Imagine it’s another sunny day at River City and the various residents are senselessly beating the tar out of each other in schoolyard gang warfare, when all of a sudden one of them stops and says “Hang on… why are we even fighting?”, bringing everyone to a halt before someone else says “I… don’t really know… and to be honest I’m scared of what comes after high school”, followed by another dropping an existential “School!? I barely understand the meaning of life”. That’s essentially what The friends of Ringo Ishikawa on Xbox is – a beat ‘em up RPG in the same vein as the classic River City Ransom, except that it is existentially charged.
The friends of Ringo Ishikawa has been available on a few platforms for some time, most notably on Nintendo Switch, and now it arrives on Xbox as a better late than never port. Port is right, because right from the get go this version feels like a very lazy conversion. The game is barely optimised for larger resolutions, with all the pixelated art being bloated and exploded. In fact, everything from the basic menu design to overall performance feels half-hearted, with frequent glitches present, especially in audio performance. While none of these issues are game-breaking in the slightest, the laziness of it all can still be off-putting.
Still, even in this version the presentation and vibe of The friends of Ringo Ishikawa manages to shine through. Here players explore a regional Japanese town set to the backdrop of the 1980s, back when VHS tapes and the Nintendo Famicom system reigned supreme. The game world is brimming with life and detail, as players can interact with all sorts of characters and objects; even engaging in activities such as playing pool, or spending time with a bit of Famicom once you save up enough Yen as a lowly school student. As the titular protagonist Ringo, players need to navigate a day-to-day cycle as they attend classes, study, hang out with friends and, of course, engage in plenty of school gang warfare.
A brawler at its core, The friends of Ringo Ishikawa has light RPG elements that have players work on various stats to become stronger and beat down other students. Still, the fighting is but one element in the overall game design as Ringo will also need to attend to school work by giving equal attention to various subjects, engage with various arts and activities and, yes, even eat proper meals on a regular basis. Although there is a lot to do in the game, there’s no real sense of a gameplay loop here as players almost need to build up their own routine as they slowly progress through the story. There is an overarching narrative, but it is vaguely delivered. Point is, Ringo isn’t sure what to make of his life, and so with all the fighting, studying, and other distractions, it’s about trying to make sense of his existence and figure out a calling in life.
The game can be as engaging or as dull as you choose it to be, so most of the time the player will need to be self-motivated as they work on various stats and set their own goals. These could well be things like improving academic performance, training harder at the gym, or even saving up enough money to purchase a game console. It all feels rather pointless and aimless, but that’s the point of the whole experience in The friends of Ringo Ishikawa.
The graphical art style is decent, but what really shines about the presentation is found in the music. The soundtrack is made up of some excellent Japanese smooth jazz, with plenty of moody lo-fi tunes mixed in for good measure. The music is one of those things where you can’t help but stop to soak in the atmosphere. Ultimately that’s what makes The friends of Ringo Ishikawa special, as players unexpectedly stumble into profound moments, such as smoking a cigarette in the apartment balcony at 3:00am. The day and night cycle lends itself to the presentation and game progression nicely, and players are largely free to explore the humble setting and create their own moments.
It goes without saying that The friends of Ringo Ishikawa on Xbox is an unconventional beat ‘em up, with an opaque design and almost aimless sense of progression. The game has a strong atmosphere as it provides a setting for players to lose themselves in, yet there is no real gameplay loop or substance here as players need to create this for themselves. It’s difficult to recommend The friends of Ringo Ishikawa given the lack of motivation or focus in its design, and it doesn’t help that the Xbox conversion work is unfortunately a little on the lazy side.