Editorial | 10/16/2012 at 12:00 PM

Co-Op International: River City Ransom

Meet Kunio and Riki, the true stars of RCR

Last month’s Co-Op International looked at the Japanese Turbografx/PC Engine version of Double Dragon II. This month we’re following up with River City Ransom, another PC Engine Super CD game ported by Naxat under license from Technos. The Japanese title of the game is actually Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari, which means “Downtown Hotblooded Story.” You wouldn’t know it from the title, but Downtown (as I’ll shorten it) is actually a sequel to Renegade, which was called Nekketsu Kouha Kunio-kun (“Hot Blooded Punk Kunio”) in Japan. We’ll look at more games in the Kunio-kun series in next month’s column.

The NES version of River City Ransom is a beloved beat-em-up with mild RPG elements that directly inspired the Scott Pilgrim vs. The World videogame. Check out our Co-Op Classics column dedicated to it. Like many games of its time, the game underwent many changes during the translation process. The Famicom and PC Engine versions both allow friendly fire to be toggled before starting the game. Inexplicably, you can’t do that in the NES game. This version also has three difficulty levels instead of two. Other changes are graphical in nature: most of the characters’ school uniforms changed to regular clothes in the western release, and background signs were translated (not a bad thing).

Now let’s get to the PC Engine specifics. Downtown sadly lacks the animated story sequences that helped make Double Dragon II and many other early CD games so memorable. In fact, the introduction consists only of text, just like the NES game. But Downtown is a story-heavy brawler. Protagonists Kunio and Riki (Alex and Ryan in the US game) engage in conversations with every boss they come across, plus a couple of female NPCs. All of these exchanges are fully-voiced in the PC Engine version, even the shopkeeper visits. Luckily for non-Japanese speakers, you can skip the boss chats by simply pounding on your adversaries.

The real reasons you’d want to play Downtown on PC Engine instead of NES are its upgrades to graphics and sound. The sprites closely resemble the Famicom versions (unlike Double Dragon II), but extra shading makes them pop a bit more. The backgrounds feature much more color and detail. I especially enjoyed the occasional animated touches like moving clock hands, cats, and balloons. The only thing I don’t like visually is that (like the NES game) you can’t see both your life meter and money at the same time; the Select button switches between them. The GameBoy Advance and Japanese X68000 (PC) versions show both stats at once.

As you’d expect from a CD game, Downtown features Red Book (full CD) audio for each music track. This expands the NES game’s catchy-but-short tunes into longer, more robust tracks. The penultimate battle in River City Ransom pitted players against the “Double Dragon twins” while the memorable Double Dragon theme music played. That means – yes – Downtown packs a unique and wonderful mix of that memorable tune (not borrowed from PC Engine Double Dragon II). As for the associated bosses themselves, they both wear red – couldn’t one have slipped into some blue duds? For more soundtrack info, check out this blog.

Downtown’s gameplay remains unchanged from the NES game many of us grew up with. One button punches, the other kicks, and pressing both at once makes you jump. Either button blocks enemy attacks as well. Characters are throwable. Players and enemies may wield a variety of weapons; I prefer the chain for its reach. While Downtown doesn’t have any true co-op moves, Riki and Kunio can stand on each other’s heads (mostly for fun).

Defeated enemies drop money (yen here instead of dollars), which you’ll use to buy health and stat-increasing items from the game’s many shops. This proves one of the game’s downsides for English speakers since the shop selections and stats appear in Japanese text instead of English. You can get by just buying stuff and seeing if it refills your health, or use an FAQ to figure out what everything does.

One final improvement over the NES version: Downtown supports saving instead of a password system. Unlike the GBA game, it saves your stats, location, and even enemy locations – a complete save state. Of course, most players these days will experience the game through an emulator with built-in save state support, but it’s still a great feature regardless.

There are essentially three distinct versions (four if we count X68000) of River City Ransom to choose from: the NES original, the PC Engine Super CD version, and River City Ransom EX on GameBoy Advance. With its expanded moveset and even-more-enhanced graphics, many would consider the GBA game the one to play. But that version lacks the all-important feature of co-operative multiplayer! This game has always been a co-op classic. If you want the best possible 2-player River City Ransom experience, Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari takes the cake.

Come back next month when we'll look at the Japanese-only River City Ransom sequels!

Language barrier: Low-Medium. Story dialogue is completely in Japanese, as are all the menus. As mentioned before, an NES version FAQ will fill you in on the story and shopping menus if necessary. The pause menu and stat screens are also in Japanese, so I've included some translated screenshots on this page.

Difficulty to import: The original CD-ROM will play in any Turbo Duo or Turbografx CD system equipped with a Super System Card Version 3.0. The emulation route is a bit harder here due to the game’s large file size (250 MEGs), but it’s worth the effort.

Playing on emulators like Ootake even reduces the loading times you’d have to stoically endure on a real Turbo Duo. Check out this guide for full instructions. Also note that Ootake requires the Japanese Super System Card 3.0 BIOS file in order to run this game (as opposed to the US version). PC Engine/Turbo Duo CDs are not region-locked, so it looks like a mild emulation issue.