Barf!

25 Years of NES Part 25: River City Ransom

This is the last 25 Years of NES entry and I’ve saved the best for last. Because River City Ransom is the best game on the NES. I know I said that Super Mario Bros 3 is widely considered the best NES game, but while the masses are not far off, they did miss the target. SMB3 is a great game, and my loving effusions over the game were entirely honest, but River City Ransom is better. While SMB3 was great, I would say that later games improved on its formula. No game has ever been better than RCR at what it does, though many have tried–Final Fight, Streets of Rage, The Bouncer and Grand Theft Auto to name a few. No beat-em-up has matched the RPG-esque growth system and free-roaming structure of RCR, and no open world/sandbox game has gameplay anywhere near as good or pure.

River City Ransom is a beat-em-up, that most lamented of departed genres, which has had something of resurgence lately through mostly remakes and re-releases of the classics. And one of the genre’s most important hallmarks, two-player co-op, has definitely experienced a glorious resurgence. Most beat-em-ups were straightforward affairs. The player, or players, moves from left to right punching everything they see in the face. The levels generally end with a boss, the next level starts. RCR, though, is more complex. Most of the basic gameplay is the same, except there are no levels. The player can move from left to right or right to left as he sees fit. There are still bosses and different areas, but the whole game world is open to the player, so long as he can reach his destination. The open world is one of River City Ransom’s most amazing features.

Another is its use of an RPG-like character building system. While regular brawlers would occasionally give the player a new move or something similar, but usually the character’s abilities were static throughout the game. Not in RCR. When exploring the expansive world of River City, you will stumble upon shopping centers, where you can buy food, books and footwear. Where does one acquire money for these items? It falls from the corpses of you foes. Alternatively, since you fight the same guys repeatedly, you probably just root through their pockets and steal their lunch money. For justice.

The food refills the player’s life, as well as giving a permanent increase to one or more ability. There are numerous restaurants and tons of different foods to eat, so deciding how to spend your hard-earned money is part of the strategy of the game. The big money items are the books. Instead of just simple stat increases, though some do give those, the books give the player new abilities. By reading Dragon Feet, for example, the player character learns a rapid kick move. If you read Acro Circus then you get a flipping jump attack. There are also several types of shoes or other accessories that give massive stat increases. Like the Cowboy Boots, which of course give a healthy boost to the kicking stat. Unfortunately, most of those accessories are stupidly expensive. The character building lends the game a level of depth that other games from the genre could not match while not marring the core game play’s essential simplicity.

All of this has been about what River City Ransom is, but just as important is the experience of playing the game, why RCR my favorite NES game and quite possibly my favorite game ever. One of the big reasons for this is the co-op. While the game is more than fun single player is, it truly shines as a two-player experience. The game’s two-player mode is simultaneously cooperative and competitive. Yes, the two players must work together most of the time, but eventually the camaraderie will break down.

There are several reasons for this. One is money. Each player has his own money total and money is earned by picking up the bouncing change left by enemies, not by defeating them. This makes it inevitable that the players will eventually quarrel over funds, especially if one player stops fighting to pick up all the money while leaving his partner to do the work (Sorry T-Mac). The other big reason for fighting is that the players can damage each other. No matter how hard they try to avoid it, eventually an errant punch or misaimed toss of a chain will hit your buddy. I’ve never played a game that did not eventually devolve into petty squabbling. What matters is how well the players recover from this. If you have good teamwork, after a few minutes of beating each other to a pulp you will regain your senses and get back to work rescuing Cindy from the minions of the evil “Slick.”

That is the story. Alex’s (or Ryan’s, I can never remember) girlfriend has been kidnapped by the mysterious “Slick.” He sends a ransom not with no actual demands, just bragging about the kidnapping, a warning about the school gangs he has enlisted and an admonishment not to interfere. One might also note that the graphics look a lot like World Cup Soccer, Super Dodge ball or Crash and the Boys Street Challenge. That is because they are all part of a loose series that due to publishing oddities never had a chance as such in America. But all the games are fun. (The recent DS revivals not so much.) Any NES game that features this unique brand of cartoonishly violent mayhem is worth the time.

While its story is the same as 85% of other NES games (girlfriend kidnapping), there are some things that set River City Ransom apart. One is its crossover with Double Dragon, the then king of the genre. When the player reaches the top of the high school, after beating all of Slick’s minions and just before facing off with “Slick”, this music starts playing. Yes, that is the Double Dragon theme. Then the Dragon Twins enter and it is time for the most epic fight on the NES. Unless the player has bought the hell out of everything, the twins are tough. They are ruthless. And it is awesome. After beating the twins, the fight at the end is a bit of a letdown.

River City Ransom is nearly the perfect game. Sadly, no game that has reached American shores has really followed up on it (If I am wrong please correct me!). It is one of the true video game classics, one of the essentials that everyone should play and simply the best game on the NES.  And the gangs returned to class and became honor students.

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