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GAME REVIEW | Increased Difficulty Dilutes Fun of "River City Girls"

With a swift punch and a loud “BARF!”, River City Ransom made its mark in the gaming world over 30 years ago. Known overseas as the Kunio-kun series, the tale of one strong high schooler looking to save his girlfriend from baddies is seen by many as a true staple of 8-bit gaming. But what happens when the tables are turned, and it’s Kunio that needs saving? Well, then it’s time to call in a couple of badass babes for a rescue mission, in the form of River City Girls!

Going the more bizarro world route with the franchise, River City Girls puts players in control of Misako and Kyoko, whose boyfriends Kunio and Riki have been kidnapped by some unknown punks. Not one to sit down and deal with detention, the duo set out to find the fiends responsible, with many familiar faces from the River City series and a couple of other popular games peeking their knuckle sandwich-hungry selves in for good measure. As you roam around the city, it’s up to Misako and Kyoko to figure out why their boyfriends were kidnapped, and how hard they’ll smack the villains straight into the stratosphere.

Players take control of Misako and Kyoko, with gamers taking on solo choosing one or the other before they begin. As they play, the ladies must punch, kick, and slam their way through armies of punk kids, crooked cops, muscular foes, and even a few peppy cheerleaders for good measure. Roaming through the city will have them seeking various goodies and knickknacks to get them to the boss battles, which will have Misako and Kyoko trying their best to take on some of the roughest foes this side of River City. As they progress, players will be able to level up both girls and earn some tools to make the fight a little easier...with a very huge emphasis on the “little” part.

First, the good news: River City Girls looks outstanding! Developed by WayForward, the usage of SNES-era pixel art calls back to the second and third Shantae games. What’s more, despite it being pixelated, there’s a lot of shockingly well-designed detail that’s been placed in every character and setting. From the way a weaponized yo-yo is spun to even the smallest frill of a Pom-Pom, just about every aspect of this game pops with beautiful animation. Not since Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: The Game has there been a pixel-shaded beat ‘em up that’s delivered this level of personality!

Added into the graphics is its fantastic voice acting and soundtrack. Kayli Mills plays Misako with a tomboyish flare and an adorable growl that’s fiery with passion. As her BFF Kyoko, Kira Buckland delivers a wonderfully cutesy persona that’s both ditzy and endearing. With music from Megan McDuffee, Chipzel, NateWantsToBattle, Dale North, and Cristina Vee (who also voices the antagonist Hasebe), the score that blares all throughout the levels brims with club-worthy dance beats and synth-pop wonderment.

However, despite looking and sounding amazing, River City Girls doesn’t quite deliver a lot of fun when it comes to its gameplay. While it’s fairly easy to figure out how to do big & light attacks, as well as deliver a good chunk of combos, the game suffers from the lack of character evolution as it progresses. There’s a leveling system, as well as items to equip to make things a little easier to take on enemies. But the problem is that no matter how much you level up, it appears that the enemies grow stronger too. Worse: the game is tough right at the get-go!

Taking on the game solo is a lot more rougher than it should be. As you quickly find out, the bad guys don’t exactly know how to play fair. For those who say, “That’s the point of being a villain,” first off: shut up! Second, the rule of thumb in gaming is that the baddies must give the protagonists a fighting chance to survive. Here, the punks, cops, and tough guys roaming around just love to gang up on you, to the point where it may take you a minute to even get a single punch in. There were moments where I entered an area with full health, only to have the snot beaten out of me to the point of seeing the “Game Over” screen.

It was by sheer luck that I figured out a way to survive, with every form of strategy possible tossed aside because it kept pushing me back to square one. What’s worse: when you die, you lose roughly 25% of what’s in your bank account, which is used to buy health and learn new moves. In boss battles with Mizusu and a certain familiar Double Dragon villain, I watched as my funds went from nearly $500 to a measly $2.25 after I kept dying over and over again. Never in these boss battles did I feel any sort of accomplishment or given a sense of learning something new with every loss; all I felt was pure frustration with a sprinkling of rage quit!

Although it’s still tough in co-op mode, River City Girls is a lot more doable with a friend in tow. Enemies are still a challenge, but it doesn’t feel like it mocks you in the ways playing solo does. It even gives you the chance to full enjoy the story on-hand instead of boiling with anger over how difficult these villains are. And when you are not gritting your teeth or spew fire over the certain unfair toughness this game delivers, you’ll discover an entertaining story arc that’s both hilarious and true to what the River City franchise is all about.

Beating River City Girls will take you roughly 6-7 hours to complete, though there are a couple of side quests here and there that push the time to a bit longer. Defeating the game the first time around will give you the option of playing both Riki and Kunio, who have their own unique set of missions. So those who want to play either as a BFF duo or a whoop-ass lovey-dovey couple, they’ll have that opportunity in their hands once the boys get rescued by their girls.


  • Fantastic animation
  • Voice acting & soundtrack dazzle
  • Great beat-em-up mechanics


  • Frustrating AI
  • Boss battles feel near-impossible
  • Lacks good learning curve


River City Girls has its great moments, but the AI keeps it being from a full-blown fun experience. While co-op mode helps ease some of the more difficult baddies, attempting to beat this one solo is next-to-futile. If you’ve got a friend close by, then by all means dive into what River City Girls has to offer; if not, well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.


Promotional consideration provided by WayForward Technologies. Reviewed on the Xbox One.

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Contributing Editor at ESH since 2008, and host of the No Borders No Race podcast show, which began as a humble college radio program in 2006. My passion for discovering new bands, developers, and Japanese pop culture is what drives me to give you my all in every article published and every podcast recorded.