Nostalgia can be a very devious thing. It has this nasty habit of preventing people from remembering what things--in this case, games--were really like when they were first released. As video games have slowly grown up, we've started to see more and more games play the nostalgia card in attempts to grab fans of old games and give them something new. In some cases, trading off a popular older name works wonders. For instance, just take a look at Tecmo's Ninja Gaiden for the Xbox. Some games go the remake route, sticking closer to the path blazed by the original but adding a few new things along the way. This can be a trickier route to take, because some older games don't always hold up so well to modern standards. Atlus' new beat-'em-up remake, River City Ransom EX, is a pretty faithful remake of a fondly remembered NES game, though this works against its success almost as much as it helps its cause.
River City Ransom originally came to the NES in 1989, and it quickly became a cult hit. The beat-'em-up had a sort of "Double Dragon with high school kids" story to it, and, by letting you run back and forth between screens, it was a lot more open-ended than other games in the genre. It also had a pretty robust character-statistic and shopping system that let you purchase goods (like food) to enhance various stats, like your punching, kicking, defense, or stamina. The game was a little on the short side, and once you knew what you were doing, you--and a friend, if you so desired--could blaze through the game in around an hour. But in this case, all of the fun was in getting there.
Most of these features have been duplicated in River City Ransom EX. The little square-faced dudes still whoop up on tons of rival gangs in their quest to rescue Ryan's girlfriend from the mysterious Slick. You still buy food to build stats and regain stamina, and you still need to save up a lot of money to purchase new fighting techniques. The game does give you a bit of a break now, since Alex starts out with the ever-popular dragon kick technique and Ryan begins with stone hands--though it's now called mach punch. To make up for starting you out with some reasonably powerful fighting moves, the game has a bunch of crazy, new techniques. A levitation power lets you cause nearby weapons to float and then smash into enemies. You'll be able to purchase a head-butt, spinning-weapon attacks, an ability to throw weapons like boomerangs, and more. Some moves are easier to do than others, making you wonder why the game only uses the A and B buttons. Incorporating the shoulder buttons as "move modifiers" or something to that effect probably would have made the move set more manageable.
River City Ransom EX is not a two-player game. The original game was at its best as a cooperative adventure, but this option isn't available here, and it hurts the game a great deal. The game instead allows you to have both players onscreen, and the second player is governed by basic, loosely adjustable artificial intelligence. But this, along with the ability to eventually recruit a posse of gang leaders to have them do your bidding, is a neat idea that is executed poorly. The game's bad AI control--while better than the simulated two-player mode in Million's Double Dragon remake, which had no AI at all and forced you to switch between the two characters all the time--really makes playing with a computer-controlled buddy a real drag, especially if you have "friendly" damage turned on. The AI characters, in this case, will simply attack enemies without regard for your safety. It's more than a little annoying to get killed by an ill-timed giant swing that's executed by one of your so-called allies.
Like the original game, River City Ransom EX isn't a long game. It shouldn't be a problem for players to blaze through the game in a couple of hours, and this number decreases a bit once you've refamiliarized yourself with where you need to go. If the game was longer, it'd make the save system more of a problem. The save system in River City Ransom EX essentially duplicates the original game's password system. You save characters, but you don't save your location or progress. So every time you turn on the game, you'll load up a character (or two, if you want to play with the knucklehead AI at your side) and start your adventure at the beginning. While this may have been acceptable back in 1989, it seems positively draconian in 2004. This is yet another of many instances where Atlus could have improved on the original game but instead seemed to have chosen the path of least resistance.
On the presentation side of things, River City Ransom EX doesn't do a very good job. The menu system and front end is almost like some kind of sick joke. When you turn on the game, you get an Atlus logo...and then you get a simple two-item menu allowing you to choose "story" or "manage data." The game doesn't even open with a title screen. You get this after selecting your characters and then starting the game. Again, this mimics the original game, which essentially does the same thing. However, this doesn't make it right, and it just comes off as confusing. The game's poorly worded menu options and barren documentation make the rest of the menus a bit like guessing games. Here's a hint: The menu option labeled "attack," with the hint of "attack rules for allies," is really the option for dictating whether the AI can hit you with its attacks or not. If you plan on playing with the AI turned on, do yourself a favor and just set it to none. As you dig deeper into the menus, you'll find the options menu, which seems pretty out of place in a final product. Here you can tweak a lot of different things. Want to turn the gravity up or down? The options menu is the place to do so. You can also alter the balance of certain attacks, movement speed, and more. It's a weird addition that seems out of place, but it's neat to be able to turn the gravity down to send enemies flying when you attack them.
The game has been redrawn in more of a 16-bit style, and the characters have been redressed in jackets, as opposed to the original game's T-shirt and jeans look. Technically speaking, the game looks better and shows more, varied animation, though some fans of the game will probably prefer the original game's look to this update. The game's animation is pretty good, and there are a lot of different attacks that occur in different situations. So you can charge up a rising, dragon punch-like attack or get in close for a series of high and low karate kicks.
River City Ransom EX does a similar number on the soundtrack. The same tunes are present, but they've been bumped up on the technical side. The result is, essentially, a Super Nintendo-like remix of the original soundtrack. As with all things that are remade, this is another aspect of the game that comes down to personal taste. The songs are, technically, just fine, but you may find yourself longing for the sound of the NES original. Beyond the music, the sounds of punches and kicks are largely identical. Things like the swing of a chair have been bumped up to sound a bit more realistic, but this is one of the few audio changes found in the game. Overall, the game sounds good.
Your personal take on River City Ransom EX depends largely on your feelings about the original game. The updates made to the game don't really enhance the game very much at all, and, in some cases, they get in the way of the action. The lack of two-player gameplay takes a lot of wind out of this remake's sails, too. If you can get around all of this stuff, EX is essentially the same game that came out in 1989, but at this point, if you aren't someone who feels incredibly strongly about the original game, picking up and playing River City Ransom EX might just leave you wondering what all the fuss was about in the first place.