Those who've followed me for a while know that ever since Castle Crashers I've harbored a particular interest in the RPG-lite beat 'em up, and between that and my general love of classic 8- and 16-bit titles it was really only a matter of time before I worked my way back to River City Ransom. Sporting character sheets on-par with a tabletop RPG and a degree of palette swapping on-par with a later Mortal Kombat title (with free-roaming progression on top of it!) I had a feeling this would be a game I'd instantly regret not having played for all this time.
Oh, was I right. Not one to pull punches straight out of the gate, RCR immediately affronts my ego with a binary choice in difficulties: Novice or Advanced. Swallowing a fair amount of pride I go for the easier of the two - which I later discover was the original's medium, much to my relief - and after being presented with a ransom note chock full of classic gaming clichés I'm launched straightaway into my quest through vaguely-1950s suburbia to save the girl and the high school (and, by extension, the town?).
Let me tell you right now, this is a difficult game. Now, I don't mean this in the way you might expect, where the exact direction you should be progressing is left in question or sheer size of levels makes reaching the end a marathon. No, in all honesty this is a fairly short and straightforward game, capable of being finished in a single sitting with foreknowledge and a little luck and requesting only one or two instances of backtracking to distract you from a straight shot forward to River City High. What I'm talking about here is cheapness, a hallmark of artificial lengthening and an extremely common occurrence in gaming's formative years, not to mention something I really should've seen coming all things considered. I wouldn't even feel the need to bring this up if within my first hour I hadn't already lost count of the number of times I entered a new screen only to be greeted with an instantaneous punch in the back of the head leading into stunlock and death.
...wow, this really is just like being back in high school again.
Small complaints aside, though, RCR put a lot of neat stuff on the table: There's a clear progression of difficulty to the series of color-coded gangs you fight, each of which maintains a roster of members with their own constant stat blocks and strategies; Combat feels satisfyingly streamlined but meaty, trading intuitive blocking on simultaneous attacks for a largely awkward A+B jump input and putting a large emphasis on screen positioning; Stat and ability progression is relegated to items purchased with cash dropped from defeated enemies, a fact I was unaware of before a bit of experimentation (a word of advice if you give this a shot, GET STONE FISTS AND DRAGON FEET AS SOON AS POSSIBLE); And all of this to some catchy chiptune swing that gets you in the perfect mood to grease some greasers. I had to check a few times to be sure, but at no point did I spontaneously generate a pack of cigarettes or a rolled-up shirt sleeve.
Despite some issues common for the era, River City Ransom was a fun if brief step closer to the origin of this little subgenre I've been exploring over the last few years. Maybe one of these days I'll finally stop beating around the bush and get the original Double Dragon out of the way. Maybe later this year? Not sure yet. In any event, with a little tenacity a few dedicated sessions got me to big bad Slick and the bare bones end screen quicker than expected, and with a couple of weeks to spare and newly acquired working knowledge of the system I decided to give Advanced difficulty a try.
It was at least an hour of resets and swearing before I could reach the first store with enough cash for Dragon Feet. Power off. This was good enough.
CHALLENGE: cleared (Novice difficulty)