River City Ransom Underground
It’s been almost 25 years since the streets of River City were overrun by a group of unruly thugs and street gangs. However, if the folks at Conatus Creative have their way, River City will soon be littered with punks, nogoodniks and street scum.
And that’s a good thing.
Daniel Crenna is the founder of Conatus Creative and the producer and engine developer behind RIVER CITY RANSOM: UNDERGROUND, a direct sequel to River City Ransom for the Nintendo Entertainment System.
For those unfamiliar with the original NES title, River City Ransom followed a pair of high school students (Alex and Ryan) who attempt to rescue a girl (Ryan’s girlfriend) from an evil crime boss, and encounter gangs and bad guys along the way. It’s a side scrolling ‘beat ‘em up’ with a bit of an RPG element. It’s been re-released over the years with ports to the Game Boy Advance and most recently on the Wii and 3DS Virtual Consoles, but this newest incarnation is no re-release.
Originally developed by Technos Japan and published by their North American subsidiary (American Technos), River City Ransom’s intellectual property is now owned by Million Co., which was founded by a group of former Technos staff.
For Crenna, the idea to develop a sequel to the near quarter century old NES game isn’t something that happened overnight.
“I read Frank Cifaldi’s article on Armen Casarjian’s (http://www.lostlevels.org/200402/200402-rcr.shtml) attempt to reboot the franchise a long time ago, and that was a small wake-up call in the sense that I learned this was a possible thing to do versus a daydream,” Crenna told me in a recent interview.
“When I read the article, I wasn’t well-versed in the differences between trademark and copyright law. I applied for the trademark, but realized it was little more than a souvenir. I decided I didn’t want to make my own game and slap River City Ransom on the box. If I was going to pursue this, it would have to be blessed by Million. Otherwise it would be a disservice to fans.”
While attempting to educate himself on the best way to go about making this idea a reality, Crenna came across another key cog in the attempt to develop his vision of the game’s sequel. While searching for a River City Ransom image for his Twitter profile, Crenna came in touch with Bannon Rudis, RCR: Underground’s art director and game designer, and another RCR aficionado who has been sketching a follow-up to River City Ransom since the age of ten.
“I met Bannon by accident,” Crenna said. “He literally had years of sprite work on his own spiritual successor, but was getting ready to move on because he couldn’t find a programmer. When I saw his work, it evoked the charm of the original immediately, at least for me. It inspired me to put a pitch and a team together, figuring I had nothing to lose.”
After a long process which included a lot of hard work and many long hours, Crenna and Rudis received Million’s blessing to move forward with creation of a sequel to River City Ransom.
With a number of ideas and images already floating through their collective minds, the two got down to work, trying to figure out the next step. Realizing that he wanted this to be a true sequel to the original, Crenna has taken his time to develop the story as to what has taken place in River City over the past twenty five years, but notes the complete story hasn’t been decided on quite yet.
“We’re not completely finished the story at this point, but it has been both fun and challenging so far,” Crenna said.
“Bannon had a nearly complete story from his original revival project, which we started with as a foundation, and we’re trying to take that base and meld it with the original story to make both ‘streams’ of DNA work better together. So in that sense it’s already a question of the new versus the old.”
Of course, there’s more to developing RCRU than just Daniel and Bannon sitting in a basement together hacking away on keyboards and tablets. The entire Conatus Creative team is behind this project, with everyone having input as to how the game will take shape. But as Crenna mentions, the group developing the game is just as passionate about the game as he and Rudis.
“The rest of the team is clearly passionate about the game as well, and want to add their own touches,” Crenna added.
“Since our game design and story must have approval at every stage, it’s a juggling act to make a story that fits the original, has room to grow, and has its own identity. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that the original River City Ransom was about a student at a rival school with telekinetic powers who persuades a gang of evil high school bosses to kidnap Alex’s girlfriend so that he can lure Alex into a fight, defeat him, and become the most popular kid around… all while never revealing his demands, or law enforcement getting involved.”
(DEVELOPER’S NOTE: This storyline didn’t make it into the NES version, but it did on the GBA)
With the blessing of Million and the passion of a team ready to bring River City to the forefront of gamers once again, the next step was simple. Daniel and his team took to Kickstarter to receive support (and most importantly, additional funds) to develop the sequel.
“We spent a lot of time in the beginning trying to figure out a legal way of running a Kickstarter in the US, because you couldn’t run one in Canada back in April when we started planning this campaign,” Crenna started. “So when Kickstarter decided to launch in Canada, we decided to wait. It set us back a few months in terms of production schedule, but since we can’t really begin in earnest until we’re funded, we put the extra time into the campaign and it was better because of it.”
The Kickstarter launched on September 9th, 2013 and will continue for thirty days before closing on October 9th, 2013. Daniel and his team are looking to raise $180,000 to help source funds for contracting additional developers, paying for licenses, and all of the other expenses that come from developing a game from the ground up.
There’s no guarantee that a Kickstarter campaign is going to work. Just ask the thousands of individuals that take to the site each week, only to see their campaigns fail with little to no support. While he recognizes that there may not be enough fans of the original game to sustain funding for the sequel, Crenna knows that to develop Underground the way he wants to, he’ll need help.
“A requirement for creating something is that you have to be open to the possibility that someone won’t like it,” he acknowledged. “Our game costs more than an average indie title to make because we have unique costs for a licensed game versus creating our own game from scratch. Developing an original title would be much easier. We get to be the indie company doing a licensed title, and I’ve said before that could be the worst of both worlds, but I don’t see it that way at all. I just want to make this project, this sequel, the best it can be, and to do that we have to have a little faith and take a risk.”
“It’s the same risk backers are taking on us. You have to put yourself out there to know if what you’re doing is any good or not.”
So far, the reaction to the potential sequel has been strong, and River City Ransom Underground has over $66,000 in backing after its first week. [ Editor’s Note: At press time, pledged support has climbed over $85,000 so far. ] The project appears to be trending upwards, and Crenna is hopeful the optimism will sustain as word continues to spread about the game.
“Fans are sharing their childhood memories with each other in our comments section, and it just blows us away. No matter what happens, we feel like we’re hosting the greatest River City Ransom convention on our Kickstarter page, and we couldn’t be happier about that.”
Of course, not everyone feels that way, and RCRU does have its detractors. That’s something Crenna expected, but not something that deters the direction of the project.
“Some people are really frustrated with us for stepping on their childhood, and we knew this wouldn’t be a hit with everyone,” he said. “You have to take the good feedback and bad and use it to make a better game.”
And the team in place is more than capable of making a solid title. The Ottawa, Ontario, Canada based Conatus Creative has an experienced group of hands with differing levels of expertise.
“We all come from different backgrounds, so we’re able to complement each other well,” Crenna said.
“For example, Mark [De Verno] (gameplay developer) and I come from a web and mobile software background, I’ve done a lot of open source work, Dustin [Crenna] (audio director) has over ten years in the game industry creating sound and music, and Bannon has always had a pencil in his hand, but he also has experience directing short films, and creating TV sets as an art director.”
“We’re working with a lot of great people, including Disasterpeace (aka Rich Vreeland), to make this the best game it can be.”
If the $180,000 goal can be met by October 9th, then Daniel and his crew hope to get to work right away to bring River City Ransom Underground to PC’s sooner than later.
“We’d be moving as fast as possible because we have a lot of game to create,” Crenna said.
“Because we can devote full time attention to the game, we’ll be in a great position to iterate fast. We have to hustle to finalize all our game design so we can stop wondering what the game will be, and just focus on output for the vast majority of our production time, but we’re close to that now and so we’re really looking forward to cranking it out and giving everyone progress reports and videos along the way.”
If you’re interested in backing River City Ransom Underground and would like to make a pledge, or if you’d like to check out more from the Conatus Creative team and this project, you can hit up their Kickstarter page (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/combitstudios/river-city-ransom-underground) , and pledge.
Radio marketing executive by day, nostalgia nerd by night… The Temple of Retro (Jared Waldo aka ‘Wally’) continues to re-live his childhood through video games, cartoons, and retro advertising campaigns. His blog is listed at thetempleofretro.wordpress.com and can mocked on Twitter @templeofretro.