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Games

Reviving 'River City Ransom' and Reinventing the Brawler

How two friends braved the indie wilds to make their dream game.

by Steven T. Wright
Mar 31 2017, 8:00pm

If somehow you suppose that a game titled River City Ransom: Underground—released nearly thirty years after RCR first graced the NES with its chubby "chibi" sprites—would not simply assume that you share its feverish, supernova ardor for its 1989 predecessor, prepare to have your outlook rudely shattered at the fore. Indeed, one-button press in, Underground immediately drops you into an immaculate facsimile of the final stretch of the Technos' original—yes, even down to the exact '80s-caliber dialogue—that doubles as an introduction to the game's congested brawling. From the start, Underground strikes an uncommonly clear chord: no matter what, the fans get the first bite at this apple.

Not that anyone should hold that against it. After all, a new RCR is something to be celebrated, even by the uninitiated. Released in Japan as Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari, the game known to Americans as River City Ransom stands out from its contemporaries in a variety of ways. And few know this better than Bannon Rudis and Daniel Crenna, the main creative duo behind the new RCR.

"Oh, it was absolutely the first free-roaming game," says Rudis, who both directed Underground and provided most of its intricate pixelwork. "Or, at least the first free-roaming game that I played. With Final Fight, all you had to do was go from left to right, to beat up some guys and then the boss. You couldn't say, 'oh, I liked that previous level, I want to go back to it.' In RCR, you could go back, up, left, right. It was very liberating."

"Yeah. When you're ten years old, and you realize that you're playing a game where you can just stand there and hang out for a while—that may seem like a small thing now, but at the time, it was groundbreaking," adds Crenna, who produced and programmed the game. "You could spend all day grinding, or try to get to a certain point in the game as fast as possible."

In an era where it seems that any depleted genre, from shmups to flight sims, can find solid footing on the sales charts yet again, the once-triumphant beat-'em-genre remains conspicuously absent, with the likes of Castle Crashers or Guacamelee representing the best attempts to revive the quarter-munching mayhem of bygone days.

Still, it's clear that rote replication of the two-button charms of Final Fight or Streets of Rage won't be enough to resurrect this bruised corpse. Unapologetic 8-bit throwbacks like the recent Double Dragon IV might play for the nostalgic types, but for those of us who don't thirst for scan-lines, it comes across more as a cheap cash-in than a touching tribute.

Screenshots courtesy Conatus Creative

But while the River City of 1989 might seem rudimentary today—a few dozen "screens" that might take a genre veteran less than an hour to scorch through—the ability to choose your route through the city was unheard of at the time. Not only that, but Alex and Ryan weren't the static musclemen that contemporary players like Crenna and Rudis expected; instead, they started out as relative weaklings, capable of getting knocked out in just a few errant blows, who increased their fighting prowess as the game progressed through RPG-esque shopping and leveling.

Instead of buying a sharper sword or sturdier shield, your schoolboy protagonists would eat candy to up their defense, or strap on cowboy boots to strengthen their kicks. Much like Itou's Earthbound, the game hoists the inherent goofiness of this concept to surprising heights—but, again, like Earthbound, this innovative attitude did not result in sterling sales. Despite this, as the cult of River City waxed and waned over the years, the calls for a sequel grew louder and louder; by 2013, two different attempts to produce some sort of follow-up had stalled in their tracks, the latter apparently helmed by original team members from Japan. A chance meeting between Rudis and Crenna presaged the third.

"I've wanted to make this game since I was ten years old," says Rudis. "I've had most of the ideas in my head since then. It's why I learned to do pixel art and animation. I sat there and watched GIFs of the sprite rips from RCR and Street Fighter Alpha over and over until I could make my own. This is the game I've always wanted to make."

"That's actually how we met each other," says Crenna, laughing. "He was showing around his River City sprites from six years ago, because he had given up on the project. He was giving away the assets! And I had to say 'wait, no, hold on. Let's talk.' We found each other, and then we argued for years, and now we have the game."

As the duo are quick to note, even before they began development, a River City Ransom 2 of a sort already existed. Titled Downtown Special: Kunio kun no Jidaigeki dayo Zen'in Shugo, it shares an engine and characters with Monogatari, but with the premise that the characters performing a Japanese period play, which would have made it even more difficult to bring West. And Crenna points to the oft-forgotten Scott Pilgrim vs. The World from 2010 as an obvious spiritual successor, as it brought many of the ideas behind RCR to a new generation of players.

"I just think you have to look at the appetite we brought to this project," says Crenna. "For us, it's not about just making a game that plays like a modern River City Ransom. If we wanted that, we would just play Scott Pilgrim. It was about making a true successor in every sense of the word, telling a new story, with the same characters, in an open, free-roaming world.

"We just kept thinking, 'wouldn't it be cool if…?' That's the driving force behind this game," he continues. "Like we were ten again. We would think of something cool and spend a month making that a reality."

Before they actually made the game, however, the twosome had to get the rights to the RCR license from the holding company MillionCo, a process they describe as far more painless than you might expect. Once they inked a deal with Million in 2013 (Arc System Works has since acquired that company; Underground credits them accordingly), they turned to Kickstarter to fund development. Their campaign raised over 200,000 CAD. Rudis and Crenna were overjoyed—they were finally making their dream game. But a pile of cash brings palpable pressure, and such scrutiny marked unknown territory for their newly-formed studio Conatus Creative.

"To be honest, I'm so glad we made this game, but I envy other indie developers," says Crenna, the frustration audible in his voice. "Every creative project is just flames and wreckage before it comes through right at the end. When you do a Kickstarter, people have a window into that flaming wreckage. It's almost like working out with your shirt off, but at the beginning, when you shouldn't have your shirt off."

"Everybody has a different dream scenario," says Rudis. "In the original game, if you run into a wall, your character grimaces and falls to the ground. Well, we put so many more obstacles in Underground, so we took it out. Immediately, our playtesters noticed, and complained. And so we put it back in. We thought it would annoy people, but instead people were annoyed that we didn't have it."

Indeed, as you play Underground, you can feel it waltz on the knife-edge between reinvention and rehash. Mundanities such as the overworld map—added at the insistence of playtesters, as the duo wanted to trust the player to figure it out themselves—or an insistence on JRPG-esque "save points" can feel obtuse and deliberately retrograde, a product of an attitude that would make the self-styled "old-schoolers" nod with aplomb. But the fighting itself reveals a depth not yet fathomed by the rest of the brawler genre, with mix-ups, juggles, and ten-hit combos not just encouraged, but occasionally mandatory.

Crenna and co. even coded the online multiplayer around a "rollback driver," a challenging technical feature usually reserved for popular fighting games like Street Fighter. Essentially, it ensures that multiplayer games remain tethered to the same math—if a loss of data occurs, it allows the game to "roll back" to the latest stable position, which means no inconsistencies between players. And unlike most games of its scale, Underground was built on a custom engine—a decision that Crenna describes as breaking rules 1 and 2 of indie development. "We paid in blood for it," he says, sighing.

Though Underground has garnered a mostly positive reception since its recent release, its launch was far from silky-smooth, with players complaining about everything from technical issues to the game's NES-que difficulty, which can resemble the sharp barbs of a porcupine's quills rather than a soft curve. After six updates in less than a month, however, the furor appears to have mostly subsided, and for what it's worth, I have yet to experience any technical issues worth noting. 

For me, there is no doubt that the duo harbor an intense affection for Technos' game that borders on mania. In fact, after talking to them, I couldn't help but wonder if I love anything as much as they love River City Ransom. As Crenna himself puts it: "When you think about the cost—not just the financial cost, but the cost of time with loved ones, of your blood, sweat and tears. You have to be willing to survive that. You have to love it enough to put the time in.

He continues: "For me, this has been a journey. The journey has been about these ideas I have about game development. You can make a game that has an impact. Even if you're nobody, you can get the license to make a new version of your favorite game, from back when you were a kid. You can do all that. It's possible. You have to put in unbelievable amounts of time, effort, money, sacrifice, and pain to do it, but it's still possible. There is still that American Dream sort of thing in independent game development. And you can start now."

For Crenna, it's simple. "River City Ransom: Underground is giving a shit, in a box. You take a box, and you fill it with 'giving a shit.' That's River City Ransom: Underground. Because nobody can say that we didn't give a shit."

Rudis agrees. "People always tell me, 'oh, you're so lucky! You got the license, you got the money, you made your dream game!' But, nope. I had to get good. I don't want to hear about how lucky I am when I worked twelve hour days for four years making sure that the animation was good, that the gameplay was fun, that the moves hit hard. If you work hard enough, and obsessively enough, you can make a game like this. But it's not luck. I just worked hard. If it was easy, anybody could make a game."