Games are no longer the singular niche pursuit they once were, yet newcomers seem readily unable to identify with them. Nintendo’s latest campaign revolves around the slogan ‘I am not a gamer’, which in one swoop dismisses all the years in the cultural wilderness we suffered for while simultaneously laying claim to the spoils of recognition that are only now beginning to surface. Our efforts have not been in vain though; one man out there remembers the halcyon days, when gamers were pioneers. A man who remembers that gaming got where it is today by standing on the pixelated shoulders of giants. That man is Brian Provinciano, and he has given us the gift of his collected rememberings in videogame form: Retro City Rampage.
Starting life as a straight attempt to create a reduced 8-bit version of Grand Theft Auto III for the original NES, the project has gradually morphed to include references and callbacks to other cherished games, films and TV shows from his youth, collated and blended to form a wry tongue-in-cheek guided tour of your own adolescent media recollections. Given the game’s origin, the default play style is the currently typical open-world roaming of the city of Theftropolis, replete with cars to drive, guns to shoot and pedestrians to squash. Occasionally the action switches to 2D for the odd small pastiche of a particular game, but on the whole the top-down GTA-style city provides an excellent framework for cramming in trope after trope.
Controlling with the keyboard is possible, but a gaming pad is recommended. The controls themselves are surprisingly comprehensive; shooting can be performed by locking on with the X button, which allows circle strafing, or with the right stick to fire in all directions, a la Smash TV (yes, it gets referenced). Of course before we shot enemies we jumped on them, and you also gain a ‘super stomp’ ability later on.
Speaking of references, they come so thick and fast you that even versed students of ‘80s pop culture may be pressed to name them all. I could so very easily spoil them for you here, but I shan’t as the very nexus of the game’s charm lies in the soft nostalgic chuckles you’ll find yourself uttering when the lightbulb in your head clicks on as you spot one. Some are overtly signposted in missions, others more subtlety displayed on billboards and shop fronts, but all should be recognisable to this game’s target audience. You’ll pass many shops you’ll want to return to later, but sadly the map is a bit lacking, showing only the locations of mission objectives and challenge markers. The challenges are mostly of the ‘cause as much wanton destruction as you can within the time limit’ variety, but offer an optional aside to the main shenanigans if you should so choose. Best times are also saved to a worldwide leaderboard for bragging rights.
The humour is fairly broad, frequently with adult undertones and some of the jokes basically amount to giving a blatantly obvious character a silly pseudonym, but the sheer volume of quips means that although not all of them are going to land, the key gags should be self-evident. Further into the game the reminiscing can start to grate slightly, especially when poking fun at certain controller-hurling bad game design moments – by recreating them exactly. To wit – on a mission to trail Biffman, Theftropolis’s morally dubious costumed crusader, you must continually stop for coffee or you’ll ‘feel asleep’, because trailing missions are so boring. Amusing the first time, teeth-grinding on the fifth failed attempt.
The commitment to the 8-bit aesthetic is commendable; not only can you select a range of different screen-style borders to house the action, including a CRT monitor with a satisfyingly familiar curve, there are a range of colour palettes to choose from to imbue the hue of your favourite console/PC of yesteryear, from the stark blues and cyans of the C64 to the familiar green-screen sheen of the Gameboy (here dubbed the ‘Video Brick’). The sprite work is exceptionally detailed given the enforced resolution and the fact it is mostly a one-man job. The requisite chiptune soundtrack is ably provided by Leonard "FreakyDNA" Paul, Jake "Virt" Kaufman and Matt "Norrin Radd" Creamer, and is available for purchase on bandcamp.
It’s difficult to judge this one as by its own admission it’s a straight-up parody, something rarely seen in the realm of video games, especially one this fully realised. Stripped of everything meta there’s still a reasonable amount of fun to be had here, but the main purpose here is to reawaken the ‘80’s kid inside. It’s not perfect by any means, but points have to be awarded for collecting all this fondly remembered material into a cohesive and extensive whole. Retro City Rampage is a patchwork quilt; sure not all of its pieces match, and it’s fraying a bit at the edges, but it still feels nice when you wrap it around you.
Ed's note: Since we reviewed this game it's been updated to v1.05 which includes a number of improvements aimed to fix some of the issues we raise above. For example the car tailing mission now has a checkpoint in the middle, and it was tweaked so coffee runs it at 2x speed making it faster.