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'BARF!': Designing River City Girls' approachable, challenging brawling

'BARF!': Designing  River City Girls ' approachable, challenging brawling
October 11, 2019 | By John Harris

October 11, 2019 | By John Harris
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More: Indie, Design



WayForward and Arc System Works’ recently-released River City Girls, a revision of River City Ransom's classic design, feels both solidly like the original games and something fresh and new.

To get a better sense of how a project like this comes together, Gamasutra recently corresponded with WayForward's Adam Tierney about the game's design and development. 

In our wide-ranging conversation (reprinted below), Tierney spoke to the challenges of revamping River City Ransom's design principles for a modern game, what it takes to make brawler gameplay interesting, and what devs can do to help introduce new players to the genre. 

For starters, who are you, and what are Wayforward and River City Girls?

Hi, I’m Adam Tierney. I’m a designer/director at game developer WayForward, home of Shantae and Mighty Switch Force! I’ve been directing games here for about 15 years now, and most recently I wrote and directed River City Girls.

Wayforward's come a long way since the original Shantae on Game Boy Color. In particular, I've been a fan of Contra 4 and DuckTales Remastered. Is there any prior work of which you're especially proud, that you'd like to draw attention to?

Those are definitely two of our better licensed titles, although I didn’t contribute too much to them personally. Of the games I’ve worked on, notable previous efforts include Aliens: Infestation, Cat Girl Without Salad, LIT, and Batman: The Brave and the Bold.

So, let's settle into the reason we're here. River City Girls is an exploratory belt brawler (once upon a time they were called "beat-em-ups") along the lines of the original River City Ransom. How would you say it keeps true to that formula, and how does it improve upon it?

I wouldn’t say RCG specifically “improves” on the previous games, because the series has always been fantastic in my opinion. Here in the US, we got maybe a dozen games from the Kunio-kun series over the years, but in Japan they’ve released more than 50 Kunio-kun games over the past 30 years.

Like many US players, I knew of the Kunio-kun games mostly from River City Ransom (and Super Dodge Ball on the NES. But it was only a few years ago that I was made aware of the Super Famicom title Shin Nekketsu Kōha: Kunio-tachi no Banka, which was a Japanese exclusive, and to my understanding, the last Kunio-kun title developed by the original dev team (which also created Double Dragon). Kunio-tachi no Banka featured two kickass playable female characters, Misako and Kyoko, who helped their boyfriends Kunio and Riki take down baddies across town.

WayForward has a history of reimagining classic game brands, so about two years back, we pitched Arc System Works on a new Kunio-kun game focusing on Misako and Kyoko, and moving Kunio and Riki (typically the heroes of the series) into secondary roles. They loved our take on the brand, and pretty quickly expressed interest in helping WayForward realize our vision for this game.

As for how River City Girls keeps true to the original Kunio-kun formula, nearly everything from the older games is still here—the world navigation, mission structure, style of combat, item usage, stats, shopping, even the funny BARF! dialog when enemies die. But in each case we’re either fleshing out and modernizing each system, or putting our own spin on it.

There’s also a ton of new additions to the series with this game, like the recruits system, accessories system, full VO storytelling, anime scenes, manga scenes, and a brand new flavor of art direction and musical stylings.

The Kunio games (which include Renegade, River City Ransom, Super Dodge Ball, [oddly] Nintendo Cup Soccer and others) have a long history, although they suffered a bit with the demise of creator Technos Japan.

I love all the little references in RCG to the old games, like "Merv Burgers," the shopping music and 8-bit Kunio's use as a tutorial narrator. They help to make River City feel like a real place that we just visit once in a while. Was this a conscious choice? Are there any other genre references you're proud of, such as to other Kunio games, the more recent RCR sequels, or just beat-em-ups in general?

Oh absolutely. One of the most critical things for the dev team on this game was to make River City feel like a real, believable place. To achieve that, we didn’t use tilesets in this game. Normally with a retro pixel game, the artists create a few different tilesets, which are the building blocks for each location, and then all stages are built using those pieces. That’s why most 8- and 16-bit games tend to have pretty repetitious stages, and this was done mostly because there were severe limitations on how much pixel art could be loaded into a NES or SNES game at once.

Since those limitations are gone now, Bannon Rudis (my assistant director on RCG) and I figured out what our six worlds would be, and then the dozen or so unique locations per world. Bannon created grid layouts for each location, and then we let our amazing pixel artists go wild illustrating each location. Even if you’re only fighting in, for example, the uptown fashion district for a few minutes, we wanted that location to feel completely immersive to players. If players can believe in the world we’ve created, then they’ll forget they’re playing a retro video game and just focus on the characters and story.

As far as major game influences on RCG, I’d say the four biggest were probably River City Ransom, the aforementioned Shin Nekketsu Kōha: Kunio-tachi no Banka, the earlier NES Double Dragon games, and finally River City Ransom: Underground, which was directed by Bannon before he came to WayForward. Each of those four games contributed to the DNA of RCG in some fashion.

One issue with popular perception of belt-scrolling brawling games is, in places, they feel kind of arbitrary. Tough enemies frequently seem like they have an edge on human players, in terms of punching reaction time. How do you design a game like this in a way that it is "fair enough," that is, defeatable with practice and skill?

Well one decision we made very early on is that players should always be able to pull off any move they decide to. I didn’t want complicated button inputs that would be a gate to players, like some Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat games. So our inputs are modeled after games like Super Smash Bros. or Arc’s excellent Dragon Ball FighterZ, both of which feature inputs typically as simple as pressing in one direction plus pressing one button. That way, players of any age can pull off any individual attack, although there is still a depth of nuance for the more skilled brawler gamers to chain combos together, or combine attacks in interesting ways.

As far as enemies and difficulty, that’s just something you play with and refine over the course of development until it feels “right.” We also wanted our enemies to be fairly aggressive, not dumb, so this isn’t the kind of game most players can get through taking zero damage. It felt more true to the story and world that Misako and Kyoko take hits nearly as often as they deal them out, and of course that feeds into systems like resurrection (where one player can stomp their friend’s soul back into their body if they’re quick enough) and the need for item usage.

But we balance that by having very low-loss Game Over penalties — players can continue in the same scene they left off with a full stamina (health) bar, and the only cost is a portion of their money. So aside from some of your cash, and progress within the current room, players don’t ever really lose their progress or have to redo things (the one exception being boss battles, of course).

It’s definitely a tightrope act, balancing the challenge of classic brawler games with the expectations and patience of modern gamers. But the way you solve that is by listening to your team, and your playtesters, and what they feel is and isn’t fair, and then you noodle things until they feel as fair and satisfying as possible. It will always be too hard for some people, and too easy for others, but I think we landed in a place where the overall challenge is satisfying to get through without turning too many gamers off from completing the game.

In a way, the AI of your opponents is the "meat" of the game, the content players must overcome and master in order to achieve success. When you have a large game with a good variety of enemies, how do you keep them interesting and distinct from one another, in play style, so players must adapt to situations and not just do the same thing over and over to win?

I actually think enemy design is one of the easier things when working on a brawler. It comes down to giving each enemy a unique, spacial form of attacking that complements all other enemies, and then staggering them throughout the game so that players are seeing new enemies, and new enemy variations, at a rate that keeps them from ever getting bored.

What I mean by “spacial attacking” is the shape of each enemy’s attack. So if enemy #1 is aggressive and comes at you from the front, maybe enemy #2 tries to jump in and attack you from above. Now you have two enemies attacking in different ways, from different angles, so they don’t just fall into the same line waiting to attack you. Maybe enemy #3 tries to get behind you, maybe enemy #4 does a very wide ground attack, but slower so you have time to get out of the way, enemy #5 can throw a projectile, enemy #6 can be very acrobatic and unpredictable, etc.

So long as the ‘shape’ of how each enemy moves and attacks looks different than the others, they’ll combine in interesting ways that keep gameplay feeling fresh.

And then staggering just involves when each type of enemy first debuts, when (if ever) they stop getting used, and when more difficult variations appear. You want to give players a healthy collection of enemy types early on, so they never have a chance to get bored. But you also want to pace your debuts of enemies so that players are fighting new characters right up until the end of the game.

And related to that, since this is a game where our characters are leveling up and gaining new attacks as they advance through the game, you try to debut enemies that are perfect for those new attacks around the time you expect players to unlock them.

Since we’re giving players a lot of choice on when and which attacks to unlock, you can’t predict that stuff 100 percent, but we can ballpark and estimate how players will likely go through the game, based on the play styles of our own dev team and playtesters.

One of the many great things about River City Girls is the game's ludicrous number of incidental characters, just lurking around in the background minding their own business. Their number, coupled with all the enemy types and the number of frames of animation everyone has, seems like a forbidding project for any studio without a huge staff of artists. How did you manage to create, and coordinate the creation of, such large amounts of art?

It’s just something you have to do. It’s the same as deciding not to use tilesets—we knew it would be critical in this game, because it’s so easy to get bored quickly in a brawler, to constantly be delivering new jokes, story, and memorable moments to keep players motivated to move to the next room. You could have the best combat ever created, but if players aren’t being engaged with the story or characters or humor or mystery in addition to that combat, all but the most dedicated brawler fans will get bored quickly.

I think it’s also critical to put the right team together from the start, when your goal is to create a very charismatic, immersive game.

If you find some real “rockstars” in your BG artists, character artists, animators, musicians, programmers, etc. like we did on RCG, then there’s less need for all the creativity and charm to come from just one or two people. So many of the best gags or visuals or cool little touches in RCG came from our staff without explicit direction from Bannon or myself. The two of us set the initial tone for the game, but once our amazing crew saw what we were going for, all of them helped flesh out our universe.

Neither River City Ransom or River City Girls offer much of a penalty for death: you just lose half your money and are put back nearly where you died. It felt like a forward-looking feature (to me anyway) when the game was new; now, with RCG's challenge level, it's just as welcome as ever. Were you tempted to increase the cost for death? What do you think about penalties for dying in action games in general?

I think they usually suck, haha. I’ve been directing games for about 15 years now, and one thing that’s definitely changed over the years is I’ve gotten more and more lenient on punishing gamers for failure in games. That’s not to say I’m suggesting games should be “easy.” You need a healthy amount of challenge for players to feel accomplishment in their successes. But nothing turns a player off faster than causing them to lose large amounts of progress due to a death in-game.

So in River City Girls, we’re automatically saving the player’s progress every time they reach a new room. That way the player never loses more than a room’s worth of progress, and the aforementioned money percentage, which is really just to prevent exploit (i.e. purposefully killing yourself to refill stamina). The boss battles are a bit of a pinch point, so depending on the player’s skill level and stats, they might fight some of the bosses several times before besting them, but I think that’s expected. If players beat every boss on their first try without much effort, those bosses aren’t going to be that memorable.

And then, of course, expectations are all over the place when you have a game where it’s up to the player how fast they level up, and when you’re based on a game that’s done things a certain way for 50 titles and 30 years. But we had a clear idea early on where we wanted gamers to feel challenged, and where they shouldn’t, so hopefully most players will feel as though the game is tough and requires some amount of mastery, but not to an unfair or frustrating degree.

I watched a couple of Let's Players on YouTube work through the game, younger people, and I was struck by how they didn't know some of the genre conventions, like letting enemies come to you vertically or double-tapping to run. How do you design games that are interesting to old hands while easing new players into a genre with such distinctive conventions?

It’s tough. We have a lot of tutorials early on in RCG, including instructing players how to run. And I recall internal discussions with the team whether some of those were overkill, but as you imply, younger players who haven’t played traditional brawlers might have no idea how to run, or wall jump, or grab an enemy, etc. You don’t want to annoy the player with instruction, but it is absolutely 100 percent possible that anything you don’t teach them explicitly could go unlearned forever.

A perfect example is our game’s stats, which are based on those from the previous Kunio-kun games. We don’t explicitly explain what each stat (i.e. ST, AG, LK, etc) mean, and probably didn’t because if you tutorialized everything in the game, the player would forever be inundated with pop-up messaging. But this specific messaging caused players (especially those who were younger, or unfamiliar with brawlers) to be confused as to what each stat does. So we’ve had to make up for that by putting together an out-of-game tutorial for social media, in the physical instruction manual, etc.

It’s tricky, though—you might think you’re doing too much hand-holding, but aren’t doing enough, or think you’ve got too little, and it’s already too much. All you can do is playtest the hell out of the game and see how new gamers react to the current setup, controls, and messaging, then revise, revise, revise….

I've seen multiple people rave about the music in River City Girls; everyone seems to agree it's really good! Who's responsible for that soundtrack, and how would you advise other studios on the lookout for finding good musical talent?

There are 62 incredible music tracks in River City Girls, and a whopping 50-ish of them are by Megan McDuffee. I’d never worked with Megan prior to this game, and she blew us away with her very charismatic ‘80s-style synthpop compositions and her silky smooth vocals. Megan really went all out on the game’s soundtrack, and we knew that would be critical for a game like this, which relies so heavily on its own unique style and personality.

In addition to Megan, industry vet Chipzel composes our boss battle songs; I wanted those to have a rougher, chunkier feel compared to Megan’s stage compositions, and Chipzel nailed that goal. Dale North, a good friend of mine and celebrated composer, crafted the retro game tunes for our arcade stage. And finally Nathan Sharp (aka NateWantsToBattle) and Cristina Vee, who also cast and directed our game’s VO, contributed RCG’s intro and end credits songs.

My advice to other studios would be to try out new talent. I’ve never had a soundtrack to one of my games get accolades like this one, and it’s essentially the first time I’m working with Megan, Chipzel, Dale, and Nathan. There’s nothing wrong with sticking with the artists you know and love, but if you know you want a very different sound (like we did on RCG), try out some very different musicians.



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