Title: River City Ransom EX
Format: GBA Cartridge
Publisher: Atlus
Developer: Technos for the original game, Atlus for porting it for the GBA
Release Date: May 2004 (USA), March 2004 (Japan) as Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari EX, no known date for Europe (please /msg me if you know otherwise, I checked HMV and Amazon UK)
Genre Keywords: fighter, beat 'em up, rpg, sidescroller, portable

I managed to miss out on the original River City Ransom, but have been needing a brawler for a while. After reading all about the good old days of this fighting/RPG, and having a good deal of fondness for 8- and 16-bit gaming, I grabbed RCR the day of release. After uncountable (well, not true since the game has a built-in timer) hours spent in thrall to RCR's unique experience, I can say that it's quite possibly the best 30 bucks I've ever spent on a GBA game. I also apologise for the length of this writeup; I just couldn't stop blabbering about all the cool features it has!

Where to start? How about a disclaimer: River City Ransom is a brawler. If screen after screen of similar looking (and endlessly respawning) dudes looking to reduce you to pulp using various techniques, weapons and tactics is not your cup of beef, you might want to stay clear. If on the other hand you enjoyed Bad Dudes or Final Fight but wanted a bit more meat on your beat-em-up ... you've come to the right place.

The premise seems simple; you will guide a martial artist (either Alex (Kunio-san) or Ryan (Riki-san)) through assorted stages to rescue a damsel in distress. In your way will be gangs of toughs determined to stop you, with intermittent boss encounters sprinkled throughout. At your disposal will be your hands (A button) and feet (B button), any implements of destruction (A or B to pick up, A to swing, B to fling) found on the stages (or brought in by goons to destroy you - items don't vanish when dropped but stick around and are fully reusable), your AI buddy (should you choose to utilise him), special moves, and ... the shopping mall.

Here's where things deviate a bit from your typical brawler fare. While I have heard that RCR was a fighter/RPG crossover, I didn't really believe it until I played it. Here's a short list of RPG elements in RCR:

  • enemies respawn randomly when you reenter stages
  • enemies drop cash,
  • you can run away from fights,
  • if you die, it's not game over; you just lose half your cash,
  • the "mall" is like an RPG "city" concept where you cannot be attacked (unless it's an event) and where you can purchase assorted items,
  • character progression

The further you get into the game (and the story), the tougher the opponents will be (especially bosses); you will have to upgrade by purchasing and consuming items in the mall. There are several shopping malls strewn about River City, and you can backtrack at will.

But wait! There's more!

Not only is there a good chunk of moves to learn, places to explore and enemies to beat, there's also the all-powerful Options menu. This lets you toggle various aspects of the game, from difficulty (you can go from easy to tough on the fly), gravity and speed (for that bullet-time effect), to how often shop items respawn or alter, how many enemies you will face on each stage, and how your AI buddy is to react when faced with different situations. With all these options, every game of RCR can truly be different.

Graphics / Sound / Technical

While the characters of RCR are blocky and small, their sprites are quite well-articulated. All actions are fluid, smooth and easily discernible - the use of white for Alex, blue for Ryan, and other colors for bad guys means that even when there are many gangsters on the screen, you'll know exactly where you are. The bottom of the screen is still dedicated to subtitles, which show up when enemies are defeated. Yes, the "BARF!" defeat cry is still in-game. From the NES screens that I have seen it appears not a lot was changed.

Sounds are quite good as well, with assorted punching, kicking and flinging effects easily discernible as well. You could almost follow the action with your eyes closed. Weapons such as chains, sticks, pipes and even buckets and ladders all have their own sounds.

While the menus are quite navigable, the hints as to what some of the functions actually do are rather obtuse. While not really a show-stopper, I would have liked more instructions as to how exactly to execute some moves. For example, the move "Javelin Man" says to press B to execute it - what it doesn't mention is that it only works if you have lifted an enemy over your head. Some of the options aren't very well articulated either, and you'll have to experiment a bit to sort it out.

Finally, the items you buy at stores don't give any hints as to what they do - the only thing you do know is that they are always positive (nothing will ever take away from your prowess). Items can either boost your willpower/stamina (basically your life meter), or improve your stats, or both - your best bet is that the more expensive an item is, the better the effect. Short of writing down what item provides what effect there's no way to keep track of this. Whether this is done on purpose or not, it's a bit annoying not to know what you're buying. There's always gamefaqs...

A few more extras

In addition to all the options changeable on the fly, you can also save at anytime - the game will remember all of your stats and items currently in your inventory; it will not save your location, however. Since you can run through nearly all of the game to get back to where you were, this isn't really an issue ... but it is odd to be replaying boss encounters every time you power up the GBA.

I've mentioned the AI buddy a few times; you can play as either Alex or Ryan, and have the other warrior back you up - you can even toggle team damage on or off. You can also play alone if you like. The final neat twist is that you can load up your own fight data for the other warrior, so the moves you have learned will be used by him. It's really rather neat to be able to train your buddy and watch him use the moves you've only recently learned. Since there is no cooperative play option (only versus mode), this is the best you can get - your very own tamagotchi fighter buddy.

All in all, I would say that RCR stands the test of time - it's superior to any side-scroller I've played on my GBA yet, and has unmatched replayability. That addictive quality of learning new moves - and then getting to hone them in combat is quite unparalleled. While the graphics may not be quite up to Gekido or CT Special Forces, the fast action, quirky animations and RPG elements outshine anything currently out there - not bad for a 15 year old game!