Here’s a crazy thing that’s happening. Remember River City Ransom on the NES? It was that goofy beat ‘em up that sort of had primitive open world and enemies barfing spare change. Maybe you’re aware that, in the years since, we’ve seen multiple River City-branded games in and around that brawler framework. Or, perhaps, you’re super down like I am and know all about the Kunio-kun brand. Regardless of your knowledge here, WayForward and ArcSystemWorks have banded together to bring a whole new chapter to the series, with a bit of a twist. In River City Girls, the typical 80s brawler roles have been reversed, with leading ladies Kyoko and Misako punching thugs to rescue their boyfriends, the protagonists of the original games. Not only does this game look awesome, but it’s a clear demonstration of the best way to bring back classic games.
River City Girls isn’t just a gender-swap of River City Ransom. This game is its own beast, with a huge stylistic shift from the usual Kunio-kun fare. For the most part, each new River City game had retained the look of the original NES game, albeit with higher-resolution sprites with more detail and whatnot. That sort of faux-retro look has always been cute, and helped carry that brand despite its obscurity. But River City Girls, developed by western developer WayForward, has a totally new style. It’s more of a 32-bit, PlayStation era sort of vibe, albeit in HD with more detail and animation depth than ever would have been possible back then. It’s almost reminiscent of Ubisoft’s Scott Pilgrim game, which itself was an homage to River City Ransom. That said, River City Girls has its own distinct style, as well as what looks like plenty of new gameplay mechanics.
This isn’t the first time a classic game has been revitalized. Just in the past year or two we’ve seen several new announcements of retro revivals, some from Japanese devs, some from ambitious, indie western devs, so on and so forth. We’ve seen the likes of Windjammers, Streets of Rage, Wonder Boy, Battletoads, and more just recently. But none of these projects I’ve named have the same pizazz that River City Girls does. These games feel niche, like they’ll struggle to capture an audience beyond people who would already be interested, as previous fans. But the secret sauce, I think, comes from that blend of classic style and IP, with new styles and ideas. I look to another game from WayForward that made similar moves, one that I had so much fun with it stands out in my mind today, several years later.
One classic IP that has changed hands over the years alongside River City is Double Dragon. Data East’s legendary brawler has been all over the place since the original arcade classics, and in 2012 landed briefly in WayForward’s hands. This led to Double Dragon Neon, a title that went all out with the 80s nostalgia vibe, and aimed to take the basic Double Dragon framework and do more with it. Aside form the usual plane-based punching, kicking, and weapon-grabbing, Double Dragon Neon also includes a dodging mechanic, co-op maneuvers, and an equipment system based on cassette tapes that each have their own original song composed by known wacky game musician Jake Kaufman. The game oozes personality and depth, and stands out so much more than a “Double Dragon 4,” which actually totally happened too and was bad.
While the River City games that came out for the 3DS were all a good time, they all leaned on that classic framework from the NES original, and sort of languished in obscurity as a result. Marks for those games came to pick it up, but otherwise you don’t see reminders they exist these days. On the other hand, WayForward is a known brand in its space, which is more of a higher tier niche that commands more of the mindshare than say, Natsume.
With River City Girls, it looks like WayForward is taking a similar approach to Double Dragon Neon, but with that Arc System Works Dragon Ball FighterZ money. Thanks to those resources and its distinct style and hooks, River City Girls could make more of an impact than previous sequels. And it’s all because WayForward isn’t just doing the retro thing again the way people remembered it. It’s a retro revival, but with a twist.