I initially disliked Retro City Rampage. I found its squashed 8-bit graphics too claustrophobic and the endless tirade of references too sickly sweet for my “serious gamer” tastes. Most of the time when me and a game get off on the wrong foot there’s no redeeming the relationship, I’ve already made up my mind in the first 10 minutes. Things were different with Retro City Rampage though. After a while my frown turned to a smile and before I knew it I was literally chuckling out loud, gleefully mowing down pixely pedestrians and bopping along to the synth jams. The game’s outrageous personality had won me over in the end.
Retro City Rampage is basically Grand Theft Auto on the NES armed with the knowledge of the entire history of video games. You will be barraged constantly with references as you run around the top down city of “Theftropolis”. The developers have really done their homework (which must have consisted of just ingesting every game ever made and plenty of pop-culturally important movies to boot). It’s half a game in itself just picking what the references are from as they are flung at you. At first I wasn’t sure if I dug this, thinking it might be too smarmy and self-aware for its own good, but then I just chilled the fuck out and let the ridiculousness wash over me and I felt all the better for it. How can you not like a game that has a casual throwaway Seinfeld gag wedged into a scene lampooning the 1960′s Batman television series.
Like I said earlier Retro City Rampage starts out feeling like an 8-bit GTA clone and I was worried that the entire game was to be much like a cross between Micro Machines and Smash TV (Yeah that’s right I got some references of my own, no big deal). But then all of a sudden I was riding a giant gorilla through Theftropolis bowling people out-of-the-way, then I had a flying raccoon suit and was stomping on people’s heads AND THEN I was dressed as Batman and swinging on a rope dangling above some crocodiles. My fears that Retro City Rampage was going to become dull and samey were completely unfounded as the game does a fantastic job of mixing up game styles and elements at a breakneck speed. Although there isn’t a quantum shift in the way you play the game every few moments, there is a nice constant addition of diversions to the core run and gun gameplay. There is a real mini-game atmosphere that works with the nonsensical plot and Retro City Rampage actually does a bit of a better job at spicing the core elements up than the oft-times repetitive Grand Theft Auto series.
While it’s all fun and games in Theftropolis, the game’s controls are a clunky and detract a little from the mayhem. Controlling cars isn’t the best in a rigid 8 directional world and a handbrake is sorely missing from the game. I also had a bit of trouble with the lock-on system for shooting, which was fun when it worked, but often times temperamental. There’s also the seemingly bizarre decision to allocate changing weapons to the page up and down buttons and no recourse for remapping keys in the options menu. Retro City Rampage has a tendency to feel loose and that you’re just barely in control of “player” which can make re-trying missions an irritation and challenging sections a little trying.
There’s plenty to do in Retro City Rampage, with the campaign chopping and changing game play styles like a methed up chameleon and additional arcade challenges lurking around every corner. There’s also the obligatory wardrobe customization of a GTA-like which is kind of rendered slightly moot as the low-res character models are too small to really derive much entertainment from new outfits and hairstyles. The overworld (overcity?) map is actually relatively small for the genre but there’s such a healthy amount of enterable buildings that it feels nicely fleshed out. Buildings are filled with additional mini-games and gags, like a fully functional arcade machine version of bit.trip runner (which I actually played for a surprisingly long time) and a temple of sorts with a cheat code enabling John Romero. On top of all this is the ability to muck around with the visual settings of the game to make it emulate an old school system of your choice. Which is unnecessary but kind of cool and probably froth-worthy for anyone buying this game simply because it features the word Retro in its title.
Although I came to really enjoy Retro City Rampage’s company and appreciate its machine gun approach to humor, I never really got over its sort of squashed cramped visuals. I get that’s it’s an homage to an older age of gaming (which if I didn’t get would have to be due to recent and thorough lobotomy) but why couldn’t everything be a little bigger and a bit more spaced out? As much as I appreciate the “old school” borders, why couldn’t the game just fill the whole screen? The in-game characters and car models are the biggest offenders, generally just looking shitty compared to the decently drawn buildings and cityscape. A few more pixels here and there and I would’ve been happy. As it stands the game’s manic personality is impossible not to like and the gameplay crazy enough for me to overlook the quibbles and be positively entertained. Retro City Rampages gets 3/5 stars on the police wanted meter.