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River City Ransom (NES) artwork

River City Ransom (NES) review


"In the military, it’s a type of inspection you don’t want to fail. In competition, it means you’re playing without advantages normally at your disposal. With “of the law”, it is the unbearable barb of the headline writer after a police force lifts its height restriction. "



In the military, it’s a type of inspection you don’t want to fail. In competition, it means you’re playing without advantages normally at your disposal. With “of the law”, it is the unbearable barb of the headline writer after a police force lifts its height restriction.

Never is the use of “short arm” a good thing.

It is the first adjective that comes to mind when describing River City Ransom and a telling one at that. Every jab is thrown at the elbow. Every uppercut is a depiction of the combatant on an elliptical. Fighting technique, in this brawler, mimics the sparring of Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots, assuming starting positions thirty yards spread. This is not how a heralded genre classic should first be remembered.

My own feelings versus the universal adoration for this title have always been at odds. From the outside, it’s as if its audience is so amused by guys that “BARF!” when they die and shoddily implemented attribute upgrades – unbalanced and overly powerful – they’ve lost all perspective. As far as fighting goes, RCR is merely a faster, closer-combat NES Double Dragon that sits closer to Final Fight in a historical context. Its trade off of range for speed offers little refinement to the DD formula or allows for future expansion. Instead it emphasizes simple hit-and-run and avoidance tactics that deserve no praise – most enemies can be scurried past conflict free. A must is to say RCR incorporates RPG elements, as if the concept of a character growing stronger is inherent to but one source.

While leading men that do things like “eat sushi” and “read books” might elevate above the Bayou Billy caliber heroes of the NES, they left little footprint on a genre about to be overtaken by arcade titans. River City Ransom is an okay NES action game. It is tolerable and quick and not bogged down like so many peers by collision detection or unwieldy controls or blasé takes on setting. “Solid” might be the second adjective that comes to mind. But it has established a cult appeal, and that appeal has been acknowledged on one too may beat ‘em up top ten lists among games it has had no influence over or even shares similar audience appeal with. Something must be said.

It is a quaint addition to a lacking NES library and a good use of the technology afforded. I will always grant River City Ransom that, and it is the rare effort that’s not a cheapened port. But its charm is lost on me. I wouldn’t be a big fan of these sappy heroes – identically skilled high school hunks Ryan and Alex – or the big-eyed street thugs they batter with even the Capcom engine backing them. The art style baffles. There is a distinctly Christian undertone where every guy has black hair, a uniform-colored shirt and belongs in a bible camp brochure, but a markedly Italian influence over hairstyles makes them all look like John Travolta in Grease.

You’ll fight three bosses that claim to be zombies… but they’re not. They look just like everybody else in the game: big eyes, bright shirts, black hair. You wonder what the hell they’re talking about. Visit the sauna and spend $3.50 to check out your character’s bare butt. Backdrops and stage pieces successfully mirror a suburban high school area, right down to the unquestionable pointlessness of hanging out at the mall. This one misses its mark in a lot of areas for the traditional beat ‘em up fan.

But worse, RCR tried to steer the genre more towards the quarter-munching shops in Double Dragon III than the fierce Streets of Rage the Genesis soon featured. Who stops for a burger while their girlfriend is held hostage? A bad dude would wait to dine with the president, but Ryan can’t control the urge. Who is meandering about, backtracking through construction sites for cash and buying thirty-dollar books to read? Not Mike Haggar, but it will be one of Alex’s cornerstones to success. And this divergence wouldn’t be half as bad if the fisticuffs implemented were geared towards technique and becoming a talented fighter, but instead, RCR’s original concepts go towards wasting time in shops and making you a “stronger” fighter so that the game’s poor brawling design incrementally grows less noticeable.

That’s the most damning statement of all: the RPG elements are all just a ploy that distracts and compensates for the poor implementation of the heart and soul of any great brawler. River City Ransom has a bad fighting engine. Characters shuffle up quickly, throw a short jab or knee, and some luck and attribute points decide who gets the better of the exchange. Buy the right upgrades, stay on top of downed competitors, and it will continue to be an easy ride. That’s neat and not without merit for a console and period where simple worked. And River City Ransom – very simply – is a combination of Technos two prior NES games, Renegade and Super Dodge Ball, pairing the objective of former and the art style of the latter, with a roundabout way to make some of Renegade's original failings work.

As to how that got mistaken for beat ‘em up excellence, I’m short a reply.

Rating: 5/10

Leroux's avatar
Community review by Leroux (August 20, 2010)

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JANUS2 posted August 21, 2010:

Really good review. My favourite bit is the line about stopping for a burger. Nice point about the RPG elements, too. You can be sure that whenever RCR makes an appearance on a NES or beat-em-up top 10 list the compiler will make some remark about the game's "revolutionary RPG elements".


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