Game Review

by Heidi Kemps,

River City: Rival Showdown

Nintendo 3DS

River City: Rival Showdown

For being such a long-running game franchise, the Kunio-kun series of beat-em-ups is quite a confusing mess. It's a beat-em-up series about a bunch of high school delinquents fighting for turf and showing who's the toughest of the tough… except when it's a sports game or a weird period piece or fantasy alternate universe. The confusion level doubles if you're outside of Japan, where the series has been adapted and released under a whole mess of different names like Renegade, River City Ransom, Super Dodgeball, and Crash n’ the Boys. It doesn't help that Kunio-kun's original developer, Technos, went bankrupt nearly two decades ago, causing the series rights to bounce all over the place for a long time, or that an unrelated Western developer Kickstarted River City Ransom Underground, a spiritual sequel to the best-known game in the series.

Thankfully, things seem to have mostly settled: Blazblue and Guilty Gear developer Arc System Works now comfortably holds the series rights, and US publisher Natsume has been diligently localizing their modern Kunio-kun releases on 3DS under the River City name. River City: Rival Showdown marks the third 3DS Kunio-kun game Natsume has published, and it's their best one yet.

Rival Showdown, though the name might not indicate it, is actually a reimagining of Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari, the Kunio-kun game localized for the NES as River City Ransom (though, again, it's completely unrelated to RCR Underground). Titular butt-kicking high-school badass Kunio is suddenly attacked one day by mysterious figures from nearby Reiho Academy. After the assault, Kunio learns toughest students from Reiho are planning to dominate all the other local gangs of school punks, and Kunio's own Nekketsu High is in their sights. He's got three in-game days to figure out what's going down, train himself properly, and maybe make some new friends (and enemies) along the way -- all while serving up some beatdowns to whoever comes calling.

The semi-open-world roaming of River City Ransom returns in Rival Showdown, allowing Kunio to roam around various locales and neighborhoods. A new addition is an in-game clock that runs from 3 to 11 PM every day. Depending on what time it is, a lot of things can change: different enemy types will appear in different areas, stores will open or close, and inaccessible areas might open up. More importantly, however, certain events will happen on set days at set times, and whether or not you complete them changes what happens in the game's story -- some events only open after completing prerequisites. This makes the game's narrative somewhat non-linear: depending on what you do (or don't do) over the course of your three days, you can get one of a handful of different endings.

Of course, what you'll be spending a good chunk of time doing is beating the snot out of punks looking for a fight. Kunio's reputation as a tough guy draws would-be thugs to him like flies to honey, and he'll neat to beat up both random roving gangs and tough bosses. His fighting skills are limited at first, but he can learn additional skills as the game progresses by levelling up, beating certain boss characters, or obtaining books that teach him new fighting skills. He can also augment his stats through the use of dropped or purchased gear that can bestow special skills. And if he needs an extra boost for a tough brawl, he can eat meals at local ramen shops and burger joints to raise his stats for a little while (at the cost of some in-game money and time).

Getting to be a bona fide badass isn't easy, though. The hardest part of River City: Rival Showdown is the very beginning of the game, when Kunio's low on cash, has crappy stats, no special moves, and no noteworthy gear to speak of. Getting those first few levels under your belt is extremely important, but randomly encountering strong enemies can result in a rough, prolonged fight where you're stuck doing hit-and-run tactics for piddly damage until the enemy finally gives up. Once you've finally gained a few levels and earned the cash to buy a special move or two, however, the game starts to pick up significantly -- but that first batch of bouts is a pretty tough hill to climb. It doesn't help that a lot of the in-game system explanations aren't the greatest, leaving you on your own in figuring out how the various fight and event triggers work.

Once you're a ways into Rival Showdown, however, it becomes hard to put down. The developers at Aplus and Arc System Works have done a tremendous job at bringing Kunio's world to life, populating the city with lots of weird and charming NPCs that you'll want to stop to talk to. The 2D spritework is also great: while many characters retain that trademark rectangular Kunio series “look,” there's a lot of little detail in their reactions and animations that really bring them to life. (The only downside that that the game's engine often makes the sprites look blurrier than they should.) The fights are also a lot of fun once you're over the initial hump, with smooth, responsive, and easy-to-grasp controls that make taking on a whole gang at once feel immensely satisfying. There are still a few issues -- you'll likely wind up in situations where you're just roaming around aimlessly for in-gaming hours looking for hidden events not noted on your map -- but once this game's sucked you in, it won't let go easily.

After finishing River City: Rival Showdown for the first time, I immediately started it up again, eager to see more of what I had missed. (The game smartly includes an encylopedia of story events that unlocks after you finish it once, allowing you to see when and where events you missed are located.) I didn't mind having to scale that initial difficulty hill again; In fact, I was eager to augment different stats and learn different skills than I did in my previous games. It's rare for a game to make me immediately want to dive back into it once I finish, but Rival Showdown pulled it off. If you've got a 3DS and are looking for a solid on-the-go brawler with lots of replayability, you'll definitely want to dive into the school gang drama of Kunio and his fellow delinquents.

Overall : B+
Graphics : B+
Sound/Music : B-
Gameplay : B+
Presentation : C+

+ Fun, easy-to-grasp beat-em-up action and non-linear gameplay add a lot of appeal
Doesn't do a good job of explaining gameplay elements to newcomers, rough to start

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