WayForward and Arc System Works reinvented the classic River City series of beat ‘em ups with 2019’s delightful River City Girls, an action-packed romp that followed the dynamic duo of Kyoko and Misako on a quest to save their boyfriends. Yet this wasn’t the first time that the River City franchise flipped the damsel-in-distress script: that honor belongs to the Japan-exclusive Shin Nekketsu Kōha: Kunio-tachi no Banka, which Western players will soon be able to play in English for the very first time as River City Girls Zero.
River City Girls Zero may be a localized version of a decades-old game, but WayForward aims to refresh the experience for modern players. Speaking with Goomba Stomp on a recent episode of the NXpress Nintendo Podcast, River City Girls Zero project lead Adam Tierney describes the game as a “Port Plus”—the original 16-bit release complemented with new manga cutscenes, an anime opening, new music by Megan McDuffee, and dual English and Japanese audio. The result is a game that respects its retro origins while adapting for a contemporary audience—and Tierney says this is only one example of how WayForward will keep reviving beloved retro properties in the future.
“It’d be really great if people knew about X or had seen Y from that game. So we said, ‘Well, why don’t we try and make that happen?’”
First published in 1994 as a swansong release for the original River City developers at Technos Japan, Kunio-tachi no Banka saw series protagonists Kunio and Riki accused of a hit-and-run and put behind bars–setting them up for a traditional beat ’em up quest to break out of jail and prove their innocence. Along the way, their girlfriends, Misasko and Kyoko, lend a hand in the brawl, marking their first playable appearance in the franchise.
Kunio-tachi no Banka may not be the most familiar title for Western River City fans, but for Tierney, himself a longtime franchise devotee, its cast of characters was one of the primary sources of inspiration for River City Girls. “When I became aware of that game, that’s what really started the gears turning for what would become River City Girls—looking at these two adorable teenagers that would curb stomp gang members to death.”
As inspirational as it was, though, Kunio-tachi no Banka remained out of reach for international players even after River City Girls saw its full release, and WayForward wasn’t immediately planning on localizing the game. “It was always an influence, but we don’t typically port stuff—that’s not something that WayForward does,” Tierney says. For the time being, fans would only know about this piece of series history through teases and references in River City Girls.
It was only when the initial planning stages for River City Girls 2 began in earnest that the WayForward team came to believe that a Western release of Kunio-tachi no Banka would be a perfect companion piece for the upcoming sequel. “A lot of River City Girls 2 dives back into some of the contents and themes and characters of that game [Kunio-tachi no Banka],” Tierney recalls, “and the more we were doing early planning, we kept saying, ‘Oh man, it’d be really great if people knew about X or had seen Y from that game. And so we said, ‘Well, why don’t we try and make that happen?’”
It then became the team’s mission, while they were still in the midst of development on the sequel, to localize Kunio-tachi no Banka and have it release before the full sequel. “If people play River City Girls Zero,” Tierney explains, “they will have a deeper appreciation for River City Girls 2 because they’ll know some characters and events and locations that we’re debuting in modernized versions in the sequel.”
“We’ve really done our best to do the most faithful, reverent adaptation and porting of this game possible, while also having some fun with it and putting stuff in there that will appeal to people coming to the brand for the first time with River City Girls Zero.”
That mission set off conversations between WayForward and River City brand owner Arc System Works, and it was here that Kunio-tachi no Banka began to morph into River City Girls Zero. “We came up with this idea of what we call internally ‘a Port Plus’—it’s taking that Super Famicom game and doing a very faithful port of it to modern consoles, but then we’re wrapping it thematically in River City Girls flavor. That’s why it’s retitled River City Girls Zero for the US market.”
That River City Girls flavor includes new additions like an animated intro sequence, all-new vocal and instrumental soundtracks, and—in a first for the River City series—support for dual-language audio: “River City Girls Zero is the first time that you will get to hear Japanese versions of Misako, and Kyoko. In the first game, it was just English voiceovers, but this is the first time where we’re starting to do dual audio—that’s a cool sign of things to come.”
Mixing the old and new in a retro re-release like Zero is a distinct approach, and to hear Tierney describe it, it can also be a delicate balancing act. “We’re trying to do two things at once: we’re trying to have a very faithful adaptation that doesn’t change a bunch of stuff and lets people play the game as it was supposed to be, but then we also want to tie it to the modern brand and tie it to what we’ve been working on.”
This “Port Plus” approach may raise some concerns that Zero is meddling with River City history, but Tierney insists that that simply isn’t the case. Instead, this rerelease method is just a way of giving the game the respect it deserves.
“We’re not trying to erase that game’s identity—if anything, we’re being careful in saying this is a game we love, this is a game that influenced us, and it’s coming over here because this was so influential. We’ve really done our best to do the most faithful, reverent adaptation and porting of this game possible, while also having some fun with it and putting stuff in there that will appeal to people coming to the brand for the first time with River City Girls Zero.”
“It really is ridiculous how we’re hoarding those dream opportunities”
Co-developed between WayForward and Limited Run Games, River City Girls Zero is confirmed to be heading for a release on Nintendo Switch on February 14, before heading to other platforms later in the Spring. According to Tierney, this initial focus on Switch was a matter of scheduling and prioritization.
“I believe the majority of people that played the first River City Girls played it on Switch—Switch had a massive audience, percentage-wise, on that game,” Tierney explains. “That was always one of our highest priorities with River City Girls Zero: getting it on that platform as soon as possible, and then making sure that we didn’t rush the other ones and that they all came out very high quality as well.”
While WayForward might have struck gold by putting a new spin on the River City franchise with River City Girls, that’s far from the only legacy franchise the studio has worked on. From Contra to DuckTales to Double Dragon, WayForward has already worked on a number of legacy IPs throughout its history–and according to Tierney, Zero is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what WayForward has planned in its upcoming release calendar:
“The lineup of games that WayForward’s working on now and that we’re about to start working on is probably, I could safely say, the craziest, most impressive lineup of a year or two of WayForward games I’ve ever seen,” Tierney teases. “If we just started rattling off brands–some of them are video game brands, some of them are non-video game brands, some more original stuff; it really is ridiculous how we’re hoarding those dream opportunities, and how much of that stuff that we have on the horizon going into the back end of 2022, and 2023 and beyond.”
No matter what the future may have in store, River City Girls Zero already offers a new approach to the art of the retro revival. Blending the authentic original experience with a full slate of modern stylistic expansions and additions, Zero aims to bring in hardcore series fans along with casual newcomers–and depending on the reception, it may not be the last “Port Plus” from WayForward:
“This idea of taking a game that we loved from another region that’s never been here and bringing it over so people can play it, and having some fun in the process–I would love to see us do more of that with some of the other games that have influenced us. I’m hoping that Zero is a hit so that we can do more of these “Port Plus” adaptations going forward for other stuff that hasn’t come out here in the US yet.”
Many thanks to Adam Tierney for his time. This is only part of the conversation–to hear the full discussion with WayForward’s Adam Tierney and Bannon Rudis on River City Girls Zero as well as River City Girls 2, tune in to the latest episode of the NXpress Nintendo Podcast!
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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