I’ll give this to Retro City Rampage; it delivers what it promises. Retro City Rampage begins as the protagonist, Player, travels back in time to the 80‘s -- the time nerds won’t let us forget. Following orders from the crime boss Jester (reference) and the absent-minded Doc Choc (reference), Player must complete a series of missions to rebuild a time traveling Delorean (reference) and return to his own time. Along the way he’ll kill, steal, and quote the hell out of anything that stands in his path.
RCR’s development began quite some time ago as a demake of Grand Theft Auto 3, and somewhere down the line became a throwback to every single thing that’s happened in the last 30 years. You can’t walk two feet in this game without being reminded of a piece of media whether it be from video games, movies or television. Primarily borrowing from video games, RCR’s references extend beyond that including nods to Saved by the Bell, Ghostbusters, RoboCop, Mega Man and The Dark Knight. Nothing you won’t see on TeeFury any given week. The focus slips away from being a love letter to video games and becomes a laundry list of things the developer Brian Provinciano likes.
Usually an allusion to an existing work can be a nice easter egg for fans. For instance, Shaun of the Dead is a film laden with quotes and familiar sequences from the classic zombie flicks that influenced it. However, if a viewer is going into SotD completely fresh, with no prior knowledge of the zombie genre, the movie will be just as strong a film as if they were a Romero purist. The nods in Shaun serve purely to be a treat for fans or, “icing on the cake.” Unfortunately for Retro City Rampage, this experience turned out to be all icing and no cake. The majority of RCR’s gameplay draws from the earlier Grand Theft Auto games. From an overhead camera angle, Player uses a large array of weapons to maim and murder anyone and everyone across a huge, open world. There are also hundreds of cars to ste-look you know how Grand Theft Auto plays. It’s like that. The gameplay isn't shackled to the confines of those early games and feels very informed by the things that have come since, despite the pixel-y presentation. There is a cover system, auto-targeting and the option of using the right stick to aim like a twin-stick shooter. It feels contemporary, but the things Retro City does borrow from the olden days are mostly the things we’d like to leave behind.
Traveling across the overworld is a breeze. Cops bounce off Player and don’t pose a real threat even at the highest wanted level. It’s once you get into most missions where things get frustrating. The difficulty can spike at random moments, obviously because retro games were hard. What Provinciano needs to figure out is why they were hard. Castlevania is difficult because it was a tight and well-designed action game that challenges the player while remaining fair and balanced. The hardest parts of Retro City Rampage never feel fair, just cheap. These sections always seemed to come just at the perfect time when I was beginning to have fun consistently. Everything would come to a screeching halt while I died 20 times trying to complete a brutal mission.
The overall attitude of the game is very self aware and will call out the cliches that it’s cribbing from older games, but it’s still using those cliches that weren’t even fun at the time without making them better. In one mission Player has to tail a car on foot. Before it starts, he calls out stealth tracking missions for being “boring.” But then the mission plays out exactly the way you’d expect and have played a thousand times. Telling the audience how stupid something is doesn’t make it ok. It just feels lazy. Even the title sequence -- mimicking Mega Man 2‘s -- lets the player know this has been done a thousand times. The very first impression this game presents is that it doesn’t give two craps. Retro City Rampage’s misunderstanding of cohesive game design is perfectly encapsulated in the game’s final boss fight. A good final sequence will lead the player to draw on everything they’ve learned throughout the game and use their skills to win. Before Retro City Rampage’s final fight (that’s a video game!), we’re given a new ability that’s only used in the end game, trapped in a very tight environment that doesn’t allow movement or you’ll be killed, and forced to use jumping and dodging skills that the game hasn’t taught us. The only way to prepare for this battle is to redo it again and again, being trained by the fight itself. Following the fight is a sequence that is a direct callback to another game and plays completely unlike anything else in Retro City Rampage. The whole game feels like these disparate parts that are glued together by cheap, easy references.
If the gameplay doesn’t impress you, you can at least enjoy the game’s writing. If you have the sense of humor of a thirteen-year-old. The Ghostbusters clean up semen, a corporate executive travels by dropping farty sweat bombs and the same ‘Batman and Robin have a weird relationship’ jokes that have been beaten into the ground are retread once again. During random points in the story the tone will make a major shift as characters bring the progression to a halt to lecture the player on why people who think games cause violence are wrong and the evils of corporations. The tonal shift feels like a ‘very special’ episode of Ren and Stimpy. There are also the references. Did I mention those? Nostalgia has become a commodity in itself. Whole seasons of TV shows and films like Rock of Ages exist solely to remind us of a time past, without presenting much beneath that. Retro City Rampage’s constant bombardment of references are more a Family Guy feel than MST3K. “The 80‘s” is no longer a nostalgic property. Game developers and movie producers have capitalized on 80‘s nostalgia so much that it’s just become pop culture again. Seeing the Delorean is no longer an exciting callback to my childhood but just a thing I constantly see on T-shirts, Reddit posts and ESPECIALLY indie pixel-based video games. Loading a game up with references to the 80‘s and passing them off as content is no different than Epic Movie or The Big Bang Theory counting a mention of Batman as a joke. Retro City Rampage wants nothing more of a response from its players than, “Hey, I remember that thing too!”
Though I would not consider it pandering. The response to nostalgic references is hollow and fleeting, but every single trivial, trite, overdone mention of a thing in Retro City Rampage feels genuine. Brian Provinciano wanted to make a game that drew from the things he loves -- and I mean every single thing he loves. He definitely succeeded in that. But it’s not worth 15 bucks. In a sea of trendy faux-retro indie titles, RCR only sticks out as having the most references. Constantly the game would mention a classic, or try to ape the playstyle of one, and I would think, “MAN I could be playing that right now!”
In the end, it is what it is. Retro City Rampage is an ok GTA knockoff with long stretches of not-ok, cheap gameplay. It doesn’t understand how to teach a player how to get better at it, sometimes feels like it's actually enjoying their suffering. If you love playing Spot the Reference, pick it up when it’s on sale or free on PSN. The price tag is way too high and it certainly wasn’t worth the incredibly long and over-hyped development time.