I completely love River City Ransom. I could make an argument for the original game being my favorite game of all time. It’s a perfect blend of brawler gameplay, exploration, and light RPG advancement mechanics that feels an awful lot like modern game designs in spite of being over thirty years old.
Its sequels have had different degrees of trouble replicating or exceeding the magic of the original. I reviewed some of them during a sadly abandoned week-long feature I was working on during my early days on Medium. The sequels have been, at best, loosely updated versions of the original design, afraid to take risks or push the boundaries of the concept. And when they do try to innovate, they fail to capture the same simple design loop at the core of the original.
None of those problems plague 2019’s River City Girls. It’s easily my favorite sequel to the original NES game, with the same satisfying blend of light open world elements, RPG leveling, and fun brawler combat. Rather than try to update the timeless design, its new elements are some gentle expansions to the original combat formula, alongside a truly incredible audiovisual presentation with some of the best music ever written for a game.
The bulk of the music comes from composer Megan McDuffee, and it’s a perfect blend of the classic chiptune sound of the original and modern synth rock instrumentation. I love every second of it. I love her multiple vocal tracks. And I also love the pounding opening theme by NateWantsToBattle and Cristina Vee. It’s rare that a game has such a cohesive soundtrack with so much care and attention to tone and texture. River City Girls’ music is fully awesome whether experienced in the game or in standalone listening.
Graphically, the game soars at the same high level as the music. The talented veteran development team at WayForward has numerous great 2D games under their belts, and River City Girls throws around pixels and high quality animation like it’s got money to burn. The game’s characters are large, expressive, and detailed, and give every punch and kick a satisfying amount of feedback. You’ll be impressed at the visual style here whether you’ve played the older games or just enjoy good 2D pixel animation.
The in-game graphics are bookended by traditionally animated cutscenes and comic book story moments that connect this game’s story directly to the original game. The main characters are Hisako and Kyoko, the girlfriends of the original game’s protagonists, and in a nice touch they’re actually “canonical” characters introduced years ago in the long and storied River City/Kunio-kun franchise. The game’s ending originally played around with this concept some more, but it was patched at the beginning of the year to be more understandable to newcomers.
The gameplay is classic beat-em-up/brawler fun. You’ll progress through six large zones made of interconnected screens, fighting enemies for experience and money, and now you can even recruit some of those enemies to use as a special summon ability. Each area ends with a large boss encounter, and you can return to earlier areas to explore and grind for more resources. The combat is a little slow for the first few screens, but as you start unlocking more moves it becomes a breathtaking dance of mashy fun.
I played through the game last year on the Switch and never got around to reviewing it with…everything that’s happened in the last year. It just hit Game Pass today on Xbox and that was the perfect excuse to dive back in. It’s also available on PC and PS4. It’s normal non-sale price is $30. That’s an easy ask considering there’s at least 8 hours of core gameplay here without the side objectives, and the visuals and music are produced at the highest level of quality I could hope for. It also makes surprisingly extensive use of the HD rumble on the Switch, and the impulse triggers on the Xbox controller. Perhaps a hypothetical future PS5 port could add some fun DualSense stuff?
Of course, just like the original game, you can also play through this with a friend in couch co-op, though this exposes the one thing I don’t like about this game. There’s no online multiplayer! I understand that the bulk of the development budget probably went into the game’s impeccable presentation, but the addition of online support would make this game just about perfect.
Still, this is one of the most impressive brawlers made in this classical style, and easily one of the best examples of the genre you can get on current machines. It more than deserves to stand alongside other recently-praised games like Streets of Rage 4 (which took a similar approach to design and audiovisual updates). I heartily recommend it to both fans of the series and newcomers, and anyone who wants to see how well a modestly-budgeted game can still excel with presentation.
It’s a common video game critic technique to say that “graphics (and sound) aren’t everything,” but I’ve always argued that they should absolutely count for something because the word video is right there in “video games.” River City Girls is proof that marrying a timeless design with updated aesthetics is a winning formula, and the result is a brilliant blend of nostalgia and modern execution.