River City Ransom (NES)

River City Ransom Box Art

River City Ransom

System: NES

Release Date: January 1990

Developer: Technōs Japan

Publisher: Technōs Japan

Genre: Beat ‘em Up

River City Ransom was a favorite in the Mack household, giving two brothers a game that they enjoyed playing together. Alex and Ryan (or Kunio and Riki if you’re hip) put aside their differences and team up to rescue Cyndi who has been kidnapped and taken across town. A note from the mysterious Slick warns to stay away or be in for the fight of their lives. A citywide brawl ensues as Alex, Ryan, or both battle across dozens of streets to make their way to River City High.

Our protagonists punch with the A Button and kick with the B Button. Weapons either exist on the street or are brought on by rival gangs. If you find an unowned weapon, you can pick it up and then attack with the A Button, or throw it across the screen with the B Button. Each of these attacks are governed by a set of statistics that can be increased through the game to make them unstoppable fighting machines. Jumping is also a very important skill that is accomplished by pressing both the A and B Buttons together. Try using a downed enemy as a weapon for funzies (17:50). Or throw them to the ground, because they’ll sure do it to you (21:00)!

After being knocked out, each gang member drops their lunch money on the ground. You want to stockpile this cash and take it to the nearest shopping district. In each of these are a number of stores that will sell you goods. Some of them are consumed immediately, while others can be taken out and saved for later. These goods will either increase your stamina (hit points) or one or more of the different stats. Finding the best deal to increase your stats is part of the charm of the game. You can press the Select Button at any time to check how much money you have in your wallet.

The Bookstore is also an important place to stop off at (25:45). Inside are books that can be equipped to give you a special attack. Stone Hands and Dragon Feet are available at each and give a punch or kick flurry, respectively. The Grand Slam lets you attack rapidly with the weapon. Acro Circus is an entertaining move that let’s you do a running somersault jump. Paired with Fatal Steps allows you to run and jump into enemies to kill them instantly. Dragon Feet paired with the Texas Boots make you an unstoppable machine, maxing out your kick and agility stats.

There can be one or two enemies on the screen at a time. Most of the early gangs are pretty weak, but you can get in trouble if they surround you. It is particularly satisfying for them to throw a weapon at you just for you to hit it back with a perfectly timed attack. Later on, fights play out with lots of blocking between occasional successful attacks. This can be made easier if you increase your strength stat. Maxed out stats aren’t necessary to defeat the enemy leaders, but it definitely helps. There are some techniques that can be used to make your fights a little easier. If you jump on a higher level, like a fence, enemies will stop in their tracks, giving you a chance to drop down and attack (36:00). You can also jump on trash cans that are being held by friend or enemies. If weapons ricochet off of walls, they bounce back and can hurt whomever they hit.

In order to make it into River City High, you need to find bosses and defeat them. In order for the bosses to appear, you need to defeat the entire gang on a particular street. The bosses are stronger, quicker, and smarter than the fodder you face on the streets. They also bring a higher amount of money. The best grinding spots have Benny and Clyde, who give you $7 for beating them both (29:30). This allows for fast money grinding. The penultimate battle is against the Dragon Twins, Randy and Andy. These guys come complete with Double Dragon music and some strong attacks.

The fun really begins when you get a like minded player and take on the gangs in two player mode. Cooperative play was always welcome in NES games, but it was top tier in River City Ransom. There is a huge amount of tension present, as you can attack one another, just like the enemies can. If you’re too close with your attack by just a little bit, you can ravage your friend. Death leads to a reduction of half your money, which means more grinding with Benny and Clyde. There’s an exploit we learned about over 30 years ago. If you’re near death, have your partner leave the screen and then get killed. You’ll appear on the next street with full health and full dollars. But prepare to yell when they don’t get off screen quickly enough!

Graphics: 4.0

The graphics are great all around. The backgrounds look good. The sprites are animated really well and there are a lot of different heads for enemies.

Sound: 3.5

I think the music and sounds are pretty great, too. There are a couple tunes that can grate on my nerves after awhile, though.

Gameplay: 4.0

There are a lot of different attacks that you can use, movement tricks to get around the streets easier, and fun battling throughout the adventure.

Difficulty: 3.0

There is no game over screen, but losing half your money is a tough penalty to have to swallow, especially if you’re currently saving up for expensive items.

Fun Factor: 4.0

This ranks up there with the most fun games on the NES and beyond. I finished three times in the making of this review, which is more than I can say for any other title so far.

Overall Grade: 3.7

River City Ransom earns an A-. This is a great title to start the 90s off with. If you’ve never played, there’s a compilation of the Kunio-kun games available on Switch, PS4, and XBOne, buy it.