In 1991, the Golden Age of Beat ’em Ups was in full swing as Capcom, Konami, and a handful of other developers unleashed a flood of curb stompers into the arcades on both sides of the world. Sega, not wanting to be left behind, also threw in two of its own in the same year: D.D. Crew and Riot City, though Riot City wasn’t actually made by Sega.
It was made by Westone Bit Entertainment, the same company behind Sega’s Wonder Boy series in the arcade and whose ports also appeared on a few of Sega’s home systems like the Master System and the Game Gear. Riot City was something of a departure from their work with Wonder Boy’s platforming and RPG pieces. At the same time, though, it’s also something of a thinly veiled imitation of Capcom’s epic Final Fight from ’89.
Not that it’s too much of a bad thing — Final Fight’s an amazing beat ’em up in its own right — and Riot City tried bottling some of that magic in its own way. It just didn’t quite work out.
Since the game was released only in Japan, most of the story comes down to English speakers who can’t read Japanese from the actual ending which is typed out in actual English and not kanji as the story in the attract mode is. Essentially, the adventure revolves around two detectives — Paul and Bobby — who went on a rampage through “Riot City” to save Paul’s girlfriend from the MID drug syndicate.
In terms of looks, the game doesn’t look half-bad. Varied backdrops add plenty of window dressing to action that heavily relies on throwing the same, small selection of palette swapped thugs at the player with little variety from stage to stage other than where the action is actually taking place at. On the other hand, Riot City’s stages are surprisingly large areas taking players through alleyways, slums, and even a casino and a boss fight inside a wrestling ring.
Animation-wise, however, both the fighters and the enemies look pretty stiff and a little flat especially if you compare them against what Capcom brought to the table with its inspiration, Final Fight, three years earlier. Characters still slip right into combo-mode when repeatedly hitting enemies and to the game’s credit, both Paul and Bobby have different combo “styles” to set them apart visually. Paul favors rabbit punches with low-blow knees and kicks to top off his moves while Bobby opens up with a few face shots before taking them to the body. Even their walk cycle sets them apart with Bobby’s head grooving to a beat only he can hear compared to Paul’s more serious steps.
As for the music, it’s nothing to really write home about, especially the opening track which is surprisingly repetitive stuff. Sound effects are also pretty blah — punch “whooshing” effects sound like rubber bands and impact hits lack any impact. Others fare a bit better such as the voice samples used in the game such as when the bosses have something to crow about if you can make out what they’re mumbling.
The action does feel snappy on the plus side and both fighters have unique desperation attacks. Paul’s sends him flying upside down into the air, spinning his fists. Bobby’s sends him down onto the ground doing the windmill to send enemies flying back. Both take a smidgen off their own health bars when they smash enemies in the face with these.
Lots of breakables are also in play from giant barrels to furniture, all dropping point bonuses like sunglasses or health in the form of food items.
Unfortunately, the game comes up short in several ways compared to Final Fight. You can only play as Paul or Bobby depending on which spot you pick on the cabinet to play from — a single player can’t choose from a single position on the cab as they could from among three different fighters in Final Fight.
There are also no weapons to pick up to add a bit of variety to the fights, no bonus stages, and the game tends to rely a bit much on sending hordes of the same enemies in the later stages of this five stage fight fest adding to the heavy repetition that might have already set in earlier. It does try to throw in a surprise or two, such as a star pit fighter whose posters you might see on the wall mixing it up along with the cannon fodder, but it can also feel like a numbing slog in the later areas.
The game eventually came over to the TurboGrafx-CD console. In Japan, it was called Okami-teki Monsho – Crest of the Wolf. And it made the most of the CD format with a retooled soundtrack using synthesized instruments for a much better sound.
It also has something of an unusual development history. Apparently Sega owned the rights to Riot City’s characters, so to get around those restrictions on the TG-CD version, they worked with Hudson Soft to redo the sprites, rename the characters, and add in detailed intro and ending scenes further distancing it from its Riot City incarnation. Players could even choose to pick who they wanted to play as either of the two “new” characters. The basic essence of what the game used to be was still intact, but on a very technical level, it wasn’t quite the same game. It showed up in Japan for the TG-CD in 1992 and eventually came over to North America in 1993. It would also show up again on Nintendo’s Virtual Console in 2008.
Riot City didn’t quite catch the same spark of inventive action that Final Fight brought to the table and by the time it came out in 1991, it was confronted with serious competition especially from Capcom which had considerably improved their beat ’em up chops. Even compared to Final Fight three years earlier, it was hard to deny that it felt very dated, though its clever ending showing photographs being laid on a desk revealing its own epilogue was a great touch. Not quite the beat ’em up homerun that Sega, or Westone, were probably hoping for. Yet as Arabian Fight demonstrated in 1992, it also wouldn’t be the last time Sega would take a running kick at the genre.