Release date: 1989

Systems: Nintendo Entertainment System, Sharp X68000, PC-Engine Super CD-ROM, Game Boy Advance

You wouldn’t know to look at it, but River City Ransom is a follow-up to Renegade. Made by Technos, the creators of Double Dragon, it’s a weird hybrid of beat em up and RPG.

I have this theory that the best titles of any system – the ones that really stand the test of time – tend to come around the middle of its lifespan: long enough that developers have had a chance to learn how to get the most out of the hardware, but not so late that the machine’s output has been reduced to lacklustre ports of titles from better systems (I’m looking at you, Streetfighter II on the ZX Spectrum).

Unfortunately, this theory has no basis in reality (Super Mario World and Donkey Kong Country having come from the launch and very end of the SNES’s life, to pluck an example out of the air) but I reckon River City Ransom represents some of the best the NES had to offer. It stays well within the limits of the hardware, it’s great fun, the combat feels solid and exciting, there’s a two-player mode, and the opportunity to level-up your character’s stats gives it a rare depth for the time (River City Ransom certainly paved the way for titles like Grand Theft Auto).

It’s a huge leap forward from the earlier NES beat em up, Urban Champion. There are weapons, rudimentary dialogue, you can buy food and medicine to restore your energy and boost your skills, and purchase books that teach you new techniques (I recommend ‘Dragon Feet’ as a solid first read). There are even secret shops where you can buy super-powerful (and super-expensive) magic items.

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My main encounter with this game (called Street Gangs in Europe) was through its unlikely sequel: Nintendo World Cup. Nintendo World Cup worked with the NES Four-Score, allowing that rarest of things – a simultaneous 4-player game. At the time, I’d never heard of Street Gangs, so I couldn’t understand why a football game was so violent. Each team has a different powered-up shot, from a ball that loops to a glowing speed shot that knocks players out of the way. You don’t get penalised for tackles, and some pitches have ice, or rocks that your players can trip over. By the end of each match, it’s not uncommon to have half your 6-a-side team lying motionless on the ground while the surviving players scrap it out for the ball, and games often ended upwards of 20-all. It’s a fun little game, if you’re not too much of a footie purist (which fortunately I’m not).

Next week, we’re grappling with another biggie – Double Dragon. Please leave any feedback or requests in the comments box below.

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