December 03, 2015

In RETROspect: River City Ransom

For November 2015, the Cartridge Club selected a game I haven't played in a long while. River City Ransom is a 1989 Technos beat 'em up for the NES. I have very vague memories of renting this game, but the only details I really recall are the lead character art, the goofy stat boosts, and the unbelievably dense password system. Upon replay, my first thoughts were "taaaaaaaaaaaacky!"
Nevertheless, RCR remains a fan favorite and popular title among collectors, so it's a shame that I don't have a copy of my own. Instead, I was reduced to purchasing the Virtual Console edition for WiiU, and in hindsight it was probably a good thing because this game can be infuriating! On the WiiU, you can exploit the save state system to avoid losing time, money and progress. I exploited this like children in a sweatshop!

…okay, okay, dark, I know. Sheesh. Anyway, heads up! Because I'm going to disclose some details in here that some may perceive as spoilers.
In beautiful NES fashion, the game is very misleading. You probably won't need a manual to figure out RCR, although a little guidance regarding finding bosses and what items do what wouldn't hurt. Regardless, it isn't anything you can't sort out with a little lot of trial and error, running around or happy accidents. There is an awful lot of backtracking either way…

River City Ransom stars playable characters Johnny and Ponyboy… er… Alex and Ryan. You work either alone or together to pursue the evil girlfriend-napping Slick, while eliminating a number of gang bosses such as Rocko and Mojo along the way. Yikes. What have I gotten myself into?
Everyone in River City has a name (and a colored t-shirt), which you'll see when they take their final moments to convey such graceful things as "mama!" or "BARF!" which will totally be my last word, by the way. Even Slick's traitorous tramp Roxy will pop by to help you out. You only need to be concerned about your current target however, so don't waste too much effort remembering names. Or gangs. There are a lot of them, and while they have slightly varying traits, there are too many to keep track of. By far RCR's most charming feature is how much personality they managed to pack into character design; you'll definitely have a laugh the first time you see someone get punched across the screen.

The plot is set up with a simple card at the beginning of the game:
Menacing. We'd better not mess with this fella. So now you spend the game going from boss to boss. Every time you take one down, he'll out another by name and location so you have an idea of where to go next. Each location's name pops up briefly when you enter the area, but navigating the city is a nightmare.

The music in RCR is typical for an NES game: upbeat, catchy, and chippy. My one complaint with the tunes in RCR is that they change every time something else changes, and playback certainly isn't seamless. For example, there is a different song for the level, the menu, the sub menu and so on. One kickass tune would have sufficed. For the most part, the sound effects are awesome, the only one that makes me cringe is the annoying dialogue dribble heard every time you go to a store. There is also some sound overlap whenever music and effects have to play simultaneously, one of them suffers for the other.

Hey! A retro gameplay video! Sweet!
So as you can see there isn't really anything on screen but your name(s) and stamina meter. The game looks pretty smooth on WiiU, only bothering with details where it counts.

There is a little trick you can abuse in most levels, and that is if you run up to the top of the screen, the enemies will often just line up and come at you. There are a few smart little shits who will run around and make you work, but for the most part, guys just seem to run into your fist. But, be aware that you'll often be ambushed when you enter a new area. This will get annoying fast since you can't do anything about it, you'll just be bombarded, killed, and sent back to the mall on the other side of town, as if you weren't already lost.
In addition to punching and kicking, there are a number of weapons you can use in battle such as crates, brass knuckles, trash cans, chains and tires. These can be thrown or stay with you until you discard them or are hit. One of the coolest aspects of RCR is when you pick up your actual enemy and toss him around! In my experience, the weapons don't add much power, and are easy to avoid when your foes have them. Simply don't wait to attack. In fact, speed is your friend in River City, and while it can be tedious to get used to moving so slowly, once you master it, even the bosses are easy.
Other tips include jump up on stuff, don't run away (unless you've boosted your agility stat), and GET YOUR MONEY FAST. Money now. Punch stuff later.

There are 11 or 12 bosses in RCR (plus Slick, duh.), and while the mechanics for them don't really change at all, the challenge(?) is added via weapons, sheer power, or fighting more than one at a time.

The game doesn't give you much of a score or rank system, you simply work on your stats and are rewarded with a bigger bank account, which is important because everything is so damn expensive!

Occasionally you'll stumble upon one of the city's few strip malls. You won't be attacked by any gangs here, and are free to shop until you're out of pennies. Buying books will ultimately* teach you techniques that will transform your punch and kick abilities in battle, while buying tasty foods will affect your stats! You can monitor these from your menu. Enjoy the adorable little animations in the shops, they're are some of the game's best moments… and also the only reason to go shopping. The stat system is just frustrating. There are so many stats to work on, many aren't even worth it, and you have to spend so much time tinkering with the millions of vendors and their sundries to figure out what does what.

*You will have to go into your belongings and read the book.

There is a small game menu:

Belongings> this is your inventory. All of the techniques you buy and the consumables you've stored will be here.
Password> this thing is fucking ridiculous:
Level> allows you to change the text speed (which is already pretty fast. This is rare in games!) or your difficulty level.
Status> Shows your current punch, kick, weapon and throw stats as well as agility, strength, defense, and will power. Lastly are the important ones: stamina and max power. Regardless of your initial setup, you will see two rows of stats, this is because RCR is a 2-player game! The second row will just sit dormant if you're playing alone. (The same goes for shopping and passwords, by the way.)
Help> defines a few things for you, but really isn't much help at all.
What this game desperately needs is a fucking map.

In terms of controlling our little badasses:
A is punch or input, while and B is kick, throw or cancel. Both buttons will pickup a weapon if nearby. Don't ever press B while holding a weapon! I can't tell you how many times I accidentally threw away my weapon! If you do want to throw your weapon… press B. Kicking is better once you learn Dragon Feet, anyway.
Pressing A+B will either block, if you're being hit, or jump if you're free to do so, in which case you'll want to point your friend in whichever direction simultaneously. If you pound the D-pad twice to the left or right, your little gang banger will run, but be careful to stop him before he runs into a wall. That will hurt.
Start brings up your game menu and select just shows you your bank account.

There are two difficulty modes offered: novice and advanced. I played on novice since a) this is a retro game; b) I'm playing alone and c)I haven't played a beat 'em up in a long time. I was feeling a little worried. Enemies will take quite a few hits to die (until you upgrade your skills anyway), and lining up hits can be a bit of a pain for someone unacquainted (or rusty) with NES style games, but other than that, I actually found the game very manageable once I mastered some strategies.
According to my WiiU log, I spent a little over two hours in River City. I'm going to be honest with you: I didn't bother finishing it. I wasn't really enjoying myself much.

Ultimately, River City Ransom makes for a good "I want to punch things" game, but I found myself growing bored of it rather quickly. The navigation is a chore and I'm simply not invested enough to want to bother figuring out what does what in terms of boosting your stats. Also that password system. WTF. Many moons ago, I might've been happy to sit and write down everything I learned on a piece of paper, but not anymore. RCR just isn't really my kinda game. A lot of people have described RCR as part RPG: I'm sorry, but this is a pathetic excuse for a RPG. The very few qualities it shares with the genre are laborious and boring, and add little to the game. This is a overblown beat 'em up, and even my fellow Cartridge Clubbers seem to agree, RCR is pretty dull. It's not horrible, but as Ram Vox said, "[it's] extremely… OK." Will I ever play it again? Maybe, but I'll come equipped with a pal and some booze, methinks.

Okay, here's the deal: not only am I playing this on the WiiU Virtual Console (so I'm not sure if cheats even work), but I don't care for this game enough to investigate this.
  • There is really only one cheat that I'm aware of, and that is the name change cheat which you can use by pressing select on the character select screen. Then you are no longer restricted to being Alex or Ryan. You can be Ponyboy. (Update: this does work on the WiiU!)
  • Additionally, I've heard that you can find passwords people have left to get to various places (namely the final boss) with certain (likely the best) items. So if you're looking to get a cheap boost, have a google for some passwords!


  1. This was an AWESOME breakdown of River City Ransom, Lo! I agree with pretty much everything you mentioned, but something about the sprites and animations keep bringing me back for more. I've already played it through 2 more times this month (and it's only the 3rd) just to see how else I could boost my character's stats. Love that "Outsiders" reference ;) Now I won't be able to play without thinking I'm a Greaser!

    Thanks once again for the great piece!

    1. There's definitely no arguing the character design of the game is iconic and probably the most memorable part of the game. I guess it just wasn't enough for me. Maybe I'll come back with a fresh palate later and see if it can change my mind…

  2. These are all pretty much my sentiments exactly. When I first started playing the game to prepare for the podcast, it really felt like a chore. I can say that once I got a handle of the game that I had some fun finishing it, but I have no intention of playing it again.

    Great post, Lo!

    1. I wonder if the game's reputation if affecting our experiences? It seems like a lot of us were let down, but maybe if we played it way back when without the input of others, we might have found a different path.

  3. This game can play on my Xbox can you tell me right now please ??