Retro City Rampage took me back 25 years in thirty seconds. As soon as I started the game I was 6 years old again, huddled over my TV with my Nintendo controller in hand, surrounded by Ghostbusters and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures. The nostalgia washed over me and I was reminded of all the times I sat in my parents’ family room thinking that there was no way life could possibly get any better than this. Then a funny thing happened. A few hours into the game I realized that life got infinitely better than it was for me being a child in the 80s. This is the problem with Retro City Rampage; nostalgia makes for a great introduction, but it’s hard for a game to survive on it alone.
Retro City Rampage is a hard game to fully describe. Open world crime games didn’t exist during the 8-bit era, so VBlank Entertainment set out to create one. Playing like one of the original Grand Theft Auto games, you’ll take on the role of Player, a local thug for hire in Theftropolis. After accidentally being transported to the future and being mistaken as a legendary hero, Player will be tasked with “borrowing” cars, blowing things up and other assorted illicit activities.
Theftropolis is a joy to play through if you’re a fan of the 8-bit genre. The dated visuals and audio may seem grating to people who missed out on this point of history, but the nostalgia should wash over anyone in their mid to late twenties fairly quickly. Everything is on point for what you should expect from a game in that time period. The chiptune soundtrack really stands out as a great collection of “video game music” and the sound effects are perfectly suited to the experience.
The story is largely forgettable and is really just a vehicle to drag the player from one parody reference to another. There is a coherent storyline you’ll progress through, but it does little to stand out. This isn’t helped by the fact that Player actively ignores what people ask of him, instead opting to use the missions as a chance to deepen his pocket. It’s cute the first few times, but by the end I was more or less finished with the formula.
Thankfully, the actual story is fairly short. It only took me about 5 hours to get through the entire thing at a leisurely pace without focusing on side missions. At the time of completion, I had only unlocked 66% of the game so there’s certainly more to do in Theftropolis. However, as is often the case with open world crime games, a good portion of the fun will come from simply roaming the 8-bit landscape causing mayhem of my own volition.
Retro City Rampage is banking on references and comedy to carry the title and, for the most part, they do just that. Whether you’re exploring the school from Saved by the Bell or Wayne Manor of Batman fame, you’re consistently sprinting through a minefield of 80s pop culture. While VBlank Entertainment couldn’t call these references by their actual names for obvious copyright reasons, anyone with a passing knowledge of the time will instantly recognize the source material. The main quest giver in the game is a thinly veiled Doc Brown asking you to repair his time travelling Delorean.
Though most of the references are simple visual gags, such as the owner of the bicycle shop being Doc Louis who is better known as the trainer from Punch-Out! there are a few instances where actual gameplay is being aped instead. While those moments of gameplay may be reminiscent of Outrun, Paper Boy, or Tapper, they’ve been slightly altered to keep in with Retro City Rampage’s raunchy tongue-in-cheek motif.
The problem is that, when you’re banking on raunchy references to carry the story, you’ll eventually run out of ways to keep it fresh. Watching my beloved Ghostbusters suffer the indignity of becoming the Go-Go Busters in their spoof, it felt like they simply ran out of ideas. The joke was raunchy not because it needed to be, but because it could be. I learned a long time ago in my failed efforts to be funny that shock jokes can be hilarious when used correctly, but if you rely on the same joke over and over it loses its edge. Dane Cook, I’m talking to you here.
That’s not to say the game isn’t humorous; it definitely has some high points, but on the whole my guffaws turned to chuckles as the game progressed. This is simply a case of the developer trying to go to the well a bit too often.
One place that Retro City Rampage would have been served well using a modern mechanic would be the sudden and unfair difficulty spikes. Now, as I’ve stated in previous reviews, I love hard games. I love a game that challenges me and dares me to rip my hair out while demanding that I try one last time. The caveat to this is that the game must be fair in its difficulty. There were simply too many times where getting through an area would have less to do with skill than a bit of blind luck or repeated trials. It’s not a major factor, though. I just feel the ball was dropped here with regards to how it was handled. The last few levels are infuriatingly difficult for no reason outside of the fact that they could be.
Once you’re done with the story, take some time to randomly explore the city. This is arguably the high point of the game. There is an absolute plethora of things to discover in the world, and it’s here that the humor gets a chance to shine. Finding the hidden game codes to bring to the Great Gamedini to town or wandering into the hidden Minecraft area really adds on to the enjoyment of the title. If there had been more of a focus on the relaxed open world exploration as opposed to the somewhat forced story missions, we’d probably be talking about a much more enjoyable game on the whole.
All in all, Retro City Rampage is a great idea that just didn’t quite come together in practice. I thoroughly enjoyed my play through, but that may not be the case for everyone else. The entire concept screams of a “because I can” mentality where the developers wanted to include every single nod they could think of, but at the end it just becomes a bit much. There is a rather enjoyable game here, but it’s buried in the absolute plethora of things it tried to accomplish. This isn’t the type of game you’ll be able to sink endless hours into, but there’s a really enjoyable experience here. Those of you willing to overlook the faults will find a charming indie game here worthy of your money.
This review is based on a PC version of the game given to us for review purposes