Those that have paid attention to any of my nostalgic trips over the past year are probably aware at how both Final Fantasy IV and River City Ransom have played integral roles in shaping my RPG tastes. And while my love for the traditional JRPG can easily be chalked up to Final Fantasy IV, River City Ransom is solely responsible for seeding that deep-rooted love for RPGs in the first place.
Needless to say, I was ecstatic upon discovering that River City Ransom was available as part of Nintendo Switch Online, because I feel like it is a very underrated, underappreciated, and somewhat unknown title from the NES era. And having River City Ransom available on Switch is not only a good way to introduce newcomers to the unconventional title, but also provides an easy avenue to jump back into it myself.
River City Ransom follows two high school students, Alex and Ryan, as they travel all over River City in hopes of rescuing Ryan’s girlfriend from the grasp of Slick, a mysterious “crime lord” with intangible motives. You would think that kidnapping of any sort would merit the assistance of local law enforcement, but we’re talking about a city where high school kids are all in gangs and mass beatings are the norm. Fortunately, Alex and Ryan know a thing or two about fighting, but there’s always room for improvement.
River City Ransom is a beat-em-up that has you punching, kicking, and throwing as many gang members as possible on your route towards the big baddie. In order to make it to your destination effectively, you must improve your stats, such as Strength, Defense, Agility, and so on. These stats, however, aren’t increased in traditional RPG fashion. Only through eating lots of food, listening to CDs, finding that perfectly fitting shoe, and studying up on combat techniques will you truly become proficient at your craft.
At the beginning, you have access to your basic kick, punch, throw, and jump, which can be further augmented through purchasing and studying books from various shops across River City. Techniques, such as Stone Hands, allow you to transform your single punches into a three-hit flurry with each button press while more unconventional moves, like the Javelin Man and Acro Circus, enlighten you on how to throw enemies as if they were baseballs and perform devastating front flips, respectively. There isn’t a whole lot of underlying depth to the combat system, but we’re talking about a 20 year old game here. Regardless, the previously mentioned special abilities go a long way into making this beat-em-up feel way more satisfying than many of its competitors from around the same time period.
Lightning-fast punches are great, but won’t do you a ton of good unless you beef up the appropriate stats along with it. Only through experimenting with food from various eateries and other sundries will your potential become fully-realized. I should put an emphasis on experimentation with food, as it is certainly one of the biggest flaws with River City Ransom. There are well over 100 purchasable items across River City, and there is no way to gauge their effectiveness without first investing in the product(s). Shops in River City also have a no refund policy, so if buyer’s remorse sets in on that $27.85 Swordfish you bought, tough luck buddy. As a general rule of thumb, most of the cheaper food ends up being more cost-efficient and stat-beneficial in the long run, so starting with the cheapest stuff is best when in doubt.
Money is obtained through making gang members BARF, literally. Enemies drop coins when they are defeated, with more of it dropping off the higher tier gang members and bosses. Outside of shops, you have a chance of running into one of these gangs, each distinguished by a gang-specific color worn with pride on their 50s-esque slim-fit T-shirts. A handful of different gangs can spawn on any map, so it is ideal to pick and choose your battles should you come across more dangerous groups, particularly early on, in your quest.
River City Ransom is not a very long or difficult game, and that would be a cause for concern if it were to released as a standalone game today (depending on its price). Speedrunners can complete the game in well under 10 minutes, and it’s likely that newer players can even beat it in under an hour if they don’t waste too much time. You can absolutely take your time and spend hours in the world of River City, but once you know the ropes it is very easy to complete the game in literally no time. Although there are two difficulties available to you in River City Ransom, I wouldn’t necessarily say that the harder one is more “difficult”, rather it is just the much greater time sink of the two choices.
While I personally have been able to play River City Ransom repeatedly over the past 20 years without growing tired of it, I have to recognize that it may not offer that same level of replay value universally. But I think that is where co-op and custom character builds might come into play. Yes, you can team up with another player even on the original NES game, and that opens up the door for more opportunities of spontaneity, especially considering that friendly fire is something very real in the realm of River City. Friendly fire applies to enemies as well though, and almost ways serves as a means for hilarity to ensue.
Some might find it fun to run through with unconventional builds, such as only using the Javelin Man, Fatal Steps, and Acro Circus techniques. Or perhaps running a Vanilla, non-technique build is more up your alley. Either way, these kind of things can absolutely extend the life and enjoyment you can get out of River City Ransom, should the base game become tiring over time.
Graphics and Sound
As part of the localization process, Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari went from a very Japanese-influenced aesthetic to donning the Grease-like 1950s look found in River City Ransom, both of which look really nice. The animations and sound effects make for combat sequences that are equally pleasing to the eyes and ears, and you really feel the impact behind the blows of your fists, chain whips, and metal pipes vividly. You might even occasionally feel for those on the receiving end of your onslaught as they clearly express their anguish through their over-the-top facial expressions. Even the little details present in the infamous Sauna scene down to just the eating animation itself go a long way in bringing River City, and your interaction with it, to life.
The entire soundtrack in River City Ransom is something I find myself going back to time and time again. While this is surely driven by nostalgia to an extent, it’s also due to the compilation offering something for just about everyone. It features intense, rock-inspired tracks like the boss theme, to the more lighthearted tune that can be found whilst browsing various River City shops. Of course, the most iconic song would have to be the main theme which plays through most of the maps:
I realize that my view of River City Ransom is a bit skewed, since it played a key role in the shaping of my gaming tastes today. However, even after looking at the package as objectively as possible, it is hard to point out that many problems in the game. The frustration behind not be able to window shop is unfortunate, but likely due to hardware constraints at the time more than oversight by the developers. Not everyone will like the “eat to get stronger” system either, but I still think it is a nice change of pace (although it is undeniably a grind). In addition, the idea that the game can be beaten so fast and easily might be off-putting to some, and that is a legitimate concern.
Regardless, I find it difficult to identify serious flaws in River City Ransom that aren’t tied to its age and innate limitations. Issues do exist, but it is a package that remains somewhat unique even when compared to the “every game has some form of RPG element” scene of today. River City Ransom brought RPG elements to a different genre before it was commonplace or considered cool, and remains an enjoyable experience even 20 years after its initial release. Do yourself a favor and check this game out if you have a Nintendo Switch Online subscription. Seeing as it is included in the price, you have nothing to lose.