I bet most gamers aren’t all that familiar with Kunio-kun (more commonly known as River City in the West), a franchise that has spanned over three decades and over thirty games ranging from brawlers to dodge ball. Of course, individual games themselves may be familiar but the fact that they all belong to the same family may come as a surprise. It all started with Renegade in 1986, a granddaddy for all side-scrolling beat ‘em-ups to come after it, when hot-headed Kunio hit the streets to rescue - depending on the source - his girlfriend or his brother Riki. It took all those 33 years until the franchise finally saw a female protagonist – and not only one but two!
Gloomy Misako and bubbly Kyoko are girlfriends to the series mainstays Kunio and Riki, but this time around the boys get kidnapped and the girls hurry to the rescue. Developed by the Californian independent studio WayForward, River City Girls plays to its forefather’s formula but enhances the experience with modern conveniences – or trivialities. The dynamic damsels will kick butt through six areas of titular River City, each holding clues to the boys’ whereabouts, sub quests to complete, and stores to shop for new moves, food to replenish health, and get-ups to enhance stats. Not to mention facing big bad bosses at the end of each district who stand in the girls’ way and who may know or not about the kidnapping.
Presented in a stylish and meticulously crafted and animated pixel art, River City Girls looks great, and 80’s inspired synth-pop soundtrack gets you going in no time. Thoroughly voice-acted anime cutscenes, manga pages and dialogue scenes illustrate the humorous narrative along the way. Despite a progressively growing skills and moves set-up, the playing is simple as it gets. Smash two attacks buttons, light and heavy, and combine them for simple combos, dash and jump to avoid enemies and collect occasional extra weapons for some more unabashed but cartoony violence. Defeated mobs turn into cash you can spend in stores and are rewarded with experience points to level up the girls. Just bear in mind that when you’re downed yourself, you will bounce back into the action in no time just where you were left off but with less money to spare. A punish for failure, then, is yet another modern – and unfortunate – tendency that has to be included in every game these days, it seems. Another mostly useless feature is the ability to recruit defeated baddies who beg for mercy to aid you in fighting. Alas, once called upon, their one-hit only attacks most often whiff.
River City Girls is best experienced as a couch co-op. When played all alone, the game might feel like a soulless toil but when you have a friend to cover your butt, the progress is made more worthwhile. In the heat of busy action, though, when there are numerous meanies cluttering the screen, it might be hard to tell where your character actually is and what she is doing when you’re happily pummeling away the buttons anyway. Old games never had this problem because hardware restrictions limited the number of simultaneous sprites on the screen! To spice up the mundane of hitting and kicking, each game area is made up of several screens that you can traverse between. So, it’s not just a matter of going always to the right but also backtrack through previous screens whenever a new story beat leads you on.
Unfortunately, for all the effort River City Girls puts in, it’s just not as funny as it thinks it is. The game is never meant to be taken seriously but that’s just it. Often, obvious gags and jokes are over-written and prolonged with irritating underlining. Dialogue and the English voice-acting come off as pretentious despite an all-star cast voicing the characters. In short, the game simply tries too much to please. The old wisdom “less is more” rings in ears when you’re divided between modern practices of the gameplay and follow an abundant narrative that underestimates your comprehension.
Before long, you will notice that the sweat you once poured trying to get through brawlers like Streets of Rage and Final Fight is absent here. Instead of hailing your co-op partner to keep the fight going, you’re more likely to ask for a break sometime soon. There’s only so much of the repetitive action, no matter how sugarcoated it is, you can endure in a one playing session. Still, Misako and Kyoko are lovely girls, if sometimes outright half-wits. Games featuring dual female protagonists are few and far between so River City Girls must be appreciated for that alone.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.