation of the NES, so yeah, there's still flicker here.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for kidgorilla #10 kidgorilla 4 years ago
    @jeremy.parish Sorry, my question was more about the screen size of the 3DS. Does the flicker make it tough to read the action with the smaller real estate?
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for bullet656 #11 bullet656 4 years ago
    I had no idea that this game hasn't always been popular, I guess because I'm relatively new to reading video game websites and have only my experiences to go own. I loved this game when it was originally released, although I never actually owned it. I rented it at least a half-dozen times from my local video store.

    I remember also being really excited when I discovered the dodge-ball and soccer games featuring the same characters (or at least similar designs). Those were great games too.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for dr134 #12 dr134 4 years ago
    Try Scott Pilgrim vs. the World if you want a X360/PS3 version of River City Ransom to play.

    Also, I have fond memories of trolling my friend when he wanted to leave a shop by continuously buying the free Smiles (IIRC).
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for docexe #13 docexe 4 years ago
    I have read a lot about this game, but never tried it. I should correct that mistake soon.

    When you think about it, this game seems like one of the earlier predecessors of modern beat’em ups and action adventure games, what with the recent trend of mixing brawling and combat with RPG elements.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for jxnholt #14 jxnholt 4 years ago
    This game has so much personality through it's art direction, sense of humor, & catchy music. Definitely one of the best surprise releases on 3DS Virtual Console.

    I'm surprised River City Ransom wasn't well known back in it's day. The game was definitely on my radar through Nintendo Power coverage, but then again, I rented it several times, but never owned it. Maybe that was what everyone did. :)
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for kingaelfric #15 kingaelfric 4 years ago
    Mr. Parish: I have heard you make this argument before, but unlike most of your writing, it has always rung a little untrue to me. While certainly no blockbuster, my friends and I were well aware of RCR and as I went off to college and the like (OLD!) it was an oft-remembered game. I would have said it was a cult classic even before the rise of Nesticle and the like. That being said, I'm really just facing my anecdotes off with yours for a non-statistical battle royale, or something, so, who knows.

    To everyone else: PLEASE REMEMBER that Blade is in Sherman Park.

    Smiles are free.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for davidbabb52 #16 davidbabb52 4 years ago
    @jeremy.parish I was mostly curious if it was possible. Now, you've answered my question!
    Sign in to Reply