In 1989 River City Ransom (Street Gangs in PAL regions) was a real trailblazer on the NES, and since then the series has quietly stuck around over the last three decades or so with numerous sequels and spin-offs. River City Ransom created a setting that would be revisited for years to come, with the titular River City being a place where everyone, for reasons never truly explained, just beats the living tar out of each other. Three decades later the series sees a brand-new canonical entry in River City Girls, with modern retro gaming masters WayForward doing the honours of reimagining River City for a new era and audience, this time under the helm of Arc System Works.
As the name suggests, River City Girls has female heroes and all the good vibes of ‘90s girl power, but more importantly it reinvigorates the tried and tested beat ‘em up genre in ways so inventive and imaginative, that even the most seasoned of gamers will find something genuinely new to be excited about. Much like how WayForward rebooted and reimagined the seminal Double Dragon franchise with the ‘80s nostalgia-powered Double Dragon Neon in 2012, in 2019 they have outdone themselves with the Japanese pop culture spectacle in River City Girls.
River City Girls has classic River City protagonists, Kunio and Riki, kidnapped by a mysterious gang and now it is up to their respective girlfriends, Misako and Kyoko, to come to their rescue and literally beat up an entire city in the process. The premise is simple and tropey enough, but the execution is brilliant. River City Girls has a refreshing sense of humour which is largely absent in contemporary pop culture, and in many ways takes after Scott Pilgrim vs. the World by fusing Eastern and Western pop culture together into one big fan-service extravaganza.
The presentation is one of the most enjoyable aspects of River City Girls, where it takes manga and anime conventions and presents them with a refreshing new twist. Rather than imitating or parodying, River City Girls takes a charming satirical approach with its anime and manga motifs. The story is told using various means, sometimes it uses manga style comic panels and others it utilises brief animated cutscenes; both are done really well. The majority of the dialogue is voiced text and all of it is expertly done – in fact, it’s rare for a video game to feature so much dialogue where nearly all of it is entertaining. You can’t help but enjoy the characters whether it is the delinquent yet cute demeanour of the protagonists, the many offbeat boss characters, or even the countless enemies you face on the streets of River City. The entire cast of fists-happy River City residents make a lasting impression.
The beat ‘em up genre became stale even during its heyday, as there are only so many ways you can beat up the same enemies for so long before things get boring and repetitive. Yet, the genre has seen a resurgence multiple times throughout gaming history, even recently with games like Streets of Rage 4 on the horizon. River City Girls is remarkable because throughout the course of its button-mashing adventure it almost never grows stale in its gameplay, and in fact hours fly by without you realising. There are a number of little reasons as to why River City Girls functions so well as a beat ‘em up, and all these little elements allow the game as a whole to remain consistently entertaining and fresh at every moment.
The combat system has the standard weak, strong, and special attack combinations, but what’s cool about River City Girls is you can learn a variety of new skills as you level up, and the more tricks you learn, the better the combat feels. In no time the game’s protagonists learn enough new tricks to juggle multiple enemies into impressive combination attacks. One of the coolest abilities you can learn early on in the adventure is being able to pick up fallen foes from the ground and literally swing them around as a weapon. Core combat aside, there are also a fun selection of weapons to use such as a yoyo and volleyball, and even the ability to temporarily recruit enemies as allies who can then be summoned for a special attack (think the striker system from SNK fighting games).
The variety in the core combat alone is impressively diverse and always interesting, and this is complemented by RPG elements where the protagonists gain experience points to level up, while also collecting money to purchase items to equip for stat boosts. The items you can equip usually take the form of clothing accessories, while some resemble nostalgic goods such as a virtual pet.
And speaking of nostalgic, the game world in River City Girls is filled with fun little collectibles resembling toys, video games, and snacks most of us would be familiar with. Granted, most of these are simply designed to replenish health, but you can’t help but smile at the idea of purchasing Famicom style cartridges and other fun goodies. There are lots of fun items to purchase and try in River City Girls, and thankfully the money you need comes by quite easily.
All of these little elements come together to create an engrossing beat ‘em up experience which is far greater than the sum of its many parts, all situated in an intuitively designed game world filled with things to do and discover at nearly every corner. The original 1989 River City Ransom was a trailblazer because it gave NES players an open world to explore at their whim, complete with shops and many, many people to beat the tar out of. River City Girls retains the open-ended structure by presenting the most vibrant depiction of River City to date, one that sports a stronger level design compared to past titles. River City is crammed full of things to do and discover, whether it’s one of the many interesting stores, the occasional side quests, the many collectibles, or even the guest appearances from classic River City characters… including a familiar face or two from another classic beat ‘em up franchise WayForward have been involved with before. There’s always something new to discover in River City Girls, and even the level design of each of the many locations help spice up the core combat in fun ways such as incorporating platforming sections.
Naturally, River City Girls is best played with two players on the same couch, but that doesn’t mean the game isn’t just as playable or enjoyable as a single player game. If you’re planning to play on your own, then it will take a little longer to grind for experience points and money, and also take a little longer to defeat the bosses. Speaking of, River City Girls has one hell of a cast of boss characters to battle, each with more personality than the last, and each providing a distinct battle experience in their attack patterns and design. It may be a little slower and more difficult without a co-op partner, but rest assured River City Girls is highly engaging and entertaining even when you’re on your own, with hours passing by without notice.
Aesthetically the game is a joy to behold, putting lovingly crafted and highly animated sprites to great use to bring each of the characters to life. The many settings you explore in the game have a level of attention to detail which will make you stop just to pick out fun Easter eggs hidden in the background. This is a vibrantly colourful looking game with a ton of personality to boot, and much like the rest of the experience it is all the little things which come together to make the visuals shine as a whole. The fun aesthetics are also backed by a supercharged and energetic soundtrack, featuring upbeat chiptunes and a number of anime-style theme songs which are as charming as they are campy. Make no mistake, River City Girls is a visual and aural tour de force which will hook you in with its vibrant charm and stellar attention to detail.
River City Girls on Xbox One serves as a fantastic modern-day reboot of a legendary cult franchise. WayForward has successfully taken the spirit of the franchise and supercharged it in nearly every aspect imaginable. It has more gameplay variety than any beat ‘em up has ever seen before, and takes place in a game world jam-packed with things to do and discover. Fantastic gameplay and consistently engaging game design aside, River City Girls is simply brimming with a type of charisma and sense of humour only very few video games have been able to achieve. This is a positively joyous beat ‘em up experience, reinventing the most tried and tested genre in ways even the most seasoned of gamers will be surprised by.
River City Girls is a pure labour of love effort from WayForward.