Retro City Rampage is proof that our medium has grown far beyond its humble roots. The word “videogame” has different meanings to different audiences. For some it’s the annual Madden and Call of Duty releases and nothing else. For others, it’s the thought provoking experiences like Braid and Limbo that challenge thought as well as reflexes. For many others, it’s a piece of their past left behind when priorities changed and time became too scarce to keep up. That’s why when I play something like Retro City Rampage, I have such a hard time figuring out how to enjoy it.
In this case, it was only after hours of play that I realized that Retro City Rampage isn’t a good game, nor does it truly set out to be. It is, however, a fantastic novelty that anyone who grew up playing videogames in the 80s and early 90s will likely appreciate, if only as a reminder of how far the medium has evolved. It’s not just that so much of what’s on offer is a throwback (for better or for worse). Rather, the clever references that dot the 8-bit landscape and pepper the dialog and missions continue to surprise and amuse long after the gameplay has worn out its welcome.
This one-man endeavor, created by Brian Provinciano, plays like (and spoofs) one of the older Grand Theft Auto titles. The top-down view pulls in elements from classic Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros. titles along with so many others, as you walk and drive across the expansive city. The story is convoluted, involving time travel (Back to the Future), hiding in cardboard boxes (Metal Gear) and pranking a principal at “Bayshore High” (Saved by the Bell). At the center of it all is the aptly named main character, Player.
Things start off fairly easy, picking up a variety of weapons and wreaking havoc across Theftropolis City and finding the parts to a time machine. Actually, there are two. Or three. Time travel is confusing. As I progressed though, I found that the gameplay spoofs became a bit too similar to the source material in terms of frustration. I loved seeing a reference to the most notorious level from the original NES Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but I swear that Provinciano’s version was more curse-inducing than the original. The same goes with the hilariously positioned “tail a car” mission and others.
There are a number of these bottlenecks throughout the experience, and it bogged down my progress. I wanted to push on just to see the next joke, but the game got in the way. Early on, Retro City Rampage felt like a Mel Brooks or Leslie Nielsen film. Each chuckle was quickly followed by another in mounting levels of absurdity. However, having to repeat the same task over and over from the beginning is like watching one of those movies on repeat for an entire week. The laughs turn into groans.
In addition to the story, there are collectibles littered throughout the world. Packages (similar to what players hunted down in Grand Theft Auto III) are the most mundane. I preferred looking for the “invisible walls” in building interiors and the cheat codes hidden on billboards and the sides of buildings. Rampage mini-missions can be found across the city, giving players a chance to wreak havoc in typical sandbox crime-sim style.
The game offers a variety of control schemes, including one that gives the fighting (both melee and firearm-focused) a twin-stick shooter feel. There’s also a cover mechanic, which I have to believe was thrown in just to rib games like Gears of War. It has very little functional application, but its inclusion is certainly humorous. The combat becomes cumbersome when forced into hand-to-hand situations. There is a very clever Smash TV section that is absolutely absurd in terms of challenge because of the mechanics (even remembering that you can stomp on the heads of enemies, just like Mario and Luigi).
The presentation is superb, perfectly emulating the games that Retro City Rampage satirizes. The visuals offer a level of customization that simply shouldn’t work given the lack of graphical fidelity. They do, though. There is a marked difference between putting on the “Master Chef Helmet” and rocking the Christopher “Kid” Reid (of Kid ‘n Play) hi-top fade. There are also character skins for a number of gaming industry personalities, but you’ll need the unlock codes to gain access.
The chiptunes, especially those that evoke music of popular 8-bit era titles, are masterfully composed. You can change radio stations in the car, and throughout the game you’ll be treated to a number of riffs and tunes that very clearly are designed to tickle your nostalgia. There are some moments where the music is absent though, leaving things feeling a bit empty.
As I mentioned earlier, Retro City Rampage is a terribly hard game to classify and quantify. The gameplay has moments of brilliance, but too often there are difficulty spikes that grind the experience to a halt. The jokes and humor were fantastic for me, but I know that gamers just a few years younger than me will miss a great deal of the laughs.
Retro City Rampage is best digested in small doses, like so many of the sitcoms swept into this love letter to my childhood. If you try to plow through it quickly in a few marathon sessions, as I tried to do at first, it wears thin. Putting it down, letting the few laughs I experienced sink in, and then coming back later for another dose made it far easier to appreciate. That’s not a great recipe for enjoying an interactive experience, and I suspect that many people will find it hard to digest.
Realizing that this was one man’s passion absolutely means something to me. I know that it wasn’t a team of writers that researched and cherry picked the material. No, this is clearly one person who fondly remembers using every trick in the book to get his NES to just play the damn cartridge (raise your hand if you ever wedged another cartridge on top of the active one in a front-loading NES to improve the connection).
Retro City Rampage isn’t for everyone, but if you grew up in the 8-bit era, I’d wager you’ll find something to love. The writing and humor helps carry things, especially in moments where the gameplay falters. As a game, it’s hard to recommend. If that’s your only interest, you’re going to likely be frustrated and disappointed. This is Brian Provinciano’s take on our collective consciousness, and I’m grateful that he shared it with us.
Here’s the Rundown:
+ As a novelty experience, RCR is unmatched
+ Clearly a labor of love that includes countless jokes and references
+ Perfectly captures our memories of the 8-bit era thanks to a hefty nostalgia filter
- Gameplay is hit or miss, with significant difficulty spikes
- The story takes a back seat to the humor
- That damn dam! (Seriously, did you have to make the TMNT spoof harder?!)
6 and 6.5 represent a game that doesn’t do anything spectacular or drastically fails to meet the high expectations people had for it. These scores are for games that you would only recommend to diehard fans of the series or genre, something that the average gamer wouldn’t miss very much if he/she skipped it.
Retro City Rampage was developed and published by VBlank Entertainment. It was released on October 9, 2012 for $15 on the PlayStation Store and supports PS3/Vita Cross-Save. A copy was provided by the publisher to RipTen for the purposes of review.