River City Ransom
Almost anyone who is even remotely interested in videogames has heard of Double Dragon. For many it is one of the most beloved games on the NES and has been immortalized in numerous comic books, cartoons and even a full-length feature film. Judging by all the attention that Double Dragon has received over the years, it must certainly be the best beat-em-up on NES, right? Wrong. The title of “Best Brawler on the NES” goes to a lesser-known cult classic by the name of River City Ransom.
The thing that elevates River City Ransom above Double Dragon (and all other beat-em-ups for that matter) is the uniqueness of its gameplay. Most side scrolling brawlers follow the same set-up: you punch, kick and throw your way through multiple levels full of mindless thugs. But, River City Ransom is different. It does away with the levels altogether and incorporates RPG elements into the action. You are given complete freedom to wander the streets, back alleys and sandlots of River City as you see fit, with the only obstacle blocking your progress being access to the last area (which opens after you beat all the boss characters). It is quite refreshing to be able to stroll back to past locations and beat up on lesser thugs to earn some extra cash.
Cash you ask? That’s right, every baddie you defeat in the game drops some money, which you can take to the numerous malls in the game to purchase things such as books, tabloid magazines, vitamins, burgers and sushi. Each of the items you can buy at the stores scattered throughout River City has different, positive effects. Some things, such as the expensive swordfish sushi, raise many of your character’s statistics (such as strength, agility, stamina, will power, etc), while other items, like books, unlock new, advanced moves. The great part about this is there are approximately 150 items for sale at the various shops, and the only way to find out what attribute is effected by each is to use trial and error (good thing our heroes have bottomless pits for stomachs). The ability to purchase such items in a brawler might seem a bit odd, but it actually adds an incredible amount of depth to the otherwise stale fighting game formula.
With the option of picking up various weapons (such as lead pipes, chains, brass knuckles, etc) and the ability to pull off some nifty special moves, the fighting in River City Ransom never seems to get old. It can take a while to get used to pressing down both the A and B buttons to perform a jump, but this allows for each button to be used individually for punches and kicks. The game responds immediately to your commands, so you never get the feeling that you were defeated by the controls as opposed to your on-screen opponents. Overall, the fighting mechanics in the game are fabulous and I can only hope that a next-gen brawler will come along with the same great combination of simplicity and depth.
On top of all the above-mentioned features, River City Ransom also allows you to play cooperatively with a friend. I can safely say that this is one of the most entertaining co-op experiences on the NES. During my youth I spent innumerable hours playing co-op with my friends, watching each other’s back while brawling through the various locations of River City. Heck, to this day I can pop the game into my dusty old NES and have a blast playing with one of my friends.
The visuals in River City Ransom are simple, yet very well done. The characters (both main fighters and the thugs) are nice and large on-screen and feature some good quality animations. The art direction in the game was heavily influenced by Japanese manga, so the characters sport some wacky animations such as bulging eyes when being attacked and the like. It’s actually quite funny to see either Alex or Ryan (the two main characters) scarf down a huge pile of sushi, plate and all, at one of the game’s many restaurants. The environments are all modeled to look like a typical Japanese suburban neighborhood and feature such places as high schools, parks, alleys, malls, underpasses, and more. The variation in locations keeps the game feeling fresh, and helps you forget that the baddies you are fighting are almost identical to the ones you beat up five blocks back.
The game’s music is awesome. Think Big Bad Voodoo Daddy in Midi format. It’s just so upbeat and catchy that you never have to reach for the mute button like in most NES games. The sound effects are also superb. Everything from the sound of punches and kicks landing to the metallic clang of money being dropped is spot on. The developers at Technos should be commended for their superior work with the title’s audio.
Double Dragon is a cool game, don’t get me wrong, but it pales in comparison to River City Ransom. The RPG elements, non-linear style of gameplay and highly fun multiplayer all set this game on a pedestal above all other fighting games in recent (and not so recent) memory. Nobody’s NES collection is quite complete without this game, so I implore you to head over to your local used game retailer and find a copy. I promise that you won’t be disappointed.