Retro games and indie games go hand in hand, the latter borrowing both visual styles and gameplay from the former. Brian Provinciano’s planned to do an NES demake of GTA III over ten years ago with Grand Theftendo as a work title, but this quickly turned into a more ambitious project with the final result of Retro City Rampage, as much an imitation and parody of classic videogaming and pop culture.
Retro City Rampage (Xbox 360)
(Canada 2012, developer/publisher: Vblank Entertainment Inc., platforms: PC, Xbox 360, PS3, PS Vita, Wii)
After a failed bank heist, The Player accidentally travels into the future where he meets the scientist Doc Choc who can help him get back if he finds the necessary parts to repair his damaged time machine while also staying out of trouble with law enforcement and some more sinister people.
It’s a kind of… parody
Imagine a city which is populated by 8-bit videogame characters and other (real and imaginary from different media) celebrities from the 80ies, 90ies and onwards. This is pretty much the general crowd one meets when running or driving around the world of Theftropolis. There is a neverending stream of jokes about well-known movies, e.g. when one has to steer an Ecto-1 through the streets and capture ghosts in various locations like in Ghostbusters, or when meeting Doc Choc for the first time who behaves, talks and drives a Delorean like a certain Doc Emmet Brown from Back To The Future, not to forget the time machine The Player uses being the same telephone booth as in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, to name but a few obvious examples.
Being a game also means that the references don’t stop with movies, but continue or mix with classic gaming as well. So by crossing a street The Player is reluctant to go when he sees a squashed frog, a clear reference to Frogger, or one of The Player’s antagonists’ name Dr. Von Buttnik being a parody on the archnemesis Dr. Robotnik in Sonic The Hedgehog while lots of various gameplay ideas from Paperboy to Metal Gear Solid are made fun of.
Some jokes are even aimed at the games industry itself, e.g. by poking fun at the ridiculousness of censorship or how publishers treat their developers and customers. These work remarkably well and even better than the references to classic gaming and movies which can be tiresome after a while. Maybe that’s because like GTA, this fictional world of Theftropolis is the perfect playground to hold a mirror to society while having a comic disguise.
It’s often overwhelming and therefore difficult to get all the references. So like parody movies with the same as-many-laughs-per-minute formula (from Airplane to Scary Movie), not every joke works and some references are simply lost among all the others, not to mention the general fast pacing of the story. Both this and the characters take a backseat when it comes to plausibility, as there’s a lack of suspense or interesting developments. This clearly harks back to the old times when plots were usually nonsensical and NPCs didn’t really stick out as some deep folks to talk to. Only this time the player is in on the joke and aware of the ridiculousness of it all.
Raining… genres and game styles
The mix of TV, comic or movie stars like the A-Team, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or the Joker (from Nolan’s The Dark Knight this time) makes for some hilarious, but also chaotic scenes at times when all are thrown into one mission and don’t give the player enough time to take it all in. Escaping from the police after a heist while also being chased by the aforementioned fictional characters is as crazy as jumping into Super Mario tubes and fighting off enemies with a sword Zelda-like in a short period of time.
What sounds like unbalanced gameplay is in fact something which can be compared to the WarioWare series in which one has adapt to the current situation in split seconds. Of course these sections are much longer and repeat themselves after a while, but there’s certainly something very unique about the game, namely one unexpected thing happening after the other. Like the humor, it might not always work, but at least it constantly surprises the player, achieving what most open-world games (even the GTA series) rarely do.
Just like the old 2D GTA titles, the game is less about story progression or character development and more about exploration, experimentation and short bursts of fun, highlighted by the brevity of the missions (making it a perfect on-the-go experience with the PS Vita version). Those come as varied and unexpected as the references and jokes, borrowing gameplay ideas from different genres and mixing them all together.
Despite the many changes between game styles like driving, twin-stick shooter, beat’em’up, stealth game, adventure and others, the mission objectives themselves seldom deviate from fetch quests, escape missions or the kill-everyone-template. It would have been nice to have some more interesting things to do in the main missions other than go from A to B and back. Of course the old GTA games (and to a certain extent the newer ones as well) worked the same way, but with so many genre mixes would offer so much more.
I just died in your… game
There are some instances where ingenuity in level design shines through, as when The Player has to tail a suspect’s car, but he also has to drink some coffee to stay awake, or when he goes on the titular rampage in a neighborhood with a truck while racing against the clock and getting rid of some annoying neighbors and constantly refilling his gas tank.
These examples also illustrate problems the game constantly throws at the player: controls vs. speed and time. The character usually moves so fast that stealing a car often results in ramming into oncoming traffic, running over pedestrians and therefore alerting the police. This is extremely frustrating when one simply wants to go to a mission objective without any additional hassles on the way. So the by-foot route is the preferred method of travelling. As much fun as destroying and killing everything on sight is in some missions, the oversensitive controls can again become an issue when a timer is set to a very limited frame, while turning left and right often ends against walls and losing precious time because of the controls.
At least there’s a checkpoint system which doesn’t force the player to restart a mission completely, although in the latter part of the game, the checkpoints are so far between each other that it gets wildly annoying to get through. This is also because suddenly superfast reflexes and a lot of luck are required. Granted, this skill level was prevalent in the early days of videogames, but when rather easy missions in the first 4 hours (even if there are exceptions which involve a Smash TV part where frantic shooting and jumping is the only option to succeed) turn into unfair tests of one’s patience, there’s something wrong with balance while fun turns into frustration.
Video killed the… sound and music… NOT
Graphics, music and sound effects capture the 8-bit era perfectly. Its pixelated, but colorful surroundings are complemented with some well-drawn cutscenes and fun character portraits. It might run with a lower resolution than the original PC version of GTA, but then again this fits right into the other games the title borrows from. The soundtrack is as fast and as furious as the action on screen with pop, rock, metal chiptunes which would easily stand on its own by providing catchy melodies galore and can also be bought separately in digital form or even on vinyl. There’s no voice acting or memorable radio commentary, but then again this wouldn’t stay true to the game’s retro roots. It’s also interesting to note that unlike the classic GTA games, there’s much less blood on screen, even though bad language and some sexual content more than make up for a lack of graphic violence.
Keep on loving… retro
Vblank Entertainment’s Retro City Rampage was an ambitious project throughout its over-10-year-long development cycle and now that it’s finally here, it doesn’t disappoint. There’s an incredible love for detail when it comes to all the references to classic gaming, TV and movies while also handing out a healthy dose of social criticism, even if it’s less refined than in Rockstar Games’ more recent GTA games. Despite some lukewarm jokes, the most fun is certainly spotting the various links to gaming and pop culture of the past.
It’s difficult to rate the title by its gameplay alone, because it brings with it a lot of frustrating moments and repetitive mission design. The main campaign can be completed in less than 6 hours and often feels like elements which don’t gel together as they should, especially when it comes to the story, characters and control system. But as an open-world game, it gives the player enough room for exploring the city of Theftropolis where he can spend hours in the arcade (and playing an excellent Bit.Trip Runner version), find side-missions or just go on a highscore rampage without thinking about checkpoints or other annoying mission restrictions.
Brian Provinciano put a lot of hard work into this game, and it shows: A title which has as much retro love as it has a heart and soul, and despite some gameplay issues, this unclean demake-parody-genre-mix-or-whatever-you-might-call-it fun game shouldn’t be missed.
Note to the rating/score
I said in the past that I’d only use half-points in rare cases, but after reviewing Hotline Miami and giving it a 9/10, it became obvious that compared to other games, it had quite a lot of flaws due to its repetitive gameplay. This made it hard to set it against other 9/10 games.
Especially in the case of episodic games, it’s difficult to say in advance how the others fare, so there’s always the struggle for choosing one whole point over another, leaving no room for the middle. Without going too much into detail, I decided to use half-points where I see fit. So an 8/10 game can usually be something well-designed, but also something which doesn’t try to do anything particularly new and is less innovative and daring than other games. Of course Hotline Miami was a mixture of both, so I wouldn’t want to give it a lower rating now. But still, having some half-points will hopefully help understand the subtle pros and cons which are explained in every game (or movie etc.) review.
So to come back to this 8.5 score of Retro City Rampage: There are certainly quite a few flaws in control, presentation of story, mission design, etc., but overall it’s a game that stands out in a crowd of third-or-first-person open-world games and shows an impressive understanding of the gaming ages gone by. Taken into account how many years Provinciano worked on it, it stands between the well-known gameplays ideas with varying effects and a parody experience one doesn’t really find anywhere else… except maybe in Abobo’s Big Adventure (featured in the Free Bundle article and available as a free download).
Buy the game on other formats and go to the appropriate PSN, XBLA, WiiWare marketplaces 😉
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