Top 20 Scrollers (Part 5) - #5, #4, #3
Strong competitors battle it out with an underdog taking a surprisingly high spot. Who are those mysterious heroes taking the 3rd spot?
5 - River City Ransom
The first time I played River City Ransom I finished it in a few hours. I was a little disappointed it was that short because it clearly had RPG elements. I played it again this year, as well as last year and the year before that. Not bad for a short game… I don’t remember going through most RPGs a second or third time around. River City Ransom isn’t an RPG, though. It’s a stereotypical Beat ‘em Up and proud of it.
The game featured Randy and Alex on a mission to save Alex’s kidnapped girlfriend from gangs running amok in River City (hmm, sounds familiar). The theme obviously took after Double Dragon but in a cartoonish kind of way. The entire game was a tongue-in-cheek knockoff of the 80’s classic. What made River City Ransom better than Double Dragon was its open-endedness, progression, uniqueness as well as its relaxed nature. The world was not in turmoil and nobody was out to kill anyone. In fact, the brawling high-school students were the only ones aware of this little “war”, probably because it took place out of public view in parks, back alleys and construction sites. As soon our protagonists entered the city we saw shoppers walking around and stores going about their business.
What distinguished River City Ransom at the time was money gained for defeating opponents. Loot could be spent on food to improve combativeness or on items like new fighting techniques (smiles were free). Fighting was simplistic but players could jump on the surrounding architecture and use common objects lying around as weapons. Anybody can use a baseball bat to beat somebody up but you haven’t experienced satisfaction until you’ve repeatedly hit your opponent in the head with a plastic trashcan or wooden box.
The further you progressed the meaner the gangs got. The game culminated with a showdown at River City High where players had to defeat a gauntlet of bosses that included a Russian exchange student and a gym coach, though the coach might have simply been angry you ruined the floor he just waxed. What’s this? That damn Double Dragon tune again? Get out of my HEAD! Oh, sorry, Billy and Jimmy Lee had a cameo (as well as their famous song) before you eventually reached the last boss on the roof of the school. After all was said and done “everybody returned to class and became honor students”, but not before Alex’s girlfriend gave you an attitude for taking too much time saving her – she had some serious shopping to do. Some advice for Alex: dump Cyndi; I hear Taki from Soul Calibur transferred over.
A much-improved version came out on the Game Boy Advance entitled River City Ransom EX. River City Ransom 2 (Shodai Nekketsu Kouha Kunio-Kun) was released only in Japan for the SNES but unfortunately it was nothing like the old NES title.
Platform: NES, TurboGrafx-16, Wii (Virtual Console)
4 - Metroid
Some of you might ask why Super Metroid wasn’t picked over this fossil since it improved on everything the old classic had to offer. Well, that’s just it: it only improved things. It didn’t really offer anything new to the series. It had better graphics and better sound but in the end it was plain old Metroid only eight years later. The original game, on the other hand, gave players countless hours of original, open-ended exploration as well as a surprise at the end that rivaled Darth Vader’s confession in Empire Strikes Back that he was Luke’s father. In the end, we also went “Noooooo!”, and hugged the nearest futuristic star-platform…
Metroid started with Samus Aran, a “hunter”, sent to planet Zebes in search of strange creatures called “Metroids”. The action took place in an underground Space Pirate base where Samus fought various creatures, mainly the local fauna. The game did not do so well in Japan but was heralded by critics and players alike in America for its innovative, non-linear gameplay. The Japanese version came with a battery similar to Zelda that allowed players to save their game. The North American version didn’t have a battery, relying on passwords instead, which lead to the famous “Justin Bailey” code that let players play as Samus without the space suit.
Many boys in 1987 had the shock of their life upon completing the game when it turned out Samus Aran, the ass-whoopn’ Space Hunter we all aspired to become, turned out to be a woman. Needless to say some of us spent the night crying naked in the shower. The ending left us confused: how can a boy look up to a girl? Girls are supposed to be damsels in distress. Graphics weren’t sophisticated back then so designers couldn’t “develop” their Lara Crofts, which lead to girls usually standing on platforms with over-sized dresses instead of running around with over-sized breasts. In a way Metroid preemptively struck future chauvinists by designing the first totally normal female video game protagonist, and carefully concealing the fact so as not to detract attention from an otherwise fine game.
Metroid was a pioneer on many levels. It featured engrossing free-roaming gameplay, decent graphics and actually helped sensitize some of us to the stereotypes we would eventually face in future/present games. If it wasn’t for Metroid, games like… err… hmm… (trying to think of another game that doesn’t bring attention to the heroine’s “assets”). Well, anyway, it was a great title. Way ahead of its time, that’s for sure!
Platform: NES, Game Boy Advance, Wii (Virtual Console)
3 - Guardian Heroes
Every console generation has its winners and losers. Unfortunately, when losers tank they often drag some gems along with them. Such was the case with the Sega Saturn and Guardian Heroes. If your initial reaction was to gawk mindlessly at the sight of seeing this title in third spot then you are not alone. The game fell into virtual obscurity in 1996 while the Sega Saturn was being handed its derriere on a silver platter by the Sony PlayStation. A shame too, because Guardian Heroes is one the best-kept secrets of Beat ‘em Ups.
Those who actually played Guardian Heroes remember a game that pulled out all the stops, making it one of the most memorable 32 bit titles of the mid 90’s (again, for those who actually played it). The game featured a team of four playable characters on a quest to keep a mystical sword out of the hands of evil-doers. It included one of the most unique fighting systems of any button masher, even to this day.
Action unfolded in 2D but in three battle planes. Unlike the depth movement found in most Beat ‘em Ups, players were only able to jump from the foreground, to the middle-ground, to the background. It resembled Fatal Fury’s ability to jump deeper into the level to avoid contact. Guardian Heroes offered three of those planes. The concept took some getting used to but allowed D-pad moves similar to Street Fighter, which would have been hard to execute without the planes and offered an extra doze of strategy, especially when fighting giant bosses.
Single player campaigns included an NPC (non-player character) tagging along during fights, usually because the plot demanded it. The game also featured up to six-player battles with 45 selectable characters (not a typo) – an addition all games should include. Players were able to block, perform two types of attacks (fast and strong), could perform magic and command their teammate, all in real-time. The result was a wild fighter game with explosive magic, swords and ghastly amounts of juggle combos.
The most memorable part of Guardian Heroes was the story. Generally, Beat ‘em Ups had you brawling through hordes of punching bags merely for the sake of keeping players busy with no real plot. This title did it too but it interspersed the carnage with a story worthy of a Japanese animated cartoon. It was clear from the outset that developer, Treasure, designed a game around the story not the other way around. Characters were lovable; bad guys were contemptible (often funny). The plot unfolded giving players the option to take various paths with different endings. Guardian Heroes has maybe one of the highest levels of replayability of any game to date. It also offered an RPG element where players could upgrade their character’s stats.
In the end, most who played this rebellious fighter (not a small feat since it is a rare title) almost recalled it as an animated series, not as a game. Guardian Heroes had a way of imprinting itself on our memories, probably because of the various storylines, numerous endings and memorable characters. As far as brawlers go this one deserves all the credit in the world for giving us something fresh for a change. If only more games had as much courage… It boggles the mind why only the Game Boy Advance saw a sequel. One would assume at least publishers would keep abreast of titles with potential, but it seems even they are prone to hype and pretty boxes. Game Observer stands firmly behind the unknown heroes who valiantly defended a losing battle. A well deserved 3rd place.
Platform: Sega Saturn
NEXT >> Top 20 Scrollers - #2