River City Girls is a new game in the aged genre of the side-scrolling beat-em-up, and a role reversal of the classic damsel-in-distress story. As friends Kyoko and Misako, the player sets out to rescue their boyfriends by clobbering everyone in their way. As suggested by its title, it’s a sequel of sorts to the classic NES game River City Ransom, which is itself a heavily localized version of the Japanese Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari from the Kunio-kun franchise. Because River City Girls aims to be a successor to both River City Ransom and Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari, it takes cues from both the former’s American-esque “dudes with attitudes” style and the latter’s Japanese “yankee delinquents” presentation, resulting in a fascinating mashup of both aesthetics.
Rather than lean in one direction or the other, River City Girls mixes things up. The game takes place in “Cross Town” (from River City Ransom) but the boyfriends’ names are “Riki” and “Kunio” instead of “Ryan” and “Alex.” Japanese street gang figures (banchou) roam the street at the same time as cheerleaders. Kyoko wears a letterman jacket on top of a school uniform while Misako’s takes cues from Japanese fashion, and they both kind of resemble Powerpuff Girls in a way that calls to mind the anime adaptation Powerpuff Girls Z. A story cinematic shows the girls in an American-style school cafeteria.
Some Double Dragon characters even make cameos (Double Dragon was originally developed from the original Kunio-kun engine but with more international appeal). While those games always took place in the US, River City girls specifically uses the Double Dragon Neon versions of the characters, a game that was much more American-facing than Japanese.
The result is that Cross Town comes across in the same vein as Big Hero 6’s “San Fransokyo” and Hurricane Polymar’s “Washinkyo”—a place that’s both Japanese and American at the same time. I can only guess at the reason behind this decision, but I imagine it has to do with the fact that both River City Ransom and Kunio-kun are beloved in their respective regions. There’s a certain generation of Nintendo fan that holds the game River City Ransom in high regard. One part beat-em-up, one part adventure RPG, there really wasn’t much like it back in 1990. Kunio-kun, in turn, has starred in many, many games over the years, and he was a company mascot for Technos Japan. River City Girls aims to please both audiences, and maybe even poke fun at those bygone days of extreme localization.
Because River City Girls is this deliberate combination of Japanese and American, it also begs comparison with another piece of media heavily inspired by manga and retro gaming: Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O’Malley. In fact, Scott Pilgrim is itself heavily influenced by River City Ransom, as indicated by one of the comics’ characters crying “BARF!” as they’re hit, and the Scott Pilgrim video game being a beat-em-up. The senses of humor found in River City Girls and Scott Pilgrim, while not wholly identical, are similar in their irreverence and fourth-wall breaking one-liners. There’s even a boss fight in River City Girls against a musician just as there’s one in Scott Pilgrim. At the same time, enough time has passed that Scott Pilgrim (itself a love letter of sorts to the NES era of gaming) is old enough to be a nostalgia trip for fans of comics, video games, and other media. That, in turn, makes River City Ransom an even more distant memory in the collective video game and pop culture fandom.
River City Girls is an entry into a genre whose heyday has long since passed that uses 2D sprite graphics and playful animations. In taking from the late 1980s of both Japan and America, and filtering them through a contemporary lens in an age where “anime-influenced” works are more common than ever before, RIver City Girls ends up feeling somehow both extremely current and incredibly nostalgic, instantly dated yet also timeless. It’s an aesthetic I can get behind.