We Beat Some Answers Out of River City Ransom: Underground Developers

When I think of River City Ransom, I don’t think about it being a non-linear, open-world, action-roleplaying beat’em up; although it is all of those things. When I think about River City Ransom, I think about classic, unadulterated fun. Not date-night chick-flick fun, or drinking with buddies fun, or even sorority party maybe-I’ll-get-lucky fun. Rather, the silver ball flying, 16bit sound blasting, cheering school-kids in the background arcade fun.

Nowadays, I get tossed out of arcades left-and-right. While this is possibly because they’re often within a child-only establishment (Chuck-E-Cheese), and I may have made some inappropriate “ball-pit” references around some children, I believe that they keep banning me because I set non-child friendly high-scores on every machine I touch — like a video game King Midas. Naturally, I’m excited about River City Ransom: Underground. Yes, it’s a direct sequel to one of my favorite games. And yes, it’s being developed by a passionate team of fans that understand what made the original a classic. But what really excites me is being able to experience that classic fun again. Recapturing the better years of my life through a digital form of entertainment, and delving in to dangerous forms of escapism as I slowly slip out of reality and into a world created by the game and my subconscious. Well, I couldn’t care less.

We had a chat with the team behind River City Ransom: Underground, and we asked them enough questions to annoy them, but not so many that they’d stop replying to our messages.

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[Hardcore Gamer] As developers, how would you define a game?

[Daniel Crenna - producer, engine developer] A game is something with rules that you try to either bend, or obey, to match your own expectations of what you’re playing. It’s interactive, and if it’s done right, you will forget yourself. This has nothing to do with graphics or realism. A well-made game puts you into what you’re playing.

[Mark De Verno - gameplay developer] A game, a good game, is one that leaves many positive memories, years down the line.

[Bannon Rudis - art director, game designer ] A game is something that lets you escape from the doldrums of the real world for a brief moment.

[Dustin Crenna - audio director, game designer] Something that starts out as an idea and develops into something more.  A project that you can conceptualize and then bring to life with the right team members.  This could be said about any project in general, but a game is something that as a developer you want the player to experience and have the same feelings you did creating it.

Do you believe that gaming offers a healthy form of escapism, even when based on violence or other themes often considered a negative influence?

[Daniel Crenna] I think gaming is inherently positive. It’s difficult to navigate challenging themes while not breaking the suspension of disbelief, and also to get into the head space of others. Games have to balance their creator’s wishes with the possibility, or rather inevitability, that those wishes may hurt others because they were made through a different lens or perspective on life, even unconsciously. It’s like the Buddhist practice of doing no wrong, yet your very existence causes harm. You’re always sandwiched between the two.

[Mark De Verno] They are proven in studies to help with pain relief and reduce stress, so yes, they do offer an avenue for escapism.  However, I wouldn’t put the emphasis on escapism.  Games are interesting in that they fundamentally revolve around solving problems.  Whether it is a puzzle, how to navigate a level, or how to survive a horde of zombies, they all revolve around making a decision to come to a solution.  Enhanced decision making, gross and fine motor skills, reduced stress and depression, and learning are proven to be positive effects of the game. Finally, people seem to have a very good sense of what is real and what is imaginary, and what is imaginably evil doesn’t translate to real world actions.  Therefore, regardless of the archetype of the game there are proven overall benefits.

[Bannon Rudis] Unfortunately violence in video games seems almost necessary. I would never do 99 percent of the things that I have done in a video game to people in real life.

[Dustin Crenna] We’ll be discussing the violence in video games and how it affects people forever. For me, it’s definitely something more positive.  Though when I was growing up and playing games they all looked like River City Ransom, and by the time the Super Nintendo rolled around with Mortal Kombat and Killer Instinct I had (hopefully) developed my senses for right and wrong.  I do believe that video games are a good form of escaping reality.  Maybe in some ways, punching computer people in the face helps prevent someone from punching a real person in the face.

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What are you doing to make River City Ransom fresh for modern gamers?

[Daniel Crenna] Hopefully no more than is necessary. What stands out the most to me is greatly increasing the frame count on animations and shading options that just weren’t possible to get on a cartridge at the time. I also hope that the “bigness” really lets people get lost in the environment. We’ll try anything that has a chance of being almost as good as what we remember the original to be on our first play-through.

[Mark De Verno] More immersive combat with a combo system; a plethora of playable characters each with their own moves, strengths, and weaknesses, and an expansive world with a great sandbox.

[Bannon Rudis] My take on it is that River City Ransom was so awesome back in the day and should have evolved over the years if they kept making them for a North American audience. Many different fighting and beat em’ up games have come out since the original River City Ransom. The ability and needs of the player has increased accordingly. I want to take advantage of modern day players’ increased fighting skills and precise timing. Plus uh… wrestling moves.

[Dustin Crenna] We’re updating the game play, the physics engine, the number of people on screen at any given time, and yet trying to stay true to the original with its look and feel.  We’re updating the audio slightly but also making sure it doesn’t stray from the 8-bit feel.

Have there been a lot of changes to the gameplay style, or are you sticking closely to the original?

[Daniel Crenna] Using more of a 1v1 fighting game mechanic vs. a standard beat’em up is probably our biggest departure from the original, but the core elements of city life, shopping, and RPG grinding are right where they should be.

[Mark De Verno] If we don’t stick close to the original elements then we aren’t really making a sequel.  We’d just be branding a new game with the goodwill of a cult classic.  What we can do, is expand upon the core elements, and modernize them if it provides a substantial improvement.  In the original, Alex and Ryan were identical except for their faces (which… were nearly identical).  We can modernize these characters by making their moves different, without straying from the original.

[Bannon Rudis] We are sticking to the same formula but evolved. You still earn XP and upgrade your player but in a more sophisticated way. The main thing that fascinated me when I was younger was exploring the city. That will be a major part of our game.

[Dustin Crenna] Yes and no in terms of changes.  Like I mentioned before we don’t want to stray too far from the original, but we’re updating the number of characters, their moves, and the co-operative gameplay with other players.  The new physics capabilities will allow for more user driven stories where unpredictable scenarios will play out based on what the players decide to do with their weapons and objects.  What if a baseball just happened to bounce a certain way and took out three or four enemies at once?  It’s these types of scenes that made the first River City Ransom’s game play so fun and left such a lasting impression on the people that played it.

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A two part question: What inspired this follow-up, and was Underground a game you’ve always wanted to work on?

[Daniel Crenna]For me, it was a few things. The Armen Casarjian story was the spark that reminded me that this was even a possibility. But I had revisited this game every few years for as long as I can remember, and it was always fun and I felt like I wanted more. Much later, I’d play the translated ROMs of the Japanese sequels but they didn’t hold the same place in my mind, and so they couldn’t possibly live up to my own imagination inserting things into the original. So, I did apply for the trademark but it didn’t take long for me to shelve the idea other than some sketches and design notes. I knew obtaining a trademark for a game but then diverging completely from the original work would have the opposite effect I was hoping to achieve. That would have been the end of it, had I not met Bannon, whose early work immediately demonstrated to me the impact that we could make, and from there, I threw everything I had at this to get it to the point where we are now.

[Mark De Verno] All of us were huge fans of the original game, and being in that industry, it’s easy jump to want to make a worthy follow-up.  However, a lot of pieces, when worked for, really fell into place that allowed us to create this follow-up.  Once a couple of these pieces worked out, we just snowballed with the idea, and here we are.

[Bannon Rudis] I think the answer would be River City Ransom and yes, because River City Ransom.

[Dustin Crenna] For me it was definitely the time spent playing the original game as a kid that made me always wonder what it would be like to work on a game like it.  It’s not just another ‘nostalgia glasses’ type of scenario.  This game was (and still is) great.  I was always designing games as a kid, and the first console we had in our house was the Atari 2600.  I couldn’t think of anything better than making games.  I would daydream about all the cool games I wanted to make in grade school.  Combining that drive to make games with the memories of playing River City Ransom it just seems like a no-brainer that we attempt something like this.  We have the opportunity now to make it happen, so why not?  I’ve spent nearly a decade working for big companies on games I didn’t really want to make because they weren’t my own projects.  This one is ours and we wouldn’t want to work on anything else.  The best moments of my career have been spent working with other indie developers on their projects, and creating projects with my own team.

What are some challenges you’ve faced working on this sequel?

[Daniel Crenna] Nostalgia goggles work both ways. You can do no wrong, or no right, depending on the audience and their own experiences and how they receive your work. It’s really easy to second guess yourself when you’re trying to live up to a canon but still find a way to express yourself. We’ve had all of the usual financial and logistical challenges for an ambitious project, but I think the hardest thing is knowing, absolutely knowing, that your very best work won’t cut it for some people, fans like yourself, the people you’re trying to please most.

[Mark De Verno] Technically, challenges for coding for 2.5D are about 10x harder than a traditional side-scroller.  Non-technically, a lot of effort and resources have been devoted to running the Kickstarter campaign.  I couldn’t have fathomed just how much time and energy is needed to keep this going, or smooth out the wrinkles.

[Bannon Rudis] Knowing the balance of the old look with the new look. I started off with really stiff animations like the original but noticed the same sprites have been used for over twenty years and I wanted to progress the series but honor the original look still. It’s a tough balancing act.

[Dustin Crenna] The biggest challenge is building a follow-up project to one of the most beloved NES games of all time.  How do we make something new yet not break the template of the first?  Everyone expects a sequel to be bigger and better yet when you look at the movie industry a sequel is never nearly as good as the first (there are exceptions of course).  So there’s a lot of pressure to deliver.  Personally I don’t intend to aim for ‘better’ and instead would prefer to think of it as ‘a worthy follow-up to one of the best brawlers of all-time!’

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What game would you credit for your desire to develop them yourself?

[Daniel Crenna] The original release of Sid Meier’s Pirates!

[Mark De Verno] Without a doubt it would be Dungeons & Dragons.  Learning how to be a good Dungeon Master involves learning how to create a good story that makes players want to come back.  The spark of imagination never really leaves and you have all these great ideas you just want to expose to others.

[Bannon Rudis] I can’t say there was one but if I had to choose, Metal Gear Solid. Even when I was younger and playing on an Atari, I would draw on graph paper all of the aspects of my different game ideas. But once I played Metal Gear Solid, I knew what was possible with the video game medium.

[Dustin Crenna] This is a difficult question to answer because there are just too many games. It would have to be from the Atari 2600 era since those were the first games I played, and the basis of what set me on a path to create games for a living.  But I guess even before that I was playing coin-op arcades.  On top of that there was the Commodore 64 era, and the PC.  Wow, too many games to choose from.  I honestly don’t think I can pick one.  I’ll list a few:  Combat, Trojan, Star Wars, Jungle Hunt, Pac Man, Joust, King’s Quest, any game to do with wrestling, and many more.

If you had to sell River City Ransom: Underground to someone that has never heard of the original, and has never played a beat’em up, what would your pitch be?

[Daniel Crenna] Playing this game is the closest you can get to being the coolest kid in school while saving the world.

[Mark De Verno] You play a hero or heroine who explores the city in search of an infamous criminal.  While doing so, you have to defend yourself with martial arts against hordes of thugs.  But don’t worry, you’ll get better as the game goes on with new moves and items!

[Bannon Rudis] I wouldn’t pitch it to them. I would come over to their house/apartment/domicile/etc and bring over every game that has inspired our version of River City Ransom. I would start a vigorous training course. We would lock the doors, bust out the energy drinks of my choosing and get to work. First up to bat would be the original RCR. Then we would advance to Dodgeball, Alien VS Predator Arcade, Guardian Heroes, every Capcom fighting game ever, Streets of Rage 2 (specifically that one) the Double Dragon series, WWF No Mercy and Wrestlemania for N64, Combatribes, Dead Rising, TMNT, Comix Zone, Power Stone 2, GTA series, Dragon’s Crown, Scott Pilgrim (we would read the comics, watch the movie, then play the game), Gunstar Heroes and a whole backpack full of NES and SNES games. Then after our two week binge of an intense backlog of gaming history that lead up to the creation of River City Ransom Underground, I would look this person in the eye and say “That’s what you missed out on and you’ll miss out on this too.” If they never heard of or never saw the original, and didn’t grow up playing it, they will never understand it and there is no way I could ever sell it to them.

[Dustin Crenna] ‘A retro inspired brawler with great co-operative game play and unpredictable physics that will make you BARF!’  Or something like that. I’m not the best at making pitches I guess.

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Don’t miss out on the sequel to the classic and beloved River City Ransom; get your pledge reward and help fund some dreams. For more information, check out the Kickstarter and official Conatus Creative website.

  • http://HardcoreGamer.com Steve Hannley

    This seems just great. I hope the Kickstarter can pull through.

  • Nico894

    Hopefully they can get funded and reach the Wii U stretch goal, would love to play this on my Wii U.