The Essential Games: River City Ransom (1989)

The Essential Games highlights selections from throughout history that I’d recommend anyone play, without reservations. Click Here for the Full Index!


In celebration of this week’s launch of River City Ransom: Underground, I’m writing “One Week in River City”. It’s a series of articles about the legendary brawler franchise.

There’s no better place to start than the start.

River City Ransom for the NES is a timeless classic, a game so good that it’s completely playable and relevant today. It perfectly combines brawling, platforming, RPG mechanics, and humor into a package that was way ahead of its time.

On its release in the US, it wasn’t a big hit. For some reason.

Image for post
Image for post
This was the US Cover Art. I…I think it’s great? Yes let’s go with great.

I rented River City Ransom a few times as a kid. At that time, I was a Double Dragon guy. River City Ransom seemed like a harder, more complex, less immediately satisfying version of Double Dragon. I didn’t really get it. I don’t think I ever had the manual.

I didn’t understand that I was supposed to book it into town and eat some waffles.

Image for post
Image for post
Sometimes guys say BARF when you defeat them. And then they turn into money.

RCR has a perfect game loop. You punch guys. They turn into money. You use that money to buy items in various shops that upgrade your character. Repeat!

The combat gameplay here is exceptional. It starts out a little tough, but opens up quickly as you upgrade. The amount of control achieved with a d-pad and two buttons is amazing. You can punch with A, kick with B, and jump with both buttons. If you time it just right, you can block. You can do different throw and grab attacks. You can earn new moves that are easily executed.

There’s a full basic physics system in the game. The world is littered with weapons and throwable objects. You can punch those objects into enemies, and they all react how you’d expect them to. You can throw weapons instead of using them. The combat far outclasses contemporary games in the brawler genre, and also many modern games.

RCR takes place in a large open world, in and around River City. You can explore at your leisure, but eventually you’ll be halted by harder enemies or perhaps a boss. There are several shops to enter, from Sushi Restaurants to Book Stores. There are secrets to find. The areas progress more or less in a linear fashion, but you’re free to wander and power up at your leisure. The game gives you just enough info so you know where to go at all times.

Story? I guess it has one of those. Alex and Ryan have to punch some dudes until they get to the last boss at the top of the high school. That’s more or less it. The humor and charm come from the execution of the English translation. It’s great! Enemy characters are regular chatterboxes, and their dialog appears at the bottom of the screen. Sometimes they say BARF. Sometimes they say other things.

You’re free to power up your character in whatever way you’d like. You can focus more on kick attacks, or punches. Or perhaps weapons are more your thing?

If you give them game more than the cursory 10-minute glance that I did as a child, you’ll find immense amounts of fun.

Where to get the game? That’s a little tricky. The original NES version is on the Wii, Wii U, and 3DS Virtual Consoles. Those would be the easiest to get. Beyond that, there are a number of ports on older systems, the most recent being the Game Boy Advance. I’ll be reviewing that version later in the week.

Play this game. It’s one of the best ever made, period, and I could probably make an argument for it being my favorite video game.

Written by

I do radio voice work by day, and write by day and night. I studied film and production. I love audio, design, and music. Also video games.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store