River City Ransom
Many classic video games have a certain level of charm to them; a particular sort of whimsy, or an extravagant splurge on emotive flourishes. When developers go the extra mile to put these heart-plucking extra bits of details into their releases, gamers notice. Players care. It is no coincidence that such distinctive, unique, zany, rich, full-of-character games like Earthbound and Maniac Mansion have attained a legendary status.
The formula is effective, and multi-pronged: Make the customer smile. Hook ’em. Take advantage of their soul by corrupting it entirely. Tug at her heartstrings in order to yank on her wallet. If we can stuff as much Cute and Cuddly into our product as possible, they will have no choice but to be addicted to their own brain chemistry’s little micro-incentivising. Form a positive psychological associated between their controller inputs and the on-screen characterizations. Craft good jokes. Focus as much on forming feelings and memories as tightening the gameplay mechanics.
This is how we identify great games, right? By spotting when their makers have gone the extra mile? By these cinematic, literary details that transcend mere entertainment and pierce the boundaries of art? When Geno came to life in Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (SNES), we knew it was a special moment, we recognized the Pinnochio parallel, we appreciated an original entrance to the Mario mythos. When we saw the frogs in level 3-1 of Yoshi’s Island, a part of us realized that their unnecessary nature added to their appeal. We enjoy lighthearted happiness, and we seek that even in our digital realms.
But sometimes I just need to beat someone to death with a bike chain.
And that’s where River City Ransom comes in.
If you want those more subtle signals of grand design, they are there: The way most items cost varying amounts of money, but one Burger Joint offers a Smile for Free. The way thrown items interact with rolling items which can then interact with antagonists, which is a strangely ambitious feat of physics for an 8-bit jaunt. How about the variety of melee weapons available to pick up, yet the varying reaches and even stances in which they all work? Not only do they differ in tactical advantage, but stylistically as well; someone may find themselves to be a bat man, while others will love the brass knuckles.
How about the design of River City Ransom? Like, just, in general? What the heck kind of game is this? It’s a side-scrolling beat-’em-up with light RPG elements. Kinda like the first Double Dragon game on NES, sure, but much more in-depth (in my opinion, I guess?), with much more in the way of stat tree upgrades and pathway choices. Basically, and please let me continue interjecting my personal opinion here (because, let’s face it, there is no such thing as an “objective” review, please, can we all just accept this), this is my dream genre hybrid: A beat-’em-up that is pretty darn mindless but not completey so. A game in which I play a role but my role is as a blunt instrument of physical violence. A repetitive grind in which I murder everyone I come across, but at least I can pick different skills, paths, and weapons along the way to make each playthrough a bit different.
Alternately, in order to see how good this thing is, you can choose one aspect of River City and, upon close examination, find that it still manages to measure up. Background art? Go ahead, check every angle and crevice, it is well done. Enemy design? The A.I. is remarkably robust for its era, with several different gangs marking different degrees of difficulty and use of slightly altered fight strategies. Even the opening is interesting, with the true title screen not appearing until after the player has already chosen their character and seen the story text. In hindsight, this is a nifty decision, making the whole experience a tiny bit more like a film.
Cue the anti-violence rhetoric if you must, but there is something viscerally satisfying about sublimating the act of ending a human’s life in a virtual environment. The popularity of the first-person shooter genre would seem to corroborate this. Fortunately, River City Ransom was developed by Technos, who seemed to have a spectacular knack for visceral satisfaction. They had already shown such chops in Super Dodge Ball, with their later work in Super Spike V’Ball (with appearance by Billy and Jimmy Lee of Double Dragon fame) further cementing their legacy as being uniquely gifted at, shall we say, graphical representations of outright pummelings.
Ransom is a game that seems to enjoy a sort of cult following nowadays. Many people really like it (citation needed – just trust me). The reviews on its NESGuide.com page are pretty favorable overall. One reason for its persistent popularity may be the ahead-of-its-time quality throughout. Open-world roaming? Gorgeous pixel art? A not-too-punishing, not-too-easy level of challenge? These are traits that would be just as fitting in a modern indie title, yet there they are in RCR over 25 years ago.
However, River City Ransom is not perfect, nor even ideal within its own frame. The use of a password system stands out as a somewhat clunky implementation. The storyline, involving a kidnapped girlfriend, is cringingly awkward and lazy. One thing I noticed in playing through for this review that I had never noted before was the bizarre lack of descriptors for the stat-boosting items. You can waltz into a storefront to eat pastries that will boost your attack rating, but you do not know what attribute they will boost until you eat them. Some foodstuffs enhance multiple categories, but you cannot know this until you try it. While there is some merit in mystery, I just found it annoying.
Even with its flaws, though, this is a great video game. It is sophisticated, yet can be enjoyed simply. The enemies, whom each have a name, say “BARF!” and cry for their Mama when beaten. It takes the act of enemy palette-swapping to new, glorious heights. The co-op mode is a frenzied exercise in beautiful chaos. I could sit here and detail in length its preponderance of pleasant properties… except that I, honestly, really think that games criticism/writing/hullabaloo reaches a point where we miss the point.
This is an iconic title that overflows with personality. And it’s fun! And I really like it. So there.