Developer: VBlank Entertainment
Genre: Retro-inspired top-down open-world shooter
Platform: XBLA, PSN, PC
GTA-inspired, 8-bit free roamer Retro City Rampage comes at a pivotal point in gaming history – a fact it seems acutely aware of. As we enter 2013 and with the next generation of consoles on the way, our square eyes are fixed to the horizon, ready for the new era of gaming to dawn. RCR asks us to pause and look over our shoulders, for a short while, to reflect on everything that’s led us to this point.
And by that, we mean everything.
Retro City Rampage manages to cram in more references per minute than an entire season of Family Guy. They cover every aspect of pop culture that we’ve enjoyed in the past thirty years – focusing mainly on games, of course, but in the first ten minutes of the game there are already nods to The Dark Knight, Back To The Future, and Bill & Ted. They come thick n’ fast, and you’ll undoubtedly miss just as many as you notice. For a lifelong geek, though, they are an absolute joy – even more so if you learnt your way around a gamepad in the roaring 80’s. Not a single game from the era escapes parody, and one feels that Brian Provinciano (the indie developer behind the title) must be suffering from some form of OCD in his manic attempt to pastiche a lifetimes worth of games, movies and music. It’s truly an impressive, encyclopaedic piece of work, and RCR’s constant winks and nudges make you feel that warm, fuzzy feeling of camaraderie – here’s someone who gets it, you feel, here’s someone from my tribe. As geeks, we seem to love nothing more than that secret feeling of belonging, and when VBlank Entertainment throws in an “I feel asleep” quote to see who gets it, we can’t help but respond with childish glee and recognition.
The game doesn’t just reminisce through it’s dialogue and story, however. The whole look and sound of the game is ripped straight from the NES era. The 8-bit open world is a pixelated masterpiece, and an absolute joy to explore. The colours are vibrant and juicy, and the inhabitants of Theftropolis are brought to life with their swaggering animations. Its not just the graphics that should be applauded, however. The game’s chiptune soundtrack is extraordinary, and captures perfectly the feel of old classics like Streets Of Rage and Street Fighter. You’ll have the tunes stuck in your head for days, and being able to switch radio stations a la Grand Theft Auto is a lovely touch.
The gameplay is a little less purist in its emulation of old-school titles, and that certainly works for the best. A modern lock-on system and cover mechanics are welcome upgrades to the shooters of old, and there is even a twin stick aiming system and Mario-style head stomp thrown in for good measure. The gameplay is fast and furious, with story missions throwing you from firefight to car-chase and back again. It’s a pleasant sugar rush of 8-bit mayhem, with cars exploding and people setting on fire all over the shop. The pandemonium is interspersed with numerous mini-games and sections based off other games – a Metal Gear-inspired sneaking mission, for example, and a parody of that blasted Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles underwater level. These sections are deftly inserted by the developer to break up the story missions and stop the endless carnage from becoming repetitive. The story revolves around your character, simply named ‘Player’, doing various henchman duties for shady types all over the city. However, the story serves simply as a way to hang all the culture references together, and give you a reason to get from A to B. It’s gloriously nonsensical stuff, which will see you trying to run over 88 pedestrians in a DeLorean one minute and using your Sonic-esque speed shoes to evade the law the next. It doesn’t matter that it makes no sense – in fact, the game seems to take pleasure in being as absurd as possible. It hearkens back to a simpler time, when every game didn’t have to mean something. A time when you could ride around on a gorilla smashing cop cars just, well, because.
As fun as Retro City Rampage is, it’s not entirely without faults. The difficulty spikes unpredictably, and while its certainly faithful to games of the 80’s at least, the horrible checkpoint system is a royal pain in the ass. I might be a nostalgic old fool, sure, but one thing I don’t miss is making the same ten-minute drive cross-city over and over again only to be killed by the same unfairly placed rocket goon. Whilst it might break the retro rules a little, a mid-mission save feature would have been hugely appreciated. Also, some of the later missions can get a little repetitive, although there’s usually enough craziness going on that it never gets to be truly grating. And with countless secrets to find and bonus stages to play, you are never forced to play through the main story.
With a jam-packed Story Mode, Arcade Mode and a free-roam option, there’s plenty here to keep you busy. At $15 you can’t go wrong, and it’s absolutely worth a purchase. It’s a fresh take on some classic games, and should raise a smile in even the most jaded gamer. Retro City Rampage serves as a wonderful way to remember some of what makes videogaming such a unique and enjoyable experience, and provides valuable lessons to keep in mind as we head into the next generation of our favourite medium.