Have you ever wanted to play a 2D beat ‘em up with a slow burn story focused on high school delinquents and time-sensitive events, like River City Ransom crossed with Shenmue? If not, do you want to, now that you’ve read that? Well then The friends of Ringo Ishikawa is the game for you.
Created by one independent developer in Russia, Ringo is a light-weight game, but one that nonetheless possesses a lot of authenticity. You play, as the title suggests, as Ringo Ishikawa — a young lad in senior year of high school. Ringo is the heated and ambitious leader of a gang who regularly gets involved in fights with gangs from neighboring schools. Sounds like a good ol’ punchy time, but Ringo has been held back a year due to his failing grades, and his friends are getting tired and bored of these ensuing shenanigans, so the tone of the game is a bit gloomier than you’d think.
Like Shenmue, the game is played in real-time, so there are story events that happen at certain places at certain times which you can miss. You have a class schedule, which you have to manually follow (by checking the bulletin board at school) if you want to attend your classes, which is of course optional. Attending class will further Ringo’s knowledge in that subject, and you can also further your school studies by reading books at home or the library. Eventually, reaching a certain proficiency in a subject will allow you to earn scholarships. But, if you don’t care about classes that day, you can skip them and meet up with your friends instead. If you encounter a friend, you can chat with them to learn what’s going on in their lives or have them follow you around and aid you in fights with gangs from other schools. Every so often, you might even have to skip classes if you want to experience story events.
Also like Shenmue, the player character and world are fleshed out with great detail to make it as immersive as possible. Shops and diners have a daily schedule so you have to make sure to get there during operating hours if you want to get something accomplished that day. There’s mini-games to play like ping pong and pool. There are things to buy for your home. You can light a cigarette if you have one on you or have your friend light it for you, walk around with it, and then toss it to the ground whenever you want. You can go into the classic delinquent squatting position, which your friends will imitate. To start sending fists flying, you have to hold down a button, which changes your walk to a slower one where Ringo has his hands in his pockets like a badass. I even had a waitress eventually make a comment to me about my choice of seating — the game is full of these minor details that pull you deeper into the setting and world. Not much is outwardly explained in-game, so it’s up to you to explore and try things out.
There are also survival elements, like having to eat and sleep (however, the game isn’t that harsh, so they’re manageable), and having to earn money for food, which you can do by working a part-time job, writing academic papers, or pickpocketing the change from gang members you’ve beaten. You can further your combat skills just by fighting, or by going to the gym or watching karate movies. While the combat is relatively primitive for a beat ‘em up, there are other fighting techniques to learn, and overall it’s satisfying enough that it compliments the game rather than detracts from it.
As long as you know what you’re heading into, this can be a very enjoyable game. It’s the kind of game you play for the journey rather than the destination — the kind of game that, by the end of it, you’ll wish there wasn’t an end (like me). The real joy in this game is spending time with your friends and trying to support them through their troubles. One friend wants to join yakuza and develops a gambling problem; another friend has frequent girl problems; yet another friend wants to become a pro athlete but keeps getting injured trying to back up his buds at school. All these problems perpetuate throughout the story and create that subtle existential dread so many felt during their high school days, and they culminate into a bittersweet albeit seemingly positive ending.
The game, however, is far from perfect. For starters, the game doesn’t offer multiple endings, or even any variation during the ending. While there doesn’t need to be entire branching story paths to justify decision-making for the player, there should be some kind of a confirmation, so the player doesn’t feel like they wasted their time. Perhaps I failed to help out one of my friends, or I successfully helped him, and he told me about it at the end, or because I invested a significant amount of time reading one of the subjects for school I ended up pursuing that subject further — something intimate like that would have been nice and would have added a little replayability to the game too. It was an odd choice to only include one ending, and in the end it felt like I only chose to focus on my studies or help my friends because I wanted to see what would happen, which was essentially… not much. Decisions only impact what parts of the story you get to experience, but loose ends remain loose for the most part. Further, there aren’t enough hard decisions in the game; if you know where and when story events take place, you can experience most of them in a single playthrough. More content being locked behind the player’s decisions would mean the world would respond more to your actions, which would enliven the world more. Lastly, some of the interactions in the game are meaningless — for example, when eating food at a diner, you have to hold down a button for Ringo to eat, but you gain the benefit of the food to your hunger meter as soon as you press it. You can keep holding it down to see Ringo eat, but there’s no longer any mechanical value to the action. I assume this is supposed to create a certain atmosphere for the player, to give them the option to keep eating, but it ultimately takes away from the atmosphere, since it’s a meaningless action and just an animation you’re watching. I hope future content or a sequel address these issues.
The friends of Ringo Ishikawa is a superbly written experience that makes great use of its themes. Between the brooding existentialist coming-of-age story and the chill time-based exploration and other mechanics mentioned above, these elements add up to what creates what I consider to be the best high school delinquent aesthetic ever pulled off in gaming. And if you’re a fan of the Kunio-kun games, it’s also worth playing for the nostalgia from the setting and the art style.
The friends of Ringo Ishikawa is available on Steam, GOG.com, and Nintendo Switch.