Brian Provinciano’s Retro City Rampage was in development long enough that it could make a retro-inspired reference to itself. The wait’s likely been most excruciating to Provinciano himself, but thankfully it’s now over and we can give the game a try for ourselves. It’s certainly as packed with references to ’80s culture as we expected, but references are the sugar-coated candy of game experiences. Does the game have a more lasting enjoyment buried underneath the super-sweet exterior?
It does, for the most part, but it’d be an injustice to glaze over just how much love and attention was put into that exterior. As you walk or ride around the city of Theftropolis (which really should have been expecting a crime outbreak, after all), there’s barely a pixel that isn’t a reference to something. A guy suspiciously similar to Punch-Out!!‘s Doc Louis runs the city’s bike shop. The local high school is just the Saved by the Bell set. You’ll be wandering around and run into the A-Team van, which you can then take and drive yourself. Every store or building is a reference, as is practically every vehicle or civilian. Not-so-subtle nods are everywhere.
Where it becomes fun to play is in the game’s set pieces. Missions are nods to classic gameplay, like Contra and Paperboy. The player, whose name is Player, has to help a Doc Brown-a-like rebuild a time machine, and it’s collecting these parts and doing favors for him that are the context for these challenges. The mechanics of each have been bent to match the system, which is a combination of the old top-down Grand Theft Auto games and a twin-stick shooter. The game understands that time has passed, and it also understands that you’re there to have fun, so it implements a lock-on mechanic and cover-based shooting. The first makes things easier, and the second makes things more interesting. Both are worthy additions, and don’t stick out like a sore thumb in the retro-painted landscape. Somehow.
Still, there’s a surprising amount of variety given the context. Sometimes, the interesting missions run up against the GTA mechanics when you accidentally hit civilians on the way from one location to another and lead police into a carefully-constructed challenge. It’s “retro hard,” which means that some are willing to forgive the awkward moments, and others aren’t.
Outside of the missions, there are challenges and secrets strewn about Theftropolis, like an arcade containing retro homages. One is simultaneously a Super Meat Boy game and a Virtual Boy reference. Another is a surprisingly-reminiscent Bit.Trip Runner demake. Outside the arcade, you can take on small-scale challenges with leaderboards, giving these activities significance they wouldn’t otherwise have as you stretch to hit one more pedestrian in the time limit and overtake a friend’s score.
Where we think the reverence for games past is most amazing is in the game’s aesthetics. By default, the game opts for a vibrant palette and an arcade overlay, but that’s just one possibility. Filters allow for scanlines if you want them, and you can have the overlay look like various TVs and computers. (Or go away entirely.) Most importantly, the color palette can shift to look like an NES, a Genesis, a Game Boy, various PCs and more. The resolution of things doesn’t change, but what is managed is impressive. It’s best to pick the one for which you’re most nostalgic, as it enhances the experience. (Most of the time, I played on the Vita and used a filter that mimicked the low-res color LCD of handhelds like the Game Boy Color, Game Gear and Neo Geo Pocket Color.)
The soundtrack, crafted by a trio of artists (virt, Freaky DNA and Norrin Radd), doesn’t go light on the references either. If hours of your misspent youth were spent with NES action games like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Mega Man 2, the feelings will come rushing back with a renewed strength. The game gives a context and a reason to the chiptunes, making them as effective as the original compositions of the day. (Listen to a sample of the soundtrack here.)
Even though you’re a generic Player, you can always make yourself less generic, swapping hairstyles and apparel at various shops. The most fun is the ability to play as any of the game’s creators, as well as various secret real-life game industry personalities through secret unlock codes. This is purely for aesthetics, sadly, as I briefly hoped donning the “Provinciano” would give me super-secret special powers. You can check out some of the options at the official site.
Even with the decent underlying gameplay of Retro City Rampage, it’s probably still best to take the game in small doses. Wander around a bit, play through a story mission, then sit it down for a while and come back later. Blasting through the game is simply not how it was designed to be played, and certainly not how it was developed. It’s still that nice piece of candy to keep in your pocket, so as long as you find proper nutrition elsewhere, it’s a great way to brighten your day.
Pros: Lots of references to great old games, done with reverence
Cons: Sometimes-awkward mission structure, overdosing is possible