One of my favorite games from the NES days is, without a doubt, River City Ransom by Technos Japan.
Released in ’89, it’s a beat ’em up with a simple story: a gang has taken over your high school, so it’s up to your and a buddy to bring justice back with your fists and feet. You’ll also learn skills from buying books, power up attacks with equipment from stores, and beat on bad guys for their lunch money to buy halibut and shrimp rolls to improve your stats. No, seriously, this is how you improved your stats in the game. There’s also coffee, donuts, squid, and a lot of other things to eat on the go. No levels, just grinding up cash to bring in the goodies to fortify yourself for the battles ahead.
As you can tell, it took place in a fairly modern setting complete with malls, streets, and alleys filled with thugs. You could even name your character anything that you wanted. Levels featured bright colors, a unique art style that lent itself well to the action, and plenty of challenge. It even had something of an open world! The only things really stopping you were the gangs. It wasn’t a very long game, but the simple and exciting gameplay still holds up well even today.
Not every thug fell out of the same mold, either. Depending on which gang you run into, their members will have different ways of showing their gratitude for your initiative. Chains, jump kicks, or just punching away at you will all play a part in their arsenal of pain. And then there were the bosses. There were always the bosses.
The game also used a password save system to allow you to pick up where you left off – as long as you didn’t fudge any of the letters or numbers. I remember scribing them down, hunched over a notebook like an illuminator in a medieval monastery paying close attention to every detail. It also worked really well, at least much better than Faxanadu’s.
River City Ransom also featured co-op with another player so you and a friend could save the high school together.
Though it has been said that it didn’t do so well sales-wise in the West, it still earned itself a number of die-hard fans that fell in love with its style and its punchy gameplay. Over the years, the game has also been ported over to a number of different platforms, finally ending up as a Virtual Console title on the Wii in 2007. It has also inspired a few others games including the upcoming indie “Retro City Ransom”. And nearly more than twenty years later, developer Miracle Kidz has been busy at work on an official sequel, though I haven’t heard anything new on this in awhile.
As for the ad below, it has a few screenshots and features a shout out to the Nintendo World Championships of 1990 where it will also be at. The torn out letters pay homage to the whole ransom theme, and the Western-styled box art is typical of the time. The anime style of Japan hadn’t quite caught on in terms of packaging yet, so it wasn’t unusual for marketing to do its own interpretation when bringing titles over.
Some, like the original Mega Man cover, are legendary for their awkwardness. But in cases like River City Ransom, they worked out quite well. It’s a good cover that hits its theme right on the nose and doesn’t make you wonder what the artist had going through their head when they did it. These guys look like they’re ready to rumble, which they did, in one of the NES’ overlooked classics from the late eighties.