River City Ransom: Underground Review

Played on Windows
Also Available for macOS and Linux.

If you talk about the great NES titles, almost everyone is going to talk about Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Brothers. It’s a fact, they’re some of the best games, perhaps of all time. However, once you get past the ultra common and popular titles, the NES has a few dubious games, as well as some hidden gems. We’re going to talk about a successor to one such hidden gem, River City Ransom. If you’ve never played it, you missed out on a really great NES game, it was a fighting game with RPG elements and a decent story for the time.

So twenty years later, we have a sequel in America to River City Ransom. Wait what? Yeah, there’s an odd story here. Apparently Conatus Creative had a Kickstarter to make a sequel to the original River City Ransom. They went to the current rights holder (Arc System Works) and licensed the game, and from there made the sequel which is named River City Ransom: Underground. So here I sit today writing a review based on a classic NES game.

Booting up River City Ransom: Underground, you clearly get the feeling that someone wants you to know this is a retro game. The game pretty much hits you over the head with it, with a TV frame, and an old NES style character on the logo. From there, the options also have multiple retro modes including a GBA style screen coloring. I get it, it’s supposed to be retro. If only it stuck with that.

River City Ransom: Underground starts with a password screen from the original game, and then a really solid tutorial as Alex and Ryan, the characters from the first game are back in school to face off against Slick, the boss of the first game. Yeah, we’re getting a lot of callbacks, including most of the bosses, and enemies, but that’s part of the fun of a retro game.

The graphics are really good in my opinion, it reminds me exactly of the original game, there are enemies talking at the bottom as you kill enemies, and bosses appear after beating the gangs on the screen. River City Ransom: Underground also does a great job of teaching you how to play and showing that bosses only can get damaged by certain attacks. You can hear how thrilled I am to play the game in my first look, the entire time after hitting “Start” I was loving the fact I was playing a new River City Ransom. And then I beat Slick.

River City Ransom: Underground then jumps 20 years into the future, and suddenly you’re one of four new characters. Alex and Ryan are gone for some reason, and you’re at the new River City High School in a different part of the map.

Well, I wanted to see Alex and Ryan again, and I played through the story. The game is a bit vague with its story at the beginning just telling you to get to class. There are multiple classrooms but you have to go to a specific one. When you get there, the teacher plays a video that turns out to be the Mayor calling for all gangs to beat up The Flock and the leader “Chris”. Odd video but it turns out The Flock is your gang, all four characters who are quite unique and different belong to this one gang. That’s weird since all the other gangs are completely homogeneous but that’s part of the game, ok fine.

So let’s think about this story. A gang is being called out by a leader, they’re being persecuted incorrectly and now must fight a number of other gangs… It’s like that movie, and that game, The Warriors. Yeah, it’s clear this game starts with the Warrior story, and honestly, I could accept that. It’s a famous movie for a reason and works well with the River City Ransom story. Go beat up a bunch of gangs who are attacking you.

The Mayor calling out “Chris” looks great, nice style to this scene.

Actually after the movie, the police and the principal of the school attack you. The principal of the school is played by Abobo of Double Dragon fame. I wish this was played up a little more, or made into a story point, because I love Double Dragon a lot, and Abobo is a great character, and seeing him is so much fun. If you attack a teacher you get sent to his office, but that’s about the only connection he has with River City Ransom: Underground, and he’ll appear elsewhere with fewer story reasons to appear.

From there you escape from the school and eventually flee into the sewers, you make your way through and get to a car shop. Here it is, our reunion with Alex and Ryan, and they’re now 20 years older. Joy.

The thing is Alex and Ryan as older characters are… weak, they’re too similar in a lot of ways, and in fact, the new characters are fantastic and diverse. You have a break dancer, a boxer, a luchador, and a Shotokan fighter. They all feel really different and, if anything, that is missing from Alex and Ryan. Still, it pains me to see old Alex and Ryan, I have so much history with those two.

I actually used Provie, the break dancer quite a bit. I would have loved to play with a number of characters, but River City Ransom: Underground seems to penalize that with its level system. Provie got levels and stat upgrades from using her, so switching to anyone else would make me take a huge deficit in the name of trying something new. Provie is a good character, but I would have loved a way to experiment more.

I also have to mention… there’s 1 girl out of 6 characters in the early game. I don’t think we need full equality, but I think there could have been a way to have a couple more females in the group. In addition, there’s a second female character but she was comes in later and might have been patched in by fan request, and even there, there could be more. Out of 10 characters, only 2 females?

The tutorial from the beginning of the game looks like a modern version of the original game, if only the game delivered on that promise.

So we continue on with our retelling of the Warriors story, and the gameplay of this feels spot on. However, the tutorial has some big blind spots that I noticed as I played on. First, it doesn’t really explain how to get a boss to appear. In fact, I’m not sure if I understand 100 percent. I know I went to where the Nerd gang is and just beat them up on multiple screens and then on one screen the boss finally appeared but I don’t know what exactly triggered it. He appeared really fast one time, and then I had to defeat almost ten screens worth of enemies before he appeared again. It is odd and frustrating, where the game should be a bit clearer.

In addition, bosses don’t have the same defenses as in the tutorial, so the fights can be won by just beating down the enemy. It’s a shame because I could easily stunlock them similar to how I can stunlock most characters. The Nerd boss is actually the only boss that I found that really has any type of defense and that’s in big quotes even for him.

After two or three bosses, you start having to finding the old bosses who used to work for Slick, this has a great opportunity for something new and fresh, but it falls apart. It’s a streak of three enemies who just run away from you and have to be chased down and hit once. Why ruin what was a great thing. Finding a boss, beating him up, getting a semi-unique fight is a great pattern, but instead, it’s three chases in a row. One would be interesting, But the game squandered the feeling of reexploring the original game’s characters.

The fact is, there are good bosses in the game, the football coach, Otis from the original game, sends players after you and has special moves, so the designers know what they’re doing. I don’t understand why those three characters just fall flat on their face. And then you fight Slick again….

I really love this nerd boss. At the beginning he tells you this is a sealed collectible.

Now I’ve been retelling the story, but from this point, River City Ransom: Underground tries to twist the story and has you go after the Mayor who sicked the enemies on you. It’s a definite step away from the Warriors, but it’s not a good twist. Worse it’s a step away from what makes River City Ransom great. The Warriors’ story works well because you fight new and interesting gangs, the game tosses that aside and decides it’s pretty much done introducing gangs, and gets into a rather normal side-scroller, though with aging combat.

At this point, River City Ransom: Underground gets lost, what was a simple gang fight simulator changes to an adventure and it feels remarkably worse for that. The River City Ransom fighting and engine is more meant for a brawl and not exploration which is what the game expects you to do with it.

There are a few parts of the story here where River City Ransom: Underground forces you on sidequests. But really quests from the point which are bad, some famously bad from early players (The milk quest where a single hit shattered the bottle, it’s been patched to three hits now, still annoying) a dog tag/military quest that doesn’t make sense and has some relation to the Kickstarter, and a long painful level to get to the Mayor. At this point we’ve had a twist, we’ve had a really hard level and the Mayor probably should have been the final boss. Yet the game isn’t done, obvious act three becomes act two, and the game decided to diverge into another story.

What an important side quest… NOT. You see it’s 2018 but this is based on a retro review so NOT is acceptable.

The world changes and now we see what we’ll find out is a clone army. Odd colored enemies appear and attack, and the game gets remarkably harder. From there you’re close to the end but you have to deal with two or three more annoying tasks. Eventually, though you get to the final hideout and its painful line of just annoying battles.

The thing with the story there’s two major twists, but neither of them leaves River City Ransom: Underground in a good shape. It’s not that it’s a bad twist, I can live with a bad story, but the entire game suffers for the twist. The first twist by itself could have worked where all of a sudden the Mayor is the target and that’s the end of the game, but it doesn’t pay off, and is mostly just a very long side quest rather than continuing the gang fighting which was the fun part of the game.

You see, I like the gangs in the original, and I really enjoyed the gangs in River City Ransom: Underground. They feel different and unique and there was a ton of locations. It’s what I came to this game to play, but the second time you beat Slick, the game stops making interesting gangs and instead feels like they ran out of ideas. You no longer take out gang bosses and the game forgets what it’s about.

The whole thing is that this part of River City Ransom: Underground only works for the big finale. It would be if Kratos stopped killing gods and went to New York City. He’s still murdering people and fights a few business owners, but it has no relationship to the original story. If he did this to find a modern-day Zeus, it might work, but it’s still a heavy departure from the game you’ve played. That’s how far River City Ransom: Underground goes from the original game concept, but instead the game twists again and diverges further from what it set up and I started to lose interest in it.

Now I know just copying The Warriors would not have made a great game… but actually, it might. I wanted to fight interesting gangs, and that’s why the original was a good game, and the gangs here are good. So just ripping off the movie would have been a better experience. The thing is that the story it’s actually telling is awful and the delivery hurts the game more than anything. It pushes you to fight generic enemies or the police, and it’s not better for it.

So that’s mostly the story, along with a short discussion of the characters, and the fact is. I really dislike the story here. Allow me though, to continue onwards with the gameplay.

The combat is pretty easy before the final level. However, because the promise of enemies who take no damage from certain attacks never comes true, the player often can use the same combo over and over. Provie has a three kick combo that’s rather powerful, I could use it and even if it’s blocked I could use it again and again and finally get a hit and then a combo based on it.

There are other moves and each character gets their own selection, but oftentimes I would buy a special move book from one of the trainers present in the game and find out I couldn’t find a way to pull off the move. For instance, in the First Look ,Alex has a suplex, and I couldn’t figure out how to use it. It sounds like a sweet move, but the game doesn’t teach the special moves, and sometimes two moves have similar button presses, so I don’t know what the difference is.

Here’s a player on the way up to the mayor’s office.

While the combat is easy, it’s definitely monotonous too, in fact, most of the gameplay is rather monotonous since you can use that three kick combo. The story doesn’t add to that fun and that’s a shame because even with how bland the combat becomes, I could have been hooked into wondering “What gang am I going to fight next” It would have been a very cool way to keep me interested. However, with the story lacking, the gameplay didn’t really carry the ball and come forward to keep me enthralled.

A big piece of the “difficulty” in this game isn’t about combat, but rather how far locations are from the hideout. For instance, early on there’s a hideout every three or four screens, but the Mayor’s tower required around twelve screens of very hard enemies and that final level is closer to twenty, I believe, with no hideouts in sight. If you die you respawn at the last place you visited and lose half your money. It’s not harder enemies, it’s just more distance that the player has to travel with more annoying enemies that eventually get one or two hits in.

There are also screens where you can just run through and ignore the enemies. Most of the game has enemies that you aren’t required to fight, and again the story fails this. I like exploring and tackling a new enemy, but a majority of screens just have the same enemies that are easy to sidestep.

The end game, mostly the final level, has a huge difficulty spike and becomes extremely hard to beat. It takes what is a repetitive fighter and just makes it punishing rather than interesting.

Up to that point, if you are correctly eating food and leveling up your stats along with just getting new levels, you won’t have many problems taking on new enemies, but the final level has the cheapest enemies and four to six of them per room. Worse, if you hit level 40, you stop leveling up and getting free heals which makes the game harder, so you’re penalized for hitting max level too early. Healing is expensive in this game and not really worth it, and the endgame is definitely hard enough even with the healing from level ups that removing it makes it even harder.

The level design here is also a bit mixed. There are great locations, such as the nerd area being set in an arcade, with a great little mini golf course out back. Otis’ football fight is played in a football stadium. The game is interesting and clever when it really tries to be. But, there are are a ton of locations that aren’t really used. There was a health club, why didn’t they use that? It’s never used in the game so why was it made?

The mini golf course looks great. I wish the whole game was this detailed

Finally, there are a few glitches in here too, and for a game that’s been out for over a year and almost a half… well, they should have been fixed faster.

There’s a mission prompt early in River City Ransom: Underground that tells you to go back and see Alex and Ryan. Apparently, the game glitches and doesn’t tell you where to go next. Some piece of the game isn’t working. I had to look it up online and it’s a rather common bug. People online told me where to go next, but again, it’s been a year and a half, why is this bug still around?

The experience system is also flawed. It doesn’t tell you how much XP you need to level up for the current level, but rather the next level. So for level 2 you might need to go to 32 XP for instance, but the game will display “next 64” and then when you level up to level 2, the game will ask for 128 but when you hit 64 XP you’ll get the next level. How does that even get past QA or again, and then a year and a half out?

It also makes me wonder how many of the special moves that I can’t trigger are more a bug and less a misunderstanding of the input sequence.

I’d be willing to give River City Ransom: Underground a pass on gameplay as it’s attempting to recreate an NES game that probably isn’t as good as people remember it. However, the bugs and the story really drive this game down and the gameplay that should keep me interested falls apart, partially due to the story. It’s so insane for me to say that if the game stopped at the Mayor, I would recommend it, but the game kept going and ruined the good will it had achieved.

I’m kind of pissed about the bugs, but really what annoys me is I feel that they took an amazing NES game with a lot of potential and produced something significantly weaker than the original. I admit, I love the original and came here with Nostalgia goggles on. But River City Ransom: Underground also put those goggles on me with the opening so everyone seemed to be on board for what was necessary.

The farther I played this game the more I realized I couldn’t recommend it. I went from loving the opening, to liking the game, to disliking it, and even actively hating the game. There are bugs, a weak story, and just dull gameplay by the end of the game, and that’s worse to me than a bad game. There are games I don’t like but I can understand why people might like it. Here we have a game that’s just not good enough. I’ve given this a lot of thought and River City Ransom Underground is getting a well deserved…


Yeah… I could have forgiven a lot here in the name of “retro” but this is just a bad showing.

Final Thoughts: A disgrace revival to River City Ransom, for a game that could have been a great throwback to the days of an NES game, instead we get a long, dull mess, that tells a bad story.

Stats: 14.3 hours played 7/48 achievements earned.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s