Brian Provinciano, creator of Retro City Rampage, must have really loved the 90s.
Brian Provinviano originally started out with his own NES development kit, with the goal of paying homage to one of his favorite series: Grand Theft Auto. Having spent 10 years in development, the game was a clear labor of love for the indie developer. Finally, he unleashed his creation upon the world, and we’re treated to a top-down visual feast of 8-bit sprite graphics.
Never before has a game referenced so much of my childhood, from video games to television. Distant memories came flooding back to me as I ran over Bill Rizer and Lance Bean of Super Contra in the A-Team van, before killing the rest of my 90’s heroes on a motorbike shaped like Yoshi. It’s a game that had me frequently chuckling as I spotted yet another sly reference. Retro City Rampage is reliant on invoking a bygone era, but has it forged itself as a sprite based classic or falling into the waste of 90’s cop dramas and cheesy one liners?
Taking place in the city of Theftropolis in 1985, the game instantly declares its intentions. A lone, sprite-based figure, lacking facial features – but with the greatest greased back hairstyle ever seen in sprite form – walks down a dark alley. We’re then treated to a close-up of our hero as he stops by a poster advertising a job opportunity for anyone willing to be a henchman. Sadly, the city streets I walk down in real life are nowhere near as colorful as this – apart from broken glass bottles and litter from fast food restaurants.
Three years pass in the game until eventually ‘Player,’ the name of your protagonist, receives a phone call telling him to get to a criminal hideout in order to take part in a heist. This is when you are first given controls of a vehicle. The game has been released on many platforms, but it was clearly designed with a gamepad in mind. If you intend to play it on your PC, I would suggest in putting some funds into a controller of with thumbsticks; keyboard controls deeply ruin the experience and pacing of a game which aims to be fast and fluid.
Each vehicle – of which there are many – has different acceleration and top speed but they handle the same. Simply pushing the left stick in any direction will direct the car along one of 16 directions. Rotate the stick in a half-circle and you’ll perform a u-turns, rotating 180 degrees before going full speed in the opposite direction, further enhancing the cartoon-like feel.
After this first heist, you’re flung into the future via a telephone booth – a reference to Dr Who – before meeting a professor who looks suspiciously like Doc from Back to the Future. In order to repair your time machine and return to the present, you’ll need to collect certain parts, so the game has you performing missions for or against a variety of characters, almost of all of which are a reference to something you’ll remember from your childhood.
The opening first hour is a test of your patience. You’re overwhelmed by the constant nostalgia – RCR is a testament to videogames and pop culture of the 80’s and 90’s, but never stops reminding you of it. It’s the equivalent of Navi from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (which is also referenced) shouting “Hey, listen!” every 10 seconds. It feels as though the game is constantly asking you “remember this? What about this? Remember that?” – all while prodding you in the eye with a fork. I found myself having to turn the game off regularly after short periods, as my mind became encumbered by the nonstop barrage. RCR is not a game that stands up well over prolonged play sessions.
For example: at the start of the game, you need to rob a bank similar to the opening bank job in The Dark Knight, accompanied by your leader, Jester – but the scene isn’t as fleshed out; in the end, all that you’ve seen is a badly-traced 8-bit copy of something already done far better on film (or in other games such as the fantastic 4-Leaf Clover mission in GTA IV); scenarios like this are the building blocks and the foundation of the game, but you’re always reminded that someone else got there first. Vblank Entertainment has merely taken scattered parts of other things and put them all back together with the cement of code and 8-bit graphics; all the story has to offer is a disjointed journey from one memory of jumping into a Super Mario pipe to driving over the Ninja Turtles through the Green Hill Zone. Although the gameplay is fun – and Retro City Rampage works great as a top-down shooter – it never really amounts to anything more than a series of courier missions: Go here, shoot that. Collect this, collect that. Drive here and blow something up.
Towards the end of the game’s epic development, Brian Provinciano brought in 3 composers to help construct the game’s greatest element: its soundtrack. 2 and half hours of gorgeous chiptune music fills the game, and unlike majority of the game itself, is not a constant loop of tedium. Back in the days that RCR relentlessly references, lack of memory meant that games consoles were rarely able to provide more than a short looping tune, but due to expanded capabilities of modern technology, Provinciano has been able to cram in a massive amount of audio.
RCR features 16 different visual filters, each of them paying homage to your favorite consoles. With the tap of a button, you can be playing RCR as though it were on a Gameboy, or DOS. There’s even a slight dig at modern games and their obsession with browns and greys, in the shape of a muddy, gloomy texture pack. These filter options are a much more fitting tribute to days gone by, evoking the look of an old system while not affecting the actual gameplay.
RCR is certainly beautiful and offers much to love with its retro visuals. It’s a tribute to old consoles and even older games, but while the graphics – and the two-and-a-half hours of chiptune music – are excellent, the overall gameplay feels stale and repetitive. The majority of the in-game references are of better films, television shows or video games. Due to the vast number of them, the game doesn’t have much to offer of its own. Retro City Rampage is a game that spends its time looking at the past, but one which forgets to look towards the future – or even at itself. The result is a game that’s often fun, but frequently fails to be as good as the material it parodies.
For all of its references and jokes about games gone by, in years to come it’s unlikely that the question “do you remember Super Mario Brothers?” will be replaced by the question: “Do you remember Retro City Rampage making a joke about Super Mario Brothers?”