Nostalgia can be a powerful memory inhibitor, blocking painful recollections of bygone franchises while we look through rose-colored glasses. Though Sonic catches significant flak from critics, fans hold true to the series despite outsider opinions ‒ just one example of many. Retro City Rampage seeks to remind players of their childhoods by spouting numerous references to film, television, and video games of the '80s and ‘90s, but developer Brian Provinciano wraps his creation so tight in a blanket of satire that it smothers Retro City’s identity.
The first few hours prove the most resilient to that effect, yet there’s little concrete story to anchor the innuendos the characters spew. The aptly named Player seeks quick cash in Theftropolis, 1985, through a "Henchmen Wanted" flyer, while the ensuing bank heist echoes The Dark Knight's opening robbery ‒ accentuated by the Jester's betrayal, a “Toasty!” allusion to Mortal Kombat, and the dog’s appearance from Duck Hunt. A run-in with a Doctor Who phone booth soon sends the Player into the year 20XX, however, where a womanizing Doc Brown look-alike agrees to rebuild the time machine if you secure a monkey's paw, 72-pin connector, bubble gum, and other miscellaneous MacGuffins. The mission structure jumps from stage to stage, but the small open world still allows you to spread chaos among the random civilians at your own leisure.
Major Lee Solid tasks you with infiltrating a guarded compound.
Meanwhile, Theftropolis’s corporate misers, including Dr. Von Buttnick, aim to ruin the indie game business by stealing the time booth, "borrowing" ideas from the future, and returning to the past to announce the concepts as their own. It's a lovingly obtuse Back to the Future narrative relying on mimicry to bear the incomprehensible story's burden. Sadly, Retro City Rampage dips its hands into the reference well too many times, then wonders why the comedic material runs dry after scraping the bottom of the nostalgia bucket.
RoboCop knockoffs, a radioactive plumber, and Shaggy tripping on toadstool treats lend themselves to the less subtle irony. Brian even hides parodies within parodies, as seen when the protagonist raises a Flax Combobulator over his head in the style of Link. One of my favorites involves Biff, the main antagonist from Back to the Future, who adopts the surname of Adam West. The writing carries the joke further, crafting Biffman, a wordplay on Batman and Biff’s alter ego.
Is the Player supposed to be a Grease reject?
Other forms of mockery are implemented less well, such as the “Killabunga” catchphrase shamefully spoofing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ “Cowabunga,” or a homicidal spree titled “Killception” that asks you to wreak as much havoc possible with tanks and bazookas before the dream expires. Less thrilling story objectives rarely deviate from committing virtual manslaughter or eliminating hired thugs, too, though several do for the worst.
Biffman's reveal becomes one source of Retro City’s greatest frustrations. The Player must tail the Biffmobile back to the Manor while consuming coffee to ward off sleep-inducing boredom. The game openly mocks how “entertaining” following Biff's vehicle will be, but the difficulty does nothing to assuage the resentment of restarting said mission for the tenth time. A water level, a ‘Splosion Man segment, and several combat scenarios that strip the Player of all weapons but his fists further undermine the enjoyment by adopting the irritations commonly affiliated with 16-bit releases. Checkpoints may start you at the beginning of the stage or in the room where you perished, and neither ever seems more attractive over exiting the game.
Think of this section as Contra without precision aiming.
Brian stays faithful to the pixel generations in regards to difficulty, a pro or con on a per-player basis. However, Retro City Rampage remains an undeniable step down from the 8-bit era visually. Theftropolis may exist in a time of high definition, but the graphics are trapped in a Game Boy Color. Just shy of stick figures, the one-man development team could not be more minimalist with respect to the characters. As an aesthetic touch, though, players may swap from over two dozen television simulation and color modes. And should you truly desire a headache, turn on the Virtual Burn mode to paint the town red, Virtual Boy style.
If Virtual Burn does not sear your mind with a migraine, then, the controls will. Retro City Rampage handles very much like the top-down Grand Theft Autos on Sony’s first console (ergo, poorly). The Player’s antiquated movements make navigating both a burden and a chore, and the dual analog method of aiming would feel more responsive if the game did not limit your targeting to one of eight directions. The protagonist’s lethargic speed also compounds the irritation, because dodging rockets, Molotovs, and grenades may as well be impossible.
When the anger reaches a breaking point, nothing provides a cathartic release like running down pedestrians in a tank.
If you persevere to the anticlimactic finale of Retro City Rampage, I applaud your persistence. Brian purposely designed the final boss as an homage to the quick reflexes that gamers once had, and yet the difficulty reminds players why the industry saw a gradual shift to fun over frustration, as more experienced programmers left the confines of their basements to establish iconic companies. No amount of strategy can help you here; only the twitchiest of finger movements will see you victorious. Although I had already lost my sanity by the fifth hour or so, I decided that after 30 retries, that was 20 too many.
Retro City Rampage comes billowing out of the gate full of flair, gusto, and personality. The first half hour alone unveils more references than a South Park, Simpsons, or Family Guy episode, and when not driving from point A to point B, the game sells the open world built around superficial distractions like getting a tattoo, buying hats, cutting your hair, and purchasing a skateboard. Retro City Rampage constantly calls attention to its self-aware nature, but once the white smoke dissipates, players are left with a shell of a game and few interesting mechanics beyond power-ups to keep the gameplay rewarding. Shout-outs to Metal Gear Solid, Saved by the Bell, Frogger, Knight Rider, and Mario lose their comedic appeal too soon, and just like that box of Twinkies sitting in your grandmother’s cupboard since 1985, the punchlines eventually grow stale.
Review copy provided by GOG.com
Publisher: VBlank Entertainment
Developer: VBlank Entertainment
Release Date: October 9, 2012
Number of Players: 1
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), PSN, PS Vita