'River City Girls' is the game 'Scott Pilgrim' hoped to be

By The Washington Post Time of article published Feb 9, 2021

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By Gene Park

Scott Pilgrim may be Canadian, but his roots are in River City.

The beloved "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" game is back in digital marketplaces. The game was a throwback to beat 'em up brawlers like "Double Dragon" and "Streets of Rage." But all these games owe a debt to Kunio and the students of River City High School, or Nekketsu High School in Japan. Kunio is the main character of a franchise of games that span genres, mainly beat'em ups and sports, affectionately referred to sometimes as the "Kunio-kun" games.

Americans got their first taste of Kunio and the violent, brawling students of this long-running, confusing Japanese franchise in 1989′s "River City Ransom." The Scott Pilgrim universe, from the comics to the film to the game, owes a huge debt to this brawler. Punching enemies so hard they disappear into spare change? Chowing on burgers to get stronger? Over-the-top, melodramatic violence to address and resolve common young adult concerns? That was all done in River City.

Developed by WayForward as a spinoff to this niche franchise, "River City Girls" flew under the radar even for me. Games starring Kunio, a brutish and slightly dim high school student, often spanned genres, including sports; I grew up on the NES classic and "Super Dodge Ball." My father didn't play video games, but he loved manga comics, especially ones that involved lots of fighting and sports. So it was no surprise when I was able to lure him into playing Kunio games with me when I was a child.

Yoshihisa Kishimoto at the now-defunct publisher Technos Japan created the Kunio games and went on to adapt the games for the U.S., released as "Renegade" for the NES. Kishimoto then took the same beat 'em up concepts of Kunio's games and created "Double Dragon." Needless to say, Kishimoto and the Kunio character are godfathers of the brawler genre, inspiring Capcom's "Final Fight" (which would later transform into the "Street Fighter" series), "Battletoads" (which helped developer Rare become a giant during the 1990s) and, of course, "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World."

I knew "River City Girls" was a spinoff to "River City Ransom," but at the time, I was among many fans leery about deliberate throwbacks to the arcade brawler days. But "Streets of Rage 4" released last year to universal acclaim, and with Ubisoft's recent rerelease of "Scott Pilgrim," I had a hankering for more of the same and finally decided to visit River City. And I think I love "River City Girls" even more than "Streets of Rage 4."

If you thought Scott Pilgrim and the members of Sex Bob-Omb were unhinged and uncongenial, meet the stars of "River City Girls": Misako and Kiyoko. They are two self-proclaimed girlfriends of Kunio and Riki, the stars of the original games. One day in class, the girls received a cryptic text that make the boys appear that they've been kidnapped, so the pair break out of school and violently spill into the streets, tearing apart the entire city in search of their loved ones. Yes, Mr. Pilgrim was quite toxic in his relationships with women, but Misako is breaking into buildings, screaming, "GIVE ME BACK MY BOYFRIEND" to anyone who even gives her a glance.

Their mania only lends to their likability however, since it's the source of much of their passion. The rest of the cast is mostly taken aback by the girls' dedication, which keeps the story surprisingly engaging and humorous. You never know who they'll fight next, because even Misako and Kyoko don't know.

It's the gameplay that seals "River City Girls" as an instant brawler classic. While Ubisoft's "Scott Pilgrim" is great, there's a delicacy to his punches that don't really lend well to this rock'em, sock'em genre. Scott and friends punch and kick and have many special moves, but each hit just doesn't sound or look as hard as it should. Certain attacks send enemies flying, which can look and feel powerful, but they limit the player's ability to do any follow-up attacks.

In "River City Girls," Misako and Kyoko not only feature luxurious animation cycles, but their attacks and blowbacks have more sting and ping to them than Pilgrim's fisticuffs. Enemies don't fly off when punched, but stay within your fighter's reach to follow-ups with other attacks that do well on their own, but are devastating when mixed in with combinations. All the moves are pulled off with simple, directional inputs, much like a "Smash Bros." game. Unlike "Scott Pilgrim" or many of its brawler contemporaries, "River City" plays closer to a 2-D fighting game, like the rest of publisher Arc System Work's oeuvre of fighting games.

Even the now-venerated "Streets of Rage 4," which made The Washington Post's best games of 2020 list, hued so closely to original formula that its fighting systems are not nearly as robust as the one in "River City Girls." New moves and abilities are earned through leveling up and collecting thousands of dollars from downed, would-be boyfriend kidnappers. You can also buy dozens of even more powerful moves from the Double Dragon brothers Billy and Jimmy, voiced by YouTube creators Game Grumps. This same progression mechanic is in "Scott Pilgrim," but that game becomes entirely too easy once you play it enough. "River City Girls" scales up the challenge so you're always engaged in the fights. And if you ever want to overpower your foes, there are endgame items that can help you do just that.

After you beat the game once, you unlock two more secret characters that I won't spoil here. Even though these two new characters don't have their own stories, they each have completely different move sets to acquire and master. And the game is such a joy to play through over and over, I certainly didn't mind doing fresh restarts. It's also an excellent couch cooperative experience, and its humor and wit make for a family-friendly experience.

The beat 'em up genre has had a bit of a revival in recent years. "Scott Pilgrim" boosted this revival in 2010, unique in its deliberate throwbacks and a perfect companion to the comics and film. But now, indie developers like WayForward, LizardCube and Dotemu are creating new exemplars in the genre. It was a shame that I overlooked "River City Girls" in 2019. If you're like me and enjoyed Scott Pilgrim's return to gaming but aren't ready to move on from the genre, the River City girls would be your homecoming queens.

The Washington Post

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