The Kunio-kun series has been around for more than three decades in Japan, delivering a steady stream of quality titles mostly featuring its trademark art style: chunky characters with big heads. Some of the games made it to the west under various guises – Renegade, Super Dodge Ball, Crash ‘n The Boys, Nintendo World Cup and the like – but arguably the most notable entry made it to our shores as Street Gangs in Europe, and River City Ransom in North America. As the name suggests, River City Girls is a spin-off of that game, and it’s absolutely superb.

Actually, it’s more a spin-off of the Japan-only Super Famicom entry Shin Nekketsu Kōha: Kunio-tachi no Banka, because that was a fighting game that let you play as the two protagonists here. But nobody likes a show-off – especially one who spouts out Japanese game names as if they didn’t copy and paste them off the internet to get the spelling right – so let’s not focus too much on that. The point is that River City Girls stars Misako and Kyoko, the girlfriends of River City Ransom’s heroes Kunio and Riki.

The chaps have been kidnapped, so it’s up to their partners – who are no strangers to a scrap themselves – to cut class and explore River City to try and find out more about what happened to them. Naturally, there are plenty of people in River City looking for a fight (including a bunch of your own fellow schoolmates, thanks to an angry principal demanding they stop you from leaving the school grounds), so punching seven shades of sherbert out of pixelated punks is the order of the day here.

Combat is similar to those in earlier games, though it’s now notably more complex. You’re initially armed with a quick attack, a strong attack, a single jumping attack and a single running attack, which should be enough to get you by at first but gets old fast. Thankfully, before you know it, you’ve levelled-up and unlocked your first new move, which it soon turns out is the first of many. The game uses a fairly straightforward RPG-style experience system whereby defeating enemies and beating certain tasks will award you with XP. Each time you level up you’re awarded a new move, some stat boosts and, sometimes, a notification that even more moves are available in the town’s dojo.

The dojo is one of many shops littered around River City’s reasonably-sized map. As well as granting you XP, defeated enemies will also drop cash that you can spend in the majority of these stores. Most of them – the dojo aside – sell four different items and it’s not immediately clear what their benefits are until you buy them for the first time. Some have one-off effects: this mostly means they restore your health to some degree, but some also give you some stat boosts the first time you buy them.

Others are permanently placed in your inventory and give various boosts. The mall’s fashion store Wardrobe, for example, lets you buy a ‘Bomb Bra’ and ‘Bomb Bottoms’ – the former gives you a 1% chance of killing any enemy with one hit, while the latter prevents you taking damage from 5% of attacks. These purchases come with some caveats, though. Firstly, while you can collect as many of these items as possible, you can only have two of them active at any time (just to prevent you becoming some sort of invincible gimmick fiend). Secondly, items that sound like they should make a cosmetic difference don’t: your character wears the same outfit regardless of what you apply. Shame on you for buying a bra for that reason, anyway.

The meat of the game is spent exploring River City itself and its various nooks and crannies. Although this is a beat ‘em up in the style of games like Double Dragon, Final Fight and the immortal Streets of Rage 2, this isn’t a linear adventure. River City is made up of a number of areas connected by various exits, and you can call up your phone with the + button and explore the map at any point to figure out where you’re going next. Some paths are blocked off until later in the game, but for the most part, you’re free to roam wherever you like.

If you’re worried that this will result in the game’s back-half consisting of running back and forth through empty streets completing tasks, fret not. Enemies auto-generate to make sure that backtracking (which you will need to do at times) isn’t a case of strolling past areas you’ve already cleared of danger. On occasion, the game will also stop scrolling and lock the screen – literally, with a padlock and chains appearing as a border – and insist that you defeat a few waves of enemies before you can progress. This may seem like it could be annoying but if anything it promotes efficient exploration: rather than randomly running around from screen to screen you’re more likely to stop, look at the map and figure out where to go next in order to minimise the number of encounters.

A lot of this – the open-world exploration, the ability to unlock new moves, the various shops selling boosts – may be feeling very familiar to fans of River City Ransom and its ilk (alternatively, those familiar with the Scott Pilgrim game, which itself was inspired by River City Ransom, may be getting the picture too). This is deliberate: although it’s a 2019 game, River City Girls still feels very much like a modern part of the Kunio-kun series. There are even a bunch of references dotted throughout, from the dodgeballs lying around that can be used as weapons to the fact that every enemy shouts something silly when they’re defeated (from “my ligaments!” to the classic “BARF!”). As with the best references and in-jokes, these don’t negatively affect the experience for newcomers, they just enhance it for veterans.

The entire game is a little on the short side, but some mechanics have been put in place to try and expand its lifespan a touch. Occasionally the last remaining enemy in a group will drop to their knees and beg for mercy. If you grab hold of them and press the L button you’ll recruit them as an assist character who you can call to jump in and fight briefly alongside you when you’re struggling. Your phone has a Recruits menu that you can use to keep track of which characters you’ve shown mercy to in the past: with 12 main character types and 63 in total when you take colour variations into account, it gives the game a mild ‘gotta catch ‘em all’ vibe and gives completists something to do.

Misako and Kyoko each have their own separate levels too, and each has an entirely unique set of moves. This means if you want to see everything the game has to offer you’re going to have to fully level up each of them and unlock each of their full move sets (which isn’t a chore). That’s before taking the New Game+ mode into account, but we’re getting into spoiler territory at that point so let’s just say it extends the game’s lifespan further.

There’s one final thing we haven’t touched on, which is odd because it’s also the most immediately obvious: this game is absolutely gorgeous. WayForward has been a specialist in creating stunning 2D games on modern hardware for well over a decade now – A Boy and His Blob, Mighty Flip Champs, Aliens: Infestation, DuckTales: Remastered, the Shantae games, you name it – but it’s really outdone itself this time. Character animations are smooth and packed with… well, character. Backgrounds are beautifully drawn and filled with little details (the mall area, in particular, is an absolute treat for the eyes), and the anime cut-scenes – especially the fantastic intro – are absolutely flawless.

It sounds great too: we’ve heard our fair share of chiptune scores by this point, which is why it’s refreshing to hear a distinctly non-retro helping of music this time around. You do get the odd bleeps and bloops here and there, but for the most part, the soundtrack here is delightfully fresh; assuming it ends up on Spotify once the game officially launches, we’re happily adding it to our library. Voice acting during cut-scenes is also of a generally high quality, complementing the genuinely entertaining dialogue well.

It isn’t flawless, however. As we’ve already touched on, there is a bit of backtracking to be found, and while you can prepare your route in advance to minimise how much of it you need to do, there’s still no getting around the fact that you’ll often be finding yourself in locked down scraps against waves of enemies just to get back to an area you’ve been before. It’s obviously been done to extend the game’s life a little but it can be frustrating at times.

This also contributes to the fact that the game can get a tiny bit repetitive depending on your play style. If you just want to defeat enemies in an effective and efficient manner you’ll eventually decide on the moves that work best for you, and presumably just use those for the most part. The most fun is to be had experimenting with your ever-growing arsenal of moves and trying to string together crazy combos, but this obviously comes with its own risks and you’re likely to die a few times while you learn each move’s limitations.

If you’re more interested in simply getting to the end without such tomfoolery then you’re going to be performing the same moves a hell of a lot of times against countless enemies and it’s going to feel like a bit of a drag. Again, that’s on you to an extent, but it’s still a valid way of playing and so there perhaps should have been some measures put in place to keep things a bit fresher when you’re taking on your umpteenth schoolgirl, police officer or man in a wrestling mask.

The only other niggles are minor ones. The Y button is used for quick attacks but it’s also used to trigger an exit and travel to a new area, which can lead to issues on occasion. Sometimes you’ll enter a new screen and immediately be attacked, which may cause you to start instinctively hitting the Y button; this can result in you travelling back to the area you came from previously, which can be annoying (rare though it is). There are also some slight performance issues at times, especially when running through areas when backtracking, but these really aren’t worth losing sleep about.

Conclusion

Not since Scott Pilgrim vs The World was released nine years ago have we played such an entertaining, satisfying beat ‘em up. Whether you’re playing alone or teaming up with a friend in co-op mode, River City Girls is a visually superb, aurally fantastic, out-and-out love letter to the genre. Fans of River City Ransom and other Kunio-kun games will adore how it respects the past but makes it relevant today, while those new to the series will simply find a hugely enjoyable and infectiously cheerful scrapper.