River City Ransom
Last night, I reached a milestone in my life. After about 20 or so odd years I finally beat the Nintendo game, River City Ransom. It was one of those games I never actually owned growing up, but I had a friend who had it so I would get to play it occasionally. I always loved the mechanics of it, but was never able to get far enough in the game to beat it. With the recent explosion of vintage video game stores every time I went to one I’d see River City Ransom calling to me. The problem is it generally commands a higher end cost which is always a gamble for retro games because there’s a real chance that they could be awful or unplayable. One I day I could resist no longer, I plopped my money down and went home with a grey cartridge in my arms. My dusty old NES was aching for insertion.
The plot as with most early video games is superfluous and just a means to the action. But for the record you play as Alex and Ryan two high school students who must save Ryan’s girlfriend that’s been kidnapped by a gang. It’s not unlike Double Dragon (although it does lack the outrageous opening scene of the girl getting duffed in the face that kicks off Double Dragon) which we will see many comparisons too.
This is most definitely a two player game. It can be played with one person, but it’s just not nearly as fun. The first thing you’ll notice is the similarity to the severely underrated Super Dodge Ball game (an adolescent Biff favorite). It’s created by the same company Technos Japan and shares the unmistakable character designs. You get to punch and kick you way to glory through River City and hordes of different street gangs. It’s a classic and one of the most satisfying beat ‘em up the NES has to offer.
What makes this game so unique is some pretty out of the box thinking for 1989. While it is a side scroller, the game shares elements more commonly found in RPG’s similar to the way Zelda 2: The Adventure Of Link incorporated them. River City itself is a much more expansive and “open world” where there was no true stages or boards but just different sections of the cities that were interconnected and you could always travel back to. Boards never truly ended, you just went to the next screen. Think of it in a way as the game play and stages of TMNT 2: The Arcade game, but mixed with the layout of the first TMNT game. Malls functioned as safe havens and check points. You couldn’t be attacked there, but you could buy food to power up and items which you would need to equip to effectively be turned on. When you died, the last mall you walked through is where you’d start. Each ruffian you beat up you would collect money from based on the level of their skill. There’s even dialogue too although this really serves no purpose and mostly is attributed to the people you beat up as you’re walloping them.
River City Ransom does use a password feature, this is a difficult game but it can be done in one sitting if you know where you’re going. Despite the layout of almost always going right to advance to the next screen there are a few places where you actually have to back track to do things. If you don’t do it all in the proper order you will never be let into the final level aka River City High School and unable to go back and fix what you did wrong. It’s a royal pain in the ass and extremely frustrating. Especially when it came out originally, you’d either have to know someone who knew the way or I guess have the Nintendo Power issue. Nothing about the few times you need to back track is intuitive. In fact, I have no idea how you would even know about it if you were playing the game. There isn’t a wealth of hints or tips in it, that’s for sure. Thank God there’s walkthroughs for practically every game that’s ever been made (thank you wonderful interwebs!)
Here are a few isolated Biff hints to get you on your way to success.
-You need two items in this game, Stone Hands and Dragon Feet. That’s it. Player one needs one, and player two gets the other one. Each character starts off with $20 and they cost $26.95 a piece in the first mall. Every time you die you start with half the money you had before you bit it. So with the surplus of funds they give you right at the beginning of the game just fight your way to the price line. Equip those bad boys and the game will be more fun and less tedious.
-When both characters die you go back to the last mall you walked through. However, if one of you dies and the other player changes screens to a different location the deceased will respawn. Use this to your advantage and never die together. Also, be aware that you can damage your teammate.
The game is what Double Dragon should have been, but closer to what Double Dragon II ended up being, but better. What’s more fun than two dudes in t-shirts and jeans beating the piss out of gang members? It’s a granddaddy of a button masher and while I felt insanely accomplished when I finally beat it after all these years and had a smug sense of self satisfaction, the ending was lack luster to say the least. I know that’s how it goes for a lot of NES games, but with all my blood, sweat and tears I hoped for a little more. Maybe some animation or a new freeze frame? I mean, you don’t even get to see the bodacious babe you risked your life for. You get a brief few sentences of text from the boss you defeat followed immediately by the credits. Not even enough time for me to take my phone out and grab a picture to immortalize the moment. It doesn’t matter though because I can finally cross that game off my list.
I also found out a independent company named Conatus Creative very recently reached their kickstarter goal and get the green light to go ahead with an officially licensed 2D sequel to the game. Both true to the original and expanded in scope, this looks amazing. River City Ransom will continue to live on.
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