River City Ransom
Developer: Technos Japan
Every so often, a game comes along featuring a ton of revolutionary ideas. In some cases, these ideas sweep the industry like a wildfire and every game in the genre applies them immediately; after a brief time of everything being called a ____ clone, the genre can look back and see that thanks to those ideas, it’s a much better genre overall than it used to be. Equally often, however, those ideas are completely ignored by every other game for years to come, leading gamers to wonder…wasn’t anybody paying attention? These underrated gems might be cult classics, critical darlings, or even best-sellers, but for whatever reason, their true brilliance never took off and wasn’t replicated—at least not immediately. Why can’t we get choreographed pre-battle setups or enemy weapons that burn away if you set them ablaze, like in Chrono Trigger? Why do RPGs force us to battle weaksauce foes when EarthBound demonstrated a less bothersome mechanic? Such is the case for River City Ransom, a mid-gen NES brawler that thought so far outside the box it was playing in the sand beyond it.
Before Ransom, brawlers were fairly straightforward affairs ported directly from the arcade. Double Dragon and Renegade stood out as icons of the genre -- a lone badass (or pair of badasses) walked down the street kicking ass and taking names off the attract mode because they were never displayed ingame. They had a detailed list of moves in some cases, but everything was available from the start, as long as you were a good enough player to pull it off (Double Dragon NES excepted). American publishing confusion prevented us from knowing at the time, but Ransom was in fact a followup to these two Technos powerhouses—a direct followup, in the case of Renegade. It took Renegade’s simplistic gameplay (punch, kick, jump, jumpkick, and eat delicious burgers) and supplied a greater context, with the tighter gameplay of Double Dragon and larger, more expressive manga-styled characters. Most noticeably, instead of walking from left to right fighting waves of dudes until the end of the stage, Alex and Ryan (the two badasses of this particular game) inhabited River City: a town comprised of many small “stages” with exits to the left, right, and even up into the background: A world they explored rather than simply traversed.
Student uprisings aside, River City was also a much friendlier place than the slums of its progenitors. Sure, there were plenty of back alleys, factories, and vacant construction sites, but between all these places were outdoor malls, full of stores and passerby. And while Alex and Ryan were too busy to stop and chat with the latter, they earned plenty of cash (by pounding thugs into paste) to blow at the former. In most brawlers, “trash can turkeys” served only to refill health. Not so for Ransom. Not only could you buy far more than food -- from records and books to footwear and pharmaceuticals -- but these items had little to do with stamina and more to do with defense, strength, will, and agility. That’s right, Ransom featured a full-fledged stat system straight out of an RPG. You could even equip clothes and learn new techniques from books. Stat-raising was important too, since instead of specific enemies with higher/lower hit points, you had to face off with multiple gangs, each with different specializations and tendencies.
Gangs and, more importantly, gang leaders were the name of the game in River City. When entering a new area, players would be told it was “The Home Boys’ Turf,” or “The Squids’ Turf.” This identified not just the appearance of the enemies, but also their stats: how hard they hit, if they jumped a lot, their propensity for weapons, and so on. Most of the gangs had a leader, and you had to defeat them all to gain access to River City High and Slick, the mastermind behind this particular gang takeover. Contrary to one’s likely expectations, these gang leaders weren’t positioned at the end of each stage or scripted to show up at regular intervals. Alex and Ryan actually had to seek them out, some hidden in out-of-the-way parks, and certain leaders wouldn’t even waste their time until weaker ones had been defeated. This structure required players not just to get from one end of town to the other, but to actively explore it, backtracking and using clues to complete their objective. While there were nonlinear games at the time, such as Metroid and Simon’s Quest, Ransom was the only brawler not only to attempt such a thing but also to excel at it.
However, River City Ransom didn’t set the world on fire, and the brawlers to follow didn’t adopt stat growth, nonlinearity, or shopping. Streets of Rage? Back to basics. Final Fight?? Standard progression. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?? Business as usual. Then, as we all know, brawlers evolved into tournament fighters and vanished forever. One might assume that gaming utterly forgot about River City until recent downloadable titles Castle Crashers and Ransom’s direct spiritual successor, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. But, that’s not quite the case. While the brawler genre didn’t build on Ransom’s foundation, the sandbox action genre certainly sprung from it (or, given that genre’s decidedly Western origins, from similar ideas and concepts). By looking at modern Grand Theft Autos and Fables, we can see the same free-roaming, searching for mini-objectives to serve your main goal, driven-by-an-overall-storyline-concept River City Ransomness (which in turn found its way back to the Japanese school thug subgenre in Japan’s Kenka Bancho). Why, GTA: San Andreas even allowed protagonist CJ to get fat after one too many visits to the local burger joint. And that, friends, is how it’s done in the RC.
There is one innovation, however, that really did take two decades to find its way into mainstream gaming. One head-slappingly obvious concept that remained ignored until the proliferation of casual online play: perpetual multi-player. In River City Ransom, if one player dies, he’ll be revived as soon as the other player enters a new area, meaning as long as the survivor is good enough to get one screen farther, the two can theoretically play indefinitely. This feature allowed a kid like me, without many gamer friends, to slug through River City with both his mother and seven-year-old cousin Kendra. Nowadays, with our Left 4 Deads and such, this seems so obvious: If people are playing with their friends, it’s a lot more fun if everyone is actively playing the game. But, back when the NES was king of the block, multiplayer was either an alternating affair (meaning whichever player sucked had to watch his wunderkind friend blaze through most of SMB on a single life again) or Contra-style (simultaneous, but when you lost your last man you’d steal one of your friend’s in reserve…and that never ended well). River City Ransom really was the only game mature enough to admit that even if it didn’t make sense, and even if it potentially broke the game, perpetual two-player was a heck of a lot more fun than the alternative. This feature alone is the reason that if you listed every game my mom’s ever played and asked her to rank them, her favorite (after Zoo Keeper and Animal Crossing, of course) would be “that game where you hit people and then you can see your guy’s bottom at the sauna.”