There's one thing you should never really do if you're a video game bad guy. You don't kidnap women. You see, chances are that there's a disgruntled boyfriend, soulmate or, in some cases, blue collar worker, who's willing to fight through waves and waves of enemies to get them back.
Street Gangs, or River City Ransom as it was known in the States, is one such game. Launched in 1989 on the NES in Japan, it found its way to European shores two years later, boasting a mash-up of classic side-scrolling, Double Dragon-style beat-em-up action and a previously untapped depth via some neat RPG elements.
Titled Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari (ダウンタウン熱血物語 Dauntaun Nekketsu Monogatari) in Japan - the title literally means 'Downtown Hot-Blooded Story' - the game that would become Street Gangs arrived in the East as the third game in the Famicom's Kunio-kun series. It's localisation, involved a pretty thorough overhaul, mind, as a whole bunch of sprites were redrawn, the story, dialogue and character costumes revamped to make the game more palatable for a Western audience, and the saving mechanism was replaced with a slightly convoluted password system.
The general gist of things, however, remained the same. Slick - the biggest, baddest, meanest gang leader in town has taken over the school, and best buds Alex and Ryan are going to take it back. As the manual puts it...
"To the citizens of River City: I hold your high school captive! With my gangs of students and vicious bosses roaming the streets, nobody can stop me now. Meet my demands - or else!"
Slick, the meanest, most powerful gang lord in River City, has issued this ultimatum - and the entire town is powerless in a grip of fear!
Fortunately, Alex and Ryan weren't in school the day Slick took it over. But now, their fellow students are prisoners - including Ryan's girlfriend! It's up to our two young heroes to battle their way past several dangerous city gangs, then defeat the gang lord to free the students of River City High and restore peace to the panic-stricken populace!
Oscar-worthy stuff, right?
Nah, I didn't think so either. In fact Slick has very few demands, just an unhealthy desire for a rather vague sense of power. He doesn't ask for shedloads of money, or proses a nuclear plan that'll topple society. There are no deep seated psychological issues at work here, no drill to deliver a bomb to the Earth's core or giant laser to obliterate people who stand in his way. If Alex and Ryan interfere, Slick just promises them a bit of a rumble.
But it doesn't matter. You see Street Gangs managed to dodge accusations of being a simple Double Dragon clone by implementing an inventory system, allowing the bartering of items, weapons and special moves. You're up against a whole gaggle of gang members, it's only natural that you'd need to do some shopping. RPGs mean talking to people as well and Alex and Ryan sometimes have to do a bit of detective work down the mall whilst chowing down at Merv's Burgers or Hack's Chicken Shack, chatting to locals, snakes and two-faced bystanders to get the lowdown on where to go next.
Each gang is different too - from Generic Dudes (no-names with short tempers and weaponry) to Frat Boys (poor, weak-willed rich boys who prefer ranged attacks) to Squids (acrobatic eggheads who like to kick) - all of them sporting different fighting styles. They'll all offer up different exclamations and taunts, with the bosses reacting differently if you've challenged them before.
Most importantly, though, the bad guys you take down will drop sweet coins for you to snaffle up, and you'll need them too. Shopping, as previously mentioned, is an integral part of surviving in River City. You'll need to buy rejuvenating items, offensive weaponry and unlock new moves and abilities to take the fight to the more hardcore gangs. The game can get tough - these things are a matter of pride after all - and death incurs a 50% loss, so it makes sense to get oneself armed. A lovely little twist means that you can beat up your fellow companion for loot if there's a bit of an imbalance going on, although in order to really motor in co-op mode, it helps to be pretty balanced. Better still, though, you can chuck your mate at bad guys, or stand on their head to reach higher areas.
Street Gangs is a charming little game that goes beyond the average side-scrolling beta-em-up whilst sacrificing none of the awesome action. There's still plenty of scope for kicking back with a buddy and button mashing to your heart's content, but's there's more to enjoy. The graphical style fits in perfectly with the childish setting - cartoonish, colourful and often rib-ticklingly funny - it's an underrated gem that deserves more attention. Treasure's Saturn spectacular - Guardian Heroes - and, more recently, The Behemoth's Castle Crashers owe a little something to this game.
Thankfully if you have a Wii you can show some love on the Virtual Console courtesy of 505.