As a lifelong fan of RPGs, it might surprise some to know that I tend to prefer gameplay over story. Sure, I’ve enjoyed getting to know the lore of a multitude of RPGs, but it has never been my #1 priority and that likely stems from powering through Final Fantasy IV as a five year old. In general, I can let bad or seemingly non-existent storylines slide as long as the gameplay can compensate for it.
That is why today’s topic, The friends of Ringo Ishikawa – henceforth known simply as Ringo Ishikawa – has taken me completely by surprise. While this game infuses a Kunio-Kun aesthetic – complete with high school gang warfare and binge eating – with free-roaming elements from titles like Shenmue, it is ultimately unlike either of those games. Read on to find out whether this might also captivate you.
Ringo Ishikawa follows the everyday life of a high school gang leader, Ringo, as he takes on the final quarter of his senior year. Even though Ringo is, on paper, the…star…of the show (sorry), it also follows closely beside his friends – and fellow gang members – Shiro, Masaru, Ken, and Goro.
Each day, you’ll have the opportunity to catch up with your comrades, and this often leads to scripted events that involve both Ringo and his friend(s), providing further insight into their lives in the process. There are many supporting characters beyond Ringo and his friends, many of which you can also interact with on a daily basis, but those relationships are not near as deep as the aforementioned bromances.
Despite being centered around high schoolers, the subject matter and situations surrounding the adventures of Ringo are quite serious. Obviously, being a gang leader you’ll be brawling it out with rival gangs on the daily, underage smoking and drinking are commonplace, and signs of early gambling addiction haunt some young minds. While this might be a little too dark – or perhaps unrealistic – to some people, it is an entirely plausible scenario when you actually think about it. No doubt, the world is a crazy place, which is why the whole deal feels genuine in execution here.
Of course, there is both a beginning and end to Ringo’s journey, but it might not go completely the way that you would expect. In fact, I felt sort of like the ending was forced upon me a bit too abruptly. Regardless, the way the whole package comes full circle in the end and how it challenges self reflection – even to those whose schooling days are long gone – is commendable indeed. It is not only a journey about growing up, but also about letting go of the past.
Ringo Ishikawa is part school simulation, part beat’em up with some open world and RPG elements sprinkled in for good measure. On the surface, it boasts an impressive amount of systems and mechanics for an indie outing, but it won’t be long before you realize that many of them are underwhelming at best – and that is if you can decipher how they work in the first place. No doubt, the biggest flaw in Ringo Ishikawa is its complete lack of tutorials. Yes, the most basic of survival skills, such as how to throw a punch, kick, or block are explained briefly, but the vast majority of systems are left for you to figure out on your own.
This is not an oversight by the developer either, as combing through the Steam forums – coincidentally, for help on figuring something out – I found that that Yeo built the game with no explanations in mind. I’m not asking for a details about everything, but even a single sentence summary would have gone a long way in smoothing over some of the game’s growing pains. As it stands, even after completing the game, I have no idea how level ups affect your character or how the whole food system works. Partial ideas maybe, but nothing concrete. I didn’t even know how to read books outside of the school until I came across it on the forums!
The complete lack of handholding might actually be a boon for some, but for me personally it is a huge turnoff simply because outside of getting to know Ringo, his friends, and the occasional brawl, the game isn’t all that exciting to play. If the tables were turned though, I might be more inclined to put in a continuous effort to discover the nuances in the world of Ringo Ishikawa.
Now before you equip your Stone Hands and Dragon Feet…wait, this isn’t River City Ransom. That said, Ringo Ishikawa feels like its brawling system should be akin to the NES cult classic, but in execution it is drastically different. In fact, running in head first into an opposing gang is more or less a suicide mission, especially in the beginning. Ringo Ishikawa demands that you carefully consider your opponents and surroundings before fists begin to fly. Defense is the name of the game for most of the game, at least until you become more powerful but even then you should still tread with caution.
Both Ringo and his enemies can perform various combinations of kicks, punches, and – most importantly – evasive maneuvers. Holding down the “guard” button will allow you to block the majority of incoming attacks, but only while standing still and while your stamina bar is not depleted. Maintaining this guard stance will slowly drain your stamina and performing other abilities will chip away at it as well. Easing up on everything will allow your stamina to refill, and it is a good idea to abuse this in moments of downtime during combat.
While only a basic kick, punch, and guard exists from the outset, you will eventually have the ability to train with numerous “coaches”, further increasing your repertoire of abilities. The Mike Tyson-esque “duck and weave” is my personal favorite, as it allows you to throw a combination of punches followed immediately by an evasive action. Clearing a screen of baddies will grant you experience points, as well as parameter increases based on the actions you just performed. The level up system is kind of a mystery to me though, but I do know that repeated punches and kicks will increase their respective power levels and the same goes for defending against those same attacks.
Once pummeled into submission, enemies can then be looted, which is done by sitting on top of them and emptying their pockets. Early on, this is a decent source of money, but it tapers off quickly once your school scholarship and a part-time job come into play. No joke, you can opt to skip parts of school in order to make some fat stacks at the local video shop. Sadly, as is the case with many of the game’s systems, part-time work is an automatic, shallow process that demands nothing more than a little of your time to complete.
Part-time work is fine, but the scholarship is where the the easy money is at. If you’re a good student, you will at least hit the books every now and then, and having a certain average on your weekly tests will allot you a decent amount of Yen per week. Schoolwork can be done by visiting the school – with classes available twice a day – or at your desk within the privacy of your own home. Like real life school, class and studying in Ringo Ishikawa is rather tedious and not too exciting. You can “win” at class by holding down a button, which signifies that you are writing down notes while studying at home is a matter of pressing a button and waiting. Unfortunately, these things are only as stimulating as they sound.
Outside of school and fighting, you have a fairly large area to explore, which is segmented into multiple 2D sidescrolling maps. Shops, eateries, and beautiful scenery await those that take the time to adventure. And with the nostalgic art style clearly set in the late 80s / early 90s, it was right up my alley. Alas, exploring is only really exciting the first couple of times around because actual interactions with said environment are few and far between.
You can eat lots of food, but good luck figuring out its actual benefits. A hunger indicator exists that, upon eating food, will change up to the “full” status. My guess is that it might affect your stats temporarily, or boost health regen a bit, but I cannot say for sure. Ultimately, my Ringo ran around – apparently starving to death – for most of the game because the whole system didn’t really seem to matter in the end.
Mini-games, such as pool, poker, ping-pong, and even some “gameception” are available to play in Ringo Ishikawa. As exciting as these might sound in concept, they aren’t particularly engaging long-term, with the exception of maybe the card game. It might provide a brief moment of relief from the everyday grind, but walking out in the street and picking a fight with rival gangs is still a more enjoyable time.
Whatever you do, don’t stay up too late! Ringo Ishikawa has a complete 24 hour day and night cycle, and it is best to set yourself up with a sleeping routine as to not collapse, forcing a mandatory sleeping session that will eat up most of the following day. Considering everything mentioned thus far, it is clear that Ringo Ishikawa has a lot of moving parts, but none of them really amount to much of anything. In addition, they all feel a bit disconnected from one another rather than feeling like parts of a greater whole.
Graphics and Sound
As a massive Kunio-kun fan, it only makes sense that I adore the similar design found in Ringo Ishikawa. The spritework here is top notch, and the amount of effort put into all of the different animations is genuinely fascinating. Most importantly, Ringo Ishikawa uses a “zoomed-in” perspective that is clear and looks great whether you are on or off the Switch dock.
The hip hop inspired soundtrack is perhaps the most surprising thing, considering it has never been my musical genre of choice. However, Anitek’s beats here fit the look and feel of the game so well that I was smitten by it from the very beginning. Give it a listen for yourself and support this wonderful musician.
The friends of Ringo Ishikawa is not necessarily for everyone. Those that don’t have the patience to put up with its quirks and oddities will likely shelve it quickly, but I implore you to give it a chance. While not perfect by any means, The friends of Ringo Ishikawa is an excellent visual and storytelling piece in which the journey – and conclusion – might very well stick with you for a long time to come. Just don’t come into it expecting it to be action-heavy and you should have a good time.