GAME NAME: Retro City Rampage DX
DEVELOPER(S): VBlank Entertainment
PUBLISHER(S): VBlank Entertainment
PLATFORM(S): PC (tested), Wii, PS3/4, 360, 3DS, Vita
RELEASE DATE(S): 02/06/2014
Over 15 years ago, I stood in an EBGames (ask your parents). Standing next to me was my friend Nick. On the shelf in front of us was the game that would start a revolution – it was Grand Theft Auto. Rumored to have been banned all over the world, anecdotally responsible for people stealing cars and running over Hare Krishnas, and there it was. All we had to do was pool our money together to buy it. We split custody of it like a divorced family – I got it during the week, he got it on weekends. We compared scores in hushed tones at our lockers. We lamented the awful savegame system. When we discovered cheat codes, it was like someone turned on a light in a dark room. Retro City Rampage’s gameplay is what 15 years of game design evolution will do to a relatively simple top-down like the original GTA. It’s everything you wanted back then, with a fair amount of extra gameplay enjoyability to spare. And the new DX inclusions – reworked missions, new letterboxing, and a host of other changes and modes – will make old fans want to come back.
Starting in 1985 Theftropolis, RCRDX has PLAYER committing felonies with his crime boss Jester – until a bank robbery escape sends you to the year 20XX. From there, you meet up with Doc Choc to repair a time machine and get back to your own time, all while running missions, collecting things, driving over people, and generally creating mischief. These sorts of top-down open world games mostly have missions like driving a person to a spot, shooting up people, and other tropes we’ve all experienced. The parody nature of the game – this game is a parody, did you know that? Because they’ll tell you at every opportunity in case you’ve forgotten – comes in with follow stages, like when you need to track someone moving so slowly in their car that you need to walk. And buy coffee to stay awake. But the open-world shenanigans you can get into are far more interesting than many of the missions. Taking several pages from GTA’s playbook, getting into a cab will let you pick up fares, minigames abound in arcades, weapons need to be bought, and rampage locations can be found to blast away at people. The DX-added Free Roam mode is basically all this – without Story Mode’s shoehorned in references to Nintendo games you’ve forgotten about. There are several improvements on the old formula, though – Health Bars are a good thing, remember getting killed in GTA after one hit? Jumping and taking cover are also here, which gives a better feel to combating all those cops that will no doubt be following you.
On a technical level, RCR is an absolute marvel. That it was done near-entirely by one person and can actually run on an 8-bit machine like a Nintendo is slick as hell. It really shows the level of dedication that went into the game to bring an “authentic” retro experience. It’s loaded with callouts from late 80s and early 90s games, from Pro Wrestling (A Winner Is You!), Ninja Turtles, a half-dozen Mario games, Sonic, and literally hundreds others. Most of these are easy to miss, like the Data East spoof logo on the side of the building or “Skate n Buy” stores riffing on now 30-year-old NES games. Some are clever, to be sure. But the obvious ones lose their humor very quickly. We get it, you liked Bill & Ted. And yes, I do see that FROG trying to CROSS A ROAD. These ham-fisted ‘jokes’ may show a love of all things relating to popular culture almost 30 years ago, but they certainly don’t warrant the giant “THIS IS A PARODY” warning label that pops up before the title screen. I think with a title like Retro City Rampage, we all know what we’re getting into here. What most people don’t remember (or willfully forget) is that so many of that era’s games were shovelware – cheap carts that your aunt bought you because “the man at the store said this is a good game for kids your age.” For every Kung Fu – which, play it now and realize how dumb it is – there’s a half-dozen Wheel Of Fortune Junior Editions. These games have been cribbed for years, as well. Frogger pops up in Deus Ex, Pipe Dream was Bioshock’s hacking minigame. These are multi-million dollar productions that wholeheartedly copy games from years past, but now we hate them instead of back when we were all 11, begging our moms for another dollar in quarters to play this same thing. Further, numerous references are just lazy modern pop culture callouts, like Inception (definitely didn’t come out in the 80s), Trailer Park Boys, and Dark Knight. It’s made for the people who regard this kind of humor as “tongue-in-cheek” without knowing the meaning of the phrase. Probably while wearing a “throwback” pre-distressed TMNT shirt they bought at Target for $11.
That got a little preachy, but the point is, this would’ve been a great game without the “retro” aesthetic. The faux 8-bit graphics are a waste of processing power for a modern computer or console and will make people watching you play just laugh at you. The various letterboxes and color palettes add to the vibe, but who really chooses to play on a Gameboy LCD display? It’s why Gameboy Color was released; those displays are technologically ancient, and anything more than a passing “oh look at that” makes you a pretentious jagweed for playing it that way. The jarring dichotomy of a great game wrapped in an intentionally stupid presentation hurts – there’s only so many chiptunes one person can take before The Noid carrying a bag of Pop Rox comes into your room and blasts the theme music from Super Mario Brothers Super Show. The game is so well-crafted, but the graphics and sound are so slapdash. It’s a manic garbage-chute of references we’re supposed to never stop chuckling at, confident in our own nostalgic knowledge and pop culture immersion.
If you can get past the smug, winking presentation and the callback joke humor that often falls flat, there’s a really good game to be played. One would think that with all the color filters and letterbox options – like Virtual Boy, which was released in 1995, by the way – there would be one that made this look like a semi-modern, palatable game.