River City Ransom: Underground

A game by Conatus Creative for PC, Mac, and Linux, originally released in 2017.
Technos brawlers have seen a resurgence lately, with the release of River City: Tokyo Rumble and Double Dragon IV in 2016, both presented in the graphical style of the NES games upon which they were based. River City Ransom: Underground, on the other hand, takes a step forward in the technology department with a game that retains a chunky retro style but also offers more detailed artwork, brighter colors, increased onscreen enemy counts, and a dazzling variety of character sprite animations.

It’s worth noting that this game arrived on the market shortly after Natsume released River City: Tokyo Rumble in the US (originally released in Japan in 2013). Both games are proper entries in the Kunio-kun series, which dates back more than 30 years. While the game and its spinoffs were quite popular in Japan, few of these games ever arrived in the US, with Renegade, River City Ransom, and Super Dodge Ball standing as the notable exceptions.

These two River City games take a very different approach to the series, with Tokyo Rumble being set in Japan and following the exploits of the self-proclaimed hot-blooded tough guy Kunio as he cuts class to hang out with his friends and beat up rival street gangs in Japan. Underground is based upon the US-localized version of the game and sees Kunio renamed to Alex, with Americanized character names and locations.

Underground is set 20 years after the events in the original NES game but begins with a prologue that takes place while Alex and his buddy Ryan are still attending River City High School (preceded by a faux password entry screen). After a short session where they wander the halls smacking down rival gang members, they fight and defeat Slick on the roof of the school just as they did in the original game. 20 years later, Slick has escaped from prison and the mayor’s daughter has been kidnapped. Now it’s up to a new gang of brawlers to bring about resolution with their own brand of street justice.

As the game proper begins, the player is given the option to select between four playable characters, with several more to be unlocked along the way, including grown-up versions of Alex and Ryan (who still have entry-level stats, unfortunately). Glen is a Shoutokan who can unleash a flurry of high-speed attacks, Paul is a boxer who is a bit slower and uses only his fists, Bruno is a luchador with wrestling techniques, and Provie is a break dancer who has lots of stylish kick and slide moves to take her enemies down.

Players can fight alone or with friends in 4P online or offline co-op. Each fighter levels up independently, with stat boosts applying only to the one selected, so players taking on the single player experience are best off finding a style they like and sticking with one character. Each character has a huge array of fighting moves that they can learn by purchasing techniques at dojos around the city, allowing for a great deal of combat variety for those who take the time to unlock them.

Hammering the punch and kick buttons will get you past most basic enemies, but more powerful techniques can be used to deal greater damage, attack from a distance, cause damage to enemies while they’re lying on the ground, or unleash powerful – and visually stunning – super moves. Fighting techniques are mapped to every possible button combination, allowing for strong jumping kicks and punches, powerful double-tap dash attacks that can knock enemies down in a single hit – or knock them into each other – and new techniques for finishing off baddies while you’re grabbing them.

Combat is fast, furious, and frequent, as nearly every screen is packed with bad guys coming at you from every direction, along with the occasional innocent bystander worked into the mix. You need to be careful, because slamming hapless passersby to the ground or vandalizing vending machines and parking meters may cause the police to be called. Police show up in squads and can take a lot of hits without dropping any money in return, making it better to run to the nearest hideout and let the heat die down.

If you want to earn money for upgrades, you’ll need to do a lot of fighting, as enemies only drop a few coins when killed. If you find yourself taking too much of a beating, you’ll need to stop into a shop to spend some of that money on health-restoring food. Should you be killed, you’ll return to the most recently-visited hideout with half of your money gone. Since new fighting techniques and stat boosts must be purchased with money from defeated enemies, players won’t make much progress without mastering the basic fighting mechanics.

Defeating enemies also grants experience points, and characters level up at certain thresholds, increasing their maximum stats. Purchasing food items, buying books (and eating them!), and spending some time in the sauna (which revives the humorous naked butt towel scene) helps players to boost their stats, but just like the original game, there is no indication of which stats will be affected before a purchase is made. Purchased food items can be stored for later use, with multiple inventory slots available, making it possible for players to cheese their way through some of the game’s tougher boss encounters.

Taking down bosses is the best way to earn money and experience quickly. As you defeat lower level bosses, they give up information that leads you to tougher baddies. Alex and Ryan have a secretary named Roxy who marks the approximate location of bosses on your map and gives you hints as to where you need to go next. However, tracking down these objectives isn’t always so easy...

The world is open and the player is free to move about from one area to the next, with the occasional shortcut or alternate path to be discovered along the way. However, some necessary routes are a bit too hidden, and conversely, some routes that look like they lead somewhere are actually dead ends. In addition, it’s not always clear exactly where the player is supposed to go or what he is supposed to do in order to make a boss appear.

In one early mission, the player is told to go to an abandoned warehouse and instructed to “get the attention” of the boss. So the player wanders around until he finds the warehouse, goes inside, and kills everyone… but no boss appears. Running back through the two floors warehouse, there’s nothing more to do besides kick around some ice blocks and attempt to open doors that don’t actually do anything. The game has a (largely unnecessary) day-night cycle, so the player may figure that the time of day has an impact on whether the boss will show up. In actuality, the player needs to leave the warehouse and fight all of the baddies behind the building, after which the boss shows up.

This sort of design is indicative of the experience of tracking down primary objectives, as players are only given hints as to the location or course of action. In one challenge, the player is told to go to a bridge, and killing everyone on the bridge – until additional waves appear – does nothing. But there’s actually an alternate path that is not readily apparent which leads to an area under the bridge where the actual fight takes place. The alternate path requires climbing a chain link fence, which is not something the player would have experienced up to this point, and most chain link fences (which are visually differentiated) cannot be climbed.

Some weaker bosses will run away, leaving the player to chase them down, but one of them seems to disappear after climbing a ladder with no indication of how to find him again, and returning to his origin point (and fighting his support enemies again) just causes him to reappear and run away again.

Essentially, this means that players will spend much of their time wandering around, which is an excuse to do some more fighting and level up, so at least some progress can be made even when the objective isn’t apparent. Still, this is quite different from the design of River City: Tokyo Rumble where each region is divided into five or six small areas with a boss that immediately appears when the player enters the correct screen, along with environments that wrap around and/or have obvious dead ends, clearly indicating the extents of each locale.

Hideouts are spread across the city and allow the player to save the game or switch characters. Many of the hideouts are empty, but one of them allows you to view your collectibles – including any cats you may have adopted – and randomly features one of the other playable characters sleeping on the couch. Players can also engage in an Arena mode where up to four players can duke it out with dozens of characters from the main game, including many of the villains.

River City Ransom: Underground was developed by Conatus Creative, a studio based in Ottawa, Canada and founded in 2005. The studio previously focused its efforts on web and mobile application development. Kunio-Kun creator Yoshihisa Kishimoto was involved in the development of the game as a creative consultant, and he also worked on another modern day sequel to one of his popular franchises: Double Dragon IV. Music for the game was composed by Rich Vreeland, a.k.a. Disasterpeace, who also composed the music for Hyper Light Drifter, FEZ, Bit.Trip Runner 2, Krunch, The Floor is Jelly, Shoot Many Robots, High Strangeness and the film It Follows. The game was funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign.

The game was published by Arc System Works, best known for the Guilty Gear and BlazBlue series of fighting games.