River City Ransom had pioneered that concept within the confines of 8-bit technology.
If you weren’t born yesterday, chances are that you have learnt the following life lessons the hard way. Starving yourself at lunch break in school for a month to buy a 999999-in-1 videogame cartridge only to uncover a soul-crushing lie – it’s just six-odd games duplicated a million times. Ruining many an 8-bit cartridges by blowing into the contacts, even as the warning against doing so was ironically printed just a couple of inches from your eyes. Blackmailing your parents into buying you a cheap Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) clone was a bad idea. After all, you were bound to go begging back since knockoffs weren’t designed to survive two consecutive summer vacations.
However, there are some NES secrets that most of us never managed to discover. How, for example, the Samurai systems were genuine NES consoles licenced by Nintendo as a workaround against the licence raj and terrible protectionism brought upon by Nehruvian socialism prevalent back then. Another well-kept secret of the 80s was a seminal brawler that was leagues ahead of its time due to its genre bending design – the sublime River City Ransom (RCR). It was essentially a beat-em up with RPG elements, but saying that is just as disingenuous as describing the Magna Carta as a document with words in it. Well, that’s technically true, but it doesn’t tell you how Magna Carta sowed the very seed of individual freedom.
Long before the world got addicted to GTA’s style of gang-based setup in expansive urban environments, River City Ransom had pioneered that concept within the confines of 8-bit technology. Let’s not forget the significance of that incredible achievement, since this laid the template for an entire generation of open world games, after all. That’s not saying RCR didn’t borrow from its predecessors. Its core gameplay element was based off the popular side-scrolling beat-em up Double Dragon. However, the sheer gameplay depth and flexibility afforded by its RPG elements was unprecedented for its time. Like Double Dragon, the barely there story may have been perfunctory, but it wasn’t without its share of quirkiness.
Setting wise, River City Ransom is best described as a John Hughes brat-pack flick (sans the mushy bits) meets Westside Story (sans the latent androgyny) meets the standard Van Damme flick (sans, well, Van Damme). The story involves Ryan’s girlfriend getting kidnapped by Slick, the top-dog of the dominant gang in River City High, and his gang of high school bullies. Luckily for our boy Ryan, Slick happens to be the arch-nemesis of Alex – the toughest kid in Cross Town High whose only joy in life is getting into fights. With the common goals involving hostage rescue and wanton violence tying them together, Alex and Ryan team up to embark on the arduous journey to fight every street gang lying between them and River City High, where they finally face off with Slick.
The Alex/Ryan dynamic gives players an option between fast/weak and slow/strong characters that make this game an excellent couch co-op game. Whether you go solo or co-op the game essentially involves tearing through several urban areas populated with gangs exhibiting varied skill and aggressiveness. From the weak Homeboys and weapon wielding Mob to immigrant-populated Internationals and the extremely aggressive Cowboys, each gang in RCR has different attributes such as unarmed/armed fighting skill, defence, and strength. Beating them earns coins which can be spent on food and drugs that can increase these player attributes. The path en route to River City High is peppered with many malls and establishments selling anything from books that teach martial arts skills to boots that increase kicking strength.
The sheer depth of RCR’s gameplay mechanics just beggars belief and holds your interest better than any of its 8-bit contemporaries. The combat is fast and adds an added layer of strategy and skill by combining jumps, weapons, blocking, and special moves. This explains the cult status of the game despite the fact that it was neither widely sold nor played. However, turn to YouTube and you’ll find various metal remixes of its soundtrack and several fan made videos. Despite getting a Japan only sequel and a Game Boy Advance remake, RCR had several fan remakes in the pipeline over the years. Coincidentally, a Kickstarter funded, officially licensed sequel dubbed River City Ransom: Underground by Conatus Creative has already been Greenlit on Steam for a holiday 2015 release.
Nachiket "therapist" Mhatre
Nachiket has been obsessed with computers and videogames since the 8086 days. But don't you go asking him about his earliest gaming memory. Not unless you are fine with being subjected to an interminable monologue romanticising the warm monochrome glow of early DOS games and how the medium has since lost its soul at the turn of the millennium. When he isn't being a corporate slave at MySmartPrice.com, Nachiket spends his free time tinkering with hobby grade R/C, practicing archery, or just sharpening his knives for relaxation.