In some ways, River City Girls is a complete reboot of the popular Kunio-kun franchise. Known outside of Japan as River City, this series of beat-’em-ups is beloved for its deep fighting mechanics and extensive cast, many of whom show up in River City Girls sporting updated designs.
But no one received as big a glow up as a woman who has always deserved more respect.
Since 1987, Marian Kelly has been defined by her victimhood. She first appeared in the original Double Dragon as a Princess Peach-style damsel, except instead of being whisked away in a flying clown car, she was brutally punched in the stomach and slung over the shoulder of her attacker, skirt hiked up and panties exposed.
This kidnapping would throw Double Dragon protagonists Billy Lee (Marian’s boyfriend) and his brother Jimmy into their very first adventure, a familiar story beat so prevalent that it was eventually covered by Feminist Frequency’s “Tropes vs. Women” video series.
Although Marian’s character and backstory would eventually be filled out with in greater detail in future games, the aforementioned kidnapping scene has been recreated in numerous remakes and re-releases since, most recently 2012’s Double Dragon Neon. No matter what her creators intended, she is one of gaming’s most iconic victims, serving mostly as a way to get the Lee brothers out of their garage and ready to beat up street gangs.
But before the character could get a makeover, she would have to visit another gaming universe entirely.
From bland to buff
River City and Double Dragon share a few key connections. They were both created by Japanese designer Yoshihisa Kishimoto in the 1980s for the now-defunct Technōs Japan before the studio’s properties were gobbled up by Arc System Works in 2015. And while there weren’t any official crossovers, the potential was certainly there: Both franchises dealt with young street toughs fighting through rival territory in search of a kidnapped love interest, and the basic gameplay elements were essentially the same. It wasn’t until River City Girls was released earlier this month that the two universes would collide.
River City Girls is, to be blunt, an absolute delight. The fighting system is fun, the characters are lovable, and beat-’em-ups have never looked so good. It’s clear that WayForward, who worked on previous gems like Shantae: Half-Genie Hero and Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, took great care in crafting the world of River City Girls with as much character and personality as possible. This becomes apparent in the way even tertiary characters from the River City franchise received massive facelifts, upgrades that also carried over to guest characters from Double Dragon.
Over the course of the game, River City Girls players will eventually run into Billy and Jimmy Lee as well as Marian Kelly, who runs an accessory store called Swaggage. The Double Dragon protagonists themselves are easily recognizable, even with new voiceovers from online personalities The Game Grumps, but Marian is easy to miss. This isn’t because she resides in one of the game’s secret areas, but because she looks different enough to be confused for an entirely different character.
Where before she had difficulty sticking out among other blonde damsels of the time, like Super Mario’s Princess Peach and The Legend of Zelda’s Princess Zelda, Marian now sports a more athletic outfit and a dramatic shock of white hair. The most striking part of her new look, however, is her physique. Gone is the waifish build that defined an era of love interests, replaced by an absolutely cut figure and six-pack abs.
Marian’s updated design immediately caught the attention of the online world, with many an expletive-filled thirst tweet proclaiming deep love for the once-damseled character. Unfortunately, it’s not entirely clear who exactly she is within the game itself since no one refers to her by name, but behind-the-scenes data indicates the Swaggage merchant is indeed Marian, information that was eventually backed up by folks responsible for bringing River City Girls to life.
When a Twitter user pinged WayForward with a screenshot of Marian’s shop to suggest the studio make her a playable character down the line because “she could totally kick the crap out of everyone,” whoever is behind the official account seemed to agree, noting that Marian “got tired of being a damsel in distress.”
She got tired of being a damsel in distress!— WayForward (@WayForward) September 9, 2019
Rem, the River City Girls character artist behind the redesign, also provided a little more background, indicating that Marian’s new muscular build was a direct response to the way she has been frequently brutalized in the past.
“It seemed like her whole character was just ‘gets punched in the stomach and kidnapped,’” Rem explained. “Needless to say, Marian’s not taking that shit any more.”
Marian doesn’t play a huge role in River City Girls — it is a River City game, after all — but her updated look struck a chord with fans. While the toned abs might call back to the numerous times she was slugged in her stomach, they do so in a way that both acknowledges and improves the history of a character that used to be merely a perpetual damsel trope.
Should it be necessary for a woman to make herself physically imposing to ward off would-be attackers? In real life, absolutely not. But when it comes to River City and Double Dragon, imaginary worlds that value physical strength above all else, Marian now has an identity, something that helps her stand out from the packs of punk rock thugs and whip-wielding dominatrixes that once victimized her.
And I think that’s pretty neat.