When it was released for the NES in 1989, River City Ransom (or Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari in Japan) offered an ambitious blend of arcade beat ’em up, open-world structure, and light RPG elements. It was also another case of a Famicom game vastly redesigned to tailor to a Western market. The third game in Technos Japan’s long-running line of games featuring their mascot, Kunio. While not initially successful in the West, River City Ransom has garnered a cult following. It’s attempting to breathe new life into an aging genre as well as its sense of humor. (You’re not going to find many other games on the NES that show a bare ass. I’m shocked somebody let that slide back in 1989, considering Nintendo’s strict policies at the time).
Arc System Works eventually acquired Technos Japan in 2015. They joined forces with Wayforward to bring us River City Girls in September of 2019 as a direct continuation of the Kunio Kun saga. I’ve been on the fence about this one since release, mainly due to its hefty digital price tag of $29.99. Luckily, it’s now a part of the Xbox Game Pass lineup, and I figured it would be the perfect game to play hot off the heels of the Scott Pilgrim rerelease.
River City Girls opens with an impressive anime-styled introduction, followed by a series of manga panels setting the stage for the rest of the adventure. High school outcasts Misako and Kyoko are in the middle of a bland math lesson at River City High while serving detention. The monotony breaks with a text message showing their boyfriends (and the stars of the mainline games in the series) Kunio and Riki kidnapped. It’s a definite case of role reversal. The duo takes it upon themselves to battle their way out of detention and takes to the streets of River City to rescue their sweethearts. Everything here is of high production value and something I’m sure anime fans will appreciate. Also, Wayforward fans will be pleased to know that Cristina Vee (voice of Shantae) has lent her talent in the form of vocals in the game’s original soundtrack.
Like many contemporary games, River City Girls introduces its mechanics to the player gradually through a series of tutorials throughout the first map. Much like the main games in this series- this is not your standard A-to-B brawler. You’ll need to pay attention to the map, stats, and various perks equipable through a rather attractive smartphone-style interface. You’ll also be chatting with multiple NPCs, solving side quests, and listening to Misako and Kyoko’s banter while taking down your typical assortment of high school cliches.
Much like Scott Pilgrim, it’s essential to understand that you’ll be starting with a relatively limited set of moves. As you gain levels, your stats will increase, and your moveset (the latter of which can be expanded further at dojos). I’ve seen other reviewers mention difficulty spikes (particularly with bosses). While there are some to be had (more on this later), I think it’s essential that first time players understand that there is a grind to this game. Playing it like your standard beat’em up will cause undue frustration. Take your time, use the grunts as punching bags to gain XP and cash, and check out the first dojo as soon as you can. (Don’t worry- you’ll stumble across it within the first hour of play). The number of techniques you’ll learn genuinely does blossom into a great combo system that is very satisfying to know with a little bit of patience.
Also, River City Girls has one edge over many in its genre- reasons to come back. There are hidden collectibles to find (and a reward for getting them all), a New Game Plus, two unlockable characters, as well as a secret final boss and ending. It’s not as if all four characters play the same either. Misako and Kyoko come with their unique moveset (once fleshed out), as do the two hidden characters whose identities I won’t spoil. This game may not offer the insane amount of branching paths and storylines that have had me hooked on Fight n Rage even after almost 100 hours. These are still lovely inclusions to boost the replay value.
The storytelling is excellent for those who enjoy a lighthearted plot. The presentation is top-notch, and the combat mechanics are fantastic once you level up. River City Girls has some faults that some players may find hard to stomach. For one, you’re not going to know precisely what many items at the shops do for your stats until you drop cash on them. This system was standard fare for classics such as Wonderboy: The Dragon’s Trap (which the Lizardcube remake mended) and even River City Ransom. However, it’s a bit archaic in 2021.
A first-time player will not know what food items boost what stats, and death comes at a penalty of losing a chunk of their current cash total. This might lead to some frustration unless looking at external sources. Secondly, the comments regarding difficulty spikes aren’t entirely off. The game’s most challenging moments come from not being prepared for the numerous boss encounters. In comparison, many of them are a blast (especially Hibari, who requires you to stun her with her projectiles before letting her have it). There is no indication on the map screen as to when and where you’ll be fighting them. This could have easily been fixed by having a skull icon on the map after meeting the requirements to take them on and allowed first-time players to stock up on healing items.
Despite some odd design choices, River City Girls is better than the sum of its parts. The production value is high for the animated sequences and the pixel art in the main game, both oozing with that unique Wayforward charm. The number of punches, kicks, uppercuts, and throws you acquire means the combat never grows stale. Players that slow down and grind before progressing through the story will access this level of warfare. The bosses ( complete with their animated introductions and backstories) are all incredibly memorable. From the bone-headed security guard Misako to the rebellious punk rock star Noize, they’re all fun to fight even if they hand you your ass a couple of times first.
As for where it stands with its contemporaries, I would rank it quite a bit above Scott Pilgrim and Streets of Rage 4 but a few steps behind Fight ‘n’ Rage. Suppose you happen to own an Xbox One or Series X. In that case, it’s definitely worth the price of admission for a month of Game Pass if you have any interest in beat’em ups or Wayforward’s work beyond the Shantae franchise.
>Excellent presentation- the production value here is clearly as high as it was for Shantae and the Seven Sirens
>The combat is satisfying once you begin to level up
>All of the bosses are engaging and memorable
>Plenty of reasons to revisit the game after finishing it
>Most items don’t specify what stats they boost until AFTER you purchase them
>The lack of indication that a boss is coming up means you’ll probably go into some brawls handicapped/unprepared