Wednesday, November 16, 2005

A game review that calls for the nostalgic.

As I sit here, with my faithful laptop resting upon my knees, I can hear the nostalgic sounds of the River City theme battling against the tune of Quadrophenia by The Who. One sound emerges from the laptop, the other from the Gameboy Advance that sits slightly to my side. On the screen, I can see the pair of Alex and Ryan (or Kunio and Riki, whichever you prefer) in full pixilated glory, ready to kick the ass of any fiend who dare stand in their way. These sights and sounds fill me with joy.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you might want to stop reading. This is a review, a game review. A review for a game that spits in the face of stupid fucking graphic whores, laughs at people who demand that their games take 300 fucking hours to complete, casts aside those who want endless corridors and multiple endings. This my friends, as well as enemies, is a throwback to one of the milestones of Two-dimensional gaming.

Still here?

If you are, congradufuckinglations. You’ve been checked off in my cool book already. The game in question was one that was not one of the most popular games to come out for the NES. It didn’t break sales records, and unlike Super Mario Brothers, it didn’t become a household name. But you know what? Who gives a shit?

This game isn’t Contra (but I prefer Metal Slug anyway), not Super Mario Brothers (but Super Mario World is better), instead something which became a cult classic. It’s my single favorite game for the Nintendo Entertainment System. River City Ransom. A game about kicking ass, and being wacky while you’re doing it.

This is a review about the latest installment of this game, RIVER CITY RANSOM EX, for the Nintendo Gameboy Advance and Gameboy Advance SP. This is something that pulls off what Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes was trying to do. It takes a classic game, and actually makes it fucking better.

How does it do this? Well, calm down, and I’ll get around to telling you about it. It pulls this difficult task off by fusing the simple spirit of the old, with a bit of the new, creating an unholy fusion of badassity that shall serve to rock the faces off of anyone who knows enough about the old days to bother with this sort of thing. New gamers probably need not apply.

Just like in the original, the game begins when you get a letter informing you that the girlfriend of one of the two protagonists has been kidnapped, and if you want to get her back in his loving arms, you must battle your way through the hordes of gangs (rival high schools in the Japanese version) as well as “evil bosses,” in order to finally confront the villain who is keeping her captive. Just like the original, you start out weak, but gain strength by taking the bouncing currency away from corpses. You use this currency to buy food/goods from shops located in one of the games shopping centers, which in turn affects one or more of the games 10 different stats which document your abilities. Also, just like in the original, you may purchase technique books from the bookstores, giving you access to more powerful abilities.

It is in these abilities, that this game differs from the original that the three stripe members remember oh so well. For you see, in the classic version, you only had access to a handful of these abilities, which did things like give you faster punches and kicks, or let you do a cool flip that damaged fuckers who got in your way. In this one however, you gain access to a shitload of cheesily-named techniques including:

KICKSTAND- This allows you to jam the toe of your precious Texas boots into the ass of those who were weak enough to get knocked down.

SLAP HAPPY- A useful ability that enables you to run into a crowd and become a spinning mass of fists, like a crazy-carousel-o-doom.

KILLER KICK- You do an awesome Bruce Lee style Dragon kick that sends you flying across the screen, catching anyone in front of you on your foot. It kicks serious ass.

Another sweet addition to this game, is that the boss characters are know longer just normal enemies with slightly larger stats. No, this time around they get access to badass special moves just like you do, making them at once more formidable as well as more interesting. Even though it seems so simple, it makes them far more than the standard enemies that you remember from the original.

Speaking of things that you remember, there have been a few graphical differences from the original River City Ransom. Sure, the graphics have been upgraded from 8-bit to some that looks closer to 16-bit, but that isn’t what I’m talking about. What I’m referring to is the fact that Alex and Ryan no longer wear the Jeans and T-shirts that you might remember. Instead, in something left over from the Japanese version, they are wearing school uniforms, something normal for Japanese High Schools. This might turn some people off, but for me, as long as the Generic dudes still wear green and the Mob still wears gray, I really don’t give a fuck. They hit me with chains and pipes just the same.

A few new weapons have also been added, including a super-long chain that makes old Mr. Links jealous, as well as strange weapons like…a ladder. Yeah. Anyway, the weapons, new and old alike, really make combat cool, as they are always flying all over the damn place. Just like in the old days. Another welcome change has been the slight revision to the level design. Take the warehouse from the original game as an example. In that area, you had to jump over the obstacle of a wall in order to advance through the game. However, the jumping mechanic in this game was never designed for any sort of precision, and with the run that was required you usually ended up crashing into the wall like a stupid fucktard. The wall is gone now, an the warehouse has become my favorite area in the game. Picture this: a multi-tiered room, full of weapons with a tendency to travel unpredictably. The Mob, one of the games cooler gangs, coming in droves on both sides. Do you run? Or do you fight? Do you chug a karma jolt, give a few practice kicks, and then charge the enemy with all your might? Jumping from box to box, only to take out an enemy above you with a well placed uppercut? Finally taking out your oppressors only to be accosted by the leader who was lying in wait? If you answered yes to all but one of those, then you just might understand. Welcome to the world of River City.


Ahem. Yes, the lack of co-op play is a huge problem, but it is somewhat remedied by the fact that you have access to an optional computer comrade to whoop-ass alongside you. Yes, the save system doesn’t save progress, instead only saving stats and items, functioning as a simpler version of the originals password saves. But since the game itself is so fun, that doesn’t end up causing much grief. The only other real problem is the noticeable lack of innovation that this title possesses. This is a game that was truly a brilliant step ahead for the beat-em-up in it’s time, but went fairly unnoticed, leading designers to not learn from its match of quirky humor, old school fighting mechanics, and basic yet engaging rpg elements. Games have changed, but this game is still essentially the same. If you really wanted to, you could beat it in a few hours. Then again…would you want to?

I myself have had this version of the game for about a week or so. I could easily have beaten it by now. But I haven’t. Instead, I continue to wander the city streets, eating sushi and kicking ass, listening to the games music as well as other music that I have lying around. I’ve been raising my stats, and testing the games new special moves. I’ve been wandering back and forth, wreaking havoc, taking my time before I eventually pass the threshold of River City High to face the infamous Dragon Twins. When I do, I’m sure it will be one hell of a battle. But I’m not ready yet. Which is why this game is right for me.

Now, if you have just gotten yourself a Gameboy Advance, and are relatively new to gaming, this might not be the game for you. You’d probably be better off getting a copy of Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow. That game features a shitload of depth, as well as really good action. Or if you want something simple and insanely hard, get Super Monkey Ball Jr., as that will more than accommodate. But if you remember what it was like to find out that the princess was in another castle, or a story meant that you were chasing a mutant frog down a hole only to find a tank there for no reason, then this might be the game for you. For any old-school gaming soul, whether they remember River City Ransom or not, the game could very well strike them as brilliant.

Oh and by the way: Defeated enemies still shout “BARF!!”


(originally published on 'The Stripe' in October 2004)



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