Retro City Rampage has been in the making for a long, long time. It was originally (back in the early 2000s) going to be a Wii title, but in 2012 has emerged on a broader range of platforms including PC, PS3 and Vita. An Xbox Live release will follow as soon as Microsoft gets around to it; and as far as I know the Wii version is still planned too. That sizeable delay is excusable. Retro City Rampage (RCR) is largely the work of one man, Brian Provinciano, and three chiptune composers (Leonard “FreakyDNA” Paul, Jake “Virt” Kaufman and Matt “Norrin Radd” Creamer). It’s clearly, and unapologetically, a labour of love.
The game throws you into the swanky pixelated shoes of The Player, a devil-may-care hoodlum who’s just trying to make his way in the world with a spot of henchman work. Before you know it, you’re transported to the soon-to-be-mean streets of Theftropolis and tasked with reconstructing a Delorean time machine for the eccentric ‘Doc Choc’. Alternatively, you could just choose to mess around, cause some chaos and fill your pockets.
RCR is a whirlwind of references, tributes and homages to 80s and early 90s videogames, film and TV (with a few more contemporary nods thrown in for good measure). The pace is breakneck, to the extent that it reminded me of my first viewing of Baz Luhrmann’sNo pausing for breath, just cut after cut, beat after beat, reference after reference. In both cases, I was sure the pace would calm down. In both cases, I was dead wrong.
The referential humour is laid on so heavily, that more often than not you’ll find yourself inside multiple layers of the stuff (I’d make a ‘Referenception’ type joke here, but RCR already beat me to it). Within about two minutes of starting you’ll find Robocop combining with Bionic Commando as Metal Gear Solid watches on from the sidelines. And that’s one of the more straightforward encounters.
Of course, a big danger with reference-based humour is that it can all too easily devolve into a malaise of “Here’s a thing you recognise and can identify! Isn’t that funny?!” References never work as a replacement for actual jokes, but this is a trap RCR is broadly aware of. With so many homages flying past some of them do fall flat, but the overall hit-rate is pretty solid. Another early example (so as not to spoil too much): after partaking in a bank raid with “The Jester”, the shiny yellow school bus in which our heroes are escaping finds itself unable to pull into busy traffic. Cue a quick riff on Frogger where The Player has to make it across the road to trigger a pedestrian crossing. It’s a reference heavy sequence, but one with both a funny pay-off and a relevant bit of retro gameplay.
Theftropolis itself is a flashback to the early Grand Theft Auto titles that took a top-down(ish) perspective to a busy, urban setting and added a delicious topping of crime. The Player can (should) steal cars, rampage around the place, and harass innocent passers by with one of the many melee weapons or firearms available to pick up or purchase. Jumping on heads is also an acceptable and useful way of causing annoyance and/or death to innocent civilians. Just as with those early GTA games, causing continual mayhem will draw the attention of ever-increasing amounts of police (and ultimately armed forces). At this point, you can either continue the fight or drive off and try to find one of the few Pacman-esque power pills icons that get the cops off your case.
The presentation, as you’ll no doubt be able to see from the images dotted around this page, is pixel-perfect. Shops, cars and civilians are all are gorgeously realised in a modern 8-bit/16-bit style, and the sheer variety in shopfronts and individuals roaming the streets is terrific. The attention to detail is outstanding, even to the extent of accurately managing to depict scores of distinct hairstyles, shades and hats that the Player can acquire. Those three chiptune composers have also done a magnificent job, as RCR is packed with authentic period sound effects, addictive tracks to drive around to, and suitably stirring “mission complete” riffs.
Should you wish, you can mess around with the game’s (optional) border to make it look like you’re playing on a thematically appropriate old telly or handheld, dick around with the colour scheme to make it look like, say, a CGA PC game, or add different types of scanlines for an authentic 1980s experience. Lord only knows why you would do some of those things, but the near-obsessive attention to detail is appreciated.
Stylistically then, RCR is close to flawless. But in terms of gameplay, it may just be a little bit too beholden to touring the touchstone games of the past. This isn’t a case of style in place of substance, but style certainly dominates.
In the main story mode (the alternative being a carefree ‘free roam’ mode), your missions are split roughly into three types; those where you need to drive from A to B with violence in between, levels based on classic titles like Paperboy, and optional ‘sprees’ which are arcade-style score attack modes focused on causing chaos and carnage in a short space of time. Most of these missions are a joy, but a few can be exercises in frustration and RCR is a little too knowing in the way it telegraphs this to the player.
Pointing out that fetch quests are kind of dull, while at the same time sending you on several of them, is a delicate line to walk. RCR gets it right a fair amount of the time (pulling out warp tornados, magic speed shoes, or just a quick joke to keep things interesting), but other moments grate. Yes, most of us know that the water level from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was utter crap; so don’t give us a shorter version of it with dubious controls and pretend it’s now fun. Likewise, a few stages (like one where you need to blow up 20 cars with dynamite within a tight time limit) are too beholden to the sorts of random, chaotic events that take place when you start screwing up Theftropolis to be pulled off with much precision.
The game takes a cheerfully disposable attitude to everything, from its rapid-fire throwaway gags to the way in which weapon pick-ups and purchased hats can be lost or over-ridden with relative ease. Die ‘inside’ a stage and you’ll re-start at a checkpoint with your equipment intact, but die in the main city and you’ll restart with just your fists. You might be rocking a sombrero and a sweet beard, but if you start a mission that requires you to wear a different type of hat your custom choice will be over-ridden.
It’s not too easy to get your preferences back, because the in-game map really only highlights current mission locations. There aren’t any shops marked, so if you want to get reconstructive facial surgery (at, where else, MJ’s), or try some of the excellent game-in-a-game arcade machines, you’ll have to just remember where the heck those buildings were. Theftropolis isn’t impossible to navigate by sight alone, but it’s a curious omission.
Best suited to short burst pick-up-and-play sessions, Retro City Rampage is a passionate pastiche of an era of gaming that (clearly) still informs contemporary titles. It’s funny, exceptionally fast-paced and retains an authentic retro toughness for many of its missions. At times this difficulty is taken too far, and there’s a touch of arrogance to the way it self-identifies sections it knows to be weaker or a bit dull (instead of just, you know, improving them), but the outstanding presentation and attention to detail gives RCR an awful lot of goodwill to burn.
PC version reviewed. Review copy provided by GoG.com