The team at WayForward is no stranger to picking up on retro nostalgia, in fact their entire business model is centered on it, with some of the best retro-inspired games around. They’ve been putting fantastic titles for years now, be it the beautiful Shantae series, the cute as all heck huggable remake of A Boy and his Blob, or even the only modern sequel to Contra worth a damn, Contra 4, it’s clear that they know what they’re doing and are obviously passionate about the games that we loved playing decades ago.
Now, partnering up with Arc System Works, they’ve just released River City Girls, a new entry in the surprisingly long lasting River City Ransom series, but instead of featuring the franchise’s brawny duo of multi-talented protagonists, Kunio-kun and Rikki, it’s their significant others’ turn to brawl it out, as Kyoko and Misako step onto the streets to kick some ass and save their boyfriends. That’s right, this time the damsels are the boys, and it’s the girls job to come to their rescue.
Right off the bat, River City Girls throws you into fight as both high school students have to break out of detention, and in a town like River City, that means literally so, as fellow classmates duke it out with them all the way to the school gates. Similarly to the old games, River City Girls is broken into various screens that take place in a lot of different locations in town, and their quest to save the boys take the girls to a bunch of locales. While not open-world in the Grand Theft Auto sense of the word, you can backtrack in River City Girls in order to access different paths that might otherwise be locked away the first time you visit specific spots, but it’s not like the adventure will require you to constantly do so, since it’s relatively straightforward, with a handful of side quests that just happen to take place on your way between objectives in the story.
River City Girls can be played in both solo and co-op, and even though it’s totally playable on your own, the best way to get through it is by far cooperatively. The game doesn’t stray far from the beat ‘em up mold that was never broken in the years the genre has barely been touched by developers, so expect to run into plenty of encounters where you’ll be outnumbered and swarmed by cheap enemies. Differently from the old games, though, River City Girls isn’t after your quarters, so thankfully even if you die and have to retry, the checkpointing is nowhere as cruel as it would be — if it’s existent at all — in an older game like this. While I could’ve still done with a friendlier approach to inventory items and boss fights, since used items aren’t returned and a hefty sum of cash is deducted in each subsequent attempt, some of them can get a little annoying to beat on your own.
And given this is a beat ‘em up, it tends to get a little repetitive in longer runs, a problem that WayForward tried to remedy by introducing a leveling system. Every level or so, you get a new move, or the ability to buy one at the dojo headed by one of the Double Dragon brothers (don’t ask me which, I would guess Bimmy?) and a bump up in stats, but the fact that enemies also level up makes the entire stat game feel pointless. Still, getting new moves is cool, and it helps spice things up if you can remember to use them while button-mashing over waves and waves of thugs. Speaking of enemies, every now and then you’re able to recruit one of them to be a support attack, usually the last one left standing after a wave, which sometimes comes in handy. It’s a neat bonus that you get different attack variations depending on who you pick up, along with a short backstory, definitely something that WayForward goes out of its way in injecting a little more flavor when they can.
That also goes for the whole back and forth between the girls as you play the game. Even in solo mode, you still get their exchanges as if they’re both fighting their way through the game, regardless of which of the two you picked. They throw quips at bosses and among themselves, that while a little too wordy sometimes — can be skipped if needed, blessed be — it helps make them more likeable and have more of a personality. Kyoko is the more airhead of the two, with Misako holding the reigns as the down-to-earth, tough as nails street sweeper, and their back and forth is cute and charming, as they try to make sense of all the ridiculous situations they get into the deeper they make it in the game.
All the writing goes a long way to make River City Girls especially fun to play, but the presentation also chips in to that effect. WayForward are some of the most talented when it comes to pixel art in games, and this is one of their best and most colorful works to date. Characters animate beautifully, and the levels are full of detail and life as you punch and kick your way through them. There are even some anime scenes thrown in for good measure, my favorite of them is definitely the intro, which manages to sum up the story of the game in a matter of seconds each time the game boots in, but the boss intros are also really cool to watch and get a feel of who you’ll be punching into shortly. Some of the story is also conveyed via motion-comic-y manga strips with speech bubbles and voice acting, but I ultimately found the anime scenes to be better at moving things along. Still, these strips look really cool. The music is also worth mentioning, mixing a lot of chiptune and even voiced tracks from time to time in catchy ways. Really cool stuff all around.
There’s very little holding River City Girls back from being one of the best modern beat ‘em ups to date. Aside from the strict adherence to the traditional formula and tending to be a little too much on the cheap side when it comes to enemies, the aforementioned checkpointing issues, or the annoying screen transition button that just happens to be the same one you mash when attacking, which will cause you to inadvertently move between screens before you mean it, I can’t pin any solid reason not to wholly recommend this for anyone looking for a solid couch multiplayer game. River City Girls is the best entry the series has seen in years and goes to show that handing the reins of an otherwise stale franchise to a great developer can turn out to be a fantastic idea.