The friends of Ringo Ishikawa has plenty of beat-’em-up DNA in its makeup. You’ll often get into scraps while roaming the streets of its Japan-inspired setting. You’ll throw rival gang members over you shoulder, deliver roundhouse kicks to the face and land jab after bloody jab. But those little skirmishes are only one small part of its whole, a rich tapestry of ideas that isn’t content to simply be one thing or another.
In fact, ‘TfoRI’ has more in common with Street Gangs (or River City Ransom as its known outside of the EU) than Streets of Rage. If anything, it’s a simulator for the rigmarole, angst and perennial boredom of your teenage years. Sure, there’s an RPG levelling system. There are survival game-esque metres tracking your hunger. You can even string combos together to knock back enemies when you’re being swarmed in a brawl. But it’s the way it embraces the mundane that makes this indie offering so unusual.
As a teenager whittling away the final months before high school graduation and the looming expectation of college, the titular Ringo finds himself battling a perpetual sense of boredom. There are classes to go to at high school - where you’ll increase your XP in return for attendance - but you can just as easily play truant and hang out with your friends instead. It’s a game purposefully designed to shed the normal questlines of an RPG, instead it’s a snapshot of a young man’s life where there’s very little guidance of what to do next.
Your hometown is full of things to do, and which ones you try first are entirely up to you. You and your gang might wander the streets looking for trouble, holding ‘R’ to enter ‘Delinquent mode’ so you slow down your walk, slouching your posture, hands in pockets, eyes waiting for an invitation to throw down. You might head to the local cafe to get a bite to eat, or stroll home and fire up your games console. There are also a slew of mini-games to try out (including ping-pong and poker) around town. In the end, you might just prefer to hand out on a park bench, smoke a cigarette or two and attempt to look cool in that way very few of us every truly succeeded at during those years.
There’s a conscious decision on behalf the developer to make The friends of Ringo Ishikawa less of a traditional ‘game’ and more of a collection of activities filling the life of a certain character. There are a handful of prompts on-screen to explain the basics of combat - one button for punches, one for blocks, another for kicks and a fourth for grappling/throws - but other than that there’s very little in terms of hand-holding. What do classes actually entail, do they involve any mini-games and how do they benefit your character? You have stats, but how do you affect them and what benefit do they provide? It’s a game that purposefully does away with traditional signposting and it’s both a positive and negative.
With its fragmented story - which flits between different parts of the summer months - it makes a point of subverting the traditions of the RPG by doing away with more obvious quests templates and simply sending you off to seek conversations, with the focus more on what you do with the rest of your time making up the meat of your experience. It’s more like the Persona games or Shenmue in this regard, with the option to attend a gym to increase your stats or the chance to get a part-time job (which you can also lose, should you decide to avoid your shifts).
It’s refreshing to see a world given a little more life than simply asking you to scroll from left to right, brawling your way through enemies until an arrow flashes on screen to tell you to proceed. But that lack of direction can sometimes make understanding the minutiae of how its mechanics fit together more of a drag than it should. Once you get how The friends of Ringo Ishikawa comes together, it’s Breakfast Club-esque romanticism of delinquent youth makes for something truly engaging, but even without something as simple as a map to consult, you’ll really need to stick with it to find that connection.
Screenshots really don’t do The friends of Ringo Ishikawa justice. What looks like a traditional side-scrolling brawler is actually something far more intricate. It’s more of a teenage simulator than anything, and with some really well-written dialogue (filled with the kind of malaise and sense of directionless rebellion we all experienced in our formative years) there’s a really interesting story to be found. Its everyday activities will remind you more of Bully or Shenmue than Street Gangs/River City Ransom, just don’t expect to have your hand held as you head out into the world to discover them.