River City Ransom — or Street Gangs as it was known upon release in Europe — is arguably one of the most famous fighting titles for Nintendo's 8-bit NES console. Ported from the Japanese Famicom title Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari, the game combined the pugilistic focus of Double Dragon (which was created by the same company, Technōs Japan) with RPG elements, such as persistent stats, non-player characters, purchasable items and a large, non-linear game world. The result was a title which proved to be a massive critical success and showed that seemingly static genres like the side-scrolling brawler could be given additional complexity by introducing outside elements.
More than two decades have passed since the game first hit store shelves but it's surprising how playable and enjoyable it remains. The core combat is similar to that seen in Double Dragon and Renegade, another entry in Technōs' Kunio-kun series which was localised for western audiences. Punch and kick are the two main attacks, and these can be combined with sprints or jumps to catch enemies off-guard. Jumping is achieved by pressing both buttons simultaneously, while running requires a double-tap in the desired direction.
Both you and your enemies can pick up weapons — such as iron bars, knuckle dusters or chains — and use them in battle; all of these items can be used as projectiles as well. Finally, it's possible to block incoming blows by tapping either the A or B button at the precise moment your foe attacks.
Such a control arrangement means that River City Ransom is already a match for most other 8-bit fighters, but the twist here is that you can boost your character's power by purchasing items with cash dropped by fallen opponents. You begin with a base set of stats — kick, punch, weapon, throwing, agility, strength, and so on — and you can improve these by consuming food, reading books or purchasing medicinal drugs. Many items you acquire in the various shops which populate the game's retail districts can also be retained in your character's inventory and used at a later date.
Furthermore, it's possible to learn entirely new moves by buying and studying special tomes. These new moves drastically enhance your fighting power, making it easier to overcome the hordes of enemies and increasingly difficult boss characters you face along the way. However, there is a limit to how powerful you can become — all of the stats eventually reach a maximum level, which means there's only so much expansion required before you can march to the end of the game and destroy the final boss. Still, it's a fantastic way to add a sense of progression to this kind of game, and is aided immeasurably by the inclusion of save states — which render the existing password system irrelevant, unless you feel like inputting the ones you scrawled down on a piece of paper back in 1991 when you played the NES original.
Another neat addition in this handheld version is the ability to play two-player with a fellow 3DS owner via download play. Save states are disabled but it's still a welcome feature which will no doubt bring back happy memories for those who spent so many hours playing this title co-operatively with friends. The fact that the second player doesn't need to own the game is a bonus, and will make it much easier to arrange impromptu multiplayer sessions.
In many ways, River City Ransom — or Street Gangs, if you prefer — is better suited to handheld play than on a home console. It's RPG-style gameplay means that you become hooked on the main quest, constantly tempted to rough up a few more hoodlums in order to obtain additional wealth so you can increase your stats further. Save states mean that you can drop-in and drop-out of your mission of justice at any point, and the game is perfect for bite-sized play sessions.
The repetitive nature of the action can sometimes become a little grating, but this is a criticism which can be levelled at practically any side-scrolling fighter — and with its RPG-style mechanics and open-world environment, River City Ransom does at least offer some respite. Humorous touches — such as enemies who exclaim phrases like "Are we having fun yet?" and "BARF" when they kick the bucket — enrich the package further, making this an 8-bit classic that is most certainly worth revisiting.