For decades, old-school beat-em up fans have been following the adventures of River City Ransom heroes Kunio and Riki, a pair of high school tough guys with a knack for rescuing their girlfriends from thugs. Wayforward’s River City Girls turns that tired formula on its head. It’s an utterly charming old-school brawler where the girlfriends get to rescue the boys, and lord have mercy on anyone who gets in their way.
The River City series, known in Japan as Kunio-Kun, has always been about tough boys beating people up or doing sports. (NES classic Dodge Ball is part of the series.) Protagonist Kunio, known in North America as Alex, was named for Kunio Taki, former president of Technōs Japan, developer of the series. The studio had a good run, but now Technōs Japan is gone, its intellectual properties bought by fighting game maker Arc System Works in 2015. Arc teamed up with the 2D maestros at Wayforward Technologies (Shantae, Mighty Switch Force) and now we’ve got River City Girls, out today for the Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
The basic structure of River City Girls is far removed from 1990’s River City Ransom. Heroes Kyoko and Misako, alone or together via local co-op, travel the mean streets of River City searching for clues to the whereabouts of their kidnapped beaus. Using a wide variety of martial arts moves either learned automatically as they level up or purchased in the game’s dojo, the pair move through the city block by block. Fools are thrashed. Money is collected. Upgrades and health-restoring food items are purchased. Kyoko and Misako gain experience as they fight, leveling and powering up. It’s a beat-em up/RPG hybrid.
The animation is smooth and the pixels colorful, as I’ve come to expect from a Wayforward joint. The controls are responsive and the fighting moves impactful. The age-old 2D beat-em up trick of standing below your enemy on the screen and letting them come to you is in full effect here.
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It’s mainly River City Girl’s style that sets it apart from its progenitors. This River City is bright, colorful, and modern, peppered with fashion plate background characters deftly dodging errant attacks. Boss battles are introduced with gorgeous animated cutscenes, while flashbacks are presented as black and white manga volumes.
The cutscenes are fully-voiced, the game’s cast neatly capturing the mischievous cartoon vibe the game projects. And the soundtrack, my goodness. It’s a mix of electronic stuff and lyrical synthpop that’s a joy to fight to. Listen.
It’s flash and color and style wrapped around gameplay that’s instantly familiar to anyone who has ever moved back and forth along a 2D plane jumping and kicking at identical palette-swapped foes.
River City Girl’s is Arc System Works’ second stab at making use of the classic properties that once belonged to Technōs Japan. The first, 2017’s Double Dragon IV, was not very good, sticking a little too close to that classic franchise’s old school roots without innovating or updating. River City Girls strikes a perfect balance between old and new. More like this, please.