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River City Ransom: Underground Review

  I liked the game River City Ransom. Following two high school students as they fought their way across the city to defeat a kidnapping gang leader, it was a doofy, surprisingly in-depth beat-em-up of the NES era with plenty of charm to help smooth out its rougher edges. It had the perfect storm of ahead-of-its-time elements to make it quality nostalgia bait; even though I never got a copy with a manual and suffered through its somewhat obtuse mechanics, it has a pretty big place in my heart… if only for defeated foes shrieking “BARF!” before exploding into spare change.

  When River City Ransom: Underground was announced on Kickstarter a while back, I thought it would be a potentially interesting return. The people who were creating it seemed to be legitimate fans of the original and appeared to be earnest in their attempt at capturing what made it so fondly remembered.

Well, it looks good.

Enough people thought that it was important enough to revive, and we recently got the full release of RCRU just last month.

  And, golly, it is indeed a game that you can play.

  Anything trying to cash in on nostalgia can’t really be successful if the creators narrow their audience too much; it’s a fine line to walk between pleasing newcomers and feeding an aging fan base’s need for the comforts of the past. Some manage it quite well. This game does not.

  This is a game that, despite being a sequel, is suffering a massive identity crisis. To put it another way, I don’t know just who this game is for. People who aren’t already invested in the game’s history will likely be put off by its unresponsive controls, bizarre difficulty curve, and an obtuseness that I’d charitably describe as “retro” but actually mean “bad game design”. Fans of the original will be lost when forced through tedious, uninspired set pieces that culminate in a finale in a secret lab and a final boss referencing Contra III: The Alien Wars, which, I should remind you, isn’t actually River City Ransom.

  In fact, that reference-out-of-nowhere infuses the entire experience. The game is chock-full of seemingly random nods toward gaming pop culture, as though whatever “wacky” thought and suggestion people made for the game ended up in the final draft, regardless of merit. It’s clearly operating under the assumption that to reference something is to satirize or poke fun at it, but it largely comes across as toothless recognition of things that other, better things exist. Or, in the case of the recurring “LOL Power Glove” joke, that a silly product had the temerity to be terrible peripheral.

  Overall, the attempts at humor-through-reference is similar to talking to someone who can only speak in movie quotes. That is to say, it’s not so much funny as it is a little sad.

  Even when unshackled by the hold of whatever it is that games did before, River City Ransom: Underground fails to really evolve beyond the expected. The game’s plot starts out with a kidnapping—just like the first game!—and that thread ends with the reveal that the screamy, buff mayor had his little puffball dog kidnapped. It’s such an uninspired switch—and something I feel I’ve seen before, though I can’t put my finger on where—that when it happens it’s more annoying that funny. The ensuing rapid, awkward decent into rambling, nonsensical diatribes against experience points and clones and being perpetually locked in 19XX, that minor moment of comedy leaves a bitter taste.

  Now, that isn’t to say that every laugh line is a dud. The idea that River City is essentially a punch-based economy is a potentially funny recurring gag, but outside of classes at the high school centering their lessons around brawling, that’s kind of the beginning, middle, and end of that joke. One or two lines from defeated foes will provide a chuckle, but they will cycle with such frequency that they’ll lose their impact very quickly. The actual moments of humor are just plain outnumbered by their clumsy, ham-fisted referential brethren.

  If there was something that attempted to unify the experience, it is the umbrella, meaningless term “retro”. I imagine that all criticisms of the game—bad conveyance, sloppy controls, obnoxious grinding for cash, text crawling s-l-o-w-l-y across the screen, among others—are meant to be defended with “But that’s how games did it back then”, as though what was shitty and frustrating two decades ago is somehow not shitty and frustrating thanks to the passage of time. When bad decisions die out, it’s usually because they’re bad and not because we didn’t appreciate them enough.

  Even when we consider the core gameplay element—the brawling—RCRU doesn’t really appear to have much going for it. You have to buy new fighting moves, but many of them are flat out useless against an AI that will always have a reaction/walk speeds faster than you. Yes, there are useful ones you acquire (accidentally, since outside of a name they aren’t explained) but they’re expensive and you have to fight absurdly difficult foes with a handful of stock techniques (or previously purchased garbage ones) to get cash. You lose half of your money every time you die and respawn in a safehouse, so grinding to get anything new takes about half an eternity.

  Your maximum stats rise with every level up, but you have to buy food to actually increase your functional abilities like strength and agility, so that’s more money you’re not accumulating. Enemies can also knock you off screen with nigh-unavoidable and unblockable power moves, forcing you to lose your progress in one area. Couple all those gripes with the fact that defeated foes must have their “hilarious” one-liners scrawl along the bottom of the screen before they fork over cash, and the result is that the first third of the game is unbelievably annoying.

  Things get better in the middle third by simple merit of being boring rather than a grindy waste of time; with the fleshed out moveset and stats you spent time buffing, the swarms of enemies become much too easy. Keep in mind this isn’t you, as a player getting better, it’s just that you’re able to take more advantage of the gracious holes in the AI.

  In an earnest attempt to keep things interesting (and a callback to the first game), there are a variety of enemy gangs. You’ll fight luchadores, trust fund kids, rollergirls, and greasers (among others), but sadly there is very little difference between them. Yes, some have ranged attacks while others prioritize grapples or air combat, but by midway through the game they can all be stunlocked, rendering the perfunctory differences in fighting styles largely moot. Each gang does have an unblockable rush attack that will occasionally blindside you, and this serves to further entrench these baddies as functionally interchangeable. Perhaps most disappointing is the fact that almost all enemy gangs will appear alongside each other, serving to further blur their differences. You’ll handle each foe the same way with similar results.

  It’s in the final third that the foes become universally (and absurdly) difficult, and that’s just because someone gave all gang members impregnable blocks and nearly instantly-deploying super moves that leave you grounded for more unavoidable ground-stomp-based damage. It’s the Assassin’s Creed approach to difficulty: they’re the same enemies, just the “fuck you” toggle was flipped to on when you weren’t looking. As a result, the game goes from aggravating to dull to frustrating; its only saving grace is that it manages to do so in just a few hours rather than fifteen.

  And that’s really the biggest takeaway from River City Ransom: Underground. It’s a frustrating, baffling mashup of half-baked ideas, poor implementation, and a retro pastiche that ends up feeling like it was deployed as a criticism shield. By the time you’re in the final area, forced to do repeated battles with foes that have to be brought to critical health and knocked down before they recover all their strength and split into a second foe, only to then have to wait for them to stand up and melt before they’re registered as defeated, you’ll want the thing to be over. It’s tough for short games to overstay their welcome, but RCRU manages to do just that.

Purchase Project Northwoods at Amazon.com.   Purchase Washed Hands at Amazon.com   Purchase Improbables at Amazon.com.


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