The setup for the River City series on the NES (original known in Japan as Kunio-Kun) was tough guys trying to rescues their girlfriends from thugs and other bad people. This lead to many fun adventures and crazy moments of heroism and old-school charm. But what happens when you turn that entire premise on its head? And instead of the guys rescuing the girls, you make the girls set out into the tough streets to rescue the guys? River City Girls does exactly that and fully commits to the wackiness of its characters and setting. Paired with a fantastic soundtrack and really solid controls, River City Girls is a very fun trip courtesy of the creative team at WayForward Technologies.
Both the visuals and music in River City Girls will immediately stand out to you. The game plays out like a 2D brawler but also includes a few story cutscenes that mimic a manga style format. The animation looks clean and smooth with its 16-bit renditions of different characters, all of which have many different expressions and moves that look very good. The exaggerated designs of characters and the places you visit compliment the dialogue and story that unfolds, leading to a few genuinely funny and silly moments. The River City Girls themselves, Kyoko and Misako, are lighthearted delinquents that want to rescue their boyfriends from being kidnapped, a complete inverse of the premise for the original River City games. Not every joke or fourth wall breaking reference lands perfectly, but the majority of the writing is pretty good and is silly enough to be a fun trip through River City.
Gameplay is a blend of 2D brawler and light role-playing game elements, which lets you level up from defeating enemies and equip items to boost your strength. You can unlock new moves by purchasing them at a shop, which allows you to take out enemies in new and different ways that at times reference other games in the fighting game genre. Brawling lets you smash up vending machines for food power-ups and collect the money from your defeated foes, which can be used to purchase items to further help you in combat.
Progressing through each section of River City lets you explore different levels of certain districts and buildings related to the plot, which while often feeling a little too extended also allow you to take in the great designs of the city. From the school that Kyoko and Misako attend to the gritty parts of downtown, you’ll beat down your way through legions of thugs and brawlers. This gets repetitive, but the game manages to throw a variety of bad guys at you while constantly changing up the music with each screen you enter.
But for all it’s great looking action and fun elements, River City Girls is still a challenging game with its fair share of brawler hurdles. Boss fights can be frustrating and tedious the first few times you engage them, especially in later fights where it’s not always clear what you need to do to succeed. A few of these battles have enemies overusing attacks that give them invulnerability and preventing you from attacking them, which will always put you on the defensive. Taking the moment to learn the patterns in these instances is key to defeating them, but you’ll definitely get knocked out a few times before you realize the best way to do so.
It also becomes annoying when attacks from enemies don’t always have a clear or consistent range for their attacks, especially on stages with multiple levels you can jump onto. This doesn’t always become an issue, but it will occasionally pop up in more than a few battles you encounter. One hindrance that does come up is when the game will crash at certain points in the late portions of the story. While this doesn’t happen frequently, it can occur when you’re navigating through the menus or changing items on your character. Luckily moving from screen to screen as you play will auto-save your progress and prevent you from losing everything, but the crashes are an issue that definitely should be addressed in an update.
River City Girls has a lot of references and nods to 80s and 90s pop culture, as well as a few extras after you complete the game. There’s many tongue-in-cheek references to movies like The Terminator, Star Wars, and even many different games from both eras. The owners of the dojo you can visit are Billy and Jimmy Lee from the Double Dragon series, while a few enemies you encounter are also pulled from games like Double Dragon, Tekken, and Streets of Rage. Hardcore fans of these types of games will doubtfully discover other neat references scattered throughout, but the best fan service comes from being able to control the girls’ boyfriends, Kunio-Kin and Rikki, after finishing the game.
Unfortunately, you have to level them up separately and gather their own items and money, which can be very tedious as end-game content. There’s also a New Game+ option and Loiter option, allowing you to begin the story again with all of your moves and items or go back to finish any side quests respectively. River City Girls doesn’t take long to finish and you can reasonably complete all side quests and the main story in one playthrough, but having the option to go back or begin anew is a nice touch.
Everything from the presentation to the gameplay makes River City Girls a joy to play through. While repetitive and having its small share of issues, the majority of the game is well-designed and has a neat concept that it fully commits to throughout. The soundtrack is great, the visuals are fantastic, and the gameplay is fun to play either alone or with a friend. These might be some tough girls with a tough city to fight through in rescuing their boyfriends, but you’ll definitely love seeing all of it through to the end.
This review is based on a digital review code for River City Girls on the PlayStation 4, provided by WayForward.