Kickin’ ass and takin’ coins
River City Ransom was probably one of the best, most overlooked games on the NES, but remains a favorite for those who’ve played it since its release back in 1989. Combining a traditional beat-’em-up with the economy and stat growth of a role-playing game turned out to be way more fun than dipping peanut butter in chocolate. The rights to the game have been contested or unclear for years, and even now, there’s a Kickstarted spiritual sequel close to completion using the same name and art style.
That’s why I was so surprised to see that Natsume and Arc System Works were bringing out a new title in the Kunio-kun franchise in North America, though maybe it does explain why it’s not actually called River City Ransom here in the States.
River City: Tokyo Rumble (3DS)
Developer: Arc System Works
Release: September 27, 2016
2016 is a big year for video game anniversaries. The Nintendo Entertainment System launched 30 years ago in 1986, and so did most of the system’s first-generation software. Heavy hitters like The Legend of Zelda, Dragon Quest, Kid Icarus, and both Castlevania and Metroid all released during the NES’s launch window in 1986. With so many huge franchises surrounding it, it’s little surprise that one of the less famous games that came out that year sort of fell through the cracks.
Those familiar with the NES’s library may remember a beat-’em-up game called Renegade, sort of a predecessor to more famous titles like Double Dragon, Final Fight, or Streets of Rage. While it was extremely influential, the version we got here honestly isn’t a very good game. In Japan, it follows Kunio, a member of a Rockabilly gang who takes to the streets to avenge the beating of his best friend. By contrast, the U.S. localization was heavily influenced by the cult film The Warriors, and instead follows the exploits of Mr. K., a hot-blooded street punk who has to fight his way through the streets and subways of an unnamed city to rescue his girlfriend.
Renegade released in arcades in 1986, and what you may not know is that it was the first in a series of over 20 games released in Japan, or that fellow NES classics Super Dodge Ball, Nintendo World Cup Soccer, and Crash ‘n the Boys: Street Challenge were also originally part of this Kunio-kun series. More importantly, so was River City Ransom (RCR).
RCR might just be the perfect NES game. It combined simple, intuitive fighting controls with the steady stat growth of an RPG, meaning that even if you were terrible at delivering beatings, you could eventually make progress simply by being persistent. It had a great sense of humor, the puppet-like sprites showing off tons of personality by reacting comically to every punch and saying things like “BARF” when you flattened them. Secrets were everywhere, with expensive scrolls that unlocked powerful moves hidden in concealed shops. There was a reasonably effective physics model, with items like crates, tires, and baseball bats acting more or less exactly as you’d expect them to. Best of all, you could plug in a second controller and play with a buddy, sharing the spoils or picking your partner up and beating your enemies with them depending on your whims. Even when the physics didn’t work as you’d expect, it was still fun; it took no extra effort to pick up a box your friend was standing on and then throw the pile at an enemy, resulting in hilarity.
So why am I going into all this history? Well, River City: Tokyo Rumble looks, sounds, and plays almost exactly like the NES classic — and whether that’s appealing to you may depend on whether you share my nostalgia. It retains the amazingly diverse moveset, all handled with two buttons (three if you use Y to jump instead of pressing the punch and kick buttons simultaneously), and the economy and stat growth of RCR. Rest assured, if you play this game, you’ll be beating up plenty of punks and waiting for them to turn into coins.
In a nod to Renegade, the story mode starts with Kunio out to avenge his classmate Hiroshi after he gets beat up in the prologue. The story beats might be a little confusing for non-Japanese natives, but it really doesn’t matter. River City: Tokyo Rumble is all about beating face until there’s no more face to beat.
As you might have guessed from the title, the game takes place on the streets of Japan’s Capital, so you’ll be using the local subway system to travel all around the city, introducing a different gang in each district to the business end of your knuckles. That’s not all there is to do in Tokyo Rumble, though. Like RCR, there are loads of secrets, including a hidden shop in every district and more than 20 special move scrolls to buy and unlock. If you look around, you’ll even find a couple of places to play dodgeball and basketball, a wink at the sportier Kunio-kun games.
The controls are very simple at first: A to punch, B to kick, Y to jump, double-tap left or right to run and add a little extra to your attacks. Once I unlocked a few of the special moves by buying scrolls in the shops around the city, the challenge dropped off rapidly for me, though that may be due to muscle memory. It was still loads of fun to travel around flattening the noses of the various gangs, each with their own theme. There are gangs that dress like hockey players, kabuki actors, bikers, and one gang that’s exclusively female, but each stays in their own area of the city. The granny biker gang from Mad Max would probably be welcome here, but sadly it was not to be. Later on, I tried beating on a few civilians (just to experiment, you understand), and found myself running for my life from the Yakuza.
Tokyo Rumble takes advantage of the 3DS’s hardware to throw more enemies at you simultaneously than the NES could handle, and you’ll find yourself surrounded pretty frequently. It’s single-player only, though once you advance the story a bit, you can enable a support character. While this is appreciated, it’s not the same as a true two-player cooperative mode, which is a major letdown. There are three different support characters, but I didn’t see a reason to change after leveling one up a bit. They each have some unique special moves, but if you’re playing right, Kunio will outclass all of them at all times. You can also play as one of the support characters once you’ve unlocked two or more of them, but again, I never saw a reason to do this. Pressing the X button allows you to cycle through four different orders to your support character: Charge, Help, Back off, and Your Call.
Apart from solving every problem with violence, the other fun part of Tokyo Rumble involves exploiting the economy. You lose half your money if you fall in battle, but I rarely had any issue on the normal difficulty setting. You can always pause to use a health-restoring food item if you find yourself in danger, so it’s a good idea to carry a few for emergencies.
Every defeated enemy will drop either money or a Daruma icon which you can collect and sell in any shop later on. These Daruma are really just a different kind of money as they don’t serve any other purpose, but you can use them as a way to bank some extra cash since they’ll remain in your inventory at full value even if you die. Enemies will respawn if you hang around too long after clearing an area, so you can grind if you need to, though you can also just leave the current area and come back.
You’ll also earn money by completing quests at the Job Exchange, and these give the game a lot of its replayability. Jobs include clearing out a certain number of gang members, discovering some of the hidden shops around town, or finding and returning a lost dog. Other quests reward you for using a certain special move repeatedly, or for lifting a set number of enemies over your head before giving them the heave-ho. These latter type tend to reward you with upgraded versions of the special-move scrolls, replacing your attacks with flashier versions that do even more damage. There are even some quests that reward you with statistic-boosting equipment that’s better than what you’d be able to find in the shops.
This equipment is one of the major changes from how RCR played back in the NES era. RCR and Tokyo Rumble share stats for Stamina, Punch, Kick, Weapon, Strength, Agility, Defense, and Willpower. In RCR, you would gradually increase these stats based on the food you ate to recover your health. In Tokyo Rumble, food just restores your Stamina and Willpower, meaning it only affects your HP, and how likely you are to continue fighting if you run out of HP. The other stats are affected by your equipment, which wasn’t available in RCR. You can equip three items, and it doesn’t matter what they are — you can wear three pairs of shoes if that’s what you want to do. Each new district you travel to will offer progressively better gear, though you can get a leg up (and save some cash) if you take the quests that reward you with advanced equipment. The only other way to increase your stats is by leveling up, or buying rare and powerful consumable items in the secret shops. No matter what you wear, Kunio never changes out of the chairman Mao jacket that’s become his trademark.
Some of the quests are tied to rare spawns, like minibosses that only infrequently appear in a certain area and can’t be counted on to show up. This can be somewhat annoying and inconvenient, especially since you can’t have more than three quests active at once. For the most part, however, if a quest says to meet someone at a specific location, they’ll be there waiting for you.
Since this is a title on the 3DS, it does allow you to view the action in 3D on the top screen, providing your console supports this. Turning it on makes the game look kind of like a diorama with little puppets beating the snot out of one another, but didn’t really add anything to the experience. I played almost the whole game without turning the 3D on. As for other 3DS features, Tokyo Rumble does not appear to support StreetPass or SpotPass in any way.
Tokyo Rumble isn’t an especially taxing game for the 3DS, and apart from one glitch, it ran flawlessly for me. Unfortunately, I did run into a bug once where my AI partner died to a motorcyclist as I struck the final blow on a boss, preventing me from getting credit for the takedown or leaving the boss’s room. I had to reset the game at that point, but considering how many moving parts there must be to this game, I’m inclined to be forgiving.
There’s a lot of content here even after you finish the main story mode. If you’re feeling particularly nasty, there’s even a New Game+ mode that lets you play from the start and retain your levels, moves, and equipment if you REALLY want to smear the other gangs. Although co-op play isn’t an option, there are a couple of competitive modes, called Rumble and Dodgeball. These are pretty much exactly what you’d expect, and you can do ad-hoc local multiplayer for up to four people off of one copy, which is nice. There isn’t any option for online multiplayer though, which means this probably won’t see a lot of use in the U.S. outside of conventions like PAX.
The Dodgeball game is pretty much just the Bean Ball game mode from Super Dodge Ball, with up to four players trying to kill each other in a parking lot with two volleyballs and no other weapons. In this mode, you can’t use your fists or feet, so it’s a little more subdued than the rest of the game. Rumble is a little more interesting. It’s similar to a simplified Smash Bros. and has several stages, each with their own area hazards. You can use weapons, and playing through the story mode unlocks novelty characters like Skates, who slides when he moves and can only attack by using his hockey stick to slapshot weapons at the other players. You can also try to lure other players into the hazard areas, like the tracks in the train station stage where a Shinkansen train will one-hit KO anyone it runs over.
I had a hard time coming to a decision on a score for this game. Half the fun I had with River City Ransom back in the day came from multiplayer, and I strongly feel that cooperative mode should have been an option. I’m hopeful that later on, or if Tokyo Rumble gets ported to another system, the developers can add in the co-op that was originally intended.
Although Tokyo Rumble plays great and I had lots of fun with it, the gameplay on display has been done better, and recently. Both Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Double Dragon Neon have online and local co-op play in addition to considerably better graphics and sound. That said, neither of those games ever made it to the 3DS, so if you want to smack up some street scum on the go, it’s easy to recommend River City: Tokyo Rumble. There’s lots to unlock, it never stops being fun to whale on the other gangs, and despite the simple graphics, those classic character sprites show off more personality than a lot of more modern games’ protagonists. If you’re on the fence, I’d recommend trying the original River City Ransom on the Wii or Wii U virtual console, since this is a greatly enhanced version of the same thing. If you already have nostalgia for the series, feel free to add a couple of points to the score.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]