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River City Retro: River City ... Ransom!


So how's it going? Hanging around Destructoid? Reading the Cblogs? Are we having fun yet? I don't know about you but you bet I am! I've been replaying my copy of River City Ransom for the NES. Not only is that an absolutely awesome game that you should go and play right now, it's actually one of the most interesting games in the NES library. That's why this issue of River City Retro is dedicated entirely to one game that has a title so catchy, I have named my whole blog after it.

In case you were one of the poor souls that failed to find this game in the Double Dragon II maelstrom around its release, let me give you a quick rundown. River City Ransom was originally developed by the now defunct Technos company. They're most famous for the 1987 arcade hit Double Dragon, a game where you walked around city streets, beating up gang members that'd had the nerve to kidnap your girlfriend. River City Ransom mostly recycles this plot and general gameplay.

Unlike Double Dragon, which was rather serious in tone, River City Ransom has a much more humourous side to it. Double Dragon's street gangs have been replaced by teenage delinquents divided into several amusingly named gangs, and characters often talk to each other during fights which has resulted in some rather famous quotes. In addition to this, the game also sports a bunch of RPG features.

Both the player and the NPCs carry several stats that define their effectiveness in battle. Fallen enemies leave behind coins that can then be spent in shopping streets to level up your characters. On the higher difficulty level, you're actually quite likely to spend a lot of time grinding in order to beat the next boss. Don't worry though. It's a lot of fun just browsing through all the shops and watching the goofy eating animations. I did mention before that this is one of the more interesting titles on the NES. Why is that? Well, to answer that question we're going to trace its history back all the way to the Japanese game centers.

I told you before how Double Dragon was Techmo's first international success. On the islands of Japan however, the company made its impact one year earlier with a game called Nekketsu Kouha Kunio-kun or Hot Blooded Tough Guy Kunio in English. It was a story of highschool bullying. Every level started with a poor boy named Hiroshi being beaten by the school gates. His delinquent friend Kunio then chases after the attackers and gives them a taste of their own medicine. It played much like Double Dragon although it missed some core features like smooth scrolling.

So what does this game have to do with River City Ransom other than sharing the same developer? The thing is, River City Ransom is no less than a direct sequel to this game. In fact it was already the third installment in what had become the Kunio-kun franchise in Japan. Now before you start shaking your fist in anger because of all the games we missed, we actually did get several of them. The main problem with Kunio-kun was an abundance of Japanese schoolyard culture. Western audiences just wouldn't recognize that as much.

This led to some dramatic changes in the overseas releases. Nekketsu Kouha saw an Arcade release and NES port under the title Renegade and replaced the school bullying by your standard damsel-in-distress plot and the students by gang members loosely inspired by The Warriors. Then came a Nekketsu Koukou Dodgeball Bu. A Kunio dodgeball spin-off that made it overseas with all Japanese scenery replaced by American counterparts and simply retitled Super Dodgeball. It was a great game btw. Then a year after our River City Ransom, Nekketsu highschool organized another sports tournament.

This time we were playing soccer and actually, if you had a NES, you're very likely to have played this game. This one is no other than the widely popular Nintendo World Cup. Of course, rather than thirteen different countries to play as, the original competitors were different highschools in a Japanese national tournament. The fact that fouls aren't punished in this game, makes a lot more sense when you know it was actually Kunio.

Another one worth noting is Nekketsu Kouha Kunio-kun: Bangai Rantou Hen. Just rolls off your tongue, doesn't it? This was another side scrolling beat 'em up much like our beloved RCR, but without any of the RPG elements. Back here, we know it as Double Dragon II. Not THE Double Dragon II for the NES and arcades though, this was a completely different game for the Nintendo Game Boy. If anything, it feels like a rushed attempt to cash in on the Double Dragon name.

The artwork is a shameless ripoff of the NES' Double Dragon III and none of the trademark enemies like Chin or Abobo are in it. A shame really. I don't really mind them releasing Kunio-kun as Double Dragon but they could have at least put some effort into it. I mean, there's even a big fat guy among the bosses. Why couldn't that have been Abobo? I bet the bald headed giant must have been crying in a corner when he first saw this game.

Localization aside, another lesser known part of River City Ransom's legacy are the system's it's been released on. It didn't get an Arcade version like Double Dragon but it did get released on a couple of Japanese computers you've likely never heard about.

Sharp X68000

The Sharp X68000 was such a computer. Just like SNK's Neo Geo, this was an arcade gaming powerhouse. Even more so. This was Capcom's CPS arcade development machine. What does that mean? It means that legendary games like Street Fighter II were developed on this very machine! Needless to say, there were more than a few arcade perfect ports to be found here. Amongst all of this obscure gaming beauty, there was also a version of River City Ransom far superior to its NES counterpart. The game world was much bigger than the 8-bit original with access to several different highschools, each with their own boss battles.

For me, one of the greatest appeals of a game has always been the sound it makes. River City Ransom for the NES did pretty well but have a listen to the X68000 version in the video above and try to tell me this isn't just pure poetry seeping into your ears. That's right, I said poetry. How else would you describe a fully voiced "BARF"?

TurboGrafx-16 / PC Engine

The TurboGrafx-16 or rather PC Engine version in Japan. This one is technologically the most advanced by far. There are tons of new animations and the scenery is more colourful than ever. Unfortunately though, the new areas introduced in the X68000 version are nowhere to be seen. As far as audio is concerned, I'm a bit unsure of which version I prefer. Taking full advantage of the PC Engine's hardware, this version sports nothing less than a CD quality soundtrack but somehow, its sound effects just don't sound as nice as the X68000.

Even where the music's concerned, I find it hard to pick a favourite. Sure the PC Engine is far superior in general sound quality but I happen to own a pair of 1337 headphones. With them I can easily distinguish any underlying tracks in a song and I have to say, those digitized tunes on the X68000 have some SWEET percussion on them. Especially the boss theme sounds so much more badass. Skip ahead to about seven minutes into the PC Engine video and that's some equally badass drums right there though! Pretty fun to watch the player struggle with a few crates too. :)

Gameboy Advance

Finally there is River City Ransom Ex for the Gameboy Advance. This one did make it over to the west and this time around, they didn't even bother to edit out the Japanese school uniforms. A shitload of additions have been made to the game this time around so this one is more of a remake than a port. The RPG elemens are more more visible as this time around, the amount of damage you deal actually appears on the screen.

There are loads of new animations and moves, your character now has a reputation stat that determines whether or not you'll be able to hire new allies and even more new locations are added. Several new techniques made it in and even special boss techniques can be used by the player characters. Another funny thing is how in the opening dialogue, Alex and Ryan don't seem to be the good buddies that they were in the NES original. Again there's an explanation here. Kunio and Riki from the Japanese version weren't friends to begin with. They are rivals. In fact Riki even appears as one of the other bullies that pick on Kunio's friend, Hiroshi in the first game.

With all these enhancements and its solid gameplay, I would love to call this the definitive version of River City Ransom but there is one thing holding me back. There's no freaking multiplayer! Can you believe that?! I mean, an AI controlled Riki even tags along the whole game. Would it have been so hard to enable another player to control him? Have you ever heard of any classic beat 'em up that didn't include co-op?! Well... I guess we did have that one notorious perpetrator on the Super Nintendo but let's not go there. This game should have had multiplayer!

So we've looked at the original series and a few ports, but what about any direct sequels? Of course the Kunio-kun series just kept rolling on in Japan. The Super Nintendo had its share of games including a sequel to Dodgeball Bu, a Baseball spin-off and a puzzle game. Let's skip all those though and get to the games you want to hear about.

Shodai Nekketsu Kouha Kunio-Kun

This one was released quite early in the SNES' lifespan from what I've gathered. Kunio's school goes on a field trip to Osaka. Of course it isn't long before the Kansai bullies show up and Kunio's in for the fight of his life once more. This one actually takes the RPG elements even further than River City Ransom did. There's a strong emphasis on story this time around with lots of cutscenes. You also gain experience and use items much more like the traditional RPG elements. I haven't played this game myself yet but from what I can tell, it looks like a great continuation of the series.

Shin Nekketsu Koha: Kunio Tachi no Banka

This is the second full featured entry into the SNES' library. This time around Kunio and Riki are thrown into jail for a crime they didn't commit. Again I haven't played this game myself but I've heard that it doesn't have any RPG elements this time around. Still ... even without those, it looks like a very solid beat 'em up in the video above. I absolutely dig the presentation and the mystery at the beginning. I'm kinda dying right now to find out why Kunio and Riki have ended up in jail and who framed them. Maybe I'll check this game out for myself when I find a whole in my schedule. Both these SNES titles were originally released in Japanese only but thanks to the efforts of several dedicated fans, it's now possible to play them fully translated in English. Thank you guys so much!

River City Ransom 2

As far as direct sequels go, one more little trinket lies around in the RCR history. That one's actually an American made, or rather about to me made sequel by Atari QA tester Armen Casarjian. It's a funny story actually. While the Kunio series was busy pumping out new games on the islands of Japan, nobody had paid any attention to the copyrighted title of River City Ransom. Just on a whim, this guy applied for the expired copyright and what do you know ... He got it!

Although he didn't have access to any of the game's content, he did own the title. Thus he gathered a couple of friends and started working on a Game Boy Advance game under the title River City Ransom 2. The plot was going to be a rehash of the first game but he had some ambitious features in mind like four player simultaneous co-op on a single cartridge and an easy-to-pick-up, hard-to-master fighting engine in the vein of Super Smash Brothers. So what eventually became of this game? Casarjian attended E3 2003 and saw the announcement of River City Ransom Ex for the Game Boy Advance. Out of respect for the original developers, he pulled the plug on his own project and let them use "his" title without being an ass. Thumbs up to him for being such a good sport and frankly, I'd place my thrust in the original Kunio developers over a fairly unexperienced although ambitious developer any day.

And that's that. River City Ransom. A true cult classic from the eighties that seemed to disappear from the face of the earth but actually had a whole series behind it lurking in the shadows. Actually I've always felt a bit of a personal connection to the Kunio-kun games and that's probably because I've been bullied myself in highschool. It's a very serious thing and has had a big impact on my confidence during my teen years. Fortunately in my case, most of the damage has been repaired by three great years of college and several more of traveling around the world.

Both of these things give me a feeling of power over my old bullies. I'm pretty sure most of them are living a generic life in the same town where our school was and here I am living in all these exotic places they've likely never seen before. It's also possible that they are perfectly happy with their current lives and you know what? That's ok. I have my way of coping with what happened back then and it doesn't matter how good or bad they are doing in their own lives.

Still it hurts me when I see it happen to other people. Just yesterday I was walking through one of Tokyo's train stations and saw one kid being pushed in a corner by three others. Every now and then they kicked him in the leg. Not hard enough for him to go down but he had this forced smile on his face and commented something like "it does hurt quite a bit". I felt really sorry for this guy. Back in my day it never got that far and without a doubt, that's because I never let it get that far. They never assaulted me physically because they knew I'd hit back. Even by words alone they have some times pushed me over the limit and in an explosion of nerd rage, I've beaten their faces in with a freaking trash can.

Even though I had these brief moments of revenge though, the bullying didn't stop. That's just how it works. I could have interfered and helped this guy out, but just like Hiroshi gets beaten up again and again no matter how many times Kunio saves him, these guys would have had their revenge ten times over as soon as I was gone. It's kind of harsh but if you don't want to be bullied, the only way is to man up and get confident about yourself. I'm not telling anyone to resort to violence but even without that, you have to radiate that you feel good about yourself and aren't willing to be trampled upon. I know it's much easier said than done though. Especially if you fail to introduce yourself into the group this way. Once the pestering has taken off, it gets exponentially harder to call it to a halt. Very sad ... but true. Still ... I have been able to overcome it and that means that it is possible.

This has been Metallion. Thanks for reading my little rant. :)

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About Metallionone of us since 4:11 AM on 10.14.2009

I'm a dude that used to write cblogs regularly but doesn't do that any more.