Originally released in Japan for Nintendo Famicom, classic beat 'em up 'Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari' was then heavily localised for its eventual release in the US; background artwork was amended to look more 'western' (for example, rooftop tiling designs and mailboxes were changed) plus all location names were updated. Character sprites were redrawn and renamed too; instead of representing Japanese student gangs in school uniform, all the bad guys became tough looking Grease rejects wearing jeans and t-shirts. The name was also altered to River City Ransom before subsequently being re-named again for PAL regions to Street Gangs, which is the version now available for the European Wii U Virtual Console (and the subject of this review). Phew.
It's worth noting that Street Gangs is NOT a 60hz VC release; this is the European (50hz) version of the game 'with corrected aspect ratio'. A quick side by side test with the Nintendo 3DS Street Gangs reveals the Wii U iteration to be running slower (for whatever technical reason, even European 3DS VC games are all 60hz speed – look at Balloon Fight as a good example) and the aforementioned 'corrected' screen size looks a little squashed in comparison.
It's lucky then that the actual game is still rather wonderful. Set in River City, best friends Alex and Ryan set off on a quest to save Ryan's kidnapped girlfriend (Cyndi) from gang leader Slick and his army of thugs. Fight your way through rival gangs and bosses that occupy the various 'turfs' around River City while making your way closer towards the final fight with Slick himself.
Coming from the same developer as both Double Dragon and Renegade, it's clear that Street Gangs shares plenty of their DNA (Renegade and Street Gangs are actually part of the same series in Japan) in terms of the core gameplay; the two button control scheme allows for punches and kicks, plus blocking (if timed correctly) and jumping attacks. You can pick up and use items dropped by enemies or found lying around; these range from baseball bats to dustbins. You can even throw held items at enemies if you so wish.
The player roughly chooses their way through River City; there's a specific route to the finale but you do have the ability to backtrack or wander into areas which are slightly off the beaten path; most areas are controlled by a different gang and occasionally a boss fight is encountered to progress the story. Shopping malls can also be found which are safe from danger; in these additional RPG-lite elements come into play - spend coins earned from defeating enemies for character growth. Purchasing and eating certain food types raises or recovers stats, which are divided into nine categories such as agility, defence, strength and stamina. Different foods raise different stats, allowing for a surprisingly open progression system. Alternatively, head into the local book store to learn new moves; these will set you back a fair few coins but are worth the expense as each dramatically increases your effectiveness in different areas.
In typical RPG fashion, not being powered up enough means you will most likely fail once the enemies get tougher. The key to victory is beating up the weaker guys in order to collect enough coins to power up prior to attempting harder battles. It's repetitive arcade fun with an addictive stat-increasing element that is incredibly compulsive. The free-roaming layout of River City provides a false sense of exploration (really there are only a few ways to go) which helps keep interest right to the end; add in a few snippets of story and you begin to see why this game was such a hit back in the early 90's.
Street Gangs also allows two players to battle through the entire game together. In this mode a defeated player can be resurrected by moving into any adjacent area, which is different to solo play where a KO results in being sent back to a checkpoint. This makes the game much easier, although you can always attack each other if you're feeling particularly mean. Frustratingly, both players will need their own controller separate to the Wii U GamePad (i.e. you can't use a Pro Controller and GamePad – you will need two Pro Controllers) even though a single player can use the GamePad only in solo play.
As with all Virtual Console games, restore points can be created at any time; yet the seemingly archaic password system of the original game can also be used to cheat. Certain passwords provide your character with super high stats and/or items that may not even be possible through normal play. If you do fancy a bit of cheating fun, try a quick internet search to see what you can find.
Street Gangs is a fun, fast paced and well-structured 8-bit fighting classic that's cleverly enhanced with RPG elements. There are some minor issues (as described) with this particular version, so if you have a choice we'd recommend going with the Nintendo 3DS iteration for single player fun. However, add a couch friend into the mix and you'll soon forget about the slight 50hz disappointment and be happily swinging chains into the faces of John Travolta look-a-likes all day long. BARF!