Feature: Realize Games' River City Ransom 2
Armen Casarjian is a 21-year-old QA tester for Atari. Like most in his profession, Casarjian has larger ambitions. He wants to design games.
It started innocently enough, as a quirky hobby, laying out scripts on paper with no real hope of seeing his creations coded. In 2002, on a whim, Casarjian applied for the expired trademark on River City Ransom, a game that he considers among the best ever made. After six months, unexpectedly, Casarjian's request was accepted, turning an ambitious and unexperienced young game designer into the man who owned River City Ransom. And for a brief time, the game perhaps most infamous for never seeing a true follow-up almost had a real sequel.
-By Frank Cifaldi
"I was pretty astonished that I was the only one to just go and try it," says Casarjian. Though he didn't own any of the code, music, or even art work from the original game, he did own the title.
"The names like Alex and Ryan are generic enough," he says. "Though I wouldn't have the rights to the copyright, I could design one from scratch and give it the name River City Ransom."
Casarjian started a development house by the name of Realize Games. He employed his friends on a volunteer basis to work on his self-designed game, fittingly titled River City Ransom 2, for the Game Boy Advance.
River City Ransom 2 was to be coded by Brandon Leach, a heavily-contracted assembly-level programmer with a geeky love of heavy metal music.
"He owns like six thousand CDs," says Casarjian. "He's interviewed Metallica and picked Dream Theater up from the airport."
On lead art was Walker Dunnington, an aspiring comics artist who happens to be an active member of the Lost Levels Forums. On sound was Jessie Tracer, a friend that Casarjian considers a "very talented musician."
"It was everyone's understanding that we'd work for free until we got a contract with a publisher," Casarjian says. "Basically, we'd create a demo, which I'd cart around until I had an offer."
Casarjian's script paid homage to the arguably unintentional humor of the original. Ryan's girlfriend, Cyndi, has once again been kidnapped, this time by a villain name Vick.
"It's just Simon again," says Casarjian. "He has a thing for crappy aliases."
As in the original, Simon's ransom note demands that his unspecified "demands" be met, continuing his threats against Ryan with ambiguous henchmen and "bosses."
Joining Alex and Ryan this time around were Ivan, who guarded the gates of River City High in the first game, and Roxy, Simon's girlfriend, who you may remember as being a sort of "double agent" in the original. Casarjian's plan was to allow up to four people to brawl it out on the streets of River City simultaneously, using only one cartridge.
The fighting engine used what Casarjian refers to as his "transparent depth" theory. Inspired by Super Smash Bros. Melee for the Gamecube, "transparent depth" allows a player familiar with standard controls, in this case those found in the original River City Ransom, to be able to play through the entire game using only what they know, but at the same time allows a more experimental player to get stylish with more advanced strategies.
River City Ransom 2 was to employ a very simple addition in subscribing to this theory - the addition of a grabbing move using the "R" shoulder button.
"It was contextual; if someone tossed a weapon at you, you could snatch it from the air," says Casarjian. "I wrote a lot of moves for grappling. You'd be amazed at what you can do with just two buttons."
While attending E3 in 2003, Casarjian noticed something alarming. Atlus announced and had apparently been working on River City Ransom EX for the Game Boy Advance.
"They hadn't even bothered to check if anyone held the copyright," Casarjian says. "They simply had ex-Technos developers port the game over to GBA and took the title."
Out of respect for the original developers, and because his game hadn't gone very far into development anyway, Casarjian pulled the plug on River City Ransom 2. Despite his lawyer's advice to the contrary, Casarjian has no plans to press charges.
"Though this game isn't much of a sequel, I'm sure the fans will appreciate it. Besides, standing in the way isn't going to win me any popularity contests," says Casarjian.
Realize Games is still alive, and Casarjian hasn't given up on designing games.
"I've dedicated my life to it, but there's a long road ahead of me," he says.
"More developers should pay attention to 2D design. It's never going to be phased out, as long as people continue to innovate."
River City Ransom EX, an upgraded port of the original, is slated for release by Atlus on August 5, 2004. With any luck, sales will deem it worthy of the sequel fans so obviously crave.