Indie Game of the Week 347: River City Girls

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Mento

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Edited By Mento  Moderator
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Mercantile-minded folks are out celebrating Black Friday, but here I am celebrating Black Eye Friday instead. That's right, this week we'll be covering a brawler, a genre I don't dip into much (and for good reason, outlined further below): WayForward's River City Girls, published/licensed by Arc System Works. Anime fighter peddlers ASW acquired the Kunio-kun license from Technos Japan (or, well, an intermediary) in 2015, and this game's full of characters from both that franchise and Double Dragon—the two apparently sharing a universe much like Final Fight and Street Fighter. It sees Kunio and his brawling buddy Riki apparently kidnapped at the start of the game, prompting their respective girlfriends Misako and Kyoko to ditch detention and go rescue them.

The most famous non-sports Kunio-kun game, at least overseas, is River City Ransom: hence this game is both named after and structurally based upon that game's blueprint. A before-its-time brawler that implemented an open-world exploration aspect, vendors that sold restorative items and new techniques, and a conducive-to-grinding feature where enemies would regularly hassle you wherever you went but commonly weren't strictly necessary to fight in order to keep moving forward. River City Girls implements all of that as well, dividing its time between fetch missions that will have you scouring its more open-world areas for a series of items or clues, and more dungeon-like self-contained locations that have linear paths to their bosses. Defeating enemies earns you both money and XP: the former can be spent at vendors and the latter contributes to levelling up, which provides incremental bonuses to your stats (max health, fighting power, defense, etc.) and unlocks new moves for purchase. You have two slots for accessories, most of which provide very small buffs of around 1-5%, so your money is often better put towards food items from restaurants and cafes: not only is this the most quick and direct form of healing, but each new food item type also gives you a permanent stat buff. If you get KOed, and you probably will a lot, you'll lose about a quarter of the cash on you; subsequently, it behooves you to go spend your cash after the big payouts received from completing side-quests and defeating bosses (that is, if you can survive long enough to backtrack with what little health you might have remaining).

Most weapons tend to be benches, garbage cans, crates, or wrenches, but you'll occasionally find stronger ones like yo-yos or this lightsaber. My favorite weapon would be the stunned bodies of enemies, once you have the right upgrade: hitting enemies with their friends does damage to them both.
Most weapons tend to be benches, garbage cans, crates, or wrenches, but you'll occasionally find stronger ones like yo-yos or this lightsaber. My favorite weapon would be the stunned bodies of enemies, once you have the right upgrade: hitting enemies with their friends does damage to them both.

I'll get the positives out of the way. River City Girls has a visual style that honors the cartoonish world of the Kunio-kun franchise but specifically takes after the more realistically-proportioned characters from the game that introduced Misako and Kyoko to the world, at least as playable characters: Shin Nekketsu Kouha Kunio-kun: Kunio-tachi no Banka, which has since been rereleased as River City Girls Zero due to this game (I actually reviewed it semi-recently here). WayForward is never a slouch when it comes to 16-bit graphics and that's as true here as it is in their Shantae franchise or the unexpectedly gorgeous explormer The Mummy Demastered—the many faces of River City from the Akihabara-like neon Uptown to the dingy, dilapidated Downtown to the gentrified Ocean Heights are given a detailed and distinctive rendering and the various enemy combatants, though their types are small in number, are given variations that often do a little more than just change the palettes. The biggest stand-out in the presentation, as is often the case with WayForward, is the soundtrack: largely composed by Megan McDuffee with contributions from Chipzel, Nate Sharp, and Dale North, with McDuffee lending vocals to several tracks as in-universe rock star "Noize", the music builds on that dreamy stylish '80s Streets of Fire vibe established by what might be the game's stylistic predecessor Double Dragon Neon (with the Lee brothers also making cameo appearances as vendors in RCG too, incongruously voiced by the Game Grumps, as well as their one-time nemesis Skullmageddon) and is definitely a fine soundtrack to bust heads to.

WayForward, being the bunch of retro game nerds they are, also ensured a lot of accuracy to extant RCR lore with this game. Hasebe and Mami, the girlfriends of Kunio and Riki in most of the other Kunio-kun games, are reimagined here as teasing mean girl adversaries of Misako and Ryoko, frequently showing up to snipe at the protagonists for their poor fashion taste and general ignorance of modern teen trends while purporting to be the actual girlfriends of the kidnapped duo. Canonically, they're probably correct, but I like that the game plays with the idea that these two have somehow seduced the heroes purely as a means of spiting their hated rivals. Other Kunio-kun villains show up as bosses and vendors, as well as familiar guest characters like Abobo and new characters like the daughter of recurring Yakuza boss Sabu, Sabuko (literally "child of Sabu"). It's a fun way to connect the continuity of the Technos Japan brawler universe and WayForward (along with maybe Digital Eclipse or Tribute Games, the developers behind the recent TMNT: Shredder's Revenge) is one of the few Indie devs I could name that can do it justice.

A typical vendor, where you can buy and store classic video game carts in your inventory for later or just eat them right there. I was also able to buy books from ProZD that make weapons unbreakable, but they didn't work for some reason.
A typical vendor, where you can buy and store classic video game carts in your inventory for later or just eat them right there. I was also able to buy books from ProZD that make weapons unbreakable, but they didn't work for some reason.

My issues with RCG are mostly tied in to how many throwback (and throw forward, depending on which direction you push) brawlers are very adamantly trying to pretend they came directly out of the arcades in the 1990s, and it occasionally feels like they haven't accounted for several decades of advancements beyond those that would make a significant alteration to the gameplay model like going 3D. Yakuza/Like a Dragon is what I would consider the modern incarnation of River City Ransom as well as the brawler genre as a whole, layered as it is with so much more incidental content and a combat system that makes better use of evasion, parries, counters, and crowd control techniques. Some of that is evident in this game too, but it also feels many of the same problems that plagued those older games from unseen enemy attacks from off-screen to overlapping a sprite so your attacks whiff (but theirs somehow don't) has been lovingly replicated here for little reason other than, I guess, authenticity. The way most enemy animations take priority over yours, or the extremely generous interpretation of where the hitboxes of their attacks start and end, means you'll regularly be taking hits to the face despite best attempts to avoid such a scenario. You're also as beholden to being juggled with air-attacks and losing huge chunks of your health bar as your opponents are, though in the latter case there's few situations where you could attack quickly enough to keep foes airborne unless you have a very coordinated companion to help.

There are also issues endemic to this game specifically too, of course. One such example is the boss difficulty, which hits an enormous unexplained spike right in the middle of the game against a spider-like fashion diva who spends the majority of the fight floating out of reach and shooting Touhou garbage at you for minutes at a time until she finally deigns to let herself become vulnerable. A boss like this wouldn't be such a pain if the opportunities to do damage led to some serious harm: instead, she has twice the endurance of the previous bosses and so it usually takes about three cycles before she moves onto the next stage of the fight. I died several times just from losing the very long battles of attrition each fight turned into; I'm half convinced I missed something major, like some heretofore unknown double-jump technique that would've given me the height I needed. Conversely, the bosses that followed were all one-and-dones, including the last boss (for as cheap as she was). I guess when you think you have a good idea for a boss fight you just roll with it, but not even the secret bosses gave me as much trouble as that floating fashionista (and they had a stun-lock multi-hit attack that chopped my health bar in half).

I appreciated they brought back the theme park from Kunio-tachi no Banka, but there's no big fight on a Ferris wheel? Disappointing. (I guess Gang Beasts already cornered the market on that.)
I appreciated they brought back the theme park from Kunio-tachi no Banka, but there's no big fight on a Ferris wheel? Disappointing. (I guess Gang Beasts already cornered the market on that.)

As a result, for as much as I loved inhabiting the world of River City Girls, actually playing the game was often a painful chore and I can only blame it so far for sticking to its guns as a deliberate throwback. It could be that I just don't care for the genre itself, or at least this antiquated version of it, as RCG is considered by most to be one of the better Indie games of its type; however, as a diehard Like a Dragon fan, I have seen and experienced a future model for the brawler genre that has so thoroughly curb-stomped the older street belt-battlers that it's kinda hard to go back. It's true that many genres of the '90s were unfairly cast aside as others rose up to draw attention away, but with brawlers it was entirely a case of beepers dying to cellphones as the latter could do everything the former could and more besides. But hey, maybe that's just my own lack of nostalgia for these things. I certainly played many of them as a kid but didn't really gel with them; not like, say, 16-bit style turn-based RPGs or the four-directional first-person dungeon-crawlers, either of which I'll champion at a moment's notice. Suffice it to say, I probably won't be featuring many more games like this on here unless I see some marked improvement to the hoary archetype they're built upon. The game did let me throw enemies into a pit though, so it's not all bad.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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bigsocrates

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I played this game at the beginning of this year and I really really liked it. I don't fully understand all the comparisons to Yakuza. Yes, the Yakuza series has its roots in old Beat-em-ups (Kind of; since it's more descended from Shenmue, which had a different fighting system) but it's a totally different thing. It's like trying to compare Kaze and the Wild Masks to Super Mario Bros. Odyssey. You can trace their common ancestry and understand how the games that Kaze is emulating eventually led to Odyssey, but at this point they have only the most basic things in common and I would not directly compare them.

If you don't like these kinds of beat-em-ups its unsurprising you wouldn't really like this game, but within the context of what it's trying to do it does a good job, and the aesthetics, story, and especially music are top notch. Even some of the gameplay "flaws" like the hit detection and how you line up attacks felt intentional to me, and were somewhat ameliorated by the various special attacks you could learn.

Not everyone likes this style of game but saying that Yakuza supersedes it is like saying that Rap supersedes Rock music. One may be partially descended from and influenced by the other but they are not the same thing.

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#2 Mento  Moderator

@bigsocrates: There is some significant distance between RCR and LaD, not just chronologically, but I'm not sure they're fundamentally different games. The amount of time I spend in either just beating up dudes and then waltzing into a nearby restaurant to replenish health, or maybe stocking up on healing items and gear to improve my combat skills, for instance. I guess my argument was that I get most of my old-school brawler fill from LaD and much more besides, and that's why going back to its roots is a little tougher. If one of these brawler throwbacks ever put in a Komaki Tiger Drop counter move I'd change my tune pretty quick.

Now you've got me wondering if there's any significant fundamental differences between 2D and 3D platformers, since I play a lot of both. The former's more challenge-based and the latter's more exploration-based? But that's not universally the case. I still enjoy both the older and newer style of those games, conversely to these brawlers, but maybe that's just a genre preference.

No arguments from me that RCG's presentation is excellent, though. I'll be dipping into that OST frequently in the future I'm sure.

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@mento: I want to address your second point first, because I'm surprised that the king of the Exploremer would claim that 2D platformers are more challenge based and less exploration based than 3D. Granted exploremers often put more emphasis on combat, but not always, and there are lots of linear 3D platformers. Crash Bandicoot. Almost every 3D Sonic game. Mario 3D Land/World. Etc...

I think the biggest difference between 2D and 3D besides just...the difference in perspective is precision. You can demand a lot more precision from the player in 2D than in 3D. 3D platfomers tend to be much more lenient when it comes to placement and reaction time, instead stressing envionmental puzzle solving and effective use of your toolset. Most of the time in a 2D platfomer you pretty much know what to do you just have to execute (this is of course a gross simplification.) In 3D platformers it's often much more about figuring out a way to do whatever it is you need to do. The limited scope of possibilities in 2D just makes it easier to present clear challenges and demand great execution than in 3D where the cemera can be a big factor and there are so many potntial actions at any given moment that requiring pixel perfection can be unrealistic for most players. That's one of the reasons that rail-grinding became such a common mechanic in 3D platformers (besides it looking cool.) Because by limiting the number of potential moves again you can throw fast challenges at the player in succession without it feeling unfair.

And to transition to the LaD/RCG comparison, I think the same is often true for 2D vs 3D beat 'em ups. River City Girls doesn't require quite as much precision as an old school 2D platformer but a lot more than something like Yakuza. Yakuza is extremely mashy and often comes down to finding weapons to swing in wide and disruptive arcs or using spacing to isolate enemies so you don't get surrounded and overwhelmed. There are some moves that require a certain amount of precision but for the most part it's a lot more about problem solving than perfect execution. Identify the right strategy for each enemy, make sure you take out the gun guys before they can cause trouble etc... Some of that is in RCG of course, but that game is much more about properly executing the right move at the right time. They have fundamental differences on what they focus on, which makes them play very differently.

I think you don't get your "old school" beat em up fun from Yakuza because it's not really an old school beat em up. I think you just prefer the type of combat that Yakuza has, which is...totally valid of course. I'm obviously not saying I think you're wrong to like one over the other, I just don't think they're the same thing. More cousins, or at best siblings.

As for the claim that the two games have the same focus on combat...can't agree with you there at all. What Yakuza games are you playing? Let's ignore the fact that Yakuza is now a turn based RPG series (at least in the mainline) so clearly beat 'em up gameplay is not fundamental to the series according to Sega. When I play Yakuza I spend over half my time playing Outrun at the arcade or fishing or dancing or in creepy over-sexualized minigames that make me feel bad about myself like the telephone club in Yakuza 0 or the hostess clubs in...a lot of them.

How are you playing Yakuza that your focus is equally on combat in RCG and Yakuza? For me Yakuza combat is just one of the three major aspects of the game, the other two being the absolutely insane storytelling and the immersive Shenmue style city full of minigames and activities. That's why it could become a turn based RPG!

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#4 Mento  Moderator

@bigsocrates: Damn, you scored a critical hit by reminding me of my beloved explormers. That was a major memory lapse. Different skillsets is probably the right answer as to why I can't get enough of either 2D or 3D platformers, and why 2D brawlers don't gel as well for me as LaD's approach. Kaze was definitely a case where I couldn't imagine playing a game that demanding in 3D (though Demon Turf was determined to be that type of skill-intensive game for the 3D platformer crowd regardless).

I'd argue that the combat in LaD is still central to the gameplay even if it's not the only type of gameplay available. It's like the turn-based combat in the Persona games: on the whole you probably spend the same amount of time (or less) fighting stuff in dungeons that you do talking to peeps and levelling up social links and fusing demons and choosing how to spend your free time slots, but most of those systems are geared towards the combat mode regardless. All of LaD's mini-games reward cash and/or XP that contribute to your continued survival in the story critical battles, so it still feels like everything is subservient to that main mode to some small extent.

As to LaD being a turn-based franchise too at this point, well, I won't argue that it doesn't fit but I still prefer the brawlers in the series. I'll have to check out that Gaiden game sometime soon; as long as that gameplay style is retained in the spin-offs I'll show up for them.

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#5  Edited By theonewhoplays

I think most of this game's issues go away if you play coop, but the fashionista boss is unacceptable in single player mode. If you're planning on playing alone Streets of Rage 4 is a much better beat-em-up that looses nothing by not having an 'open world'.

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@mento: It's always the most obvious things that we miss. The human mind is a mysterious thing.

You're not wrong that combat is in some ways the glue that holds the Yakuza series together. Every game I've played in the series gates its story progression and ending behind combat, while the other mechanics are usually only mandatory for one mission or so. I was responding to this:

I'm not sure they're fundamentally different games. The amount of time I spend in either just beating up dudes and then waltzing into a nearby restaurant to replenish health, or maybe stocking up on healing items and gear to improve my combat skills, for instance.

That's pretty much the entire loop of RCG. In Yakuza I spend a lot more time doing totally different things. I spent hours in Yakuza 0 running back and forth between real estate management and Pocket Circuit, and avoiding as many fights as I could. And of course the awkward dates at Sunshine. It does all kind of come back to combat, but there's a lot more going on and if nothing else is creates a very different rhythm for the gameplay than games when you are constantly fighting. Another reason why they're not really versions of the same game.