River City Saga: Three Kingdoms takes the familiar characters and art style from the Kunio series–best known for River City Ransom and Super Dodgeball in the West–and applies it to a unique new setting: the Three Kingdoms era of Chinese history. It’s an unexpected mash-up, with familiar characters like Kunio, Riki, and Misako playing dress-up as historical figures, and blending the classical story of warring kingdoms with modern-day smack-talk. Similarly, the gameplay is a mixture of eras, blending some modern-day brawler conventions into a game that is decidedly old-school.
The visual style reflects this mixture, with chunky 8-bit-style sprites set against 3D backgrounds and shading techniques. The setting itself makes a very endearing mixture, albeit not the ideal way to learn Chinese history. I went into the game with only a passing familiarity with the Three Kingdoms saga, and while I’m sure I picked up a few broad strokes and overall ideas, it was sometimes hard to discern what was true to the original story and what was the Kunio series riffing with its own personality and jokes. The major characters are mostly lovable, muscley doofs, true to the Kunio series but perhaps less so to Chinese history.
Like River City Ransom, the bulk of the game consists of beating up street punks, or in this case, bandits or opposing factions of warriors. Since you’re in a war, you’re usually accompanied by one or two allies who fight on their own as well. But River City Ransom was always a loose and goofy brawler. Even in its day, it wasn’t as precise as Final Fight, which came out in the very same year. River City Saga fashions itself much more after the River City Ransom style of game, where movement and attacks feel a little more slippery and you’re prone to being tossed around by enemy attacks.