The River City/Kunio series has seen numerous installments over the years, but precious few of them received English releases until Arc System Works took over the license from the defunct Technos a few years back. WayForward’s release of River City Girls also stirred tons of interest in the franchise. That game drew upon ideas from a Japanese-only Super Famicom title called Shin Nekketsu Kouha: Kunio-tachi no Banka. Almost 20 years later, WayForward has now localized Kunio-tachi no Banka as River City Girls Zero, first launching on Switch and then on Xbox, PlayStation, and Steam. River City Girls Zero tells a seriously gripping story, but the frustrating gameplay will limit Zero’s appeal to only the most hardcore River City/Kunio fans.
The game begins with a motorcycle rider who looks just like Kunio, the primary protagonist of the River City series, running over and killing a bystander. Kunio and his friend Riki (accused of being an accomplice) are immediately imprisoned for the crime, but they manage to escape before long. Thus begins their journey to clear Kunio’s name and discover who has it out for him. Without going into spoilers, Kunio will run afoul of the Sanwa gang and their leader, Sabu, a vicious gangster who first appeared alongside Kunio in Renegade and will act as the main antagonist of the upcoming River City Girls 2.
Zero is a 3-4 hour game with a heavy emphasis on story. The narrative is more serious than that of River City Ransom, combining elements of teen and crime dramas. Despite the difference in tone, someone who enjoys the original River City Ransom and River City Girls should easily be able to hop right in and enjoy the story. The grittier visual style is also fairly refreshing given that most of the games in this series, even newer ones like River City Saga: Three Kingdoms, utilize the original 8-bit art style instead of creating something new. The visuals feature loads of color, detail, and parallax scrolling, making Kunio-tachi no Banka one of the best-looking 16-bit beat ‘em ups. The soundtrack is catchy and atmospheric as well.
Although Zero takes place in the same universe as River City Ransom and features plenty of text-based storytelling, Ransom’s action RPG elements and free-roaming progression are absent here. Players begin as Kunio and Riki, with their girlfriends, Misako and Kyoko, becoming playable within the first hour of the game. The four characters mostly share the same basic movesets, though each has a couple of unique special moves that are a bit too hard to perform consistently. All four heroes can stomp on downed foes, but only the boys can sit on enemies and pummel them.
The arsenal of combat moves is typical for the 16-bit era, with a handful of grapples complementing the basic array of punches, kicks, and backwards attacks. It’s even possible to grab a foe from behind so that your co-op partner can pummel them, though grabs are tough to safely pull off on purpose, and enemies quickly push out of them. Players can’t wield weapons, but a few bad guys attack with knives or pistols. It’s a shame because weapons would’ve added some welcome variety to battles. That said, a few areas have overhead objects from which the heroes can hang and perform kicks, which is fun when the opportunity comes along.
Zero’s assortment of moves don’t quite empower players like they should, largely because of the game’s steep difficulty. Enemy moves have priority over practically everything the player does, including regular punches and kicks. To stand a chance, Kunio and his friends largely have to rely on backwards attacks (a staple of many Technos beat ‘em ups) and jump kicks. Sure, you can go for regular combos and grabs every now and then, but enemies have an unfairly high chance of interrupting those attacks and dealing their own damage. Later bosses also have way too much health, making those tough fights take forever to win.
Compounding the difficulty of the fights is the life system or lack thereof. Players can select from all four playable characters throughout most of the game. However, if the character you're controlling dies, you don’t get to switch to another character. In a single-player game, it’s just game over. In co-op, a player who dies will stay dead until the remaining player gets a game over or restarts the game. Counting the loss of even one character out of four as a game over is such an unintuitive system. Gamers end up having to watch the health of each fighter carefully and swap between them before it’s too late, leading to plenty of stressful battles as the game progresses.
The difficulty is such a shame because Zero is otherwise a very well-made game. The story and journey are compelling, taking the protagonists to plenty of interesting locations as they track down Kunio’s imposter. Memorable set pieces include an area in which the heroes jump from car to car on a spinning Ferris wheel, a battle through a collapsing high school, a fall from a burning rope bridge, and more. The game also throws in a few 3D bike-riding sequences that impress graphically but discourage with their difficulty. One player steers the bike while the other can kick at oncoming enemies. Bumping the walls crashes the bike and leads to a game over, a system seemingly designed to frustrate.
When we asked WayForward about Zero’s difficulty issue, we were told that players can select the Easy difficulty to make the game more manageable. That’s true, but you can't play the full game on Easy. After meeting Sabu for the first time, players must switch to Normal, so Easy difficulty is more like training wheels than a real alternative. All that said, Zero has always offered a generous password system that allows players to continue on or jump to any area, so game overs aren’t as painful as they could be. WayForward has also added a simple save state system to this release. At any time, players can choose to save and quit. Resuming the save does not delete the save, so you can restart infinitely from a save. My partner and I relied heavily on saves to get through the bike levels and later boss fights.
While WayForward left Zero’s gameplay alone when localizing it, they did add some cool bonuses in addition to save states. The game starts with an anime intro and a catchy theme song sung by Megan McDuffee. Starting a new game then leads to a fully voiced digital comic sequence in which Misako and Kyoko discuss the game’s place in River City Girls canon. Another comic plays out after beating the game and watching the full ending, so don’t quit after the original credits roll! Players can choose from a handful of display options, including a pair of widescreen borders. The Extras menu also offers Japanese instruction manual scans and 3D replicas of the Super Famicom game’s box and cartridge.
I wish I could recommend River City Girls Zero to all fans of the genre or even just all fans of the River City series. The gameplay is simply too tough for its own good, something that will put off a lot of players. A rebalanced difficulty mode in which enemies behave less aggressively and losing a character doesn’t lead to a game over would have made for a much better game. Still, Zero does offer one of the best narratives in the River City series, full of surprises and fist-pumping moments. Hardcore fans of the series and players who can tolerate some old-school unfairness will find this game very rewarding. Everyone else will probably be better off waiting for River City Girls 2.
Xbox and Switch codes were provided by the publisher for review.
The Co-Op Experience: Two players can switch between up to four playable characters (Kunio, Riki, Misako, and Kyoko) at any time. If a character controlled by a player runs out of life, that player gets a game over.
Co-Optimus game reviews focus on the cooperative experience of a game, our final score graphic represents this experience along with an average score for the game overall. For an explanation of our scores please check our Review Score Explanation Guide.