We’re doing something that’s supposed to be impossible, like playing in your favourite band.
That’s how producer Daniel Crenna describes working on River City Ransom: Underground, the latest gaming sensation to hit crowdsourcing site Kickstarter, and the comparison’s apt.
You see, this retro-styled indie game isn’t just a loving homage to the side scrolling beat’em ups of the 1980s and early 1990s: it’s an officially licensed sequel to one of them, complete with the creator’s blessing.
The original River City Ransom was an instant hit when it debuted on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1990, and Underground promises to pick up directly where it left off, complete with a banging chiptune soundtrack, beautifully rendered 8-bit sprites and frantic button bashing action as you plugh through River City’s different street gangs with little more than your fists.
Conatus Creative, the team behind the project, are spread across the world from Ontario and LA to Tokyo. They raised almost $220,000 CAD (£130,000) on Kickstarter last month with more than 5,000 gamers backing the campaign with the lure of the original game’s designers return to the series.
You might not have heard of Yoshihisa Kishimoto, but gaming fans have a lot to thank him for. As the creator of the Double Dragon series at legendary studio Technōs, he single handedly created a whole genre of game: the belt-scroller, the beat’em up in which you take on a stream of opponents while moving through a cityscape (Usually a post-apocalyptic one with lots of hair gel, steroidal henchmen and crowbars).
Kishimoto notched up a string of hits in the years following Double Dragon, with games including the Kunio-Kun series of side-scrollers - of which the original River City was the third. Imitators soon followed: Golden Axe. Streets Of Rage. Final Fight. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. All seminal games in their own right, but Kishimoto was there first - and none of them left the same lasting impression on Daniel and Dustin Crenna as young children as River City Ransom, in which you play as two high school students, Alex and Ryan, tasked with finding the latter’s kidnapped girlfriend.
“Dustin and I grew up playing Double Dragon and River City Ransom together,” says Daniel. “We would play Nintendo at our grandma’s house with our uncle and those times were burned in my mind as the best of my childhood. Everyone on this team loves beat’em ups, River City Ransom, and the Technōs Japan line of games from the time.”
In a way, this was what the brothers were always meant to do. They coded their first game aged six; as a kid, Dustin would post crayon drawings of game designs to Atari (which always politely rejected them). Decades later both were still working in games, Dustin as a freelance sound designer with credits on hits including Halo 4, BioShock and Battlefield.
As a programmer, Daniel meanwhile was making his own unofficial River City Ransom sequel. “I was slowly putting things together,” he says, but it wasn’t until a chance encounter on a forum on indie gaming site TIGSource that things really took off. “I saw his art and a second later I knew he was the right person for this.”
LA resident Bannon Rudis had been practising pixel art for almost ten years, and had cut his teeth drawing versions of his friends as River City Ransom sprites before teaching himself how to animate them. “I moved onto to more complicated stuff for other projects but always returned to River City sprites,” he says.
As a kid, I loved the faces and expressions they would make. Technōs sprites are very nostalgic for me.
Bannon and Crenna got to work on Underground, putting in long hours preparing the pitch and even roping in famed chiptune composer Rich Vreeland, another longtime River City fan, alongside gameplay developer Mark de Verno, animator Justin Cyr, artist Nina Matsumoto and Ryoma Achida to act as an executive producer in Tokyo.
There’s never been a better time for developers to resurrect their old games in forgotten genres, but in doing so many have run into problems with licensing, sometimes resorting to spiritual sequels instead. Surprisingly, all Crenna and Rudis had to do was ask politely, and Million Co, the company which acquired the rights to the series after Technōs folded in 1996, gave them the green light.
“I asked for the license and I asked Kishimoto-san if he had an interest in helping us make a better Kunio-kun game,” explains Daniel, frankly. “It’s not particularly dramatic to say that, but I asked. We were ready. Our concept art and story were good. We knew we were making the ‘right’ game, something that was creative in its own right but honouring its roots. When you know you’re ready, asking is more or less a formality.”
Kishimoto was happy to come on board as a consultant for the game, which takes place 25 years after the original, with students Alex and Ryan now grizzled River City mechanics. “I'm very happy to see a renaissance of the belt-scroll genre which was our most popular and largest growing for the company,” he tells Red Bull. “It's an important genre. I’m advising the team on artwork and story for the game.”
People in the West will enjoy the game, I think, because the movement is smoother and more active than the original River City Ransom.
Smoother, certainly. As Rudis points out, despite its retro looks, Underground “would have been impossible on NES. The amount of characters on the screen would be a flickering mess.” But the team at Conatus Creative are sticking to the basics however: there may be more going on under the hood but on the surface this is an 8-bit game, just without the load times and irritating save passwords.
“For me, this game could only exist this way,” says Rudis. “A 3D version of River City Ransom would be something you have to build up to and not shove in people's faces right out of the gates. I grew up playing traditional sprite animated games and I think it's an amazing art style. Making something so expressive with such limitations is really cool.”
Of course without an actual cartridge, one limitation Conatus Creative doesn’t have to deal with, storage isn’t exactly an issue. The team are working on 15 playable stages across the city, and hope to expand on the original map. “How big it is will depend on my sanity,” Rudis jokes. “But trust me, it'll be a vast city to explore. Lots of hidden areas and different routes you can take. I want people to get lost while exploring.”
You’ll be able to do just that with up to three friends in co-op mode, either locally or online: in a new twist, players can even team up to pull off team combos not possible in single player mode when the game launches next September on PC, Mac and Linux.
Conatus missed their stretch goals to bring the game to PS4 and Vita, Nintendo Wii U and 3DS, Xbox One and PS3, but Daniel says that it’s far from the end on console.
“We are looking at options for additional funding if we think we need more fuel to ensure we meet our goals, and to self-fund additional platforms we didn’t hit in our stretch goals,” he says.
Less likely is a smartphone port of Underground, at least for now. “Beat’em up games can be horrible on touch screens,” Daniel continues. “We’d have to really work to make our game sing on touch devices. We’re not ruling it out in the future, but we’ve prioritized our porting efforts around devices that will deliver a great multiplayer beat’em up experience, so for us that’s consoles and PCs. After that, it sounds like a fun challenge.”
One of those at a time: after high profile Kickstarter game projects like Clang have run out of money, gamers have become slightly more wary of the pitfalls of crowdfunding. Daniel says the team won’t hit any snags however. How?
“By going a little hungry, allowing that pressure to keep us motivated and on task. Once you know you’re committed to something no matter what, the question about what you would do if it doesn’t work out doesn’t come to mind. Of course we’re worried about delays, running out of funds before we’re done, but that’s all the more reason to do what’s necessary and be as efficient as possible with what we have.”
That’s a lot of stress for the team to handle, but it’s outweighed by the fact that they’re now quite literally living their childhood dreams. “We really do have the ability to make the games we’ve always wanted to play as kids,” says Dustin.
Maybe somebody should ring up Shigeru Miyamoto and ask if they can make a sequel to one of his classic games - we’d back the team Conatus on that.