Of all the genres of games, few have had the lasting power of the beat-em-up. Forming in the primordial early ages of arcades and coming into their own along home consoles, games like Streets of Rage, Double Dragon, and River City Ransom have managed to stand the test of time thanks to their simple setups and fun to play brutal combat. River City Ransom in particular was the favorite of a lot of gamers when it released in 1989, with its almost relatable story of beating up bullies to save your girl, and non-linear gameplay that allowed players to explore River City to their heart’s content, a unique trait in the often left-to-right genre. Now, nearly 30 years later, River City Ransom has gotten its first true sequel thanks to Kickstarter in the form of River City Ransom: Underground. Does this long-time-coming followup do the original justice, or is it just some young upstart looking to make a name for itself?
The story starts by rehashing the first game—not a bad idea given the age of the original. Alex and his best friend Ryan are beating up thugs to save Alex’s girlfriend from the evil Slick. You progress through the school, defeat Slick, and save the day. Then the game jumps ahead a few decades and a new group of fighters are doing … something. This is where the trouble starts, which isn’t good because it’s about 20 minutes into the game. The plot is almost completely incomprehensible. There’s mention of someone in power complaining that his beloved is gone and you are blamed for it somehow. This causes the entire city to constantly want to kill you as you take down indescribable bosses to clear your name. Or something to that extent.
That might not have been the best plot summary ever, but that’s really a major problem here. It’s pretty likely you’ll never have a solid idea of where you’re going or why because the plot and player direction are so poorly delivered that they might as well not be there at all. To make matters worse, the game gives you no help navigating its open world, which might not be a problem if traversal made any sense at all. The map screen is a joke and the world layout is schizophrenic at best. You’ll often exit a screen left only to go down according to the world map, and trying to get to your objective—when the game tells you where your objective is—is an exercise in frustration. Never mind the fact that while scrambling for any sort of meaning, you’re constantly under attack from every moving thing on the screen.
Okay, not everything. There are civilians running around that should you or an enemy hit them, or if something happens in their general vicinity, will give you a wanted level, meaning hard-to-defeat cop characters start spawning in. That means that in a game where most things are trying to kill you, if you fight back wrong the game tries to kill you harder. It becomes so aggravating after a while that constantly sprinting through locations till you get to an area with only enemies becomes the preferred method of playing, if only to avoid constantly dying and losing everything. To make matters worse, safe spots where you can save and change characters, are so rare that dying can set you back to the other side of the map if you’re not careful.
That said, the actual combat can be exhilarating. Like any good brawler, stringing together successive hits to brutalize your opponents feels visceral and satisfying. The animation work on the playable characters is insanely smooth and each move feels unique, even across ten different characters. Unlocking moves is somewhat annoying, however, since new moves cost a lot of money and won’t tell you if they require other moves which also cost a lot of money. There are also frequent stops in fights and recovery from missed attacks or being knocked out can take an aggravatingly long time, which dampens the flow considerably. Still, when everything clicks, the fighting is incredibly satisfying and feels like a great combination of old-school design and modern technology.
The only place Underground excels across the board is in its visuals. A game hasn’t managed to nail the 8-bit look of an NES title like this since Shovel Knight, and its arguable that this game does it even better. The sprite work is impeccable, looking like it just stepped out of a freshly pressed NES cartridge and was splashed with color. Character sprites, backgrounds, and animations are some of the best any retro-styled game has ever produced, and its worth taking a break on every screen just to observe everything in detail. The animations in particular are amazing, with dozens of individual frames for everything creating a silky-smooth feel to every move and attack.
In terms of audio the game is serviceable. There’s a lot of use out of that blocky, diffused minor explosion sound many old games used, and while it does make every punch feel like a mini nuclear bomb, it can grate on you after hearing it 5000 times in a minute. This being a retro game there’s nothing in the way of voice acting, save for the DAT DAT DAT of text scrolling on the screen. The music is largely decent, again going hard for that 8-bit NES feel and hitting it pretty consistently.
Overall Underground is a hard game to actually recommend. Anyone hurting for a PC beat-em-up is probably more likely to enjoy last year’s Mother Russia Bleeds, whose more streamlined gameplay and more approachable mechanics do the genre more justice while also being more enjoyable to play. Between the constant barrage of respawning enemies, design decisions that seem to run counter to the core gameplay concept, and a world that’s impossible and annoying to traverse, River City Ransom: Underground might be better buried six feet deep.