Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Review: Retro City Rampage

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Every now and again a video game comes out that completely embraces the culture of growing up with gaming, most of these developers being in their 30s and were kids in the 80s during the so-called “Nintendo Generation”.  These games borrow commonalities with their aged ancestors, but refine the years of innovation and can generate an even better title than was possible back then.  Retro City Rampage (RCR) doesn’t really do that.  Instead, this game packs itself to the brim with 80s pop culture references while walking, talking, and acting just like a classic 8-bit Nintendo game.  While the nostalgia factor, especially for a gamer like me and readers like you, is always a welcome addition, it does cloud the focus of the developers to the point that the gameplay is a jack of all trades and expert of none.

Retro City Rampage actually started life back on the original NES as a homebrew project.  Designer Brian Provinciano began the project in 2002, building his own NES dev kit and trying to “demake” – a term used for modern games remade on classic consoles – his favorite titles, one of which was Grand Theft Auto III.  For years he was creating technical breakthroughs on Nintendo’s old gray box and possibly pulled off a faithful demake entitled Grand Theftendo before deciding to scrap the NES limitations and continue in PC development.  By 2007 he decided to integrate some classic game references (leading to pop culture references as well) and eventually creating the original title Retro City Rampage.  If this hasn’t already become abundantly clear, those that didn’t grow up playing Nintendo games will likely be lost on the (sometimes obscure) references.  That doesn’t stop this GTA clone from still being an amusing romp and shouldn’t discourage anyone who would like to check out what is ultimately a decent-sized game that doesn’t lose pace, even at the end.

I think the hardest thing to get over is the fact that this title does work off of the GTA template: get a mission, attempt as many times as you need to complete it, move on to the next mission.  As expected, interaction with side quests, shops, pedestrians, and the good ole five-o give a chaotic spin to the otherwise mundane task of moving from place to place.  Where RCR diverges from its inspiration is the missions themselves.  Sure, there are plenty of missions that regretfully (I don’t care much for GTA campaigns) come right from the source, but those are scattered in among a generous offering of crazy mini-game style throwbacks to everything from sneaking into Shadow Moses as Solid Snake to participating in a game show a la Smash TV.  It all comes with an incredibly convincing recreation of a Nintendo title with 8-bit graphics that have me fooled if they aren’t confined by those hardware limitations and a chiptune soundtrack that has more than two hours of continuous music.

With a title like this that borrows so heavily from everyone else’s work – the parody excuse holds strong in free flash titles like Abobo’s Big Adventure but I have more criticism in commercial enterprises such as this – the devil is definitely in the details.  In this category, Retro City Rampage definitely stands above and beyond the most comprehensive experience one can find in games of this type.  From the first time you boot the game there are plenty of options at your disposal including a myriad of background choices, color schemes that range from the neon pastels of 80s microcomputers to the greenish hues of the Gameboy, and enough resolution options to keep anal videophiles pleased.  For me, I was amused that my experience, while having the same activities, could be completely different from someone else’s based purely on the fact that I played the whole game in Game Gear-like tones instead of the original vibrant color pattern.  A majority of the buildings in the game can be entered and serve to be everything from mission locations to customization areas to even arcades with several different games to choose from.  These are not Pong or Galaga thrown into a loading screen, these are fully fleshed out titles from developers like Twisted Pixel that look and feel just like their big brothers.  I was pleasantly surprised that the Team Meat game, a Virtual Boy-esque running game starring none other than Super Meatboy, had its own visual options to view the game in the vibrant red hues we know or to switch to an actual blue/red 3D that anyone with the paper glasses can use for a “3D experience”.  These are the options we’ve always joked about wanting in a game and never expect to actually receive, which is appreciated.

With all the love and praise I’m spreading for this title, it’s disheartening to reveal that this title’s melting pot of love for the past is not without a few missteps.  I can’t really attack the plot, which is a scatterbrain retelling of Back to the Future mixed with almost every 80s icon I can think of from the Ghostbusters to Zack Morris, but I think the developers were a bit too caught up in the wild story that they forgot to focus on how well these events actually play.  As a result the scenarios sound great and hilarious when you retell them but are frustrating or boring to play through.  A good example comes about halfway through the game when your character has to drive a truck five laps in three minutes.  As expected the first lap is nothing but the second lap has you randomly being forced to grab drive thru mid-lap and by the final lap you’re pushing a parked vehicle into water before rushing to the finish line.  I didn’t want to spoil much about that isolated event, but it’s quite frantic and as I think back on the mission a smile crosses my face due to its absurdity.  That wasn’t how it felt playing it, though.  It felt cheap, annoyingly repetitive, and by the fifth time replaying it I was both bored and contemplating switching games.  These missions aren’t consistent, until the endgame I couldn’t think of any that are back-to-back, but I just want to question why the weakest parts of Grand Theft Auto were selected to be the only copied missions in RCR.  Many of the missions recreate scenarios from the NES titles I grew up with, but the controls aren’t quite as tight as they need to be when attempting some of these old school titles and as a result simple tasks can become daunting and specific.  I also wish RCR had more of a personalized spin on the resurrected titles instead of just popping the main character, aptly named “Player”, into exact versions of the other game.  There’s also the factor of the difficulty, which ramps up in the final two hours of the eight-hour campaign to more traditional 8-bit challenge, also known by me as a crash course in masochism.  It’s not unbeatable, but I’m fairly certain that for the less persistent gamer this title will join the likes of most Nintendo games as remaining unfinished for the end of time.  While it may be one of the weaker game design areas, the final missions demonstrate some of the more unique and well-integrated nostalgic moments of RCR, so hanging on to the end is recommended.  I know it’s a nitpick, but I also didn’t like the extreme focus on the 8-bit era that tossed in modern pop culture like Epic Meal Time and the Microsoft/Apple treatment of modern consumers and independent development studios.  While these references were amusing, they seemed out of place alongside Bill & Ted and the quest for a 72-pin connector.

In the end I think that Retro City Rampage will follow the same track as the title that inspired it.  Most players will get a taste for it, screw around in the world for a few hours, complete a few missions and probably move on when things get rough.  As a person who strongly believes there’s no wrong way to play a game and as long as you’re having fun then the title has merit, I see no problem in this save that it’s not an experience I care for.  Unlike GTA the missions and gameplay that accompany this difficulty ramp are scenarios that I as a retro gamer have come to know and love, which keeps me hanging on when I usually would have abandoned it.  I do think this title is best enjoyed in small doses, but with the Vita version being the only portable outing, you may need to exert some self-control and try to tidbit this game until its eventual conclusion.  There’s a lot to appreciate with Retro City Rampage, but don’t mistake it for an easy or throw away love fest for the games of old.  It packs a punch and shows you that it can stand tall amongst the games it emulates, albeit at the cost of some design flaws.

Retro City Rampage was provided by the developer for the purpose of this review and took roughly eight hours to complete the main campaign with an additional three hours of gameplay dedicated to other features and replay.  It is currently available on PC via Good Old Games and Steam as well as on Wii (WiiWare), Xbox 360 (XBLA), PS3 (PSN), and Playstation Vita (PSN) for $15 across all platforms.  Please note that purchasing this title on PSN will give you a copy of the game for both the PS3 and Vita. 

Written by Fred Rojas

October 18, 2012 at 2:56 pm

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