River City Ransom: Underground Review
To appreciate River City Ransom: Underground it’s probably best you know about its predecessor, River City Ransom, which is a beloved NES title with a cult following. A Western-localized version of Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari from Japan, Technos created a long-running series known best as “Kunio-kun” titles given that the lead, Kunio, appears in every game. River City Ransom was the only action brawler in the series to make its way to the States and fans have been pining for another game in the series since the original premiered in 1990. Since then Technos Japan has closed, been reborn as Million, and while Japan has received consistent releases over the past two decades there’s been almost nothing to show for it in the West. That’s when Canadian-based developer Conatus Creative decided to acquire the rights to make a River City Ransom follow-up. The result has finally arrived with River City Ransom: Underground proving that it is possible to make a sequel to a 20-year-old game and do a great job at it. Those who remember playing the original alone or with a friend on the couch will be in for a treat, but if you’re hoping to utilize modern online gaming, this title is still a work in progress.
From start to finish the mechanics of River City Ransom: Underground are spot on. The game acts as a direct sequel to the original and has an appropriate prologue set on re-establishing the two leads, Alex and Ryan, as they confront and defeat Slick on the school rooftop. It’s much akin to the Dracula fight at the beginning of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night that re-hashes the battle from the end of Rondo of Blood. Upon jumping into the present you are greeted with four new protagonists, each one with a distinct fighting style, and off you go. You’re either a fan of the brawler genre – namely Renegade, Double Dragon, and of course River City Ransom – or you’re not, which only bears mentioning because Underground is cut from that cloth. Any criticism weighed against the genre applies to Underground as well, but beyond those caveats I must admit the single player campaign really has none. It’s an ideal follow-up.
Graphically the game makes a visual leap into the 16-bit era and gets to reap the benefits in colors, enemies on screen, and of course the fidelity that comes with it. The classic leveling up system remains intact but the move set is greatly expanded upon. By the time you reach level six, which should take you an hour or less, you’ll have a robust list of attacks to choose from on top of the usual spamming of the two attack buttons. This allows you to be as flimsy or precise as you want to be about each encounter, not to mention makes it fun for experienced players and button-mashers alike. The entire city is at your disposal with the only limitation being your ability to take on the enemies that you face, but unlike other brawlers you can merely leave an area if things get a bit too hairy. That’s not to say the game will just let you run around without a fight because often times in fleeing an area of distress you’ll find yourself surrounded by an even more formidable group. In the end it’s best to be tactical and try to take on everyone you meet so that you don’t get cornered and to benefit from the experience. If you die, it’s game over and you’ll be pushed all the way back to the last save point, which are limited to the hideouts scattered around River City. Your experience and level is cumulative, which is an even stronger case as to why if you have the choice to fight or run it’s almost always best to fight. One of the key selling points to this title in its Kickstarter was the involvement of River City Ransom creator Yoshihisa Kishimoto as a consultant and gameplay definitely feels like one of his creations. The soundtrack is a blast from the past as well, but instead of bringing back a classic Technos composer, the incredibly talented Disasterpeace updates things in a dramatic way while managing to keep the original style hidden just beneath the surface. It won’t sound like you’re listening to a classic chiptune soundtrack, but much like the other references in River City Ransom: Underground, those in the know will appreciate it on another level.
Probably one of the biggest selling points on this game and part of the charm of the original is co-op gameplay. Underground supports up to 4 player co-op both locally and online, which to a large extent is the heart of this title. That’s why the state of online play is such a disappointment and quite possibly a deal-breaker for some players eager to re-live those glory days. It’s important to note that Conatus Creative has been forthcoming with the online issues and has already released two patches in an attempt to clear things up, so depending on future updates these issues could dissolve but as of writing this has not happened. Depending on various circumstances online co-op was either a smooth brawling stroll or a nightmare of lagging and hiccups. The patches didn’t seem to directly call out improvement of online connectivity, but things seem to be getting better and honestly I can’t tell if the issues were just with the connection of other players. Either way it’s a crap shoot of performance if you want to go online. You may not want to anyway since it’s not possible to save your progress in online games, so no matter how well you do or what you accomplish all your progress will be wiped after a session. This is clearly the number one issue that’s trying to be fixed, but in the meantime you’re only playing online to experience the game with others and not to make meaningful progress. As someone who played through the original and Underground in single player, I can’t say that this was as much of a problem for me as it will be for others, especially because I can wait for the multiplayer to be fixed. That said this title was clearly designed for co-op play and I can’t ignore the fact that it was a lot more fun with others. Hopefully this will all get cleaned up soon, but for now it’s pretty much lone wolves only unless you plan to marathon a play through the game without any of your hard work to show for it. With persistent leveling, a massive move list, unlockable specials, and plenty of characters to play in both the training mode and campaign I can’t imagine why you’d want to sacrifice any efforts with the inability to save.
River City Ransom: Underground is not only an impressive sequel to the cult classic, but one that the fans deserve. Without naming names, there have been some retro throwbacks lately that don’t seem to capture the feel of the games they are taking influence from. This title demonstrates how to properly implement both a sequel and re-hash without falling short. You don’t have to have played River City Ransom to enjoy Underground, but there are so many references to the previous title and era it released in that it adds another dimension for the fans. It’s a real shame that the one modern feature that makes River City Ransom even better, online play, is in such shambles at this point. The good news is that once these kinks are worked out, this title is the complete package. River City Ransom: Underground truly does bring the classic title back and makes it better than ever.
Final Score: 3 out of 5 (review policy)
A review code was provided from the publisher for the purpose of this review. River City Ransom: Underground is available on PC, Mac, and Linux via Steam for $19.99. Additional information on the game, development, updates, and the forum can be found at rivercityransom.com.