When it comes to retro brawlers, very few are considered true classics. River City Ransom is one of these rare titles and for good reason. Enough with the formalities, I've got a one-way ticket to River City so let's take the full tour.
River City Ransom follows the story of Alex and Ryan who fight their way through hordes of frat guys, jocks, homeboys, mob thugs, and cowboys to save their school and Ryan's girlfriend Cyndi from the dastardly hands of head honcho Slick. Battling these foes is quite satisfying with tight, simple, and intuitive controls and solid gameplay mechanics. Besides punching and kicking, you can run, jump, and pick up, use, and throw various found items and weapons. Heck, you can even lift and toss enemies around if you think that'll teach them a lesson. If you have a buddy who digs games like this then invite them over because playing cooperatively adds layers of fun. That being said, the fact that you can harm each other is frequently annoying since it'll accidentally happen time and time again. Why can't this be optional? In the end, this is one fantastic beat 'em up that you can enjoy either solo or with a friend.
For a NES game, River City Ransom has a rather impressive style. The characters all have slightly different facial features and they express themselves in such a hilariously cartoonish way that watching them beat on each other is great fun on its own. You battle through a handful of environments and they do decent jobs of providing unique settings although they tend to repeat throughout the journey. The screen is split into three sections with life meters being at the top, the action taking up the middle strip, and humorous dialog displaying at the bottom. Reading this dialog is worth getting distracted since you'll come across many memorable lines that'll make you laugh out loud. The most famous of these lines is when characters just say "Barf!" after taking a hit. Anyway, the music is composed of catchy 8-bit tunes of the highest quality. It's always a good time tapping your toes while beating up the locals.
A very cool aspect of River City Ransom is that it incorporates RPG elements. As you battle enemies, they drop money that you can spend at shopping malls to increase your base stats and purchase special items that make you a force to be reckoned with. The ability to revisit previously explored areas and discover the odd optional location allows you to get enough money to be the baddest brawler around. Purchasable items mostly come in the form of different foods which makes enjoying local delicacies a rewarding treat. One shop is a sauna where you can shower and admire your character's delicious pixelated hiney in the process. Sexy stuff!
The biggest disappointment is that you can complete River City Ransom in one sitting. After you do, you'll be satisfied enough to turn it off until the next time your craving for retro beat 'em up action emerges. While classics like Blaster Master take hours to finish, River City Ransom can potentially be beaten within an hour. Additionally, the gameplay doesn't really take off from the start. Even bosses look like regular enemies. Sure, they're more difficult, but you'd wish there were more than just plain-looking foes to overcome. Another downside is that a couple parts require platforming. Considering you jump by pushing both buttons simultaneously, you'd think hopping up on crates and such wouldn't be too difficult. However, getting your character to ascend obstacles is a frustrating endeavor as you watch them jump backwards for no apparent reason. This issue is far from game-breaking but it's still irritating enough to warrant mentioning.
River City Ransom is definitely worth playing for any retro enthusiast. It does have its problems and is very short, but the amount of memorable fun that you'll have will make you happy for taking the time to visit River City.
- + Tight beat 'em up gameplay that you can enjoy with a buddy
- + Rewarding implementation of RPG elements
- + Expressive character models and cool music
- - Very short with repetitive gameplay and no notable boss fights
- - Parts requiring platforming are painful
- - Accidentally hurting your friend is annoying