Developer: VBlank Entertainment, Brian Provinciano / Publisher: VBlank / Played on: PC / Price: $14.99 / ESRB: Teen [Violence, Blood, Use of Alcohol, Crude Humor, Sexual Content]
What started out as a side project has turned into one of the biggest trips down memory lane for anyone who grew up in the 80s or 90s. Retro City Rampage pays homage to countless movies, TV shows, and video games from decades past, all wrapped up in an 8-bit package. The nostalgic setting and pop culture humor though make Retro City Rampage a game for a specific type of player.
You play as the aptly named Player, a henchman for hire in the city of Theftropolis. Player gets caught up in multiple crime sprees as he helps a madman rob a bank, infiltrates enemy headquarters, and goes on countless stolen car chases with local law enforcement. Before long Player meets up with a certain doctor who has created a time machine out of a car and must stop an evil organization from gaining power in the future. The story is almost entirely superficial, only present to loosely tie together one sequence to another. Each part of the story is broken up into stages, with each stage borrowing themes and elements from other video games. For example, you are given orders from Solid Snake Major Lee to sneak into a building and steal an important object needed to complete the time machine. Later, you go through a Zelda-inspired dungeon looking for keys. Interactions and dialogue between Player and other characters lean heavily on the humorous side, with Player making hilarious references to the game currently being parodied. For those who don’t know what is being referenced, a large part of the charm of Retro City Rampage is lost. And since the majority of the game relies on said charm, your enjoyment is mostly based on your knowledge of 80s and 90s pop culture.
At its roots, RCR plays like Grand Theft Auto: you have a huge, open world you can freely explore, with plenty of cars to steal, people to run over, and cops to outrun. Riding around the city committing felony after felony is satisfying by itself, but playing missions and following the story opens up a surprising amount of gameplay lifted from many memorable games of the past. In the aforementioned stealth segment that borrows from Metal Gear Solid, you are stripped of weapons and must bounce on people’s heads as in Super Mario Bros., and there’s even a stage drawing inspiration from Splosion Man. For a game with many of the limitations of an NES, Retro City Rampage is certainly impressive. I won’t spoil every surprise the game has to offer, but suffice it to say I was grinning with each new location or character encountered.
Though, even with the range of gameplay, the appeal of Retro City Rampage wears off after the initial hour. Stealing a car and driving halfway across the pixilated city the first time is a thrilling throwback to gaming past, but doing it the next twenty times becomes increasingly mundane. Unfortunately this problem oozes into other aspects of gameplay as well. There really isn’t a problem you can’t solve by simply grabbing a bazooka and killing everything in sight. Towards the ending stages I found myself simply going through the motions and not thinking about what I was doing. Retro City Rampage is a blast from the past that borrows the best elements from many of your favorite games, but that feeling of nostalgia soon wears off when you realize that each mission is nearly identical to the last.
There are a few different game modes to choose from. The main story mode has you playing through the main story, discovering new locations and characters on a quest to save the city. If you want to do away with all of this mumbo jumbo and just go on a killing spree you can do so in free roam mode. This mode gives you every weapon in the game and a ton of cash to play around with, making mindless murders a breeze! There are also a handful of challenge stages that present you with specific rules you must follow to attain a high score. These are fun diversions from the main game but nothing more. Completing story stages unlocks additional content like new character skins, and there’s a functioning arcade with replica Meat Boy and Bit.Trip Runner games. Also, there are odd jobs you can take to earn extra cash and skins if you choose. Even with all these extra features, there is still little reason to return to Theftropolis after completing the game other than feeding your nostalgia itch.
Though the difficulty in later stages gets up there, the biggest deterrents to your success in the game are the controls. Default controls are mapped to the keyboard, with movement done with the arrow keys and firing your weapons with the WASD keys (or vice versa if you prefer). Those work fine, but it’s when you have to incorporate jumping, firing, moving, and ducking behind cover that the controls get out of hand: pressing space to jump and shift to ground pound while avoiding enemy fire and defeating a boss with a rocket launcher is not a simple task. I had to restart a stage many times just because the controls were too difficult to manage. Thankfully these problems can be alleviated by plugging in a controller, but if you’re stuck with a keyboard you’re going to have to get used to seeing the retry screen.
Going along with the 8-bit graphical style is a fantastic chiptune soundtrack. Accompanying each stage and location is a chorus of blips and bleeps that anyone who has played a video game on the NES will appreciate. Sound effects also hit all the right retro notes, with the pew-pew of gunfire joining the almost unrecognizable sound of someone screaming for their life as you mow them down with a fire truck. Retro City Ramapge was clearly going for the classic look and feel, and the sound absolutely nails the mood and atmosphere of late 80s/early 90s video gaming.
Retro City Rampage is not a game for everyone. If you have been playing games since the 90s, you will certainly enjoy the game’s tribute to past video game icons. If you’re a gamer that doesn’t know what a game cartridge is, then Retro City Rampage was not made for you. Though the variety of gameplay gives Retro City Rampage a broad scope, the redundancy of driving back and forth quickly becomes stale. Classic game lovers and pop culture junkies will eat up reference after reference, but everyone else won’t see the appeal of a game that looks like it was made four generations ago.
+ Captures the look and feel of classic video games
+ Countless tributes to video games of the past
- Little incentive to play the game after completion
7 / 10