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Rumble on the Handheld
By: Anna Marie Whitehead
What do you do when your girlfriend gets snatched by a punk gang leader? Why, grab your rival from the other high school (or not) and get ready to kick some serious butt. Be prepared to punch, kick, and grab various weapons in order to free Cyndi, because there are a lot of gangs to go through before Ryan, Alex, and their allies will be able to face down Slick, the man behind the kidnapping in River City Ransom EX. Originally released on the NES in 1989, the game received a facelift and a port onto the GBA to mixed feelings. While the battle system is still brutally fun, the menus and limp storyline can drag down on the game.
The battle system is simple in appearance but amazingly fun in actual use. From simple fighting moves to more complicated combinations, everything can be accomplished with only a few button combinations. Kicking, punching, and flying bodily into the enemies is the recipe for success. Or, grab a variety of weapons - everything from simple rocks to double-length chains can be used to beat mercilessly on the enemy. Ryan and Alex both have stats in various categories including the obvious like kick, but also including broader stats such as agility. Two important stats, Willpower and Stamina, are the player's actual life bars. Stamina gets depleted as damage is taken, and when stamina runs low, willpower will be reduced instead. To make life that much more frustrating, Willpower is healed only by a select few items. Items do more than heal, though. From cuddle toys to expensive books to gourmet (or greasy) foods, items of all varieties up the fighter's stats, gradually molding them bit by bit into lean, mean fighting machines. Of course, money is needed first to purchase these items...and how does one make money? Why, by beating up rival gangs, of course. Fighting usually doesn't result in much good, but spending cash makes it all worth it.
The advantage of more than 10 years of time passing means increased technology, including in a handheld. Graphics have definitely improved, looking far smoother and definitely more colorful as well, as the gangs stand out in varying shades from deep blue to salmon pink. With quick and brutal fights that can leave bodies, weapons, and allies strewn everywhere, a visual upgrade comes as a welcomed addition. A new system also means new possibilities for an upgraded music score and tinkering with sound effects. Surprisingly for a beat-'em-up styled game, the sound effects are delightfully comical, and the music is catchy and upbeat - a seemingly odd choice for a game steeped in fighting, but it works well nonetheless. Still, an option to minimize the volume of the background music while retaining the sound effects would have been nice.
Though short, RCR manages to pack a lot of replayability. Initially the save system will seem frustrating: only the character data is retained, and not the progress, meaning that each time the game is loaded, it's starting from the beginning again. This allows for the player to get familiar with the many different moves that can be learned along the way, and at the same time, makes it possible to save up for the more expensive learning tools. The difficulty can be set at the start of each playthrough - from the rating itself (easy to crazy), as well as other aspects (how many enemies attack at once? 2, 3, 4?). Additional options, changeable mid-game, can even further ease or complicate getting through the game (such as altering the gravity). Those with nimble fingers could find themselves satisfied in as little as two or three hours, though to fully explore and enjoy upwards of 10 hours or more could be clocked. This is the kind of game that can be picked up at any time, quickly played, and then saved and shut off for another moment. There is one minor flaw in the game's save system, however: every time data is saved, a new file is created; thus, old files are retained and eventually will fill the cart, forcing a manual purge of old files. This is easy to get around by simply deleting the old file first - the game will prompt for another file to be saved. While not excessively annoying, it may frustrate some to find the wrong file deleted, a problem that could easily have been remedied.
One of the changes made was in the menu system of the remake. While the original had the options 'Use', 'Exit', and 'Throw Away', the new version has a different order and phrasing, 'OK', 'Use' 'Discard'. A simple layout, the downside is that it is a little too easy to accidentally use a second item once the first item has been selected. When gang members drop as little as 0.20$ each, wasting valuable items that can cost upwards of 100$ is more than a little frustrating. Thankfully the game has no textual errors, and the localization of the gang text, including boss speeches, is very funny. Since interrupting a gang leader's spiel is considered fighting dirty, it is definitely a bonus to see that what little dialogue there is in the game was very well done and delightfully comical.
One place where the game could have really used an overhaul is the storyline. The premise of the game, to win the freedom of Ryan's girlfriend, is really the sole string that the entire game plays off of. It isn't even explained well why Alex, a sworn rival, would ever join Ryan in such a dramatic rescue mission. The lack of any plot is what weakens the game the most. Thankfully, it can play off another card, that being originality. While side-scrolling games may once upon a time have been all the rage, it's rare to see one such as RCR:EX anymore, though the GBA is a good home for such a title since the game is so short. When it comes right down to it, there are few games that are truly like this one, and it is nice to see something different tried for a change, even in a rehash.
Though not a traditional RPG in any sense, River City Ransom EX is still a game that, if nothing else, stands out for its unique combination of styles. Though a few flaws keep it from being an excellent game, they don't by any means drag it down enough not to consider it for times when playing a longer GBA game isn't possible. Though a few days of rental time would mop up most of the game, with two different characters to build up, the ability to link up and trade data with another River City friend and a few secrets to uncover yet, RCR EX is still worth purchasing - even if it may be for the second time.
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