How these two female characters took the Beat-Em-Up Genre to new heights – River City Girls

River City Girls is simultaneously a love letter to old school beat-em-ups and the franchise which spawned it. And quickly becoming one of the best modern 2d beat-em-ups around. The game's fluid fight mechanics, gorgeous pixel art, and thumping soundtrack make River City Girls a titan in its field.

How these two female characters took the Beat-Em-Up Genre to new heights – River City Girls

I originally began writing this review in 2019 when I first played River City Girls. I absolutely adored this game. It was a standout game for me personally back in 2019, and it continues to deliver great fun almost three years later. Stunning pixel art, fun, engaging combat mechanics, distinct locations, unique bosses, and a sense of humor to match.

This review is an amalgamation of my original thoughts that I never completed and the updates to the game since.

I will walk you through the plot, game mechanics, music, and art that I think make River City Girls a standout game. One that can easily hold its own against any other in its genre.

2. What Is River City Girls?

River City Girls is a 2D side-scrolling beat-em-up game created by WayForward and published by Arc System Works. The game was initially released in September 2019.

River City Girls is a spin-off game in the Kunio-Kun franchise. A long-running franchise started all the way back on the NES in 1986 with the release of “Nekketsu Kōha Kunio-Kun.” River City Girls, however, is billed as a canonical game in the franchise.

River City Girls follows the story of Kyoko and Misako. Initially, the girlfriends of the franchise’s main guys, Rikki and Kunio – for one game, mind you - as they battle through hordes of enemies to save their boyfriends from their captors.

3. The Story of River City Girls

River City Girls has an exciting story. There was a clear decision to separate the continuity of the story from its source material. You are hit with what I can only describe as a back-handed slap by the time the game ends.

That’s coming from someone who didn’t even know about the source material. Let’s look at the original Version 1 story, followed by the updated narrative.

3.a Version 1 – The original

River City Girls openings with a fantastic cut scene and a heart-pounding soundtrack. We are introduced to our primary characters, Misako & Kyōko. The girls were sent to detention. It’s here that we also learn that Kyōko doesn’t even go here.

Kyōko receives a text message from an unknown number stating that their boyfriends, Riki & Kunio, have been kidnapped. Misako becomes enraged, insults her teacher, and literally performs a WWE chair attack. This triggers the game to begin.

Misako & Kyōko then proceeds to literally break out of school so they can go and save their boyfriends. This opening tutorial sequence also gives us a deeper look into the characters of Kyōko & Misako and how they generally banter with each other. We learn a couple tidbits here and there that provides us with an idea of their friendship and respective personalities.

We soon come across Hasabe & Mami. They serve as the arch-nemesis for Misako & Kyōko. The girls banter with each other, but it's here that we learn that Hasebe & Mami are acting suspiciously.

Hasebe & Mami implies that they are the ones who are dating Kunio & Rikki. Upon hearing this, Kyōko becomes angry, and Misako tries to calm her down.

The principal announces over the PA system that the student body should stop Misako & Kyōko from continuing along their journey.

We then arrive at the gym, where we encounter Misuzu. We learn she's part-time security who has been in high school for seven years. After defeating Misuzu, she points the girls to Crosstown, where she noticed their boyfriends with someone creepy.

She then, and I kid you not, body shames Kyōko & Misako. They leave school, and Kyōko immediately forgets why they left school in the first place. They then proceed to Crosstown.

The game then guides you throughout the city as you battle various enemies, explore multiple parts of the city, and have several battles with the game's bosses.

The first time you reach the end of the game, you are presented with Sabuko, the daughter of Sabu. She is the current leader of the 'group of people who don't do illegal activities what-so-ever'. She is an exciting boss battle, but it was quite a shock to learn that we are presented with a New Game+ Option upon defeating her, and it is not the actual ending of the game.

Once you complete the game the second time, you will encounter Hasebe & Mami as the game's true final boss. This only happens if you receive the charms associated with the characters.

Once you win, you are granted with the origin of Kyoko & Misako. We learn about when Kyoko & Misako dated Kunio & Rikki in a '16-bit game that never made it to the US'. We also find out that they dated only for that one game, and Rikki & Kunio doesn't even know, nor do they care who Kyoko & Misako are.

Kyoko kicks Hasebe & Mami out the window, and then we get the same ending as before. Kyoko receives a message on her phone, potentially indicating a sequel.

3.b Version 1.1 – The Updated Ending

In the updated version, Version 1.1, the game sees a new ending that brings it in-line across multiple regions and provides new artwork and dialogue.

In this version of the ending, the girls land in the spa, encounter Rikki & Kunio, and the boys indicate that they were not kidnapped. They then decide to go on a date to get burgers.

That's it. That's the updated ending.

3.c What…?

Here is a raw draft of how I felt after completing the game for the second time to receive the Version 1 ending.

The updated version 1.1, both English and Japanese, makes the boys less of assholes. The revised ending also makes the main characters seem less terrible.

This time around, I don't really feel that bad, the ending is acceptable, not what I expected, but it was still okay, nevertheless.

I am still annoyed that I needed to do the game twice, but New Game+ makes the second play-through worthwhile. Typically, New Game+ is just for doing things you didn't get to during the main play and maybe unlocking a few secrets here and there. In this regard, the game makes New Game+ much more appealing.

Throughout the game it is implied that Misako & Kyoko are their girlfriends. It isn't actually true and a bit disappointing. This is a shame since the rest of the game is far above average for these games.

The first version makes the girls seem desperate and outright foolish for going after someone else's relationship with such violence. The updated version also doesn't really help.

4. Gameplay

River City Girls is a side-scrolling beat-em-up brawler game inspired by those who came before it. You initially take control of one of two characters, and you play through the game with that character. When you complete the game for the first time, two additional characters are unlocked for you to mess around with.

Each character has a light attack, a heavy attack, a button for jump, and one for a power move. The game allows you to perform different actions based on the location of the enemy. Using a Heavy attack facing the enemy will cause the enemy to be thrown while using a light attack from behind will perform a knockdown attack.

Characters can also pick up various objects to use as weapons. These weapons can break after a predetermined number of uses or be thrown for ranged damage.

4.a.i Kyoko

Kyoko is an agile character. It makes sense given that most of her power moves surround the use of her feet, an explicit call-back to Chun-Li's thousand kicks, and a tornado/drill kick. She also has a few other neat power moves, including bashing her enemies with her feet.

She also has a dab move that acts as a deflect. Which objectively is cool. She also has an action to use her enemies as a springboard. She has a tornado kick which allows her to cover up the entire screen at times.

Overall, she feels floaty, but it matches well with her personality and the way you intended to use her in-game. That floaty nature accents her speed quite nicely.

I used Kyoko on my first play-through because I rather the mobility and agility she offered over the raw power output of Misako. When Kyoko performs the thousand kick move, the little embellishments make all the difference. It makes a move set even more satisfying to pull off.

Kyoko was my personal favourite throughout the game. She is a fun, loud, brash character who constantly see-saws between quirky and murder.

4.a.ii Misako

I enjoyed playing Misako. She is a brawler-style character who values pure power over all else. While I'm sure both characters' movement logic was similar or the same behind the scenes, Misako's move set was more about hard-hitting and pummeling her enemies.

I didn't use Misako much, other than just trying the character for the sake of testing the character.

4.a.iii The Boys (TM)

Once you complete the game, you gain access to Riki and Kunio. Both characters play much like their counterparts in Kyoko and Misako.

I only played these characters to test what they were capable of, but I didn't use them during my play-through. They certainly feel more heft in the way they move and the way hits land, but for the most part, they resemble Kyoko & Misako.

4.b Game Mechanics

The game employs several tactics lifted from the original games and some new tricks to keep the player engaged and active.

Every time you defeat an enemy, the enemy drops money and provides experience points. Each of your characters has a level 30 cap. You will need to level up individually if you want all the characters to be the same level. The money you gain can be used to purchase items from vending machines and stores littered through the map.

These shops offer items and moves that you spend money on. Different shops unlock additional activities and items.

Among these are the ability to equip each character with specialized items that help the player plan their fight style. From increasing damages, making power and health bars fill up faster, and some items affect item drops from enemies and vending machines. There are many unique items that you get, either from buying them in stores or getting them as a boss reward.

The game's combo system starts you off simple with a three-button combo that can be extended as you level up and gain access to new moves.

The combos can be extended by using directional inputs with either light or heavy attacks to chain combos together.

Each character has its own specific actions and must be purchased separately at dojos and as that character.

4.b.i Items

This has got to be one of the more unusual parts about this game; only holding two items at a time seems pretty limited given how specific the bonuses are. At least until you get to the part where you can find a hidden shop and basically get a massive boost. Although those items are $5000 apiece, I wish I had known as it was easier to amass that amount of money during the play-through and not have to grind for the $10,000 that you would need for both items, which make you a tank.

The items can be swapped at any point, even during boss battles, from your pause menu screen. Once you acquire an item, it is automatically added, so you can simply browse through the items to pick and choose what you'd like without any form of inventory management.

Several items drop throughout gameplay, and these items can be used as weapons, from baseball bats to guitars, to items in the environment such as chairs and large wooden boxes.

The items in the game are interesting. They give small bonuses. I'm sure I've felt the rewards working. The game lets you swap these items on the fly, so I imagine the developers intended for you to constantly switch between boss battles or just battles in general. Although in my play-through, these didn't seem as intuitive as they wanted. I often forgot about it during my time playing. Once I was in that new game plus mode and grinding away for currency and levels, I found myself constantly swapping items to make the grind less noticeable.

The food items in this game held an exciting mechanic. Eating them for the first time would provide a stat boost to one of your stats. I assume you were supposed to get enough money from the play-through to purchase all of them and use it, so you would get the stat boost in addition to the ones you would gain from leveling up. This did make the game a bit easier, or at the very least noticeable. I didn't notice this on my first play-through and was almost at the end when I realized that, hey – When I eat food, I get stat bonuses. Either way, it was an interesting mechanic.

4.b.ii Combos

You get accustomed to the game's combo system quickly, and it allows you to chain together enormous sequences for maximum damage. It is also choreographed to you well enough to know when to stop your combo to either throw, grab, or do something else entirely.

The best part of this game was the very comprehensive combo system. If you really got deep into it, you could generate some insane sequences that not only look satisfying to pull off but looks damn good while it does it.

Each character has their own move sets, which change how their combos play out. Each combo also carries embellishments that train you to keep doing it just because.

4.b.iii Grinding

Holy shit, I didn't expect this game to be this grindy. I wanted to complete this game as best as I could, secrets included, but the share amount of grinding required was staggering. At the time, I didn't have the time to complete the game to 100%.

I ultimately just decided to stick with Kiyoko, as she was my pick in the game's first run. She was max level by the time I decided I wanted the secret items.

The game scales the enemies every time you defeat a new boss or enter a new area. The non-boss battles were easy enough to get through, and I never found myself frustrated when fighting the enemies. I did enjoy wailing on the enemies as Kyoko. However, when it was time to find all the secret statues and other unlockable, the game really slowed down for me personally.

I couldn't care to level up the fellas, as I simply didn't care.

4.b.iv Leveling

This game is capped off at Level 30 for each character. At first, you level up quickly, and then it tapers off. By the time you are level 20-25, it becomes more of a slug through, but then by that time, you would have ended up in New Game + mode, and now you have more than enough time to get to Level 30. If you played with the same character, you would probably get to lv30 quickly. However, if you picked another character, get ready to do it more and longer.

4.b.v Quests

This game has a form of quests too. Once you begin playing the game, you will come across Godai. A neighbor and childhood friend to Kyoko & Misako. He regularly gives you quests throughout the game. He may have you perform fetch quests for him or go and randomly beat up some yakuza members.

Once these quests are completed, you will be awarded experience points and money. Friends

Upon beating an enemy hard enough throughout your play-through, you can recruit the enemy to play for you. They will be activated by a button press. They will usually jump into the screen and perform an attack of some kind, which could work as a screen clear or an area of effect.

You can recruit almost every single common enemy. It would have been cool if you defeated the bosses under certain conditions, they could be recruited too. In the New Game+, that would have been a great feature.

As the system is now, it lets you pick from various enemies, each with their own unique attack, while it would be nice if you could keep the ones you wanted for as long as you like. The characters you recruit have a 3 hit maximum. If they get hit 3 times, they will die, and you'll have to recruit a new one.

4.c. World Mechanics

Despite being a 2D side-scrolling game, River City Girls employs a great deal of exploration. The developers crafted a well-thought-out world. Each map is interconnected very seamlessly. It really does feel like an entire town. The game also includes buses to really incorporate the notion that you're traveling to a far-off part of the city.

However, this comes at a price. The massive 2D world has you backtracking several times throughout the game's run.

4.c.i Exploration

I do commend the exploration in this game. While it takes you to most of the map as you do your first play-through, it's in your second play-through that you will be visiting all of the locations on the map.

Your map is always accessible when you open the pause menu. It's integrated into the phone UI of the menu, which makes the map stand out. The map is coloured differently depending on where you've been and where you've yet to go is a great touch that makes exploration much more manageable.

You'll end up in a sprawling nightlife part of the city, places where the downtrodden exist, a ship, and quite a lot more. The game keeps the exploration fresh by having multiple locations that really pop and has so much charm and individuality that feels great to walk around in.

Whenever you come across a new part of the map, the girls would often quip about it, giving you a sense of the world that you're supposed to be inhabiting. Sometimes it's something simple other times, it tells you that you shouldn't be in this place.

Other parts of the map also might be a different time of day. Some streets are available at night, the school and the main town are typically daytime, and others like the areas leading up to the beach and the pier are often in the dusk. This is a great way to keep the game visually interesting, and I enjoyed seeing the different pixel art styles in the backgrounds.

4.c.ii Backtracking

There is a significant amount of backtracking in this game. It isn't overwhelming, but the fact that you end up having to redo the entire game - I would count as backtracking. Whether it's doing quests for Godai or just trying to get to your next objective, you'll end up having to walk through several areas you've already been in.

This isn't too bad, as the game keeps the action up. Backtracking also allows you to find new areas that you might have missed before. It takes you to the location of a Sabu statute that is needed to acquire the true ending.

4.d Boss Battles

What is a beat-em-game without some challenging bosses to beat you down? River City Girls excel in this department, as each of their bosses is unique and challenging in multiple ways. There is one boss who I despise, but I'll get to him soon.

Each boss has its own gimmick that informs how you will defeat them. It isn't any different from any other game that has you, fight bosses. Here, however, the game makes it a point and purpose not only to give each boss their own personality but also to ensure each boss mechanic is wholly different from what you've seen before.

The game ramps up the difficulty of bosses a bit inconsistently, but it evens out by the mid-game. Each boss (except for one) was mechanically sound and fun to play. Every boss was so unique in their style and presentation that they all made a fun experience.

4.d.i Misuzu

Misuzu is the first boss you encounter in the game. She is the 'guard' of the school, and she is a decent introduction to how the boss battles work in River City Girls.

She isn't all too difficult, and once you get a handle on her abilities. Truthfully there isn't much to say about the Misuzu fight.

4.d.ii Yamada

Who the fuck designed Yamada? Even on normal difficulty and on my second play-through, Yamada was an absolute nightmare to fight. I had less trouble with the final boss than I had with Yamada.

He has a large hitbox and multiple unblockable hit combos. There was too much randomization of his abilities. None of which choreograph well, and to top it all off, his stage has an actual hazard that costs you a significant % of your health. Yamada has several attacks where the hitboxes are these big boxes that even extend to his back.

The only way I could beat him was by banging my head against the wall until I got lucky. No other bosses in the game had this much luck in defeating them. It felt downright unfair. When I lost to other bosses, I knew I messed up. Either I didn't have enough items, or I mistimed my combos.

Yamada was just downright unfair, and I absolutely hate him and his pathetic backstory, seriously. Fuck that dude.

4.d.iii Hibari

Hibari is a fashion designer in River City Girls.

Hibari's Boss Battle was exciting, an unusual cross between a Megaman-style boss and a bullet hell boss. Hibari would often shoot hundreds of purple charged balls towards your character as your attempt to dodge it and put her back in her own path, which she then hurts herself. You then get to lay damage onto her.

She would also shoot out a sword you can guide via trajectory to hit her. Hibari was a fair boss. Everything had a pattern to it. It was satisfying memorizing the patterns and then dodging it was fun. This was a great boss battle, not too unfair, the right amount of randomization, and when I failed, it was my fault, no doubt. Also, this battle theme gave me some real Touhou vibes. I loved it.

Hibari's 3 phases were interesting, fun, and engaging.

4.d.iv Abobo

Abobo is a guest character from the Double Dragon series.

He wasn't too hard, but he wasn't too interesting. Usual stuff. His hitboxes were a tad bit annoying, though. It took me a few tries to beat him in normal, and then a couple tries as Misako in Normal+. All in all, it was a bit uneventful.

4.d.v Noize

Noize was hinted at various points from the beginning of the game, much like Abobo. However, Noize is way more relaxed than I expected. Her character design, and backstory, while a trope - still fantastic, and the fact that Nozie's music is a part of the game's soundtrack is incredible.

As for her boss battle, she had some annoying patterns. One of her battle phases is a guitar hero-style sequence where you dodge the notes as they descend from the top of the dance floor. In another phase, her 'fans' jump the security barriers and attempt to kill you because you're fighting Noize.

The boss battle was fun, though it took quite a lot since the guitar hero section took me out way too many times. Sabuko

Sabuko was amazing. Her design, her skill set, her difficulty. All fits well with her characterization of the top Yakuza in the city. She is a fantastic ending boss for the first play-through. With a vast array of dazzling moves and unlike the other bosses, she has one more phase rather than the standard three. Also, Sabuko's anime-style introduction is fantastic.

Saburo has several move sets, such as teleportation. She also uses a sword. Multiple times during the fight, she would call her grunts to help her burst down your health. You'll have to contend with her several times using these different medallions/charms found in the background. Which she uses to accent her base move set, making the fight more challenging.

When you kill Sabuko for the first time, when she loses her 3 bars of health, the game slows down, and she recovers and entire health bar. What a rush. Her move set increases, she has more aggressive attacks and heightened damages.

Ultimately, while hard on your first play-through, the battle was fun and engaging, with a thunderous soundtrack that really kept you going.

4.d.vii Hasebe & Mami

The only way to access the game's final true boss is by breaking all the Sabu statues and then equipping the Hasabe & Mami charms in your inventory slots. Once you've done that and walk into the game's final boss battle, you'll get an introduction for Hasabe & Mami. Misako & Kyoko makes a quip about Subuko being the final boss and them kicking her through the window. Hasabe & Mami insults the girls, and the fight begins.

This was underwhelming. Having spent the entire game bashing my head against annoying boss battles, creepy boss battles, super cool boss battles, metal boss battles, and even the best fake ending boss battle in the game.

Hasabe and Mami were woefully underwhelming. I know I'm not one to criticize, but I can't help but feel far emptier at this game's ending than when I started. I guess the developers wanted you to just win as quickly as possible since you did slug through the game twice at this point. Looking at every nook and cranny trying to find the Sabu statures to actually end up at the game's real ending.

With a max-level Kyoko and a bunch of items, I was able to take down Hasabe and Mami in one battle. No restarts, nothing. I just played the boss battle the first time and crushed them. Again, this is probably more of you've been slogging through the game, so here's a win. We ended up with the same ending, which left a bad taste in my mouth.

Overall, the boss battle was fun. There were some interesting ideas here, and even if I only played through this battle once, I probably haven't seen all their moves. It was decent. A few cool things happened here and there. The banter between the characters was pleasant. The synergy between Hasabe and Mami was great. However, I wished they offered more of a challenge, seeing as the final true boss. Still, it was fine, given the circumstances, I understand.

5. Aesthetic

River City Girls is stunning. Constantly barraging you with a variety of colours, intricate and expressive pixel art, and just exudes charm from every aspect. The sound, art, and aesthetics combine to form a unique, intriguing experience that makes the game stand out from its contemporaries.

There's a lot to talk about in the overall design of River City Girls. Still, I'll be focusing on what I think are some core elements that often push it over the edge.

5.a. Music

Overall, the music and sound design are so masterfully put together that it's hard not to get hyped from the moment you start the game. A thundering opening theme song sets the pace for the game, and it never stops. Every aspect of the game's sound design leans into the overall old-school aesthetic that blends the 8-bit, chiptune style with more modern grandiose productions.

5.a.i Sound Design & FX

I'm calling out the Sound Design & FX because behind the multiple densely layered music soundtracks, each sound fx pops. You push the pause button or enter a new area from the moment you press the pause button. It's not just that the game reduces the volume of the music. Still, it accentuates the background music while also being distinct from it, ensuring that you won't miss the call-out that you need to hear.

The menu clicks, the item pickups, the select screen. All wonderfully immersive. I can't help but feel like I'm playing a beat-em-up from long ago – but better.

5.a.ii Background Music

As you explore various stages enter boss battles, the game quickly changes up the background music to more match the environment you are in. There are times when you're in a mall, and the music reflects a more pop, happy-go-lucky style, while at other points, the game features a dull dragging soundtrack that helps keep tensions up.

Several times, the background music has vocals in it, and it often added to the lure of the world around it. Particularly in the night-time street sections, the background music made it seem like you were walking through a late-night lively street.

5.a.iii Boss Battles

This is where the game's music really stands out to me. Every single boss has its own unique boss theme track. The music of each boss battle complements the nature of the boss battles.

Hibari's boss music is very fast-paced. She often reminds me of old bullet hell games, which is fitting since her boss battle devolves a few times into a bullet hell game.

Noize is another excellent example of this. She is a rockstar in-universe. Her boss battle music features her vocals, with clear influences from punk rock laced throughout the soundtrack that really sells the image of Noize being a rockstar. The mini guitar solos which play alongside also help a ton since her weapon of choice is her guitar.

Sabuko's battle music is pure boss music. The song's entirety is laced with this strenuous, constantly building synth that keeps climbing, carrying the tension of the battle with it. It's a tension that can be felt even when listening to the song without playing the game.

5.a.iv Main Game Theme

I'm surprised this isn't more popular. It beautifully explains the game's premise without feeling like an exposition dump – even though it is. The punk rock-inspired soundtrack gets your blood pumping right from the get-go. It keeps the vocal melody in the soundtrack background as the vocals end and continues to carry it forward.

It's not often that we get a whole punk rock as the central theme of video games. Or any rock/metal – despite DOOM 2016's success, most video games opt for EDM or orchestral as their main themes. The song perfectly matches the aesthetic of River City Girls and the girls' general punk rock attitude that carries with them throughout the game.

5.b. Art

The art in River City Girls is a vibrant display. Every single choice of the colour palette in this game just makes every single character pop and stand out no matter where they were in the game. Every enemy was detailed and unique – though you end up fighting the same group of enemies in the region.

Each boss character was unique in every way. Their designs were easily recognizable and genuinely outstanding. Even their stages were designed so that they obviously complemented the way you were supposed to battle them.

Each character was able to stand out in front of the diverse backgrounds, all of which were so meticulously constructed. From the school of the opening stage all the way to dark neon-clad streets.

This is an absolute testament to the artist working on this game. Each background was always so vibrant and rich in detail that it was fun just running around and exploring the scene. There was always something going on in the background.

I can sit here and spend hours talking about how beautifully crafted this world is. The care put into the world design seamlessly transitioned between sections, making moving from area to area so smooth and fluid.
The game features a colourful cast of background characters that consistently provide a sense of living in this small world.

6. What’s Next for River City Girls?

River City Girls 2. It got announced at the Tokyo Game Show 2021. A small gameplay trailer showed off what seems to be the same engine running a new, more polished world with potentially Riki and Kunio playable from the start. Either way, I'm looking forward to this playing the sequel.

7. Conclusion

River City Girls is simultaneously a love letter to old school beat-em-ups and the franchise which spawned it. And quickly becoming one of the best modern 2d beat-em-ups around. The game's fluid fight mechanics, gorgeous pixel art, and thumping soundtrack make River City Girls a titan in its field.

Anyone who values their 2d side-scrolling beat-em-ups needs to play River City Girls.