20 Years with River City Ransom

~Underrated childhood favorite. Stupidest box art ever.~

*Released: April, 25th, 1989

*Platform: Nintendo Entertainment System (NES, for short)

*Developer: Technōs Japan

*Genre: early-form RPG disguised as a side scrolling beat-‘em-up

As one of the underrated classics from my childhood, I have a 25 year history with this game. Some of my earliest memories of video games are of playing this game with family members before I received my first NES as a Christmas present. The rest, as they say, is history.
I played River City Ransom on that NES all throughout my childhood years as it was one of my favorite games to play. I didn’t fully grasp the RPG elements of it at that time because I was way too busy beating up all these guys in matching shirts so I could take their bouncing coins and spend them on food to replenish my health and other random things I could afford at all of the shopping malls that were just everywhere for some reason. Heck, in those early Nintendo days I had no idea what an RPG even was.
However, the fact that River City was a major departure from the prevailing structure of video games of that era (the early to mid 90’s) was not lost on me. Almost all of the games I was exposed to at that time had very solid structures. There were a set number of levels that a player would have to complete to get to the end of the game and there were distinct requirements to be met before moving from one level to the next: either reaching the end of it or defeating a boss. That was pretty much it as far as the old school Nintendo was concerned. At least, until all those fancy new consoles started coming out. I’m looking at you, Nintendo 64!
River City Ransom had no such structure. There were no levels which left me free to run from one end of the game to the other if I so chose. It wasn’t a good idea by any stretch of the imagination, but I could do it. This was the other feature of River City that provided me with hours of fun−the freedom. I simply didn’t have to worry about beating levels or bosses or losing all of my lives and having to start all the way over from the beginning. What I DID have to worry about was losing all of my health, getting knocked out, and losing approximately half of the money I was carrying at the time.
Alas, as with all of those old gaming systems of yesteryear, they age horribly and begin to function less and less. It truly was a sad day when I had to say goodbye to my beloved NES and, by extension, my precious side scrolling beat-‘em-up. Sure, I would go on to more complex games and more evolved consoles . . .but River City Ransom would always hold a special place in my heart, the heart of a gamer. And also, in my dreams. This was one of the only games that I would have dreams about playing. That’s normal, right?
I wouldn’t be reunited with this lost piece of my youth until well over a decade later when I purchased a Wii console. Imagine my childish glee when I saw that it was available on the Wii Shop Channel for 500 points, or $5. Sold! It was downloaded without a second thought and I eagerly went about reliving all those cherished childhood memories of playing one of my favorite games with family and friends so many years ago. And, as strange as it might sound, playing River City Ransom as an adult had to be more fun than playing it as a kid. That’s mostly because I could use the power of the internet to bend the game to my will. When I didn’t feel like exploiting the various cheat codes I could now find online, I would just look up specific items, their functions, and where I could find them to access the shortcuts I could never find. The best part of all was finally being able to see this game for the rather primitive RPG that it really was.
Yes, I too am wondering how it could have taken me until I was in my 20’s to realize that I was playing an RPG all along. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that I didn’t have the gaming experience at five that I had at about twenty five. By the time I found River City on the Wii Shop Channel, I had played through all sorts of games. Adventure, action, FPS (first person shooter), RPGs, 2-D, 3-D, sidescrollers, platformers, fighters, . . . .I had also played across several generations of consoles. But RPGs were always some of my favorite games. (Chrono Trigger, anyone?)
I had become intimately familiar with the terms ‘grinding’ (leveling up the main character or characters) and ‘farming’ (gathering up the spoils from fallen foes to sell off and use to purchase new items). And as enjoying my many playthroughs on the Wii it slowly dawned on me that I was spending most of my playtime engaging in both. At the same time. I think that’s how RPGs work anyway, but I never thought I’d actually do such things in a 8-bit Nintendo game. In an era ruled by Super Mario Brothers and Sonic the Hedgehog something like River City Ransom was the last thing that anyone could have expected to find. And that, in my humble opinion, is why it is an underrated classic. Also because . . .


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