Let’s be honest here, how often is it we come across a game which centres itself squarely within the genre of parody? How often is it we rack our brains over a faint, tiny memory triggered by the most hazily of familiar sprites? How often is it we see laugh, chuckle or smile at so many palpable and likewise disguised references woven into almost every minute of playtime? Retro City Rampage – which I will henceforth write as ‘RCR’ because you’ll be receiving more than your usual dose of retro-ness and rampaging for the day – does all of the above.
We’ll going to start by throwing a question directed mostly to those who possess an unconditional love for both nostalgic good cinema, gaming and culture of the late 80s and 90’s. What would you like to see in a Nintendo NES game when given the the option of mixing into one big cartridge of delight? Duck Hunt, Metal Gear, Contra, Punch-Out!, Mega Man, Back To The Future, Crank, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Mario, The A-Team!, Paperboy, GTA, and Frogger? If you’re answer was “everything” – then you, my 8-bit friend, are reading about the right game.
All I have said previously has been in preparation to convey a very crucial point. If there’s one thing you should know about RCR, it’s this: The entire game is a love letter to the throwback years of retro gaming, culture, and 8-bit pixel art, an undrinkable multi-referential satirical cocktail that proudly nods to entertaining landmarks of a time decades past. Anything else one might say about the game is just an extended footnote to this overwhelming fact.
So how does RCR manage to do this? On the surface, it uses a GTA template with a retro face-lift for side and main mission completion. When you decide to rebel against the confines of those orderly and systematic missions (Ha! Me, missions?!), you’re able to free-roam or birth more chaos and destruction than most people would deem sane. The missions are short in most cases, and almost always exist to characterise a reference to some degree of absurdity. If you feel like what you’re doing has no meaning, then RCR is most likely poking fun at a reference you don’t quite recognise. For instance, running over endless pedestrians to recharge the battery in your newly acquired time-travelling, fire-trailing sports car. Or sneaking into the back of military truck by poorly hiding behind objects to avoid a guards constantly patrolling yet strangely limited line of sight.
The story shouldn’t take longer than four to five hours to finish; three if you’re determined enough. It isn’t a complicated or deep narrative. Neither is it about a low-life thug reaching for the heights of mob-life (although time-travel is certainly a goal worth reaching for). It goes places that are far between, lacing itself with many referential quirks. Each mission is increasingly more absurd and illogical than the last, it would be an injustice to even attempt to blurb the slap-stick incoherency and far-radicalness of the plot in a single paragraph. Some may find it too nonsensical for their liking, I was driven by not knowing what awesomely stupid thing I’d be doing next.
Having said that, there are times when RCR slows down to a pace that feels lethargic. I often take this as a cue to buy a change of clothes with money from ‘sleeping’ citizens, change my haircut, visit Nolan’s Arcade for a quick game of (a alternative) Super Meat Boy, maybe head to FACE-R-US for a little cosmetic surgery. If you’re low on health or feeling peckish, maybe head to the milk bar or grab some coffee. As the game rightly says: “like in real life, food and drink heal gunshot wounds.”
RCR’s missions can be quite difficult. Considering their lunacy, most involve a lot of killing (more specifically the killing of other armed people), and on occasion need strategic planning if you want to avoid diminishing your negative life-count any less. The variety of weaponry is key here as ammunition isn’t infinite. A well-placed grenade saves much time and bullets in the right situation. And while I’m not a huge fan of the shotgun, it certainly has it uses when it comes to spread.
Some missions do feel repetitive, and ill-forgiving checkpoints certainly left me feeling frustrated. Working your way through three rocket-launcher wielding gangs then finally meeting a boss that squats you like a fly, only to restart the entire mission is not a nice sensation, but certainly reminiscent of the insane difficulty gamers ploughed through during their youth (looking at you, Castlevania). The keyboard controls can be difficult to fully handle and don’t exactly help in this regard either. That’s not say they feel clunky or unresponsive, quite the opposite, but for PC players the jump to keyboard-only gameplay certainly comes with its difficulties and adjustment.
This isn’t the kind of game one would enjoy to its most if, upon brief thought, you’ve played less than a handful of titles from that golden era. The appeal simply wouldn’t be the same. It focuses solely on humour and nostalgia as its main notes – and herein lies a problem – it’s effect can be very powerful to those who are familiar with its nostalgic origins, and weak to those who aren’t as acquainted, some would consider this a downfall. Nobody likes the feeling of not-getting a joke or reference from your super-hip and overly-culturally aware friends (especially me).
There’s certainly a lot of content crammed into RCR, not counting the cleverly hidden treasures. Some people may consider the price tag slightly high in view of the short story missions, and rightly so, but exploring every far reaching corner of RCR’s seething map is quite a challenge, one that I still have yet to do even after many hours of playtime. At heart, Retro City Rampage is a charming gesture to the games of our early lives, and for those who find joy in concentrated dosages of nostalgic freedom and destruction, this game will be worth picking up.
8 Rampaging Retro Reviewers out of 10