River City Ransom is a memorable NES brawler that combined fun, emotive graphics with RPG mechanics to make the genre a bit more interesting than it could otherwise be.
At its core, River City Ransom is a pretty simple brawler in the vein of Double Dragon and other games. In fact, the combat is even simpler in some ways. You can learn six moves besides your basic punches, kicks, jumps, and throws, but half of those moves are just rapid-fire versions of other attacks. The change in your power during the game instead comes mainly from purchased upgrades, which come in the form of food, items, and services. You earn money by defeating enemies, resulting in a system not unlike the experience system of many RPGs.
River City Ransom is a part of the Kunio-kun series, a wide array of games that feature a common art style but all sorts of varied genres and gameplay types. The series is known for its emotive deformed characters, and River City Ransom adds to their personality by having them talk during fights as well. Having these semi-unique characters to fight goes a long way in breaking up the monotony of brawling.
Unfortunately, its various gimmicks can’t really hide that, at its core, River City Ransom is a short and repetitive game. It’s not as straightforward as Double Dragon and its ilk, but the number of side paths can be counted on one hand and the only reasons you ever have to backtrack are to find a few bosses and to shop. Grinding is extremely effective, and you can beat the game pretty easily (at least on Novice difficulty) by saving up and building up whatever techniques you are most comfortable with.
River City Ransom is a strange case of a game whose mystique far surpasses the game itself. It was way ahead of its time, but now that you can see the seams it does feel a bit lacking. On the other hand, its charm and co-op mode are both worth the price of admission.